The Boys’ Life of Mark Twain
by Paine

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Public Domain Books

XXIV. The Discovery of “The Jumping Frog”

Mark Twain’s daily letters to the “Enterprise” stirred up trouble for him in San Francisco. He was free, now, to write what he chose, and he attacked the corrupt police management with such fierceness that, when copies of the “Enterprise” got back to San Francisco, they started a commotion at the city hall. Then Mark Twain let himself go more vigorously than ever. He sent letters to the “Enterprise” that made even the printers afraid. Goodman, however, was fearless, and let them go in, word for word. The libel suit which the San Francisco chief of police brought against the Enterprise advertised the paper amazingly.

But now came what at the time seemed an unfortunate circumstance. Steve Gillis, always a fearless defender of the weak, one night rushed to the assistance of two young fellows who had been set upon by three roughs. Gillis, though small of stature, was a terrific combatant, and he presently put two of the assailants to flight and had the other ready for the hospital. Next day it turned out that the roughs were henchmen of the police, and Gillis was arrested.

Clemens went his bail, and advised Steve to go down to Virginia City until the storm blew over.

But it did not blow over for Mark Twain. The police department was only too glad to have a chance at the author of the fierce “Enterprise" letters, and promptly issued a summons for him, with an execution against his personal effects. If James N. Gillis, brother of Steve, had not happened along just then and spirited Mark Twain away to his mining-camp in the Tuolumne Hills, the beautiful gold watch given to the governor of the Third House might have been sacrificed in the cause of friendship.

As it was, he found himself presently in the far and peaceful seclusion of that land which Bret Harte would one day make famous with his tales of “Roaring Camp” and “Sandy Bar.” Jim Gillis was, in fact, the Truthful James of Bret Harte, and his cabin on jackass Hill had been the retreat of Harte and many another literary wayfarer who had wandered there for rest and refreshment and peace. It was said the sick were made well, and the well made better, in Jim Gillis’s cabin. There were plenty of books and a variety of out-of-door recreation. One could mine there if he chose. Jim would furnish the visiting author with a promising claim, and teach him to follow the little fan-like drift of gold specks to the pocket of treasure somewhere up the hillside.

Gillis himself had literary ability, though he never wrote. He told his stories, and with his back to the open fire would weave the most amazing tales, invented as he went along. His stories were generally wonderful adventures that had happened to his faithful companion, Stoker; and Stoker never denied them, but would smoke and look into the fire, smiling a little sometimes, but never saying a word. A number of the tales later used by Mark Twain were first told by Jim Gillis in the cabin on Jackass Hill. “Dick Baker’s Cat” was one of these, the jay-bird and acorn story in “A Tramp Abroad” was another. Mark Twain had little to add to these stories.

“They are not mine, they are Jim’s,” he said, once; “but I never could get them to sound like Jim–they were never as good as his.”

It was early in December, 1864, when Mark Twain arrived at the humble retreat, built of logs under a great live-oak tree, and surrounded by a stretch of blue-grass. A younger Gillis boy was there at the time, and also, of course, Dick Stoker and his cat, Tom Quartz, which every reader of “Roughing It” knows.

It was the rainy season, but on pleasant days they all went pocket- mining, and, in January, Mark Twain, Gillis, and Stoker crossed over into Calaveras County and began work near Angel’s Camp, a place well known to readers of Bret Harte. They put up at a poor hotel in Angel’s, and on good days worked pretty faithfully. But it was generally raining, and the food was poor.

In his note-book, still preserved, Mark Twain wrote: “January 27 (1865). –Same old diet–same old weather–went out to the pocket-claim–had to rush back.”

So they spent a good deal of their time around the rusty stove in the dilapidated tavern at Angel’s Camp. It seemed a profitless thing to do, but few experiences were profitless to Mark Twain, and certainly this one was not.

At this barren mining hotel there happened to be a former Illinois River pilot named Ben Coon, a solemn, sleepy person, who dozed by the stove or told slow, pointless stories to any one who would listen. Not many would stay to hear him, but Jim Gillis and Mark Twain found him a delight. They would let him wander on in his dull way for hours, and saw a vast humor in a man to whom all tales, however trivial or absurd, were serious history.

At last, one dreary afternoon, he told them about a frog–a frog that had belonged to a man named Coleman, who had trained it to jump, and how the trained frog had failed to win a wager because the owner of the rival frog had slyly loaded the trained jumper with shot. It was not a new story in the camps, but Ben Coon made a long tale of it, and it happened that neither Clemens nor Gillis had heard it before. They thought it amusing, and his solemn way of telling it still more so.

“I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s better than any other frog,” became a catch phrase among the mining partners; and, “I ’ain’t got no frog, but if I had a frog, I’d bet you.”

Out on the claim, Clemens, watching Gillis and Stoker anxiously washing, would say, “I don’t see no pints about that pan o’ dirt that’s any better than any other pan o’ dirt.” And so they kept the tale going. In his note-book Mark Twain made a brief memorandum of the story for possible use.

The mining was rather hopeless work. The constant and heavy rains were disheartening. Clemens hated it, and even when, one afternoon, traces of a pocket began to appear, he rebelled as the usual chill downpour set in.

“Jim,” he said, “let’s go home; we’ll freeze here.”

Gillis, as usual, was washing, and Clemens carrying the water. Gillis, seeing the gold “color” improving with every pan, wanted to go on washing and climbing toward the precious pocket, regardless of wet and cold. Clemens, shivering and disgusted, vowed that each pail of water would be his last. His teeth were chattering, and he was wet through. Finally he said:

“Jim, I won’t carry any more water. This work too disagreeable.”

Gillis had just taken out a panful of dirt.

“Bring one more pail, Sam,” he begged.

“Jim I won’t do it. I’m-freezing.”

“Just one more pail, Sam!” Jim pleaded.

“No, sir; not a drop–not if I knew there was a million dollars in that pan.”

Gillis tore out a page of his note-book and hastily posted a thirty-day- claim notice by the pan of dirt. Then they set out for Angel’s Camp, never to return. It kept on raining, and a letter came from Steve Gillis, saying he had settled all the trouble in San Francisco. Clemens decided to return, and the miners left Angel’s without visiting their claim again.

Meantime the rain had washed away the top of the pan of dirt they had left standing on the hillside, exposing a handful of nuggets, pure gold. Two strangers, Austrians, happening along, gathered it up and, seeing the claim notice posted by Jim Gillis, sat down to wait until it expired. They did not mind the rain–not under the circumstances–and the moment the thirty days were up they followed the lead a few pans farther and took out, some say ten, some say twenty, thousand dollars. In either case it was a good pocket that Mark Twain missed by one pail of water. Still, without knowing it, he had carried away in his note-book a single nugget of far greater value the story of “The Jumping Frog.”

He did not write it, however, immediately upon his return to San Francisco. He went back to his “Enterprise” letters and contributed some sketches to the Californian. Perhaps he thought the frog story too mild in humor for the slope. By and by he wrote it, and by request sent it to Artemus Ward to be used in a book that Ward was about to issue. It arrived too late, and the publisher handed it to the editor of the “Saturday Press,” Henry Clapp, saying:

“Here, Clapp, is something you can use in your paper.”

The “Press” was struggling, and was glad to get a story so easily. “Jim Smiley and his jumping Frog” appeared in the issue of November 18, 1865, and was at once copied and quoted far and near. It carried the name of Mark Twain across the mountains and the prairies of the Middle West; it bore it up and down the Atlantic slope. Some one said, then or later, that Mark Twain leaped into fame on the back of a jumping frog.

Curiously, this did not at first please the author. He thought the tale poor. To his mother he wrote:

I do not know what to write; my life is so uneventful. I wish I was back there piloting up and down the river again. Verily, all is vanity and little worth–save piloting.

To think that, after writing many an article a man might be excused for thinking tolerably good, those New York people should single out a villainous backwoods sketch to compliment me on!–” Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog"–a squib which would never have been written but to please Artemus Ward.

However, somewhat later he changed his mind considerably, especially when he heard that James Russell Lowell had pronounced the story the finest piece of humorous writing yet produced in America.


Preface  •  I. The Family of John Clemens  •  II. The New Home, and Uncle John Quarles’s Farm  •  IV. Education Out of School  •  V. Tom Sawyer and His Band  •  VI. Closing School-Days  •  VII. The Apprentice  •  VIII. Orion’s Paper  •  IX. The Open Road  •  X. A Wind of Chance  •  XI. The Long Way to the Amazon  •  XII. Renewing an Old Ambition  •  XIII. Learning the River  •  XIV. River Days  •  XV. The Wreck of the “Pennsylvania”  •  XVI. The Pilot  •  XVII. The End of Piloting  •  XVIII. The Soldier  •  XIX. The Pioneer  •  XX. The Miner  •  XXI. The Territorial Enterprise  •  XXII. “Mark Twain”  •  XXIII. Artemus Ward and Literary San Francisco  •  XXIV. The Discovery of “The Jumping Frog”  •  XXV. Hawaii and Anson Burlingame  •  XXVI. Mark Twain, Lecturer  •  XXVII. An Innocent Abroad, and Home Again  •  XXVIII. Olivia Langdon. Work on the “Innocents”  •  XXIX. The Visit to Elmira and Its Consequences  •  XXX. The New Book and a Wedding  •  XXXI. Mark Twain in Buffalo  •  XXXII. At Work on “Roughing It”  •  XXXIII. In England  •  XXXIV. A New Book and New English Triumphs  •  XXXV. Beginning “Tom Sawyer”  •  XXXVI. The New Home  •  XXXVII. “Old Times,” “Sketches,” And “Tom Sawyer”  •  XXXVIII. Home Pictures  •  XXXIX. Tramping Abroad  •  XL. “The Prince and the Pauper”  •  XLI. General Grant at Hartford  •  XLII. Many Investments  •  XLIII. Back to the River, With Bixby  •  XLIV. A Reading-Tour With Cable  •  XLV. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”  •  XLVI. Publisher to General Grant  •  XLVII. The High-Tide of Fortune  •  XLVIII. Business Difficulties. Pleasanter Things  •  XLIX. Kipling at Elmira. Elsie Leslie. The “Yankee”  •  L. The Machine. Good-By to Hartford. “Joan” Is Begun  •  LI. The Failure of Webster & Co. Around the World. Sorrow  •  LII. European Economies  •  LIII. Mark Twain Pays His Debts  •  LIV. Return After Exile  •  LV. A Prophet At Home  •  LVI. Honored by Missouri  •  LVII. The Close of a Beautiful Life  •  LVIII. Mark Twain at Seventy  •  LIX. Mark Twain Arranges for His Biography  •  LX. Working With Mark Twain  •  LXI. Dictations at Dublin, N. H.  •  LXII. A New Era of Billiards  •  LXIII. Living With Mark Twain  •  LXIV. A Degree From Oxford  •  LXV. The Removal to Redding  •  LXVI. Life at Stormfield  •  LXVII. The Death of Jean  •  LXVIII. Days in Bermuda  •  LXIX. The Return to Redding  •  LXX. The Close of a Great Life

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The boys' life of Mark Twain: The story of a man who made the world laugh and love him
By Albert Bigelow Paine
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