Evidence that supports “Scupper Nong Letter” [NY Times, 29 Nov 1867] is newly discovered Washington correspondence of Mark Twain.

Mark Twain in D.C. flyer_11. The Evening Telegraph (Philadelphia) of November 30, 1867 republished the letter and added the byline of “MARK TWAIN.” In subsequent days no correction ran saying that the article was not, in fact, written by Twain. I mentioned in yesterday’s post that the Philadelphia paper most likely reprinted Twain’s item because of its mentions of John Forney and his paper.  [The Chronicle later ran ads for “THE JUMPING FROG. BY MARK TWAIN” while Twain was in the city as a capital correspondent.]

2a. As well all know, Mark Twain arrived in Washington in late November 1867 from New York and upon his arrival boarded at the Willard. These are the same circumstances “Scupper Nong” shares in his letter. (Noted Twain scholar and publisher of the invaluable twainquotes.com Barbara Schmidt mentioned this similarity in a recent email.)

2b. The opening volley of the one and only letter from Scupper Nong begins with, “I have not observed the announcement by any of the ‘Specials’ of my arrival in this political metropolis (which to my mind is rather a drink-opolis) as your occasional correspondent.”

The New York Times announced Twain’s landing in Washington on its front page of 26 November 1867. “ARRIVALS. – Among the arrivals in the city are Hon. Columbus Delano, who contests the seat of Mr. Morgan, of Ohio, and Mark Twain, the humorist.”

It appears no Washington City paper announced Twain’s arrival, as did the New York Times. I have found no such item in the Evening Star, National Intelligencer, National Republican or Morning Chronicle. Either I have overlooked an announcement of Twain’s arrivals in one of these papers or it was printed elsewhere. I have not found any Washington daily paper that announced Twain’s arrival which substantiates Scupper Nong’s claim aka Mark Twain.

Twain is no Frederick Douglass when it comes to certain morals and etiquette. My gut instinct, I am today a journalist in Washington City and trust my gut which is usually 95% right, tells me that Twain felt slighted by this. Yet to come out with an article under his own byline saying, to the effect of, folks didn’t notice I am here in your city and you damn should was not a good idea back then and is still not how to best influence folks today in Washington.

3. General Grant’s demeanor in not answering the Scupper Nong and the other reporter’s inquiries are nearly identical to Twain’s sketch, filed from Washington, D.C., for the New York Tribune in December 1868 titled “Concerning Gen. Grant’s intentions“. This 1868 article is beyond a doubt known in Twain circles. Renowned scholar Louis J. Budd said the piece “spoofed that budding candidate’s taciturnity, he felt his way with caution.”

4. Twain doesn’t mention “Scupper Nong” or this article in any of his known correspondence. What gives? William Swinton…?

Upon arriving in Washington, Twain intended to begin a “syndicate” with Swinton. [Twain told this story on multiple occasions over the years.] According to my own research into Swinton and the good folks at the Mark Twain Papers, “William Swinton (1833–92), described by the New York Citizen as “tall, red-whiskered, sedate,” was a special correspondent for the New York Times during the war and became notorious for his overly revealing and critical reports on Union troop movements.” Swinton’s brother, John Swinton, was an editorial writer for the New York Times when the Scupper Nong letter appears. William Swinton and Twain lived in a boarding house together in Washington, the exact dates are not known.

5. What is “Scupper Nong“? Apparently, it is a grape unique to the South. Twain was unique to everywhere but he was a native of the border South. Interesting selection for a nom de plume.

6. I have more but I won’t share right now.

My book is focusing on Twain in local Washington, D.C. My position is simple: Washington, D.C. was informative to Twain and his experiences in Washington kept him up late at night thinking about how elusive the vapor of fame could be.

ED Note: I am a local journalist in Washington. I have an undergrad degree. I am no professor or “trained historian.” I am a public historian. You can catch me on the Metro, at MLK Library or LOC. I don’t have a particular interest in arguing this way or that way about something esoteric. This book is for the city, my journalist buddies, the young researchers coming up out here, David C. Mearns, my brother and everyone in between.  New scholarship and debate on Twain’s Washington days should, of course, be encouraged from all sources and directions.


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