Why Mark Twain Lost a Tooth in Newcastle
– a Mythological Explanation
Gionni Di Gravio
University of Newcastle (Australia)
(Originally prepared for the Exhibition Catalogue The new adventures of Mark Twain : coalopolis to metropolis. [Newcastle, N.S.W.] : University of Newcastle, 2007.
For the Coal River blog version (2013) I’ve added some extra illustrations and resources)
America’s famous humorist and orator Mark Twain (aka Samuel L. Clemens) visited Newcastle on 19 December 1895, on route to deliver a public lecture in the upper Hunter township of Scone. On the train trip he had been working on his great Australian poem which he would later debut at this public lecture. Although he did plan for a more extensive tour of the region, Scone remains the farthest north he reached on his Australian journey.
Since that transitory visit one hundred and twelve years ago, a contemporary legend has emerged. A famous quote purported to have been uttered by Mark Twain that “Newcastle consists of a long street with a graveyard at one end with no bodies in it, and a gentleman’s club at the other with no gentlemen in it”, has infused the public imagination. I remember hearing it as a child, it’s like you breathe it in the air. Hunter Street, Newcastle’s main thoroughfare, turns into the Maitland Road and continues onto the outskirts of the city passing the Sandgate cemetery. Even though this cemetery opened in 1881, and apparently is not the graveyard referred to by Twain, you still recall the ‘line’. It is, in effect, a mnemonic put down for the city of Newcastle, but a good one. And it’s clever enough to have been said by great Twain himself. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear be a primary source for Newcastle’s famous quote, nor a secondary source earlier than 1968, fifty eight years after his death. What Twain did publicly say about Newcastle in his book Following the Equator was that it was a ‘rushing town’ and ‘capital of the coal rich regions’. (1)
In recent years another interesting episode relating to this visit has emerged. Twain was suffering from a painful tooth. A newly discovered (and authenticated) letter (2) by Twain has been found written to a local dentist, Mr Wells, applauding his ‘ministrations’ for a successful tooth extraction. Mike Scanlon, history columnist and journalist for the Newcastle Herald recounted that the letter was purchased, and lay hidden for around ten years in a private collection of dentistry books. A local dentist, Mr Jim Vidler, who purchased the books in the late 1970s, found the letter by accident as the book that had entombed it for so many years fell off a shelf and onto the floor. He had purchased it in an old second hand furniture shop situated in Mayfield, incidentally along the very same ancient road to the interior.
While researching Twain’s visit, I felt compelled to track down existing documentary sources for the visit, with locations and the attributed quotes. I began to feel some unease with accepting the authenticity of the ‘famous quote’. I woke up one morning and scribbled in my notebook the following: ‘Newcastle has a self esteem problem’. Why would the people of Newcastle prefer to believe in a put down rather than praise from America’s favourite writer? We appear to wear the quote like a badge of honour, a tribute to the Australian tall poppy syndrome.
Australia’s second oldest city, Newcastle, was originally a convict outpost founded by the British in 1801. It was soon abandoned after a rum induced drunken binge, and then reestablished in 1804 largely as a place of secondary punishment for the worst convicts as well as to support the resource needs for the fledgling Colony of New South Wales. We are a region of unknown ‘firsts’. The site of the first financial profit (2 pounds 5 shillings) ever made in the Colony. (3) Our convict worked coal mines were also the first in the southern hemisphere, the birthplace of the Australian coal mining industry and the future site of the largest coal port on Earth. We are the birthplace of the Australian economy, and as a City and Region historically underpin the nation’s prosperity and continue to underpin it to this day. Twain’s brief description of Newcastle as a capital of the coal regions was therefore an accurate one.
This all occurred upon a rich and ancient Aboriginal dreaming landscape. We were the site of the first methodical investigation of an Aboriginal language conducted in the Colony through the researches of the Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld along with his Aboriginal tutor and friend Biraban (also known as M’Gill, Chief of the Newcastle Tribe (now known as the Awabakal clan). Together they recorded the last vestiges of the local Aboriginal world as it has existed prior, and during the period of white occupation and subjugation of the lands. This is a knowledge that they safeguarded for future generations in published writings. Since then, much of the Aboriginal landscape has been destroyed.
The region is marked by two natural landforms of great significance to the Aboriginal people. On the coast of Newcastle there is Nobbys Island (or Whibayganba), the home of the giant kangaroo. A short distance inland is the Sugarloaf Mountain, home of Puttikan, a mountain being who ensures that the Aboriginal males on this land have had their tooth knocked out, in accordance with the initiation ceremonies. In his Australian Grammar, Threlkeld recounted that when males encountered Puttikan, they would approach him and raise their lips to allow the spiritual being to check their missing tooth. If they did not, he would hunt them down, kill and eat them.4 Since that time, Nobbys has had its top cut off to build a light house, and the Sugarloaf Mountain has had a gigantic TV and radio antenna placed upon its summit. So much for respecting the sacred places of the Aboriginal people.
The important thing here is what kind of relationship we have with our history, it’s our unique link with the dreaming and it needs to be nurtured and respected. There is much to be proud of, and much to learn, granted that we have a chance to know it, and allow ourselves to be inspired by it. Given that we appear generally unaware of much of our rich history; it is interesting that we have clung to this particular historical quote from Mark Twain.
Two versions of the famous quote exist, the earliest is found on page 14 of Newcastle NSW by Alan Farrelly and Ron Morrison, published in 1968:
“This is Hunter Street, nearly two miles long, acidly and perhaps accurately described byMark Twain on his own fleeting visit here as ‘a long street with a graveyard at one endwith no bodies in it, and a gentleman’s club at the other with no…’ “(5)
Being unsourced, I contacted the author to find out where the quote came from. He could not recall, and originally thought it may have been in Twain’s Following the Equator. But after consulting the online version failed to find the quote. He was certain that he did not obtain the quote from a primary source, but a secondary one either published in a book or newspaper held in the Local Studies Collection of Newcastle Region Library.
Another version of the quote is again held in the same repository in the unpublished memoir of R.L. Rundle. This account is interesting in that the gentlemen’s club is replaced with a hospital instead. Rundle states that Twain wrote to a friend in San Francisco saying:
“Newcastle is a quaint little coal-mining township on the east coast of Australia. It is unique in that it has one long main street with a hospital at one end and a cemetery at the other.” (6)
The original source proved elusive. Searches though Twain’s published writings, correspondence and interviews post 1895 didn’t locate any references even resembling the quote. Over and over again everyone I spoke too assumed the quote was real. When I asked to be pointed to primary source, the usual reply was a strange glare. For such a famous quote I did not expect that it would prove too hard to locate.
Dissatisfied that I couldn’t locate a published primary source for the quotation I decided to do some archival investigative work. Rundle’s account mentioned a San Franciscan correspondent and I soon learned that Mark Twain had a nephew, Mr Samuel E. Moffett, who had worked on various newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area, and was employed by the San Francisco Examiner during the period from 1893 – 1897. (7) There was a strong possibility that Twain may have mentioned Newcastle when he wrote to his nephew soon after his visit on 19 December 1895 while Moffett was stationed in San Francisco.
I composed an email to Mr Robert H. Hirst custodian of the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California at Berkeley along with references to 5 letters gleaned from their online catalogue that could be the possible candidates. One that had especially caught my eye was No. 4986 Letters Outgoing sent from Twain to Moffett on 30 December 1895. Unfortunately the reply from the archives was that the letters contained no references to Newcastle. They had a searchable transcribed file of letters, but couldn’t find other references to Newcastle in all Clemens’s letters for the years 1895-97. This did not mean that such a quote by Twain did not exist. There was a possibility that it might be located in a newspaper report somewhere. Until then I remain skeptical. What they did locate in his notebooks was a variant of his published brief account on Newcastle:
“The scenery was various on the trip. That of Hawksbury in the National Park region fine with spacious views of stream & lake imposingly framed in woody hills. Further along, flats, thinly covered with gum forests, with here & there the huts & cabins of small settlers engaged in raising children. Further along, an arid stretch now & then, & lifeless; then busy Newcastle, capital of the rich coal regions.” (8)
Twain was rather positive about Newcastle. I began to think that maybe he didn’t utter his famous quote after all. I remembered another memory from childhood, in the family car traveling to Raymond Terrace by road, and wondering why they located a township there. It just didn’t make any sense by road. That was until a friend of mine in the fisheries took me on a ride up the river. When Raymond Terrace came into view it made perfect sense from the river. These towns were founded when river transport was the major mode of transport. Extrapolating, we would assume that it is not until the 1860s that rail became the next preferable mode of transport. The car does not come into vogue until well after 1910 or thereabouts. So I would assume that this quote, with its focus on the main street was uttered after the era of motor transport had become the primary mode of transportation. Why would someone, who was traveling by train, make such a comment about a town that he had not traveled along by road? And with an aching tooth I doubt he would have had the time to visit the Gentlemen’s Club either. The hospital was a possibility, especially if he was referring to a dental hospital. However I remain unconvinced.
Such spontaneously created contemporary legends (or urban myths) are reminiscent of similar popular delusions such as those that occurred in the First World War with the Angel of Mons. It was widely believed that angelic beings halted the German forces and assisted the safe retreat of British soldiers from the Battle of Mons in August 1914. The author Arthur Machen believed the story had been inspired by one of his short stories entitled the Bowmen. Machen’s claims were rebutted by Harold Begbie who maintained the story of the Angel of Mons was true and backed up with first hand eye witness accounts. Contemporary as well as modern researchers who have investigated the story in greater detail have been unable to locate any credible first hand accounts of the vision. How the story spontaneously erupted and achieved such widespread credulity is a modern phenomenon. (9)
Twain arrived in Newcastle on 19 December 1895. It was hot and he records that he had been collecting the names of Australasian towns (mostly Aboriginal words and place names) which obviously fascinated him. In his carriage, his traveling companions included (besides his painful tooth), a smelly fellow whose teeth gave his mouth the look of a “neglected churchyard”. (10) Upon arrival he went to visit the dentist. The site of the Wells dentists that saw to Twain’s tooth was on the corner of Bolton and Scott Streets Newcastle.
Adjacent to the building are the stable houses that took the dentists on their regular jaunts into the Hunter Valley seeing to the dental needs of the region. The location is corroborated by a 1965 article by Allan Watkins published in the Newcastle Herald which states that at the turn of the century Wells had a two storey establishment on corner of King and Bolton Streets Newcastle. (11) Mr William Wells (snr) had four sons and a daughter, and all in turn became qualified dentists. These were William Henry Wells, Thomas Siggee Wells, Arthur Henson Wells, Albert Edmond Wells and Agnes Mable Wells. According to the article they eventually set up shop in premises in the centre of the present Mall. Then, after the death of William (sen.) all his children set up separate practices.
After the extraction of the tooth, Twain departed Newcastle for Scone arriving there in the afternoon.
After being officially greeted and welcomed by the Mayor (Dr Scott) and Messrs, J.A.K. Shaw and E.J. Sherwood, Vice President and Secretary to the School of Arts Twain retired to the Willow Tree Hotel for a rest. The Scone Advocate reported that he said “he was very tired and really looked it”. (12) At the evening lecture at the School of Arts, it was reported that people from Muswellbrook, Murrurundi, Aberdeen, Wingen and the Scone district all came to hear him. And after a humorous delivery of anecdotes and observations the highlight of the night was the recitation of his new Australian poem. The Scone Advocate provides the only evidence for the debut of this poem, entitled “A Sweltering Day in Australia”. He departed for Sydney the following morning.
(Kindly supplied by Mrs Audrey Entwisle, Scone)
18 December 1895 p.3 (Trove: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article123929920)
“Mark Twain”. The admirers of the great humorist in Scone has (sic) secured his services for a lecture in the School of Arts on the 19th instant. A very substantial sum had to be guaranteed and it is therefore hoped a large attendance will mark the occasion.
20 December 1895 p.3 (Trove: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article123935512)
AN INNOCENT ABROAD. Mark Twain delivered a lecture at the School of Arts last Evening. There was a large attendance from Muswellbrook, Murrurundi, Aberdeen, Wingen and the district around Scone. The lecturer gave a number of humourous sketches and was at times loudly applauded by his numerous admirers. They were delighted with him as a lecturer and as a man. He left by train this morning for Sydney.
20 December 1895
(Kindly supplied by Mrs Audrey Entwisle, Scone)
MARK TWAIN IN SCONE. The celebrated humorist, according to arrangement with the School of Arts committee, paid a visit to Scone yesterday. His projected tour of the Northern District having been abandoned, to Scone belongs the honour of being the only place in the northern part of the colony visited by Mr Clemens, who, as “Mark Twain” has won, and for a great many years maintained the reputation of being one of the selected few great literary characters of the English-speaking world. Mr Clemens arrived by the afternoon train from the metropolis, and as the train steamed into the station, his countenance, so faithfully depicted in the many portraits we have seen of him, was easily recogised in one of the small carriages. He was met at the station by the Mayor (Dr Scott) and Messrs, J.A.K. Shaw and E.J. Sherwood, respectively Vice President and Secretary to the School of Arts, and welcomed. He said he was very tired, and really looked it, and expressed a desire to get to his hotel (the Willow Tree) and have a rest. He had only just returned from a tour of New Zealand prior to coming to Scone, and is to lecture in Sydney tonight, where he will not arrived until after seven, so that it will seem that he does not lose much time. At the School of Arts in the evening, the audience was not as large as we expected to see, though the reserved chairs and front seats were well filled; but the back seats rarely are at lectures. Mr Shaw briefly introduced to the audience Mr Clemens, who had a flattering reception on making his appearance on the platform. He at once set to work, and the first impression was one of disappointment, when in a quiet, almost inaudible tone just as if in a quite private conversation, he proceeded to dilate and play upon incidents that crop up in life’s travels. These, of course, were the creatures of his own imagination, but each had its moral, and that’s where the real humour came in. He had not gone far before he had his audience highly amused by his droll sayings and style, and in this state he kept them to the end. Many of his jokes are best because they come suddenly and when the hearer least expects them; but the real merit of most of what he is talking about is beneath the surface. He wound up by reciting his new Australian poem, which was received with great favour.
Mr Clemes left by the 11.25 this morning for the city, where he delivers his farewell lectures tonight and tomorrow night after which he proceeds to Ceylon.
I remember a very interesting conversation with a local writer concerning the Aboriginal dreaming of the Hunter Region. He told me that whilst working on a public project closely dealing with the works of Threlkeld and Biraban he lost a tooth in mysterious circumstances. He believed that he had undergone some kind of initiation and we mused that he had been initiated by the local Aboriginal spirits as a rite of passage. We wondered whether Puttikan was still at large in the landscape. In researching this story and seeing the historical as well as dreaming connections to the experience I also wondered whether Mark Twain had suffered a similar fate in 1895. He was an intuitive stranger, traipsing all over the country, collecting words and sounds for a great creative offering. Upon arrival onto this land, the spirits declared that he must have a tooth knocked out, in accordance with local custom. He didn’t have to know what tribal territories he had crossed, only that he had a tooth ache, and a local dentist dutifully removed the nuisance. But we now know another explanation. He was about to deliver his own Australian poem, binding the ancient sounds and words gathered across many territories and tribal lands. Spiritual permission was unconsciously sought and granted with the evulsion of his tooth. This Twain did, as guest and in accordance with the Dreaming for his safe journey across this ancient land.
Gionni Di Gravio
University of Newcastle
1) Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens). Complete Travel Books of Mark Twain The Later Works: A Tramp Abroad, Life on the Mississippi, Following the Equator Edited by Charles Neider. (New York, 1967), 861.
2) Mike Scanlon. “Tracking Down Twain” Newcastle Herald (19 Dec 1995), 6
3) Governor King to Joseph Banks (Banks Papers) April 28 – August 21 1801. H.R.N.S.W., Vol. IV, 359.
4) L.E. Threlkeld. An Australian grammar: comprehending the principles and natural rules of the language, as spoken by the Aborigines in the vicinity of Hunter’s River, Lake Macquarie, &c. New South Wales. (Sydney, 1834), 49.
5) Alan Farrelly and Ron Morrison. Newcastle NSW (Sydney, 1968), 14
6) R.L. Rundle. Telling tailoring [manuscript]: a clothier takes stock of seventy years (as recorded by W.H. Turner) (1980) Thank you to Catherine Baker for locating this reference.
7) Mark Twain and William D. Howells. Mark Twain-Howells Letters: The Correspondence of Samuel L. Clemens and William D. Howells 1872-1910 Edited by Henry Nash and William M. Gibson with the assistance of Frederick Anderson. (Cambridge Massachusetts, 1960), 660.
8) Email from Neda Salem, Assistant Mark Twain Papers, 10/02/2007
9) See the following: Arthur Machen. The Angel Of Mons The Bowmen and Other Legends Of The War With An Introduction By the Author. (London, 1915). Harold Begbie. On the Side of the Angels: A Reply to Arthur Machen By Harold Begbie, Author of “Broken Earthenware.” (London, 1915). David Clarke. The Angel of Mons Phantoms Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians. (West Sussex, 2005).
10) Twain, Following the Equator, 860.
11) Alan Watkins. “Extraction by the Roadside” Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate, (11 September 1965), 7.
12) Scone Advocate, 20 Dec 1895. (Kindly supplied by Mrs Audrey Entwisle, Scone)
Begbie, Harold. On the Side of the Angels: A Reply to Arthur Machen By Harold Begbie, Author of “Broken Earthenware.” London: Hodder & Stought, 1915.
Clarke, David. The Angel of Mons Phantoms Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2005.
Historical Records of New South Wales Vol. IV – Hunter and King 1800, 1801, 1802. Edited by F.M. Bladen. Sydney, Charles Potter, 1896.
Farrelly, Alan and Morrison, Ron. Newcastle NSW . (Sydney: Rigby, 1968)
Machen, Arthur. The Angel Of Mons The Bowmen and Other Legends Of The War With An Introduction By the Author. London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. Ltd,1915.
Rundle, R.L. Telling tailoring [manuscript]: a clothier takes stock of seventy years by R.L. Rundle (as recorded by W.H. Turner) (1980)
Scanlon, Mike. “Tracking Down Twain” Newcastle Herald 19 Dec 1995.
Scone Advocate, 20 Dec 1895 (Kindly supplied by Mrs Audrey Entwisle, Scone)
Threlkeld, L.E. An Australian grammar : comprehending the principles and natural rules of the language, as spoken by the Aborigines in the vicinity of Hunter’s River, Lake Macquarie, &c. New South Wales. Sydney: Printed by Stephens and Stokes, 1834
Twain, Mark (Samuel L. Clemens) Complete Travel Books of Mark Twain The Later Works: A Tramp Abroad, Life on the Mississippi, Following the Equator Edited by Charles Neider. New York: Doubleday, 1967.
Mark Twain-Howells Letters: The Correspondence of Samuel L. Clemens and William D. Howells 1872-1910 Edited by Henry Nash and William M. Gibson with the assistance of Frederick Anderson. Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960.
Watkins, Allan. “Extraction by the Roadside” Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate, 11 September 1965.
Thanks to Paul Farnill who brought our attention the earliest secondary source for the quote (to date) that appeared in the Cessnock Eagle and South Maitland Recorder Friday 26th August 1932 p.7 (and thanks to the TROVE team who have digitised it here: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article99476110)
Brevity is the soul of wit and punning the phraseology of expression. A good pun can never be withered at its source, neither can a bad pun live — it is never absorbed. While a pun is a humour creation of one individual’s mind, it must depend upon the minds of many individuals for success; therefore; a pun, to be worthy of the name, must be “pliable,” as a general application, and not individual in its application, otherwise it it descends to the levels of ridicule.
Perhaps the greatest humorist the world has known, is (or was) Mark Twain. After a visit to Newcastle (N.S.W.) Mark Twain was asked to describe that city. He did so in the following words: “A seaport city, built on coal, with one street which commences at a hospital and finishes at a graveyard.”(Honeysuckle Point Cemetery).
There was nothing individual about this application. It was general. Yet this humorous reference, or Pun, more than lived. It resulted in an agitation for the removal of the cemetery, and, further, this was done. Yet Mark Twain did not, even suggest such a course. He merely impressed Newcastle people with a description of their city as a visitor saw it. That he was a humorist enabled, him to do so in less, but more, palatable words than perhaps the more logical, yet harsher, visitor who sought to blame the individual.
The writer under the pseudonym “Ino.” appears to conclude that it was Twain’s description that was responsible for the eventual elimination of the Honeysuckle cemetery. But, unfortunately doesn’t appear to state a source for Twain’s decription. Again, I decided to check Trove again, just in case recent digitisation had uncovered any further mentions. Another later version of the quote was found emanating from Ald. Christie:
“In the early days,” said Ald. Christie, “Newcastle was a ‘one street city,’ rightly described by Mark Twain as: ‘A city with one street; a hospital at one end and a cemetery at the other end.’ We still have the hospital at one end, and we have every reason to be proud of it, while at the other end, where the cemetery existed, everything is now ‘Young and Green.'” (Laughter.) – Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate 10 November 1939 p.10 (Trove: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article135459915)
And again in 1953 in a letter to the editor by Mr Joe Westcott:
Newcastle is the same to-day as when Mark Twain described it as one long street with a hospital at one end and a graveyard at the other. Thank goodness, the graveyard has gone. – JOE WESTCOTT, Toronto. – Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate 20 July 1953 p.2 (Trove: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article134272178)
The hunt continues.
Gionni Di Gravio
And again thanks to the TROVE ongoing newspaper digitisation of newspapers we have uncovered an even earlier reference to the quote that that stated above.
In the article THE WESTERN CEMETERY. (1913, November 22). Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW : 1876 – 1954) , p. 4. Retrieved July 20, 2015, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article137033738
“When Mark Twain returned to America after his lecturing tour to Australia, many years ago, he was asked to describe Newcastle; and it is reported that he answered the query with his characteristic humor and brevity by saying that Newcastle consisted of one long street, with a hostel at one end, and a cemetery at the other.”
The the earliest mention of the famous quote, albeit in slightly different form, is now 1913 in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate Time will tell if the original utterance from Twain’s lips is ever located, but here’s hoping.
Gionni Di Gravio
July 20, 2015.