1873: The Post Features Mark Twain’s Narrow Escape

A frequent contributor to the Post, Mark Twain wrote about the time he nearly got himself killed in a duel.

Photo portrait of Mark Twain
American author Mark Twain (Shutterstock)

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The great American humorist wrote frequently for the Post. This essay is from our January 11, 1873, issue.

After I had reported a couple of years on the Virginia City (Nevada) Daily Enterprise, they promoted me to be the editor-in-chief — and I lasted just a week, by the watch. But I made an uncommonly lively newspaper while I did last, and when I retired I had a duel on my hands, and three horsewhippings promised me. The latter I made no attempt to collect, however; this story concerns only the former.

I had made trouble with a Mr. Lord, editor of the rival paper. He flew up about some little trifle or other I had said about him — I do not remember now what it was. I suppose I called him a thief, or a body snatcher, or an idiot, or something like that. Mr. Lord was offended, and replied vigorously in his paper.

Dueling was all the fashion among the upper classes in that country. To kill a man in a duel caused a man to be more looked up to than to kill two men in the ordinary way. Out there, if you abused a man, and that man did not like it, you had to call him out and kill him; otherwise you would be disgraced. So I challenged Mr. Lord, and I did hope he would not accept. I knew that he did not want to fight, and so I challenged him in the most violent and implacable manner. And then I sat down and suffered and suffered till the answer came.

The answer came — Mr. Lord declines. Our boys were furious, and so was I — on the surface. I sent him another challenge, and another and another; and the more he did not want to fight, the bloodthirstier I became. At last the man’s tone changed. He was going to fight me after all. I ought to have known — he was a man who could never be depended upon.

It was now time to go out and practice. We went just outside of town and borrowed a barn door for a target — borrowed it of a gentleman who was absent — and stood a rail on end against it to represent Lord, and put a squash on top of the rail to represent his head. If there was any intellectual difference between the squash and his head, it was in favor of the squash.

Well, I practiced and practiced at the barn door and could not hit it. I practiced at the rail and at the squash, but could not hit. I would have been entirely disheartened, but that occasionally I crippled one of the boys, and that encouraged me to hope.

At last we heard pistol shots nearby — in the next ravine. We knew what that meant! The other party were out practicing too. Then I was distressed. Those people would hear our shots, and send spies over the ridge and find my barn door without a wound or a scratch. Just at this moment, a little bird lit on a sage bush about 30 paces away. My little second, Steve Gillis, snatched out his revolver and shot the bird’s head off! The other duelists came over the ridge and when they saw the bird, Lord’s second said: “That was splendid. How far off was it?” Steve said with some indifference: “Oh, about 30 paces.”

“Thirty paces! Heavens alive, who did it?” “My man — Twain.”

I knew the rascal was lying, but I never said anything. They went off and got Lord and took him home; and when we got home, there was a note saying Mr. Lord peremptorily declined to fight!

We found out afterward that Lord hit his mark 13 times in 18 shots. If he had put those 13 bullets through me, it would have narrowed my sphere of usefulness a good deal — would have well nigh closed it, in fact.

This article is featured in the January/February 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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