A Pipe Prank Played on Mark Twain

Mark Twain by GH Jones, 1850

Mark Twain was a near constant smoker, an enthusiast of both pipes and cigars to a level that brought admiring and bewildered comments from his acquaintances. His niece called him "the smokiest man alive," and his friend William Dean Howells said, "he smoked as much as a man could, for he smoked incessantly."

Tobacco was of supreme importance to Twain from the time he was a boy, and his fiction is liberally sprinkled with mention of pipes, from the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn early in his career to The Mysterious Stranger late in life. Because pipes and cigars were so integral to his daily living, they were likewise an important aspect of his art. He repeatedly declared that tobacco was an essential element of his writing process.

Twain often returned to three early phases of his life in his fiction: his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri; his time as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi; and his adventures as a miner, laborer, and newspaperman in the wild west, particularly in Nevada and California. It was when he was in Virginia City, Nevada, that his friends played a complex joke on him, a joke that revolved around a pipe. He didn't take the prank well at first, but later in life decided that it was among his fondest memories.

Before he became Mark Twain, Sam Clemens went West with his brother Orion, who had been made secretary to the Governor of Nevada after campaigning for Lincoln in the 1860 election. Orion's new job did not include a stipend for relocation, so he and Sam arrived at a deal whereby Sam would pay for travel expenses and in return would be made Orion's secretary. It was not an opulent position, but the adventure of it all was attractive. Clemens had a streak of Tom Sawyer in his personality long before he invented the character.

It was a time in his life when he needed a fresh start. The Civil War had disrupted traffic on the Mississippi, so his livelihood as a riverboat pilot was gone. Then he spent two weeks with friends as an "irregular" for the Confederacy before deserting. Soldiering wasn't as much fun as he'd thought, and his opinions regarding the confederacy were shifting as he matured, though his eventual hatred of slavery would take a couple of more years to establish itself.

Clemens had a streak of Tom Sawyer in his personality long before he invented the character

A portrait of Mark Twain by Artur Lopes

That abhorrence for slavery would become especially apparent in novels like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, but in his early writing career he would often cheaply satirize minorities like Native Americans and the Chinese population, and that tendency would never entirely disappear, sometimes motivating him to use stereotypes in pursuit of a joke. He had some growing to do, and his experiences in the western territories would help him along until, by 1862, he was pro-Union.

It took little time for him to realize that he didn't like working for his brother, who he referred to in letters as "His Majesty the Secretary." It was dull and underpaid work, so he tried other ways to secure a livelihood. Especially attractive were the silver mines that had provided fortunes for those who arrived before him. He started visiting various mines in the territory to get an idea of what was needed, and the thought of chasing after immediate wealth became a theme in his life from that point onward. It would cause his bankruptcy years later when he over invested in the Paige Typesetting Machine and lost almost everything. Twain had flaws, and among them was a longing for exorbitant wealth and the freedom that came with it.

That ambition now motivated him to become a miner, but he was a couple of years late and failed miserably, the silver ore pretty well mined out except by larger companies that cold afford extensive excavations. Simple surface prospecting was difficult, though he and a partner did discover a rich vein of ore. However, they failed to file the correct claim paperwork in time and lost it. Clemens eventually became a laborer, shoveling tailings at a quartz mill.

That ambition now motivated him to become a miner

Never one to find satisfaction in physical labor, he was unhappy with the mining experience, as he relates in Roughing It:

You must brace the shovel forward with the side of your knee till it is full, and then, with a skilful toss, throw it backward over your left shoulder. I made the toss, and landed the mess just on the edge of the shaft and it all came back on my head and down the back of my neck. I never said a word, but climbed out and walked home. I inwardly resolved that I would starve before I would make a target of myself and shoot rubbish at it with a long-handled shovel.

I sat down, in the cabin, and gave myself up to solid misery — so to speak. Now in pleasanter days I had amused myself with writing letters to the chief paper of the Territory, the Virginia Daily Territorial Enterprise, and had always been surprised when they appeared in print. My good opinion of the editors had steadily declined; for it seemed to me that they might have found something better to fill up with than my literature. I had found a letter in the post office as I came home from the hill side, and finally I opened it. Eureka! (I never did know what Eureka meant, but it seems to be as proper a word to heave in as any when no other that sounds pretty offers.) It was a deliberate offer to me of Twenty-Five Dollars a week to come up to Virginia and be city editor of the Enterprise.

In late 1862, Clemens became a newspaperman. He was 27 years old and specialized in satirical pieces aimed at local politicians and persons of interest, including a hoax regarding the discovery of a petrified man that, upon close reading of his description, is thumbing its nose at observers, the subtext being that the public too easily believes the multiple stories about petrified remains that circulated in newspapers. Other satirical pieces would on occasion be misinterpreted as real, with other newspapers reprinting them as actual news and subsequently demanding in embarrassment that he be fired, and before his tenure with the newspaper was over, Clemens would receive four different challenges to duels from aggrieved targets. He started carrying a pistol, and he himself issued at least one challenge for a duel. Satire was a dangerous pursuit in that environment. No duels seem to have taken place and were more posturing than serious.

Clemens would receive four different challenges to duels

It was while working at the Territorial Enterprise that he first used his famous pen name, Mark Twain, in a letter dated February 3, 1863. That pseudonym came from his riverboat experience, where the leadsman's call of "mark twain" indicated two fathoms of safe water, but additionally, he had a habit of ordering two drinks at a time when entering a saloon and telling the barkeep to "mark twain" on his tab. The double meaning probably amused him.

He made some great friends over his two years at the Enterprise, among them the writers Steve Gillis and Dan DeQuille, and they seem to have taken well to his pen name, calling him Mark. DeQuilles's real name was William Wright, and he was called "Dan," so it was perhaps not unusual. Clemens' heavy smoking was immediately recognized; it was part of his personality and character, as described by George Williams III in his book, Mark Twain: His Life in Virginia City, Nevada (1985):

In his mouth at every waking hour was a cigar or pipe. Clemens literally lived in a cloud of tobacco smoke and loved the smell; this was Paradise. He had smoked since a boy and now smoked incessantly. Years later he said of his smoking, "Me, who never learned to smoke, but always smoked; me, who came into this world asking for a light... Why, my old boy, when they used to tell me I would shorten my life ten years by smoking ... they little knew how trivial and valueless I would regard a decade that had no smoking in it!" Enterprise staffers dubbed his pipe, "The Remains" and "The Pipe of a Thousand Smells."

"Clemens literally lived in a cloud of tobacco smoke"

The staff were all pranksters, and they soon found an opportunity to turn that particular variety of creativity toward Twain. It was a custom of the office to collect money and present meerschaum pipes to colleagues who had achieved admiration in the performance of projects. These pipes were coveted awards, especially considering their cost. Real meerschaum was a rarity in the west, and meerschaum pipes were expensive, but these were especially nice. Williams reports that their prices were from $40-$75 each, which was about three weeks' wages. After another presentation had taken place, and Twain was not a recipient, he complained to Steve Gillis, and Gillis took advantage, as George Williams reports:

Steve's wicked brain started cooking and he came up with a plan: They would all get together to present Mark with a fake meerschaum pipe. Steve and Dennis McCarthy found an imitation meerschaum at a German cigar store selling for a dollar and a half. They bought the pipe, a three foot cherry stem, and a genuine amber mouth-piece. They had a little mounted silver plate engraved, "To Mark Twain, from his Friends."

As part of the trap, the news of the upcoming presentation was leaked to Twain by Dan DeQuille, another talented writer who journeyed west seeking silver and who wrote about the escapade 30 years later, in 1893:

Steve Gillis, C.a.V. Putnam, D.E. McCarthy, and several other newspaper men put up a job to present Mark an imitation meerschaum pipe. They selected one they knew he would not like because of its shape, had its German silver mounting polished up, and on this the inscription, "To Mark Twain, from his Friends" was neatly engraved. A cherry stem about a yard long, with a genuine amber mouthpiece, was procured, and the present was ready. The presentation was to take place on a Saturday night, after the paper was up, at Harris's saloon, in Maguire's Opera House. Charley Pope, now proprietor of a theater in St. Louis, Missouri, was then playing at the Opera House, and he was engaged to make the presentation speech. All this being arranged, I said to Mark one night after we had gone to bed: "Mark, I don't know that I ought to tell you, but the boys are going to make you a present of a fine meerschaum pipe next Saturday night. Charley Pope is to make the presentation speech, and as it will doubtless be rather fine, I have thought it best to post you, in order that you may think up a suitable reply."

"... a genuine amber mouthpiece was procured, and the present was ready ..."

Mark thanked me most cordially for giving the business away — not once suspecting that the boys had made it my part to thus thoroughly post him, in order that we might all have the fun of watching him in his effort to convey the impression that the presentation was a genuine surprise.

This was really the point, and the big sell of the whole affair. Even Charley Pope was aware that Mark had been fully posted, therefore to us all it was deliciously ridiculous to observe Mark's pretended unawareness.

The prank worked exactly as they thought it would. Twain expressed his surprise at receiving the award and spoke for 20 minutes while everyone applauded and enjoyed the joke.

Afterward, Twain celebrated. Steve Gillis wrote about that, quoted from George Williams III:

I never felt so sorry for anybody...Still, we were bent on seeing the thing through. After Sam's speech was finished, he ordered expensive wines — champagne and sparkling Moselle. Then we went out to do the town, and kept things going until morning to drown our sorrow. Well, next day, of course, he started in to color the pipe. It wouldn't color any more than a piece of chalk, which was about all it was. Sam would smoke and smoke, and complain that it didn't seem to taste right, and that it wouldn't color.

"It wouldn't color any more than a piece of chalk, which was about all it was ..."

Suspicious, Twain confronted DeQuille and asked him directly if the pipe was a fake. "It's just as bogus as they make them," he replied. Twain asked if DeQuille knew that fact beforehand, when he'd warned Twain to prepare for the presentation. "Certainly. That was where the fun came in."

Twain was furious. He'd spent every dime he had in ordering expensive drinks for his friends that night while they went along with it and took advantage. Williams writes:

Dan tried to calm Mark, by explaining that a new pipe, a real meerschaum, had been ordered and would arrive soon. Mark was not easily appeased. When the real meerschaum was delivered and given to Mark, he told Steve Gillis, "I think that bogus pipe smokes about as well as the good one."

"Years later," wrote DeQuille, "he told me that he thought more of the bogus pipe than he did of the genuine one."

Evidently, part of the plan had been to acquire a genuine meerschaum for Twain all along, though it may have been better to have had it ready. Long afterward, when Twain had become a famous author, Joe Goodman, the editor of the Enterprise at the time of the prank, visited Twain to reminisce about the old days:

Years later when Joe Goodman visited Mark in Hartford he said to Goodman, "...that was a cruel, cruel trick the boys played on me; but, for the feeling I had during the moment when they presented me with that pipe and when Charley Pope was making his speech and I was making my reply to it — for the memory of that feeling, now, that pipe is more precious to me than any pipe in the world!" (Williams, pg. 162)

We pipe smokers can easily relate to Twain's final assessment of the prank and the pipe. Often, our most precious pipes are not our most expensive or finely crafted or best smoking, but those that have personal stories and are weighted with the remembrances of friends. When we think about Mark Twain the pipe smoker, we might do so with the knowledge that pipes were more than smoking instruments to him, but essential elements of his personality. That's why, in the frat-party joshing of friends in the difficult environment of the Old West, pipes could become ammunition for playing a prank on one of the most accomplished literary pranksters in American literature.


  • Mark Twain: His Life in Virginia City, Nevada (1985), by George Williams III
  • "Reporting With Mark Twain," (1893), by Dan DeQuille, Bloom's Classic Critical Views: Mark Twain (2009) ed. Harold Bloom
Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   History Humor Meerschaum


    • N/A on October 2, 2021
    • Who doesn't long for exorbitant wealth and the FREEDOM that comes along with it? I know that I do. As someone who works in a surface mine, I can't help but to imagine Sam being at my side back in 2011 when I would spend 3 to 4 hours shoveling in the morning (because I didn't have any helpers at the time), in the rain, mud, cold, heat, and humidity to get my plant ready to run; in some of the most unfavorable circumstances that would make some grown men cry and quit. Even now, sometimes, I want to cry and quit. But I endure until I can find something better or make it to retirement. So, I laughed when I read "I sat down, in the cabin, and gave myself up to solid misery — so to speak." I do that more than once a week and embibe on a daily basis to ease the joints and mind (Proverbs 31:7) ; I can feel his pain. Also, I have a plethora of cats and kittens at work that sit and sleep in my lap, it makes my job more bearable. And I always think of that photo of Mark Twain sitting in the rocking chair, with the kitten on his lap, and smoking what looks to be a Peterson bent billiard . The prank was hilarious and made my Saturday at work entertaining. Thank you, Chuck, for helping me make it through the daily grind.

    • Simon LeBon on October 3, 2021
    • ....as always, a great write up!!!

    • Desert Man on October 3, 2021
    • As always, a well written and entertaining article to help celebrate our pipe smoking day.Thank you Chuck

    • Terry G. on October 3, 2021
    • Dear Mr. Stanion, Thank you for another well written and pleasurably readable column. I'm an avid reader of all American writers of the 17th Century, onward, Mark Twain is in the Pantheon, with a number of contemporaries and peers. Thinking of the "Father" of American writing, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Dean Howells, whom you mentioned . Mark Twain's, "Roughing It" and "Innocents Abroad" among my own favorites. I started puffing A&C Senators: aluminum tubed and candela wrapped when I was about 12. The gentleman who sold me my first one for a staggering 30-cents leered imagining "that'll be that kid's last one for a long time". I became a regular one a week or more for a long time. There were no other wrappers, at least in the Midwest other than candella's. All bright olivey-green, and for me, the tubed Senators had aroma of ripening tomatoes, before smoked, that got my endorphins working. I often carried one for a week or more, unscrewing the cap to savor the delicious odor. I sought out tobacco stores to politely look and ask the wizened gentlemen, discreet questions about their products. When the elegant, sleek, slick, ground floor Iwan Ries on Wabash Avenue started selling natural wrappered, uncellophaned boxed cigars I was dazzled. Exotic, expensive, forbidden fruit for a high school kid. And their pipes! My favorite neighborhood shop was the Terminal's at the end of the subway line in Logan Square. In a narrow space filled vertically, was an encyclopedic inventory of everything tobacco. A young gentleman who was always friendly let me ask him countless questions that he always answered, smiling. One of retail tobacco's greatest princes. Many years later he would be a law client. Thanks for all the excellent Sunday morning memories of times long past.

    • Cecil Jones on October 3, 2021
    • “If they do not allow smoking in Heaven,I shall not go” - Mark Twain

    • Joseph Kirkland on October 3, 2021
    • Chuck, another great article.KUDOS!

    • SO on October 3, 2021
    • Thank you for wonderful article today. I really like the loose wrinkly suits that men wore in Mark Twain's day. That was manly style.

    • D. on October 3, 2021
    • I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it. -Mark Twain / An amazing perspective, and one that I agree with. Great article!

    • DAVE SOMMER on October 3, 2021
    • Chuck,Thank you for your wit, talent and the way you write. I've tried to do what you do for some time now, but Ijust can't write the way that you do. So let me give you a one man standing ovation and please don't ever stop!!!!!!!!!!!!!1111

    • Phil Wiggins Glauser on October 4, 2021
    • Awesome Pipes Cigar Wow 🇮🇪💙❤️

    • Jack on October 5, 2021
    • Another excellent article. Thank you.

    • Dave O on October 5, 2021
    • In my office I always smoked my pipe; one day I filled my pipe from my pouch and lit up and the pipe tobacco sparked up funny. My secretary 🧑‍💼 had done a joke by cutting up rubber bands in the tobacco. They laughed and so did I

    • Theuns on October 6, 2021
    • That is what a prank should be. Nobody got hurt or had to panic for everyone involved to uave a good time. “but, for the feeling I had during the moment when they presented me with that pipe” This is what made the memory great for him, as all memories should be. Amazing article.

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