December 3, 2015

"Roughing It" with Jack Slade

by Barbara Pepper Rotness, Reference Librarian, Montana Historical Society

A recent Ken Burns documentary highlighting the life and works of Mark Twain reminded us that Twain auspiciously was born when Halley’s Comet was spotted on its 75- to 76-year trajectory around the sun. Twain himself famously remarked, “I came in with Halley's Comet... and I expect to go out with it." And, he did indeed die upon the next sighting of Halley’s Comet seventy-six years later on April 21, 1910.

During the course of his life, the environmental, political, and demographic landscape of America had dramatically changed. Mark Twain, born on November 30, 1835 as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, chronicled many of those significant events through his unique story-telling ability - that rare mixture of being an American, while providing an outsider’s perspective of the American culture of racism, hypocrisy, and provincialism. In his book, Innocents Abroad, Twain provided his prescription for overcoming those destructive traits: “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”.

Twain followed his own prescription throughout his life; however, when he was older and more content to stay home, he was forced to embark on a year-long worldwide lecture tour to overcome financial troubles. His travels at that time brought him to Montana for a week during the summer of 1895, and included performances in Great Falls, Butte, Anaconda (see article below), Helena, and Missoula.
Mark Twain's visit to Anaconda, MT
Anaconda Standard, August 3, 1895, page 3
From: Chronicling America

Much earlier than his 1895 visit to Montana, though, Mark Twain sent a letter to Virginia City in 1870 concerning the hanging of Jack Slade on March 10, 1864 by the Vigilance Committee. Twain wished to “rescue my late friend Slade from oblivion & set a sympathetic public to weeping for him."

As the letter mentions, Twain had met Slade before Slade made his way to Montana and Twain wanted to provide a different perspective concerning Slade's infamous character.

In his letter, Twain asked to obtain Virginia City newspaper articles about that period in Montana’s history and wished to include the story in a new book he was writing, later published as Roughing It.

The letter written and signed by Mark Twain is preserved in Montana Historical Society Archives Small Collection 104, The Hezekiah L. Hosmer Papers, 1848-1870, and is displayed below in two parts.

Letter written by Mark Twain, 1870.
The Hezekiah L. Hosmer Papers, 1848-1870, SC

Reading Chapters 10 and 11 concerning Slade in Roughing It, we learn what Twain was referring to when he states in this letter (above), "... I took breakfast with him and survived." Twain doesn't explain in his letter what he meant by that; however, one could misconstrue it as his sardonic way of saying the man is not as bad as his reputation.

Twain even describes his experience of first meeting the notorious Slade as being in the presence of a man of 'peerless bravery' and seems to admire this 'courageous desperado'.
Here was romance, and I sitting face to face with it!...Here, right by my side, was the actual ogre...I suppose I was the proudest stripling that ever traveled to see strange lands and wonderful people.
Upon further reading, though, Twain describes Slade as volatile, brutal, and unpredictable. After eating the meal Slade presided over, Twain feared that Slade's mercurial temperament might incite him to murder Twain, after all. Twain had heard that Slade had supposedly killed twenty-six people during his lifetime and Twain didn't want to be the twenty-seventh. In Chapter 10 of Roughing It, he describes the event:
He was so friendly and so gentle-spoken that I warmed to him in spite of his awful history. The coffee ran out. ...Slade was about to take it when he saw that my cup was empty.
Illustration of Mark Twain meeting Jack Slade by Benjamin Clinedinst
for 1899 edition of ROUGHING IT

He politely offered to fill it, but although I wanted it, I politely declined. I was afraid he had not killed anybody that morning, and might be needing diversion. But still with firm politeness he insisted on filling my cup...I thanked him and drank it, but it gave me no comfort, for I could not feel sure that he would not be sorry, presently, that he had given it away, and proceed to kill me to distract his thoughts from the loss. But nothing of the kind occurred.

Though Twain admitted to a romanticized view of Slade's 'desperado-nature', he still wondered, by Chapter 11, what could make a man kill so wantonly and without remorse.

...what could it have been that this stout-hearted Slade lacked?—this bloody, desperate, kindly-mannered, urbane gentleman, who never hesitated to warn his most ruffianly enemies that he would kill them whenever or wherever he came across them next! I think it is a conundrum worth investigating.
And, researchers have continued to investigate and try to understand Jack Slade and the history of Virginia City's vigilantism.

Come visit the Montana Historical Society Research Center to see this fascinating letter by one of America's most famous authors and learn about Jack Slade's life and death during a controversial and, still often confusing, aspect of Montana's history.