Mark Twain on Celebrity Killers, the Sane ’Insane’, and Meddling Misguided Magistrates

Mark Twain (1835–1910) was never one to pull punches on politics, ethics, religion, slavery, or just about any cultural flashpoint, quite often leading public discourse on a number of weighty issues where his views, even today, still function as a moral compass. Twain approached each topic with wry humor, reminding us, “If you cannot have a whale's good opinion except at some sacrifice of principle or personal dignity, it is better to try to live without it. That is my idea about whales.”


“Lionizing Murderers” (from Sketches New and Old, 1875)

There’s no shortage of killers who have become ‘celebrities’ in our lifetime, the most infamous probably being Charles Manson—his likeness has been plastered on T-shirts, and he even penned a song that appeared on a Guns N’ Roses album. Well, nothing is new and in Twain’s short story “Lionizing Murderers” the unnamed central character (described as a public lecturer) goes to Madame, a fortune teller, who recounts his bouts of crime—theft and arson, among other things—and predicts more dreadful developments for the lecturer when he goes to Congress! His future holds prison time, followed by his hanging. But she cushions the blow somewhat by reassuring him that “an imposing procession composed of clergymen, officials, citizens generally, and young ladies walking pensively two and two and bearing bouquets and immortelles” will be with him to the bitter end.

Twain relatable quote: “Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion.”

Insanity Plea

“A New Crime” (from Sketches New and Old, 1875)

LEGISLATION NEEDED is how Twain begins this dark satire that attacks the insanity defense with specific examples dating back several decades. It’s clear that some things haven’t changed since the humorist’s time: big money can wash away certain, shall we say, unfortunate blood-stained happenstances.

If a person of good family and high social standing steals anything, they call it kleptomania, and send him to the lunatic asylum. If a person of high standing squanders his fortune in dissipation, and closes his career with strychnine or a bullet, ‘Temporary aberration’ is what was the trouble with him.

Twain accompanies “A New Crime” with several graphic accounts. In one case, a woman carves up her mistress into pieces for no apparent reason. She possibly could have been a candidate for a genuine insane plea, but because she had no money or influence, she was promptly hanged. However, in another example, a man stabs a foe through the neck while the victim’s wife clasps the crumpling body. Because of his money and social standing, he’s able to buck the system when the defense establishes “that a third cousin of Hackett's wife's stepfather was insane.”

Twain is not minimalizing individuals who need true medical assistance but rather condemning the continuing parade of lucid citizens hiding behind loopholes and the system that breeds them.

Twain relatable quote: “We have an insanity plea that would have saved Cain.”



“From The ‘London Times’ in 1904” (The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Sketches, 1900)

Here’s a curio mixing science-fiction with a good old-fashioned murder mystery. An unnamed protagonist recounts the tale of Szczepanik, inventor of the telelectroscope (a device that enables live viewing via “the telephonic systems of the whole world.”) was murdered and his accused killer, an Army officer named Clayton, is awaiting execution. Clayton asks for a telelectoscope for his cell as a distraction and gets it. He begins zipping about the world to escape his confines and though it helps take his mind off the inevitable, the execution day still arrives. In a twist, our protagonist observing the telelectroscope spots the very much alive Szczepanik a world away which leads to Clayton’s temporary reprieve. Temporary because the court justices get involved and though Clayton is innocent they decide he should be executed anyway.

Twain relatable quote:

I hate to hear people say this Judge will vote so and so, because he is a Democrat — and this one so and so because he is a Republican. It is shameful. The Judges have the Constitution for their guidance; they have no right to any politics save the politics of rigid right and justice when they are sitting in judgment upon the great matters that come before them.


Though Mark Twain was a progressive with uncanny precognitive abilities, he wasn’t infallible—one should always tread carefully when peering through a 21st Century prism and imposing parallels—but, still, it’s a marvel that his astuteness consistently rebounds with such profound clarity in our time. And a big reason we still journey to his wellspring is his ability to be so self-effacing and humorous. As when he reminds us, “I am not one of those who in expressing opinions confine themselves to facts.”

Edward A. Grainger aka David Cranmer is the editor/publisher of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and books and the recent noir Western collection, Further Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles.

Read all of Edward A. Grainger's posts for Criminal Element.


  1. Prashant C. Trikannad

    David, I’d no idea Twain was so cued into political and other affairs in his time. His thought-provoking essays hold true in our times, particularly “Lionizing Murderers.” I enjoyed reading your views on each of these three cases.

  2. David Cranmer

    Prashant, Glad you enjoyed the article and thank you for commenting. Yes, Twain, was very much tuned into the political issues of his day and a leading voice. Example: a book like Huckleberry Finn was much more than a riverboat adventure and spotlighted deep-rooted arrogances/racisms of the time that still resonates.

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