Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: How Not to Get Rich

Most of us have been entertained by the writing of Mark Twain, and some know he was always beset by financial woes, mostly self-inflicted wounds. But the hare-brained schemes he came up with, the inventions, the projects, are worth reading more about. Especially in this hilarious book by Alan Pell Crawford, a journalist and historian and a pretty funny writer. How Not to Get Rich: The Financial Misadventures of Mark Twain was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing.


IT WAS AT the age of twenty-six that Twain decided that silver “was the road to fortune” and set off on that dusty trail with characteristic self-assurance. Over the next four years, from 1861 to 1865, he made  several determined forays into the mountains. All the while, he watched as others made their fortunes, some of them literally overnight. Some were foolhardy enough to pocket more money than they’d had in their lives, then drink it all away, realize they were broke again, and have to start all over.

A quick study, Twain began to speak knowingly of veins, ledges, leads, yields, claims, riffles, screenings, assayers, and assessments, peppering his conversation (and letters home) with other oddments of mining jargon. There was no reason he would not strike it rich in the unspoiled Nevada territory, he told his mother. Nevada:

is fabulously rich in gold, silver, copper, lead, coal, iron, quicksilver, marble, granite, chalk, plaster of Paris (gypsum), thieves, murderers, desperadoes, ladies, children, lawyers, Christians, Indians, Chinamen, Spaniards, gamblers, sharpers, coyote’s [sic] (pronounced ki-yo-ties), poets, preachers, and jackass rabbits.

It was also a forbidding landscape. The birds that fly over it “carry their own provisions with them.”

How could a young man of ambition and brains not succeed in this wide-open environment?


Author Alan Pell Crawford. / Photo courtesy of the author.

Twain began as a mere prospector, hauling picks, shovels, and other tools into the mountains. He was not at  first sure, however, why he and his friends would need this burdensome equipment. From the due diligence that he had conducted, it seemed the precious metals would be practically begging for a good home.

I confess, with shame, that I expected to find masses of silver lying all about the ground. I expected to see it glittering in the sun on the mountain summits. I said nothing about this, for some instinct told me that I might possibly have an exaggerated idea about it, and so if I betrayed my thought I might bring derision on myself. Yet I was perfectly satisfied in my own mind as I could be of anything, that I was going to gather up, in a day or two, or at furthest a week or two, silver enough to make me satisfactorily wealthy . . .

One day, he came back to camp too excited by what he had discovered in a shallow riverbed to contain himself. Although he had been content until now with “vulgar silver,” he had stumbled onto something he thought was far more valuable. In his eagerness, he gave in to the temptation to show off the shimmering yellow samples he had gathered up and sought an expert’s opinion of its worth. He handed the samples to a sixty-year-old prospecting partner and asked the man what he thought of the discovery.

“Think of it!” the old prospector responded. “Think of it? I think it is nothing but a lot of granite rubbish and nasty glittering mica that isn’t worth ten cents an acre!”

Even getting to the places where prospectors thought they might find gold and silver turned out to be far more arduous than Twain imagined. On a frigid afternoon in December 1861, for instance, he and three other men loaded a wagon with 1,800 pounds of provisions and rolled out of Carson City for the Humboldt district, northeast of Lake Bigler.

The men were to ride in the wagon, which would be pulled by two horses. But when the horses proved old and feeble, the prospectors “found that it would be better if one or two of us got out and walked. It was an improvement. Next, we found that it would be better if a third man got out. That was an improvement also.” At this point, Twain volunteered to drive, though he had no experience, “and many a man in such a position would have felt fairly excused from such a responsibility.” But soon after he took the reins, “it was found that it would be a fine thing if the driver got out, and walked also.”

Within an hour, the men further decided that they would take turns, two at a time, pushing the wagon through the sand, which left little for the horses to do “but keep out of the way.” Shoving that wagon and those horses two hundred miles took fifteen days, if you counted the two days the men just sat around and smoked their pipes so the horses could rest. They could have made the trek in half the time, Twain figured, “if we had towed the horses behind the wagon, but we did not think of that until it was too late.” Well-meaning strangers along the way suggested the prospectors might have made even better progress had they put the horses in the wagon.

—Alan Pell Crawford

Excerpted from How Not to Get Rich by Alan Pell Crawford. Copyright © 2017 by Alan Pell Crawford. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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