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Mark Twain: April Fool, 1884

Edited by Leslie Myrick and Christopher Ohge

John S. Billings to Samuel L. Clemens
30 March 1884 • Washington, D.C.
(MS: CU-MARK, UCLC 41842)

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Washington D.C. March 30 /84

Dear Mr Clemens,

Ever since the receipt through Col Waring, of "Conversation, as it was by the Social fireside, in the time of the Tudors" [1] I have been intending to write you a letter of thanks for the amusement and instruction which it has afforded me. This intention still exists, but the object of the present note is not so much to express my appreciation of this valuable View Page
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historical document as to prefer a request for a copy of your photograph, only authenticated by your signature.

Hoping that you will grant this favor to one of your most sincere admirers I remain

Yours very sincerely,

John S Billings.

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dr. j. s. billings.

Librarian Surgeon General's Office


D. C.

U. S. A.


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Samuel L Clemens Esq | Hartford | Conn. [postmarked:] washington d.c. 3 ... [tornaway] 7 30 pm 1884 [docketed by SLC, in pencil:] send photograph | Dr. Billings | Apl fool

Explanatory Notes

1. Colonel George E. Waring (1833–98) also participated in the April Fool hoax. The "Conversation" refers to the subtitle of Mark Twain's 1601, a Rabelaisian dialogue on Elizabethan manners which he shared privately with friends in 1876 after intending to send it as a letter to his friend Joseph Twichell (AD for 31 July 1906, AutoMT2, pp. 155–57). John Hay took the manuscript with him to Cleveland to read to friends at the Vampire Club, and printed an unauthorized edition of about a handful of copies in 1880. Waring probably sent Billings the 1882 edition of 1601, published with Clemens's consent by the West Point Academy Press, which Clemens sent to several friends (at his death Clemens still owned fifteen copies, which are now in the Mark Twain Papers). Waring had written Clemens on 20 May 1883 to thank him for sending him "the chaste and graphic sketch of the virtuous olden time" (UCLC 41559, MS in CU-MARK). [back]

Textual Commentary

Copy-text:The Mark Twain Papers, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley (CU-MARK).

Persons Mentioned

John Milton Hay  (1838–1905)

John Hay was a writer and statesman who grew up in Warsaw, Ill., a small town about sixty miles from Clemens's hometown of Hannibal, Mo.—a common background that fostered his long friendship with Clemens. After graduating from Brown University, Hay began his illustrious career in public service as an assistant private secretary to Abraham Lincoln. Hay met Clemens in the late 1860s, and in 1871 Clemens offered Hay part ownership of the Buffalo Express, and to join him in a trip down the Mississippi to furnish material for what would appear in 1875 as the "Old Times on the Mississippi" series in the January–June and August issues of the Atlantic Monthly. Hay declined both offers. Clemens also appreciated Hay's Pike County Ballads (1871) for its verisimilitude to their boyhood region (see also SLC to John M. Hay, 6? January 1871). In 1870 Hay accepted an editorial position on the New York Tribune under Horace Greeley, and, after Greeley’s death in 1872, assisted the new editor, Whitelaw Reid. He gave up his Tribune position in 1875 and pursued a literary career as a poet, novelist, and biographer of Lincoln. Until about 1890 Hay's friendship with Clemens was lukewarm, kept up mostly through mutual friends, but their relationship changed in 1898, when Hay became secretary of state under the McKinley (and later Roosevelt) administration. Despite Clemens's anti-imperialist polemics (and Hay's support for Clemens's foe Theodore Roosevelt), their affection for each other remained solid until Hay's death in 1905 (see AutoMT1, pp. 222–24). In a 27 August 1907 autobiographical dictation, Clemens reminisced, "Hay was a man of great and varied talents and accomplishments, and was conspicuously well equipped for the several great national and international posts which he had filled in his brilliant career; and he climbed to several of them without the help of wealth, and would doubtless have climbed the rest of the way without that help, and all the public would have approved, and would also have affectionately applauded and rejoiced" (AutoMT3, p. 112).

John Shaw Billings  (1838–1913)

Dr. John S. Billings served as medical inspector of the Army of the Potomac. After the Civil War he was posted to the office of the US surgeon general as a lieutenant colonel, where he established the National Library of Medicine within the War Department's Surgeon General's Library, for which he served as librarian until his retirement from active army service in 1895. In 1896 he became the first chief librarian of the New York Public Library. He was also a founding member of the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. He probably knew Clemens from their mutual friend Colonel George Waring, with whom Billings worked on several sanitation projects.