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The Debunker: Were the Reports of Mark Twain's Death Greatly Exaggerated?

by Ken Jennings

The month of May is come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom and to bring forth fruit! If you're literary enough to recognize that quote from Thomas Malory, you might also know that May is one of the best months of the year to be a bookworm, what with Independent Bookstore Day and National Library Legislative Day, not to mention the birthdays of Whitman, Emerson, and Thomas Pynchon. But you might be surprised by how much of what you think you remember about American literature is wrong. Luckily, Jeopardy! champ and man of letters Ken Jennings is here to set us straight. Let every lusty brain begin to blossom and bring forth fruit!

The Debunker: Were the Reports of Mark Twain's Death Greatly Exaggerated?

Well, not in April 1910, when the great American humorist Samuel Clemens actually died. Then they were right on the money. But you're probably thinking of 1897, when Twain is reputed to have read a newspaper account of his death and announced, "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." In fact, there are two problems with this story. First, there were no such reports. And second, Twain said no such thing.


In June 1897, The New York Herald got wind that Twain was in poor health, and reported that the internationally beloved author was "grievously ill and possibly dying." Adding insult to injury, the Herald also reported that Twain had lost both his mind and his fortune. Twain had, in fact, lost most of his savings by unwisely invested in a new typesetting machine and starting his own publishing house, but by 1897 his finances were recovering and his health was fine.

Twain was traveling in Europe at the time, and a rival paper, William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, had hired him to cover Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebration. The Journal gleefully reported Twain's reaction to the Herald's story, quoting the author as saying something slightly different than the misquote we remember today: "The report of my death was an exaggeration." The rumors, he speculated, must have started when Twain's cousin J.R., also visiting London at the same time, took ill.

The Journal's story, "Mark Twain Amused," must have led to widespread chuckles at home. The incident recalled the famous chapter in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which Tom and Huck return to town after a week hiding out and even get to attend their own funerals. But Twain's case was a little different. Not only was there no funeral, but no newspaper ever actually reported his death!

Quick Quiz: Twain correctly predicted that his 1910 death would coincide with the return of what astronomical event?

Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.