Science  /  Retrieval

Mark Twain’s Mind Waves

Mark Twain was a prankster, but his belief in telepathy was real enough that he worried about unintentional telepathic plagiarism.

In 1878, Twain wrote about mental telegraphy in A Tramp Abroad. And before going to press, he blotted all of it out. “I feared the public would treat the thing as a joke and throw it aside,” he said, “whereas I was in earnest.” About a decade later: “I tried to creep in under shelter of an authority grave enough to protect the article from ridicule—the North American Review.” The chief, Lorettus Metcalf, insisted on Twain’s byline, but Twain understood that his forked tongue had saddled him with a believability problem, and people would not take him seriously, dammit. “So I pigeonholed the Ms., because I could not get it published anonymously.” Finally, for Harper’s, sixteen years after he received De Quille’s letter, in December 1891, Twain trotted out his surety that egg salad incidents like ours were not accidents.

“That is the puzzling part of it,” he wrote in “Mental telegraphy. A manuscript with a history.” “We are always talking about letters ‘crossing’ each other, for that is one of the very commonest accidents of this life. We call it ‘accident,’ but perhaps we misname it.” Elsewhere, Twain had proposed the “rapport between two minds” operated on “a finer and subtler form of electricity,” which inventors must harness for a thought-sending device, called the “phrenophone.” We’d be able to say, “‘Connect me with the brain of the chief of police at Peking.’”

A few years later, Twain returned to the subject of mental telegraphy in Harper’s with a fresh roll of examples. They were intricate. One day, for instance, he and his friend Joseph Twichell were going to visit Twichell’s daughter—to whom Twain was like an uncle—at her boarding school. As they journeyed, Twain told Twitchell of an encounter a while back: He was in Milan, when a soldier on leave approached him. Lieutenant H. explained that they’d met when he was a cadet and Twain and Twitchell had come to West Point. The soldier mentioned that he’d recently misplaced his letter of credit, and that an American couple with daughters—strangers—had lent him the money to settle his hotel bill. He was headed to repay them, and Twain went along. “I was introduced to the parents and the young ladies; then we separated, and I never saw him or them any m—.” Twain was interrupted as the trolley arrived at their stop. At Miss Porter’s School, lasses streamed by. A girl came up and shook Twichell’s hand—she was, she explained, a friend of his daughter. Then she turned to Twain: “And I wish to shake hands with you too, Mr. Clemens. You don’t remember me, but you were introduced to me in the arcade in Milan two years and a half ago by Lieutenant H.”

“I don’t exactly know what to do with Twain’s psychic claims,” Scharnhorst responded, when I asked him if Twain’s notion of mental telegraphy was another leg-pull, the same brand of jest he undertook in the West. “I don’t think it was.”