VIP Mark Twain

Mark Twain (November 30, 1835 - April 21, 1910)

Hear a "Canna Bite" on Mark Twain (produced by KMUD radio).

The San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, now known simply as the Chronicle, published this item on September 18, 1865:

It appears that a “Hasheesh” mania has broken out among our Bohemians. Yesterday, Mark Twain and the “Mouse-Trap” man [writer Tremenheere Lanyon Johns] were seen walking up Clay street under the influence of the drug, followed by a “star,” who was evidently laboring under a misapprehension as to what was the matter with them.*

Did Mark Twain indulge in hashish when he lived in San Francisco? He never said so, but there is evidence in that direction. Hashish was then freely available in pharmacies and Twain may have purchased some from Richards & Co, which stood on the corner of Sansome & Clay streets, near today’s Transamerica Pyramid and Mark Twain Plaza.

In 1864, the year he moved to San Francisco to work as a journalist, Twain wrote his mother:

And if Fitzhugh Ludlow, (author of the “Hasheesh Eater,”) comes your way, treat him well also. He published a high encomium upon Mark Twain, (the same being eminently just & truthful, I beseech you to believe,) in a San Francisco paper.

Ludlow was the well-known author whose book The Hasheesh Eater had caused a sensation, and much experimentation, when it was published in 1857. One who tried it while a student at Brown University was future secretary of State John Hay, who knew Twain in Buffalo when the two worked as newspaper reporters.

Ludlow, the elder statesman to the junior Twain, said, “In funny literature, that Irresistible Washoe Giant, Mark Twain, takes quite a unique position. He makes me laugh more than any Californian since poor Derby died. He imitates nobody. He is a school by himself.” The quote was published in the Golden Era on November 22, 1863, from whence Twain’s reference in the letter to his mother came.

Twain mentions hasheesh in an article for Alta California (March 3, 1868) titled “Mark Twain on His Travels” where he offered a critique of “The White Fawn”:

I think these hundreds of princely costumes are changed every fifteen minutes during half the night; splendid pageants are filing about the stage constantly, yet one seems never to see the same dress twice. The final grand transformation scene is a vision of magnificence such as no man could imagine unless he had eaten a barrel of hasheesh.

In 1867, Twain toured Europe and the Middle East, and wrote a popular collection of travel letters, which were later compiled as The Innocents Abroad. Therein is published a disappointing experience the author had with a narghili in a Turkish Bath in Constantinople. However, a chapter not published in the book describes his impression of Alcazar, palace of the Moorish kings, which he saw on his first morning in Seville (after a night out on the town):

I cannot describe it. In my memory its courts & gardens will always be a hasheesh delusion, its Hall of Ambassadors a marvelous dream. (See left in Twain's hand this quote.)

We don’t know if Twain and John Hay ever used hashish together, but the ‘60s (that is, the 1860s) seemed to be over for Twain’s group of friends after they married. Twain wrote from Florence, Italy in 1904 this reminiscence:

A quarter of a century ago I was visiting John Hay, now Secretary of State, at Whitelaw Reid’s house in New York...That Sunday morning, twenty-five years ago, Hay and I had been chatting and laughing an carrying-on almost like our earlier selves of ‘67, when the door opened and Mrs. Hay, gravely clad, gloved, bonneted, and just from church, and fragrant with the odors of Presbyterian sanctity, stood it in....She came forward smileless, with disapproval written all over her face, said most coldly, “Good morning Mr. Clemens,” and passed on and out. [Hay] said pathetically, and apologetically, “She is very strict about Sunday.”

Read more, and more.

*The “star” was probably a policeman. Johns wrote a column in The Californian called The Mouse-Trap. The item referenced more “experiences of the twain” in the following issue of The Californian, where A. Miner Griswold, another newspaperman from who knew Twain and Hay in Buffalo, fancifully describes a case of the munchies: “All at once the scene changed. From the fiercest torments and most horrible agonies, I was suddenly changed into seas of bliss. I found myself floating in an ocean of brown gravy which was dotted with islands composed of boned turkey and alamode beef...” (9/23/1865).

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