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Mark Twain’s Hash Habit Launched His Career

One hundred and fifty years ago, on September 17, 1865, two young journalists took a stroll down Clay Street in San Francisco.

One was Tremenheere Lanyon Johns, who wrote a column for The Californian newspaper as “The Mouse-Trap Man.”
The other was 29-year-old Samuel Clemens, the writer who had just begun to call himself Mark Twain.

The two friends may have walked by Richards & Company, a drug store at the corner of Clay and Sansome streets that sold hasheesh candy.

(The corner is steps away from today’s Mark Twain Plaza at the base of the Transamerica Pyramid, where the legendary Montgomery Block once stood.)

The day after the pair’s walk, the San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, now known simply as the Chronicle, published this item:

“It appears that a ‘Hasheesh’ mania has broken out among our Bohemians. Yesterday, Mark Twain and the ‘Mouse-Trap’ man were seen walking up Clay street under the influence of the drug, followed by a ‘star,’ [a policeman] who was evidently laboring under a misapprehension as to what was the matter with them.”

1872 ad for hash candies

1872 ad for hash candies

Twain first came to San Francisco in June 1863, one month before another journalist, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, also made his way to our Western shores.

Ludlow was the well-known author of The Hasheesh Eater, which had caused a sensation, and much experimentation, when it was published in 1857. We don’t have a record of the two meeting, but biographer David Dulchinos speculates that Twain may have been one of Ludlow’s guides when he visited an opium den in San Francisco.

Charles Henry Webb, who wrote under the pseudonym Inigo, challenged the “Hasheesh Infant” (as he dubbed Ludlow) to a “journalistic battle” with Twain (who he dubbed the “Washoe Giant”) shortly after Ludlow arrived that July.

In November of that year, Ludlow wrote in The Golden Era newspaper, “In funny literature, that Irresistible Washoe Giant, Mark Twain, takes quite a unique position. He makes me laugh more than any Californian … He is a school by himself.”

Up until then, Twain had considered himself a straight journalist, though often with a devilishly humorous bent. He caused a scandal by writing a bloody hoax to highlight an injustice no one would cover, and he nearly quit the profession when the San Francisco Morning Call wouldn’t run his story about Irishmen throwing stones at Chinese laborers in the city (and the police doing nothing about it).

Twain went back and forth from Nevada City to San Francisco a few times, after various scrapes caused him to flee one place or the other.

Donkey Hotey/Flickr

Donkey Hotey/Flickr

While in Angel’s Camp in Calaveras County, Twain heard the story of a jumping frog contest that would inspire his breakthrough work, changing literature and his life forever. He’d been working on it all of 1865, on an assignment from Artemus Ward.

But it was only after his “Stoned Stroll” that he was able to put onto paper the dialect that became so famous in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. (Example: “He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal’klated to edercate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump.”)

In October 1865, one month after he was seen on Clay Street possibly under the influence of hash candy, Twain wrote to his brother, “I have had a ‘call’ to literature, of a low order — i.e. humorous. It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit.” Bob Hirst, editor of the Mark Twain project at UC Berkeley, has called this the most important letter Twain ever wrote.

By the end of the year, Twain’s humorous piece, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” made him nationally known.

Twain’s fame earned him a trip abroad in 1867, and he described his first impression of Alcazar, palace of the Moorish kings, this way: “I cannot describe it. In my memory its courts & gardens will always be a hasheesh delusion, its Hall of Ambassadors a marvelous dream.” The following year, his critique of a play called “The White Fawn” for Alta California concludes: “The final grand transformation scene is a vision of magnificence such as no man could imagine unless he had eaten a barrel of hasheesh.”

Twain was so depressed about money before his he hit upon his marketable talent for humorous literature that he spoke of suicide. Throughout his youth, he was always looking for ways to get rich. He tried joining the Gold Rush as a miner, and in 1856 he attempted to travel to Brazil to start a business that flourishes today — importing coca.

If he were around today, it’s not inconceivable that Twain might have taken part somehow in the new “Green Rush.”

Photo by AP