As a correspondent of San Francisco Morning Call in 1864, Mark Twain and San Francisco Chief of Police Martin J. Bsurke were in a relatively good terms. But that changed in 1866 when Twain started a series of polemics accusing Burke and his officers of corruption and other serious crimes. Burke then threatened Twain to sue him with libel.

On 23 January 1866, Twain sent a letter to Virginia City Territorial Enterprise lampooning the “city’s corrupt morals under the existing police government” of Burke. The letter started with “The air is full of lechery and rumors of lechery…” On 5 February, San Francisco Examiner printed an excerpt of the aforementioned letter. According to a Mariposa Free Press correspondent, some “leather-head” misunderstood Twain’s column to mean that Burke kept a mistress. An explanation was demanded, and they got one that made things worse. Two days later, Twain sent an “apology” and a clarification:

“Explanation of a Mysterious Sentence”, San Francisco Examiner7 February 1866, 3.

EDITOR EXAMINER:–You published the following paragraph the other day and stated that it was an ‘extract from a letter to the Virginia Enterprise, from the San Francisco correspondent of that paper.’ Please publish it again, and put it in the parentheses where I have marked them, so that people who read with wretched carelessness may know to a dead moral certainty when I am referring to Chief Burke, and also know to an equally dead moral certainty when I am referring to the dog:

‘I want to compliment Chief Burke — I do honestly. But I can’t find anything to compliment him about. He is always rushing furiously around, like a dog after his own tail — and with the same general result, it seems to me; if he (the dog, not the Chief,) catches it, it don’t amount to anything, after all the fuss; and if he (the dog, not the Chief,) don’t catch it, it don’t make any difference, because he (the dog, not the Chief,) didn’t want it anyhow; he (the dog, not the Chief,) only wanted the exercise, and the happiness of “showing off” before his (the dog’s, not the Chief’s,) mistress and the other young ladies. But if the Chief (not the dog,) would only do something praiseworthy, I would be the first and the most earnest and cordial to give him (the Chief, not the dog,) the credit due. I would sling him (the Chief, not the dog,) a compliment that would knock him down. I mean that it would be such a first-class compliment that it might surprise him (the Chief, not the dog,) to that extent as coming from me.’

Twain further added, “I was sorry to learn that any one had placed so dire a misconstruction upon that sentence;  I was genuinely sorry, but the idea was so unspeakably funny that I had to laugh a little, in spite of my tears.”

  • David Fears, Mark Twain Day by Day: 1835-1885, 2007.
  • Albert B. Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography Vol. 2, 2008.

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