Wise Word Wednesday: Mark Twain


Samuel Clemens, widely-known by his pen name Mark Twain, is probably one of the best commentators regarding the nature of human beings.  He’s certainly one of the most quotable, too.

I won’t be going into his biography because it’s crazy-extensive, but for those interested, this Biography.com link has a good one on him.

Today, Mr. Clemens has something to say on the subject of lying, taken from “Advice to Youth” (1882):

“…the history of our race, and each individual’s experience, are sewn thick with evidences that a truth is not hard to kill, and that a lie well told is immortal.”

Our recent election had plenty of evidence of easily-killed truths, but I doubt that the lies really count – they were neither told well nor long-lasting.  Amateurs.

But throughout our history, I’d say we’ve had some close-to-immortal lies.  In fact, we’ve had some real whoppers.  Here are a couple for your amusement.

Famous frauds

The Cardiff Giant:

Cardiff Giant
via wikimedia.org (cc)

In 1869, while workers were digging a well, this 10-ft tall petrified man was unearthed in the backyard of William Newell in Cardiff, NY.  Newell, an atheist, wanted to play a joke on the local Methodist minister regarding the scripture passage about the biblical times when “giants roamed the earth.”  Although it was declared a fake, crowds of people came to see it, and P.T. Barnum had a replica made (when his offer to buy it was turned down) and put it on display.

For more details, click here, or here.



Ok, you Nessie fans out there (you know who you are), don’t flood me with indignant comments about this post de-bunking the Loch Ness Monster.  But there have been some splendid hoaxes related to Nessie, you have to admit, and here’s one of them.

The photo to the left was the iconic picture of Nessie for the longest time, referred to as the “Surgeon’s Photo.”  Colonel Robert Wilson, a British surgeon, said that while he was driving along the road beside the northern shore of Loch Ness in the early morning hours (April 19, 1934), he spotted something, stopped and snapped this picture.  This fueled debate about Nessie for decades to come.

Finally, in 1994, Christian Spurling – then age 90 – confessed to his part in the conspiracy, concocted between himself and Marmaduke Wetherell (I kid you not), a big game hunter.  Wetherell was still stinging from an earlier attempt at fabricating Nessie’s footprints that had failed spectacularly – via a hippo foot umbrella stand.  (Really, you can’t make up this stuff).

Wetherell had Spurling build a toy submarine fitted with the head of a sea serpent, took a photo of it in the water, and then had Wilson (who had a more reliable reputation) be the “front” man for the photograph.  I haven’t been able to find out why in the world Wilson agreed to such a thing, but read more at Museum of Hoaxes.


Crop circles: do aliens exist?

from wikimedia.org (cc)

Goodness knows what Mr. Clemens would have thought of crop circles, but they didn’t start showing up until the ’70s, along with bell-bottoms and rhinestones.  But that’s another post.

In 1978, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley thought up the prank while drinking in the pub. (See?  Nothing good comes of that demon, alcohol).  They weren’t getting much of a reaction at first, but when they picked a more prominent location (this was in Hampshire, England) atop a hill by a busy road, people started noticing.

Some people thought it was the result of weather…so the pub-mates made their designs more complex.  Some thought…aliens.  Of course, not all crop circles can be strictly accounted for, and “cereologists” – no, not people who study cereal (I thought that, too, LOL), but people who study crop circles – claim that there are differences in the way the plants are bent or broken which determine if a circle is man-made or “otherworldly.”

Want to make your own crop circle?  Click here and scroll to the bottom.  Looks really cool.  Alas, we live in the suburbs, so I don’t think it will make a good after-school project for the kids.

These are just a few of many hoaxes in our time, not including all those internet hoaxes that proliferate in our age – you know, things like criminals playing a tape recording of the crying baby to lure women to open their doors at night, or folks waking up in a bathtub of ice with one kidney missing.  Every era has its Cardiff Giant, I suppose.

What hoaxes can you think of?  What’s your opinion of Twain’s assertion that “a lie told well is immortal”?  Does that still apply in our scientific, information-centered age?  I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,






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18 thoughts on “Wise Word Wednesday: Mark Twain”

  1. BluestockingBluestocking

    Love the quote! Especially give our tendencies to revise history to fit the social mores of the age.

  2. kbowenwriterkbowenwriter

    Call me cynical, but I wonder if we’re hard-wired to lie. And why do we believe the lies so much more readily than the truth? Perhaps the truth is boring?

    Thanks for your comment, Blue!

  3. I.J.VernI.J.Vern

    Hi 🙂

    Interesting post.

    Truth can be hardly defined as absolute. Even in science. Lies also can’t be defined as absolute. Many times, where there is smoke, there is a fire too. So it is a matter of perception.

    As to why human beings are prone to believe a good lie, it is because a good lie plays around with the desires, wishes, hopes and psychology of people, and it is good at it. But those are the details. In general, a good lie manipulates people’s fear of the unknown.
    People are afraid of dying, e.g., not because of death itself (because no one knows what exactly happens), but because of the unknown behind that. So it is very easy to tap on that and promise all kinds of miraculous cures, or of afterlife in whatever form good or bad, for example.
    Future is unknown, so people are afraid of it. Thus, they hope that they will have a better future. Easy to manipulate that too.
    Life on other planets, aliens. Those who dismiss it, even scientists, are afraid of the parameters which they are not aware of and thus, they can not control. Those who embrace it in mass hysteria, are afraid of what will happen to them if aliens will appear on earth. Both perceptions entail factors of the unknown.
    Mysteries. Things that can not be explained with our senses and our brain, thus are unknown to us, either are treated as hoaxes or are worshipped. Until knowledge is expanded and logic can process the info, that is when the unknown becomes known and we are not afraid of it anymore. Once people believed that the sun and the moon were gods, or later that the Earth is flat, even though centuries earlier the Ancient Greeks had established it as given.

    And so on. Whatever is unknown, creates fear and is either dismissed as a lie (and becomes a truth later) or worshipped as a truth (which can become a lie later). There is not and there can not be an absolute definition of either. Just because they rely on perception. And they will always be successful (good ones I mean), as long as they can tap on the human beings’ fear of the unknown.

  4. Renee A. Schuls-JacobsonRenee A. Schuls-Jacobson

    I, too, have wondered if we are hard-wired to lie. I try not to lie — but I am prone to hyperbole. 🙂

  5. Emma BurcartEmma Burcart

    How fun! I love the mix of history and humor you give us. Although, I like to believe in Nessie. Crop circles, though, that is just farmers having fun. Like high school kids who use their trucks to spin cookies on the high school field after graduation. 🙂

  6. Karla DarcyKarla Darcy

    Mark Twain’s book The Art of Lying was a Jeopardy clue on today’s show. Great post.

  7. Jenny HansenJenny Hansen

    I ADORE Mark Twain…always have. It still sickens me that there are those that want to change Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. They are a slice of history and it’s a shame to eradicate that with political correctness.

  8. Julie GloverJulie Glover

    My husband makes total fun of me for believing that at some point there really was a Loch Ness Monster. But I’ll let that one go for now…

    The hoax I’m most familiar with is Big Foot photos, although there was also a hoax perpetrated about a “hodag” which then became a school mascot name in Wisconsin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hodag).

  9. Jane SadekJane Sadek

    Read Mark Twain’s Autobiography when it came out and fell in love. I’d been so-so about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, but I went back and read books like Innocents Abroad and Life on the Mississippi. Made me a total fan.

  10. Debra EveDebra Eve

    Hi Kathy, just catching up on some of your posts. Love this one! As a former archaeologist, one of my favorite hoaxes is Piltdown Man. It wasn’t exposed until the 1950s!


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