Since Mark Twain spoke his last words as Samuel Langhorne Clemens from his death bed in Redding, Conn., the author’s voice has ever been heard.
Not even an audio recording. Nothing. Until now.
Twain experimented with transcription of his writing using an Edison Wax Cylinder Machine in 1888, but all of the cylinders of the voice of the author of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer have been thought to be lost.
One cylinder has recently been discovered, found in vintage hookah once owned by Fitz Hugh Ludlow, the author of The Hasheesh Eater. The words Twain recorded on the rare cylinder compose a letter to his mother and sister and reveal for the first time not just Twain’s stoic inflection, but also explained his interest in how high a jumping frog could get.
The following is an exact transcription of the sole remaining voice of Mark Twain.
My Dearest Mother and Fair Sister,
Kindly accept these words from your Samuel.
Before I divulge my latest escapade, kin begs, nay, a blood oath needs to be taken and once this letter is read I request it be buried. I implore you to thoroughly destroy this artifact depicting of one of the longest laziest days of my young life that happened the other night.
(Editor’s note: There is an interruption in the wax recording at this point where Twain seems to be trying to stop the recording, then gives up, sighs, says “Ahh, that’s good stuff”, and then proceeds with the transcription.)I have fallen with a heady group. Writers of youth and anger. That the idea of being a writer means comb desolate streets for tidbits sacks my inners. Therefore in this letter is the truth of that gentleman I warned you about in a few dispatches back. A keen troublemaker with the sense of an orphan with a stolen wallet. A mister Fitz Hugh Ludlow. A fellow writer, I spare kin the ragged title of Mr. Ludlow’s magnum opus. Wax will be on this envelope before I waste the ink. San Francisco is a city of men. There is nothing but men now that vast amounts of work built manufacturing mills staring down back-orders of Civil War goods. With the exception of dime distant dancehall darlings, and some whose profession shall not see the waxing of this envelope, barely a baker’s dozen of passable church-going gals cross my path any given day.
So is this fair city of sin, and men of dreams. So is it that I dictate this talkie with a confession that remains with you, I pray.This gentleman Ludlow. Not on any night can you expect his demeanor to perform less than a surprise to you. He’ll make a surprise beeline out of Platt’s Music Hall at me hollering “Now, that’s entertainment!” when thinking he’s satisfied will make his next question ‘where now?’
Fortunately on this one evening I confess to your humble writer was joined by a tempering friend named, Lanyon Johns, who being such a fancy purveyor of the arts and high-brow culture surprised both I and Ludlow with a pick of a working-stiff bar called Murphy’s.To quell our confusion Johns added, “There might be some quiet trouble to be found…”
Murphy’s is what the gentry call a no-wait saloon, with multiple kegs and drafts for pouring, and a trough at the foot of the bar that runs to the street for relieving.
The three of us sauntered up Montgomery Street commenting on the ornate brocade of the stores lining the street until we reached Clay Street where Ludlow inquired about a certain Richards and Company, an apothecary of sorts I surmised.“Yes, it’s a block over on Sansome,” Johns pointed out.
“They carry a special candy I favor,” Ludlow said with a serious sense of medicinal need.
“Would this particular candy be one from your book?” I had to ask not being a rube.
“Why Sam, why let the gaiety stop? Maybe I could show you another San Francisco that you haven’t seen before?”Lanyon Johns and I looked at each other like we were sticky youths on All Hallow’s Eve. As I was a newly hired reporter for the Call, and Johns held a position in print, we were confident. Mother, sister, we were writers below that full moon of Ludlow. San Francisco homes more writers than anywhere else west of the river. What did we have to lose?
Dearest ones, I have sat on many watches, but Johns and I waited outside Richards and Company like the expecting fathers. We did everything but pace.
In time Ludlow returned with a hemp sack of the unknown. A Mad Hatter beheaded, Ludlow reached into a magician’s bag and produced what looked like licorice bits. Then he showed off a glass jar full of what appeared to be mud samples the boatmen catch on their oars from the river bottom. A milkshake of a different jerk from our Sunday’s favorite, I reckon.Still, my dear loves, and this I why I ask that this confession be forgotten, I willingly obliged when told by Ludlow to first swallow a handful of his mysterious licorice, then second it with a little potion.
The Devil himself could be heard in Ludlow saying “Dear boy, the first one is always free. It’s on me. It’s not opium, I assure. More exotic, not quite hasheesh, but a cousin to…”
Family, no one is as gullible as yours truly when it comes to new adventures and chance of trouble. Mother, please forgive as I gobbled and drank that sludge.
What we had partaken in was a legitimate potion, perfectly legal.I could feel myself growing, swelling, spreading out like a newborn feeling alive after these weeks of slinking and soulless drudgery. We’d all stop. I swear I could feel that Yerba Buena, that sweet-mint grass grow in the night’s air. Hell-damn, I felt the city grow like a vision. I could feel buildings yet built rise around me. I felt elevated.
Mr. Johns was studying ducks hanging by their necks in a window. The Devil Ludlow’s attention was focused on an invisible Gatling gun he fuddled with until it fired and he shouted, “Eccentricities cause no astonishment!”
Only a few passers-by noticed, meaning we were still in San Francisco. I could have sworn I said to myself in complete delight spanning our situation “Welcome to Heaven on a half shell!”Grogged, I must say, Johns told me to shut up and not to compete with Ludlow for attention unless we wanted one of the dicks or stars to cite us for public unruliness or being bad examples to children. I’d fight for whisky before I’d get into a fight for water, but darn for an hour and fifteen minutes I was in paradise. From every pore I exuded a divine delight. Ludlow said it was something called cannabis indica. A plant from that they make extractions, potions and resin-balls of some sort, that while aren’t the worst going down, I may stick to alcohol. Like cocks on a walk we crowed. Johns and I bellowed with Ludlow, soon in a wild competition of non-sequiturs, with the understated belief that the most nonsensical statement, wins! I think we would have left the night unblemished if a crowd hadn’t formed.
Not being the shy with modesty, Johns and I could have remembered the fact that we were known in The City. Not just my thousand or so friends I’ve acquired via social means; but there are rival papers and their scribes, who many times in the past I might have not only reported on. But it could be said that I had embellish on occasions — mostly for the readers’ daily boredom — stories of rivals who deserved a pegging down or two or where the peg stops.
Know only this: My compatriots and I were in lack of better words, finding our own world, when a shamus and a withered old hack from the Tribune pointed out an incomprehensible Ludlow speaking in tongues, a dancing Johns, and yours truly, playing with matches, trying recreate the Confederates whooping at Denim’s Run in Missouri.
Mother, Pammy, there’s really no point in going on. We were brought into the Broadway Station. Due to our good names and the ability to get Ludlow to quiet when finally needed, for the cops weren’t in on the joke. We were let go.
If these words of mine ever make it off this wax contraption and to my pen, please burn the letter of this misadventure. Most folk understand that a city like San Francisco is built for the rest to catch up with, which is why I trust this tale won’t make the papers until they do.