Nobody knows for sure whether Mark Twain really said this: “I never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” But if he did, then it was most certainly during his short stint as a journalist in Virginia City, Nevada.
With a population of just over 850, Virginia City is one of those one-horse towns that dot America’s Wild West. Indeed, it is one of those towns with more daily visitors than residents in some months.
It was not always like this though. At the height of the gold rush, in the mid-1800s, Virginia City was a boomtown more prosperous than San Francisco. Apart from the gold, this town came into its own with the Comstock Lode in 1859—the most significant discovery of silver ore in the country.
Among the hopefuls who headed West during this time was Mark Twain (then Samuel Clemens of Missouri), who went with his brother, hoping to—literally—strike gold. He soon gave up his gilt-edged dreams and joined a local newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise, as a local reporter. The year was 1861.
It was early on in this stint that he first signed off on a story as Mark Twain, a term from his days as boat crew on the Mississippi river. The byline stuck.
In Virginia City, Twain refined his skills not only in writing but also storytelling, actually making up tales where none existed. And it was indeed the kind of place where nothing much happened by way of exciting news. So much so that he once wrote to his mother, “Even the devil would be homesick in Nevada.”
In his obituary, The New York Times called Twain the greatest humorist the US has ever produced. However, he did take his ha-ha’s too far occasionally.
His yarn about the discovery of a petrified Shah, who lived over a century ago, did not elicit much public comment. However, another one about a man in Carson City who killed his wife and nine children was so gory that there was major outrage.
His editor—who seemed tickled by his creativity—backed him up then. And Twain carried on in this vein for the next year or so, till he left town.
After decades, the Territorial Enterprise has recently been revived into a spiffy website, which proudly claims that their writers, such as Mark Twain, caught the attention of readers with “outlandish and sometimes satirical folk writing techniques, including the ‘tall tale’.”
The Territorial Enterprise seems to have made a habit of tall tales. In 1959, then editor Bob Richards cooked up a story about a local camel race. The news item on the fake race was picked up by the wire services. Understandably, more than a few editors were furious when the hoax was revealed.
To get even with Richards, the San Francisco Chronicle came to town with camels the next year, challenging the Territorial Enterprise to a race. Other newspapers followed suit, and the rest, as they say, is racing history.
Fifty-seven years on, the town continues to derive much enjoyment from camel and ostrich races, which over 10,000 people now attend (this year, they are going to be held from 9-11 September). As I walk up and down the single main road lined with bars, I wonder how they all fit into this space. To top it all, zebras and emus have lately been thrown into the mix, in the spirit of the more the merrier.
“The best part is, the camels themselves have no idea that they are in a race, so they go any which way they want. And it’s great fun for the spectators,” says Bethany Drysdale, from the state tourism board.
Although Twain worked in Virginia City for just over two years, there is no doubt that he is the town’s favourite son. Saloons are named after him, and signboards everywhere announce the town’s purported role in the evolution of Clemens into Twain.
The erstwhile office of the Territorial Enterprise has now been converted into the Mark Twain Museum. And that is where I head first. This museum is further proof of how the town wants to hang on to his legacy; there isn’t much of Mark Twain in the dusty basement room except his work desk, the printing presses from his time there, a couple of early-edition Tom Sawyer books and, believe me here, a wooden potty that claims close association with the writer.
The fangirl in me is still inordinately pleased.
Now, if only I could find the hat from which he conjured up the stories that kept him going through those dull days.