The Washington Syndicate that never was; Mark Twain, William Swinton and George Alfred Townsend

L-R, Townsend, Twain, [David] Gray

L-R, Townsend, Twain, [David] Gray

After leaving the life of a Washington Correspondent behind him, whenever Mark Twain reminisced about his time as a journalist in the city he frequently mentioned a failed scheme to form a newspaper syndicate with William Swinton.

While Twain was in Washington he roomed with a roll call of journalists; Henry Riley, Hiram J. Ramsdell, George Alfred Townsend and Swinton.

On a visit to Washington in 1889 Twain told a journalist with the New York Herald,

A little later that winter [1867 – 1868] William Swinton and I housed together. Swinton invented the idea – at least it was new to me – of manifolding correspondence, I mean of sending duplicates of a letter to various widely separated newspapers. We projected an extensive business; but for some reason or other we took it out in dreaming – never really tried it.”

In Chapter XXV of his autobiographical musings, published in The North American Review in December 1907, Twain garbled Swinton’s name but told a similar story,

“I had just come back from the Quaker City Excursion, and had made a contract with Bliss of Hartford to write, ‘The Innocents Abroad.’ I was out of money, and I went down to Washington to see if I could earn enough there to keep me in bread and butter while I should write the book. I came across William Clinton, brother of the astronomer, and together we invented a scheme for our mutual sustenance; we became the fathers and originators of what is a common feature in the newspaper world now – the syndicate. We became the old original first Newspaper Syndicate on the planet; it was on a small scale, but that is usual with untried new enterprises. We had twelve journals on our list; they were all weeklies, all obscure and poor, and all scattered far away among the back settlements. It was a proud thing for those little newspapers to have a Washington correspondence, and a fortunate thing for us that they felt in that way about it. Each of the twelve took two letters a week from us, at a dollar per letter; each of us wrote one letter per week and sent off six duplicates of it to these benefactors, thus acquiring twenty-four dollars a week to live on – which was all we needed, in our cheap and humble quarters.”

In George Alfred Townsend’s unpublished memoirs he reveals that he was also approached by Swinton to form a Washington Syndicate. On page 4 of Townsend’s writings on the “War Correspondent’s Arch” he recalls,

“William Swinton was a Scotch schoolteacher of irregular habits and dubious American patriotism, with considerable of the military critic. He wrote the history of the Army of the Potomac in a way to flatter and delight Lee’s army, followed by the “Decisive Battles,” which reaffirmed his Levite view of his comrades, gravitated into a school book writer and ended without context. He and I once planned a bureau of political correspondence from Washington, which, happily, I was spared.”


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