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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
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Mark Twain’s |Fingerprints

Through a forensic discovery, Mark Twain found a metaphor for human equality that he had been working toward throughout his career.

In Pudd'nhead Wilson, a murder has been committed in a small town, and everyone believes that identical twins visiting from Italy did the crime. They had an ongoing feud with the victim. They were found at the scene of the crime, but most damning, they were educated foreigners - inherently suspicious and untrustworthy, and genetic freaks, at that, whose "deformity" once caused them to be exhibited at sideshows throughout Europe.

In fact, the real killer was a son of a slave, whose mother switched him at birth with the nephew of a wealthy and respected judge. His birth mother, wrote Twain, was "as white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts." In the pre-Civil War South, she was "saleable" as a slave, and she wanted to protect her child from her fate. The switch was successful, and nobody suspected the "nephew" of a town dignitary of the crime. The state rested their case against the twins after presenting an airtight case, mostly unchallenged by the defense.

Eventually, the twins' lawyer found a piece of evidence from his private collection of fingerprints that he collected from townspeople as a hobby. As he began his closing arguments, he said, "Every human being carries with him from his cradle to his grave certain physical marks which do not change their character, and by which he can always be identified--and that without shade of doubt or question."

It's hard to imagine a time when such an idea sounded novel or mysterious.

When this attorney, David Wilson, started keeping his collection of fingerprints, everyone in the town thought he was an eccentric - and an idiot. They puzzled over his strange habits, didn't understand his ironic way of speaking, and were sure that he was a "puddn'head." His reputation spread, and he never got a client. But when he presented this evidence at court, Wilson knew he would acquit his clients, rescue his law practice and vindicate his way of life.


As a playwright, I lived closely with Mark Twain in my life for three years, having rummaged through his rare and unpublished notebooks, letters and stories for a docudrama called The Report of My Death. My play told a story from the later years of Twain's life, focusing on his financial troubles, difficult family life, dark philosophies and political radicalism.

Having gotten to know him in this way, I believe he wrote a lot of himself in David "Pudd'nhead" Wilson. Many of Wilson's quotes appear in Twain's private journals of the time, in the context of his personal philosophies.

Like David "Pudd'nhead" Wilson, Samuel Langhorne Clemens was known by a pseudonym that he regarded with ambivalence. Clemens chose the name "Mark Twain" from his steamboat piloting days, as a phrase used to mark the point when dangerously shallow water became safe for passage. The name became synonymous with his reputation as a humorist, but Clemens' humor -- as his non de plume suggests -- took dangerous ideas and social criticisms and made them safe for intellectual travel.

His daughter wrote in her diary that her father "should not be known" by the name Mark Twain because it was associated with his reputation as a "funnyman," instead of the great writer that he was. Clemens read that diary and, I have no doubt, recognized the painful truth in what she said. When he wanted to stake his claim in literature, puritans attacked him for vulgarizing the form. When he attacked colonialism, imperialism, religion and war, or got too serious, critics claimed that he was somehow stepping outside his territory.

Whereas Wilson collected fingerprints, Clemens constantly toyed around with new inventions. He was the first person to conceive of scrapbooks that had adhesives to stick pictures, letters and other mementos. He invested in a new typesetting compositor that was going to revolutionize the printing press and "do everything a human being can do but drink, swear and go on strike." He took great risks in the publishing business and outbid everyone in printing General Grant's memoirs. His enterprises bankrupted him the year after this novel was published, and he his efforts probably looked as foolish as Wilson's "eccentric" collection.

Finally, Wilson and Clemens both recognized that what defines a human being is not race, country, or religion. It isn't even beliefs, character or actions. The killer, who murdered his "uncle" to collect his inheritance, only became possessive of his privilege through an accident of fate. If he remained the slave he was born, he would have had no social status to protect. The only identifying feature that eventually mattered in a court of law were the fingerprints, the evidence of existence, so distinguishing that even the twins didn't share the same pair.

After demolishing ideas about race, nationalism and character, Twain didn't even let justice or idealism survive his satire. The falsely accused got acquitted, the lawyer won his rightful reputation and the killer was arrested. But the great legal minds of the town reasoned that the original defendants were tried as people, whereas the real killer was a slave. Therefore, he was property and not fit for hanging. So they sold him to a plantation down the river. It's merciless irony for in any novel, let alone one that so condemns and damns the institution of slavery.


Twain turned out to be as prophetic a forensic analyst as he was a social critic. Fingerprinting was a fringe idea at the time this novel was published, vaguely known about but rarely practiced in criminal justice until the turn of the century.

As I read the excerpt below, I tried to imagine myself hearing Pudd'nhead Wilson saying the words in 1894, when it was a strange new idea. Only then could I absorb the eloquence of the author's description and understand how radical an image it was. It symbolizes the common humanity that remains when every other way we define ourselves is proven to be inadequate.

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