May 312011

In this extra we read to you Mark Twain’s Scrap of Curious History.


Samuel Clemens traveled overseas with his family, touring throughout Europe from 1891 to 1895.  The following essay – A Scrap of Curious History – written at the time, was not published until after Clemens’ death as part of a collection, What Is Man? And Other Stories.


Sante Caserio (Wikimedia Commons)

While Clemens was in France, Sante Geronimo Caserio, an Italian anarchist, jumped onto the passing carriage of the President of France and plunged a knife into his chest. The French President died from his injuries. The incident incited some violence against Italians living in France. Clemens found himself uncomfortably close to this violence, but he’ll explain below.

Jornal Caserio

Sante Caserio admitted to his role and his motives. Caserio claimed to have sought vengeance for two other anarchists: Auguste Vaillant and Emile Henry. Both Vaillant and Henry had been executed for bombings. Incredibly, both Vaillant and Henry were also acting to revenge fellow anarchists. They garnered a great deal of attention. The French Government executed Caserio for his crimes, as well.

Clemens likens this spread of violence among members of the anarchist movement to the activities of abolitionists, during the period before the U.S. Civil War. Clemens purports to recount the activities of abolitionists in a small Missouri town.

The Real History

Mark Twain’s account captures an aspect of the anarchist violence sweeping through France — that craving for celebrity and martyrdom that fueled the violence, just as we often experience today. But, this account of events is not factual. In his youth in his own country, unlike the anarchists a generation later, the abolitionists did not resort to violence – with the notable exception of John Brown, who did kill a man while freeing slaves in Missouri.

So why does Twain set the abolitionists as the violent predecessors to the anarchists? If Twain had put aside the racism of his upbringing, is this a leftover of the lies and anger his slave-owning home town held toward the abolition movement? Or is there a purpose to it?


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