Abroad with Mark Twain and Eugene Field/Mark on Lynch Law


They were talking lynch law in Professor Krafft-Ebing's library in Vienna—some horrible nightmare that had come in the latest cable—and as a matter of course Clemens was asked his opinion as an American and observer of human nature.

"Lynch law means mob-lawlessness, doesn't it?" he drawled. "Well, what does it argue? To my mind it argues that men in a crowd do not act as they would as individuals. In a crowd they don't think for themselves, but become impregnated by the contagious sentiment uppermost in the minds of all who happen to be en masse. While in Paris last, the family and I toured all the places of horror, made odious during the White Terror—we followed pretty closely the scent of the 'Tale of Two Cities,' Michelet, Dumas, and others. I was particularly interested in the 'Official Gazette' of the guillotine, 'The Moniteur,' and my girls helped me read and digest many tell-tale pages yellow with age and tattered by usage. Among other interesting items, I found recorded that on a certain date the Nobles had voted to forego their feudal privileges.

"Now, their previous failure to renounce these same rights had been one of the prime causes of the Revolution. Yet when they acquiesced, they were put to the knife just the same, for mob-law ruled then. Another case in the 'Moniteur': I read of a deputy named Monge, the same whom Napoleon in his Saint Helena talks pronounced a most lovable character, so kind-hearted that he would never eat any fowl if he had to kill it first. Yet in the Convention, in the midst of the mob of his fellows, this same Monge vociferated for unlimited bloodshed, for 'war to the knife.' He had caught the contagion and, intoxicated with bloodthirstiness, acted the madman.

"'I love my children,' he cried, 'but if the Convention decrees war on the enemies of the Republic, I will give my two daughters to the first two of our countrymen wounded in battle.' Would he have said that seated quietly at his fireside? Certainly not. It was the mob that was talking through his mouth."

The Terror

Mark returned to the subject on another occasion. He said:

"You know I have always been a great admirer of Dickens, and his 'Tale of Two Cities' I read at least every two years. Dickens witnessed my first holding hands with Livy when I took her to one of his lectures in New York. Now that I have finished 'The Two Cities' for the 'steenth time, I have come to this conclusion:

"Terror is an efficacious agent only when it doesn't last. In the long run there is more terror in threats than in execution, for when you get used to terror your emotions get dulled. The incarnation of the White Terror, Robespierre, wasn't awe-inspiring at all to the general public. Mention of his name did not send the children to bed, or make them crawl under the blankets. On the days when he made his great speeches, the galleries and the aisles of the Convention Hall were thronged with women, old and young—that does not look as if Robespierre had been an object of general fear or abomination—does it?"