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A Scrap Of Curious History

Marion City, on the Mississippi River, in the State of
Missouri--a village; time, 1845. La Bourboule-les-Bains, France
--a village; time, the end of June, 1894. I was in the one
village in that early time; I am in the other now. These times
and places are sufficiently wide apart, yet today I have the
strange sense of being thrust back into that Missourian village
and of reliving certain stirring days that I lived there so long

Last Saturday night the life of the President of the French
Republic was taken by an Italian assassin. Last night a mob
surrounded our hotel, shouting, howling, singing the
"Marseillaise," and pelting our windows with sticks and stones;
for we have Italian waiters, and the mob demanded that they be
turned out of the house instantly--to be drubbed, and then driven
out of the village. Everybody in the hotel remained up until far
into the night, and experienced the several kinds of terror which
one reads about in books which tell of nigh attacks by Italians
and by French mobs: the growing roar of the oncoming crowd; the
arrival, with rain of stones and a crash of glass; the withdrawal
to rearrange plans--followed by a silence ominous, threatening,
and harder to bear than even the active siege and the noise. The
landlord and the two village policemen stood their ground, and at
last the mob was persuaded to go away and leave our Italians in
peace. Today four of the ringleaders have been sentenced to
heavy punishment of a public sort--and are become local heroes,
by consequence.

That is the very mistake which was at first made in the
Missourian village half a century ago. The mistake was repeated
and repeated--just as France is doing in these later months.

In our village we had our Ravochals, our Henrys, our
Vaillants; and in a humble way our Cesario--I hope I have spelled
this name wrong. Fifty years ago we passed through, in all
essentials, what France has been passing through during the past
two or three years, in the matter of periodical frights, horrors,
and shudderings.

In several details the parallels are quaintly exact. In
that day, for a man to speak out openly and proclaim himself an
enemy of negro slavery was simply to proclaim himself a madman.
For he was blaspheming against the holiest thing known to a
Missourian, and could NOT be in his right mind. For a man to
proclaim himself an anarchist in France, three years ago, was to
proclaim himself a madman--he could not be in his right mind.

Now the original first blasphemer against any institution
profoundly venerated by a community is quite sure to be in
earnest; his followers and imitators may be humbugs and self-
seekers, but he himself is sincere--his heart is in his protest.

Robert Hardy was our first ABOLITIONIST--awful name! He was
a journeyman cooper, and worked in the big cooper-shop belonging
to the great pork-packing establishment which was Marion City's
chief pride and sole source of prosperity. He was a New-
Englander, a stranger. And, being a stranger, he was of course
regarded as an inferior person--for that has been human nature
from Adam down--and of course, also, he was made to feel
unwelcome, for this is the ancient law with man and the other
animals. Hardy was thirty years old, and a bachelor; pale, given
to reverie and reading. He was reserved, and seemed to prefer
the isolation which had fallen to his lot. He was treated to
many side remarks by his fellows, but as he did not resent them
it was decided that he was a coward.

All of a sudden he proclaimed himself an abolitionist--
straight out and publicly! He said that negro slavery was a
crime, an infamy. For a moment the town was paralyzed with
astonishment; then it broke into a fury of rage and swarmed
toward the cooper-shop to lynch Hardy. But the Methodist
minister made a powerful speech to them and stayed their hands.
He proved to them that Hardy was insane and not responsible for
his words; that no man COULD be sane and utter such words.

So Hardy was saved. Being insane, he was allowed to go on
talking. He was found to be good entertainment. Several nights
running he made abolition speeches in the open air, and all the
town flocked to hear and laugh. He implored them to believe him
sane and sincere, and have pity on the poor slaves, and take
measurements for the restoration of their stolen rights, or in no
long time blood would flow--blood, blood, rivers of blood!

It was great fun. But all of a sudden the aspect of things
changed. A slave came flying from Palmyra, the county-seat, a
few miles back, and was about to escape in a canoe to Illinois
and freedom in the dull twilight of the approaching dawn, when
the town constable seized him. Hardy happened along and tried to
rescue the negro; there was a struggle, and the constable did not
come out of it alive. Hardly crossed the river with the negro,
and then came back to give himself up. All this took time, for
the Mississippi is not a French brook, like the Seine, the Loire,
and those other rivulets, but is a real river nearly a mile wide.
The town was on hand in force by now, but the Methodist preacher
and the sheriff had already made arrangements in the interest of
order; so Hardy was surrounded by a strong guard and safely
conveyed to the village calaboose in spite of all the effort of
the mob to get hold of him. The reader will have begun to
perceive that this Methodist minister was a prompt man; a prompt
man, with active hands and a good headpiece. Williams was his
name--Damon Williams; Damon Williams in public, Damnation Williams
in private, because he was so powerful on that theme and so frequent.

The excitement was prodigious. The constable was the first
man who had ever been killed in the town. The event was by long
odds the most imposing in the town's history. It lifted the
humble village into sudden importance; its name was in
everybody's mouth for twenty miles around. And so was the name
of Robert Hardy--Robert Hardy, the stranger, the despised. In a
day he was become the person of most consequence in the region,
the only person talked about. As to those other coopers, they
found their position curiously changed--they were important
people, or unimportant, now, in proportion as to how large or how
small had been their intercourse with the new celebrity. The two
or three who had really been on a sort of familiar footing with
him found themselves objects of admiring interest with the public
and of envy with their shopmates.

The village weekly journal had lately gone into new hands.
The new man was an enterprising fellow, and he made the most of
the tragedy. He issued an extra. Then he put up posters
promising to devote his whole paper to matters connected with the
great event--there would be a full and intensely interesting
biography of the murderer, and even a portrait of him. He was as
good as his word. He carved the portrait himself, on the back of
a wooden type--and a terror it was to look at. It made a great
commotion, for this was the first time the village paper had ever
contained a picture. The village was very proud. The output of
the paper was ten times as great as it had ever been before, yet
every copy was sold.

When the trial came on, people came from all the farms
around, and from Hannibal, and Quincy, and even from Keokuk; and
the court-house could hold only a fraction of the crowd that
applied for admission. The trial was published in the village
paper, with fresh and still more trying pictures of the accused.

Hardy was convicted, and hanged--a mistake. People came
from miles around to see the hanging; they brought cakes and
cider, also the women and children, and made a picnic of the
matter. It was the largest crowd the village had ever seen. The
rope that hanged Hardy was eagerly bought up, in inch samples,
for everybody wanted a memento of the memorable event.

Martyrdom gilded with notoriety has its fascinations.
Within one week afterward four young lightweights in the village
proclaimed themselves abolitionists! In life Hardy had not been
able to make a convert; everybody laughed at him; but nobody
could laugh at his legacy. The four swaggered around with their
slouch-hats pulled down over their faces, and hinted darkly at
awful possibilities. The people were troubled and afraid, and
showed it. And they were stunned, too; they could not understand
it. "Abolitionist" had always been a term of shame and horror;
yet here were four young men who were not only not ashamed to
bear that name, but were grimly proud of it. Respectable young
men they were, too--of good families, and brought up in the
church. Ed Smith, the printer's apprentice, nineteen, had been
the head Sunday-school boy, and had once recited three thousand
Bible verses without making a break. Dick Savage, twenty, the
baker's apprentice; Will Joyce, twenty-two, journeyman
blacksmith; and Henry Taylor, twenty-four, tobacco-stemmer--were
the other three. They were all of a sentimental cast; they were
all romance-readers; they all wrote poetry, such as it was; they
were all vain and foolish; but they had never before been
suspected of having anything bad in them.

They withdrew from society, and grew more and more
mysterious and dreadful. They presently achieved the distinction
of being denounced by names from the pulpit--which made an
immense stir! This was grandeur, this was fame. They were
envied by all the other young fellows now. This was natural.
Their company grew--grew alarmingly. They took a name. It was a
secret name, and was divulged to no outsider; publicly they were
simply the abolitionists. They had pass-words, grips, and signs;
they had secret meetings; their initiations were conducted with
gloomy pomps and ceremonies, at midnight.

They always spoke of Hardy as "the Martyr," and every little
while they moved through the principal street in procession--at
midnight, black-robed, masked, to the measured tap of the solemn
drum--on pilgrimage to the Martyr's grave, where they went
through with some majestic fooleries and swore vengeance upon his
murderers. They gave previous notice of the pilgrimage by small
posters, and warned everybody to keep indoors and darken all
houses along the route, and leave the road empty. These warnings
were obeyed, for there was a skull and crossbones at the top of
the poster.

When this kind of thing had been going on about eight weeks,
a quite natural thing happened. A few men of character and grit
woke up out of the nightmare of fear which had been stupefying
their faculties, and began to discharge scorn and scoffings at
themselves and the community for enduring this child's-play; and
at the same time they proposed to end it straightway. Everybody
felt an uplift; life was breathed into their dead spirits; their
courage rose and they began to feel like men again. This was on
a Saturday. All day the new feeling grew and strengthened; it
grew with a rush; it brought inspiration and cheer with it.
Midnight saw a united community, full of zeal and pluck, and with
a clearly defined and welcome piece of work in front of it. The
best organizer and strongest and bitterest talker on that great
Saturday was the Presbyterian clergyman who had denounced the
original four from his pulpit--Rev. Hiram Fletcher--and he
promised to use his pulpit in the public interest again now. On
the morrow he had revelations to make, he said--secrets of the
dreadful society.

But the revelations were never made. At half past two in
the morning the dead silence of the village was broken by a
crashing explosion, and the town patrol saw the preacher's house
spring in a wreck of whirling fragments into the sky. The
preacher was killed, together with a negro woman, his only slave
and servant.

The town was paralyzed again, and with reason. To struggle
against a visible enemy is a thing worth while, and there is a
plenty of men who stand always ready to undertake it; but to
struggle against an invisible one--an invisible one who sneaks in
and does his awful work in the dark and leaves no trace--that is
another matter. That is a thing to make the bravest tremble and
hold back.

The cowed populace were afraid to go to the funeral. The
man who was to have had a packed church to hear him expose and
denounce the common enemy had but a handful to see him buried.
The coroner's jury had brought in a verdict of "death by the
visitation of God," for no witness came forward; if any existed
they prudently kept out of the way. Nobody seemed sorry. Nobody
wanted to see the terrible secret society provoked into the
commission of further outrages. Everybody wanted the tragedy
hushed up, ignored, forgotten, if possible.

And so there was a bitter surprise and an unwelcome one when
Will Joyce, the blacksmith's journeyman, came out and proclaimed
himself the assassin! Plainly he was not minded to be robbed of
his glory. He made his proclamation, and stuck to it. Stuck to
it, and insisted upon a trial. Here was an ominous thing; here
was a new and peculiarly formidable terror, for a motive was
revealed here which society could not hope to deal with
successfully--VANITY, thirst for notoriety. If men were going to
kill for notoriety's sake, and to win the glory of newspaper
renown, a big trial, and a showy execution, what possible
invention of man could discourage or deter them? The town was in
a sort of panic; it did not know what to do.

However, the grand jury had to take hold of the matter--it
had no choice. It brought in a true bill, and presently the case
went to the county court. The trial was a fine sensation. The
prisoner was the principal witness for the prosecution. He gave
a full account of the assassination; he furnished even the
minutest particulars: how he deposited his keg of powder and
laid his train--from the house to such-and-such a spot; how
George Ronalds and Henry Hart came along just then, smoking, and
he borrowed Hart's cigar and fired the train with it, shouting,
"Down with all slave-tyrants!" and how Hart and Ronalds made no
effort to capture him, but ran away, and had never come forward
to testify yet.

But they had to testify now, and they did--and pitiful it
was to see how reluctant they were, and how scared. The crowded
house listened to Joyce's fearful tale with a profound and
breathless interest, and in a deep hush which was not broken till
he broke it himself, in concluding, with a roaring repetition of his
"Death to all slave-tyrants!"--which came so unexpectedly and so
startlingly that it made everyone present catch his breath and gasp.

The trial was put in the paper, with biography and large portrait,
with other slanderous and insane pictures, and the edition sold
beyond imagination.

The execution of Joyce was a fine and picturesque thing. It
drew a vast crowd. Good places in trees and seats on rail fences
sold for half a dollar apiece; lemonade and gingerbread-stands
had great prosperity. Joyce recited a furious and fantastic and
denunciatory speech on the scaffold which had imposing passages
of school-boy eloquence in it, and gave him a reputation on the
spot as an orator, and his name, later, in the society's records,
of the "Martyr Orator." He went to his death breathing slaughter and
charging his society to "avenge his murder." If he knew anything of
human nature he knew that to plenty of young fellows present in that
great crowd he was a grand hero--and enviably situated.

He was hanged. It was a mistake. Within a month from his
death the society which he had honored had twenty new members,
some of them earnest, determined men. They did not court
distinction in the same way, but they celebrated his martyrdom.
The crime which had been obscure and despised had become lofty
and glorified.

Such things were happening all over the country. Wild-
brained martyrdom was succeeded by uprising and organization.
Then, in natural order, followed riot, insurrection, and the
wrack and restitutions of war. It was bound to come, and it
would naturally come in that way. It has been the manner of
reform since the beginning of the world.

Mark Twain