By Mark Twain (1835-1910)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
Type of Work
......."The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" is a short story centering on the destruction of a small town's image as an upright community. Because of its length—approximately 18,000 words—it is long enough to be considered a novella.
.......Mark Twain wrote “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” in Europe in 1898 while he was on a lecture tour. The story first appeared in the December 1899 issue of Harper's Monthly magazine.
.......The action takes place at the end of the nineteenth century in a small American town with the fictional name of Hadleyburg.
A traveler who says he is from a foreign country. While passing through Hadleyburg, he suffers an offense that angers him. To gain revenge, he devises a scheme to expose the prominent citizens of the town as vain and corrupt. His scheme involves tempting each of these citizens to tell a lie in order to claim a sack that the stranger says contains about one hundred sixty pounds of gold. In one of the notes he uses in his scheme, he signs his name as Howard L. Stephenson.
Prominent Citizens of Hadleyburg
Edward Richards: Elderly bank cashier. The stranger entrusts in the care of Richards the sack that supposedly contains the gold. Richards is the main character.
Mary Richards: Wife of Edward Richards. She encourages her husband's deceitful activity and shares in his guilt.
.......The point of view is third-person omniscient, enabling the narrator to present the thoughts of his characters.
.......One day, a Hadleyburg resident offends a stranger passing through the town. The stranger remembers the offense on his travels elsewhere and vows revenge. His goal is to ruin the town's reputation.
.......Six months after devising a plan of revenge, he returns to Hadleyburg and pulls his buggy up at 10 p.m. at the home of Edward Richards, the elderly cashier at the Pinkerton bank. After taking a heavy sack from the buggy, he hauls it to the door of the house and knocks. The voice of Richards' wife, Mary, invites him to enter. Once inside, the man places the sack behind the parlor stove. He asks for Mr. Richards, but Mary says he is away in Brixton. The man then tells Mary that he is leaving the sack, which is sealed, in her husband's care. After the man leaves, Mrs. Richards begins reading a note that was attached to the sack. It says the sack contains gold coins weighing more than one hundred sixty pounds.
.......Such a treasure makes Mary think of burglars, and she immediately locks the door. Then she reads the rest of the note. Its author identifies himself as an outsider and a gambler. After losing all his money in gaming, he says, he begged for a handout while passing through Hadleyburg. He did not begin begging until after sunset, for he was ashamed to beg in daylight. A sympathetic Hadleyburg man kindly gave him twenty dollars. When the stranger later returned to the gaming table, he made a fortune. Then, thanks to advice his Hadleyburg benefactor gave him, he quit gambling.
.......Now the stranger wants to reward his benefactor with the sack of gold, the note says. Although the stranger does not know who the benefactor is, the note says that “This man can be identified by the remark which he made to me.”
.......The town can learn the identity of the benefactor in either of two ways, the first a private option and the second a public one.
.......Here is the first option. If a man comes forward claiming to be the one who made the remark to the stranger, he should announce the words. Richards can then open the sack and check the words against those written on a paper inside a sealed envelope in the sack. If the words match those on the paper, he receives the gold.
.......Here is the second option. In thirty days, on a Friday, anyone who claims to have spoken the remark should report to the town hall at 8 p.m. There, he must give the local minister, the Rev. Mr. Burgess, a sealed envelope containing a paper on which the remark is written. Burgess will then open the claimant's envelope and read the words. Next, he will unseal the sack and open the envelope inside to see whether the words of the claimant match those inside the sack.
.......When Edward returns at eleven, he tells his wife, “[I]t is dreadful to be poor, and have to make these dismal journeys at my time of life.” His wife tells him about the sack, and he reads the note that was attached to it. He then suggests that they select the public option to demonstrate how trustworthy Hadleyburg is. Other towns will be jealous. According to instructions in the note, Richards must publish the wishes of the stranger for all to see.
.......Richards rushes out to have the note printed for public distribution. After walking a short distance, he runs into Archibald Cox, the editor of the local newspaper, The Missionary Herald. Richards gives him the note to print, then returns home. After talking things over, he and his wife agree that Barclay Goodson could have been the person who gave the advice to the outsider, but Goodson is dead now. When he was alive, he used to say publicly that the village was “narrow, self-righteous, and stingy.” He was just the kind of person who would have given money to a stranger. Because of his criticism of the town, the people hated him almost as much as they hated Burgess. Mary then wonders why the stranger selected the minister as monitor of the public proceedings for determining who should receive the gold.
.......When Edward tells her that Burgess really is not so bad, she reminds him of “that one thing” he did that damaged his reputation. But Edward knows for a fact that Burgess was not guilty of the offense, and he admits to Mary that he could have saved Burgess from ridicule but did not speak up for fear that the whole town would turn against him. Mary says that as long as Burgess does not know that Edward could have exonerated him, “well, that makes it a great deal better.”
.......Mary and Edward talk more about the gold, then just sit there thinking about it. Suddenly, Edward bolts out of the house. Mary, unable to help herself, runs her hands over the sack.
.......Meanwhile, when Cox tells his wife about the strange happenings, she says, "Nobody knows this secret but the Richardses . . . and us . . . nobody."
.......A short while later, Cox and Richards arrive at the newspaper at the same time and, confirming for each other that no one else knows about the sack, rush up the stairs to the printing office to stop the outgoing mail, including copies of the stranger's note. But a boy named Johnny tells them the mail has already been sent to Brixton and other towns. After the men return home, they and their wives wonder what remark was made to the stranger.
.......At Cox's newspaper, a foreman who knows a good story when he sees it sends a dispatch on the sack of gold to the Associated Press. By morning, the story is all over America. Hadleyburg residents congratulate one another for having been singled out as a town that could be trusted to determine on its own the citizen who is to receive the fortune in gold. They believe that Hadleyburg will become a synonym for incorruptible.
.......The sack is now at the bank, operated by the wealthy Mr. Pinkerton. Townspeople go there to see it. In the meantime, outsiders from everywhere descend on Hadleyburg to see the town and witness the unfolding events. Reporters arrive to tell the story and draw pictures of Hadleyburg residents, the bank, churches, the town square, and so on. Even no-account loafer Jack Halliday is the subject of a portrait.
.......At the bank, “the little mean, smirking, oily Pinkerton showed the sack to all comers,” the narrator says, “and rubbed his sleek palms together pleasantly, and enlarged upon the town's fine old reputation for honesty. . . .” By this time, every Hadleyburg citizen thinks Goodson was the one who made the remark to the stranger. .......After three weeks, Richards receives a letter on a Saturday evening from a man named Howard L. Stephenson, who says he recently returned home from Mexico and heard about the fuss in Hadleyburg. On the very night that the stranger was begging money in Hadleyburg, Stephenson says, he was nearby and overheard the remark in question. It was Goodson who made it, he says. Stephenson goes on to say that he was a friend of Goodson and spent time with him before leaving town by train.
.......“I THINK he said you—am almost sure—had done him a very great service once, possibly without knowing the full value of it,” Stephenson says.
Stephenson further says that Goodson, if he were wealthy, would leave his fortune to Richards when he died. “Now, then,” Stephenson says, “if it was you that did him that service, you are his legitimate heir, and entitled to the sack of gold.”
.......Stephenson then mentions the remark that Goodson made: “YOU ARE FAR FROM BEING A BAD MAN: GO, AND REFORM.”
.......Mary rejoices. She then asks her husband about the good deed he did for Goodson. Her husband hems and haws and finally says Goodson made him promise not to tell anyone about it. That night in bed, Mary lies awake thinking how she will spend the money. Edward is uneasy until he persuades himself that he must have done a good deed for Goodson, but he cannot recall what it was. After more ruminating, he remembers a possible good deed from years ago. Goodson was about to marry a young lady named Nancy Hewitt, “but in some way or other the match had been broken off,” the narrator says. Not long afterward, the girl died and a story circulated that she had had Negro blood in her veins. Richards now thinks that it was he who originally found out about her Negro heritage and passed the story along while Goodson was courting her. Goodson then halted his marriage plans and credited Richards with finding out about her—or so Richards believes.
.......On the same evening, eighteen other prominent Hadleyburg residents receive a letter from Howard Stephenson. Its wording resembles that in the letter to Richards. In each case, the recipient tries to remember a good deed he did for Goodson and succeeds in recalling one. These prominent citizens, like Richards, believe they have been singled out for the sack of gold.
.......Meanwhile, the letter recipients and their wives make big plans for the money. Not a few of them contact a newly arrived architect, saying they are thinking “of building.” The Wilsons are planning a gala ball and extending invitations. Some of those who expect to receive the gold begin buying items on credit—“land, mortgages, farms, speculative stocks, fine clothes, horses,” the narrator says.
.......When the day of reckoning arrives, the four hundred twelve permanent seats in the town hall—as well as sixty-eight chairs set up in the aisles—are all occupied. People also sit on the steps of the platform in front. On a table on the platform itself is the sack. The Rev. Mr. Burgess talks briefly about Hadleyburg's reputation as a paragon of integrity and receives thunderous applause. Next, he withdraws an envelope from his pocket, opens it, removes the note inside, and reads the words written on it: “You are very far from being a bad man; go, and reform.” Burgess then reveals the name of the man who submitted the note: John Wharton Billson. The news shocks the audience. Billson? Of all people!
.......Thurlow G. Wilson, a lawyer, then claims that he was the one who spoke the remark. A buzz runs through the gathering. Burgess raps his gavel and reports that Wilson also gave him an envelope. After opening it, he reads Wilson's words: “You are far from being a bad man. Go, and reform.”
.......Thompson the hatter asks whether both men could have uttered the same words, but the town's tanner points out that very appears in Billson's note but not in Wilson's. He calls for Burgess to open the sack and check the wording of the stranger's note against the versions of Billson and Wilson. Burgess slits the sack and finds two envelopes inside. One is marked with these words: “Not to be examined until all written communications which have been addressed to the Chair—if any—shall have been read.” The other says, “I do not require that the first half of the remark . . . shall be quoted with exactness, for it was not striking, and could be forgotten; but its closing fifteen words are quite striking, and I think easily rememberable; unless THESE shall be accurately reproduced, let the applicant be regarded as an impostor.”
.......Burgess reads the first part of the remark: “YOU ARE FAR FROM BEING A BAD MAN—. He then reads the rest of the remark: “GO, AND REFORM—OR, MARK MY WORDS—SOME DAY, FOR YOUR SINS YOU WILL DIE AND GO TO HELL OR HADLEYBURG—TRY AND MAKE IT THE FORMER.”
.......There is a moment of silence. Then the audience roars with laughter. Burgess brings the house to order and points out that both men failed to include the last part of the remark.
.......Lawyer Wilson says, “could I expect—could I believe—could I even remotely imagine—that, feeling as he (the stranger) did, he would do so ungrateful a thing as to add those quite unnecessary fifteen words to his test?” So, he says, he wrote only the first part of the remark down when he was in his office, then left the paper on his desk after being summoned to another office. When he returned, he says, he saw Billson “retiring by my street door.”
.......“It's a lie!” Billson shouts.
.......Burgess withdraws another envelope from his pocket, this one from Pinkerton, and reads it: “You are far from being a bad man. Go, and reform.” More laughter erupts. There are shouts of ridicule. Then Burgess reads notes from Gregory Yates, L. Ingoldsby Sargent, and Nicholas Whitworth—all with similar versions of the first part of the remark. The audience begins to sing a mocking song about “Hadleyburg the Incorruptible.” Several men become angry and say the proceedings are the work of a joker.
.......As the notes of Robert J. Titmarsh, Eliphalet Weeks, Oscar B. Wilder, Archibald Cox and others are read, Richards cringes in expectation of the reading of his own note and name. After the reading of the eighteenth note, Burgess says no envelopes are left. Mr. and Mrs. Richards are greatly relieved.
.......The saddler, Wingate, calls for cheers for Richards, saying he is the only prominent Hadleyburg resident who did not lie to claim the gold. Everyone cheers. Then the townspeople endorse a proposal to make Richards “sole Guardian and Symbol of the Sacred Hadleyburg Tradition, with power and right to stand up and look the whole sarcastic world in the face."
.......Burgess then reads the other note from the man who left the sack. It says, “There wasn't any pauper stranger, nor any twenty-dollar contribution, nor any accompanying benediction and compliment—these are all inventions.” However, the author of the note says he did pass through Hadleyburg. On that occasion, he suffered an offense that made him want to strike out at the vanity of the residents, “the place where feeble and foolish people are most vulnerable.” So he returned to Hadleyburg to observe the people and soon realized that the reputation of the townspeople rested on keeping themselves and their young ones away from temptation.
.......“Why, you simple creatures, the weakest of all weak things is a virtue which has not been tested in the fire,” he says.
.......He then explains that his plan was to expose the prominent citizens of Hadleyburg to temptation and shatter their reputation.
.......“If I have succeeded, open the sack and summon the Committee on Propagation and Preservation of the Hadleyburg Reputation.”
.......Burgess opens the sack, scoops up some yellow coins, and studies them. He concludes that they are lead, not gold. The tanner suggests that Wilson, as chairman of the Committee on Propagation and Preservation, receive the coins in trust for himself and the others who wrote notes. Wilson, angry, says, “Damn the money!”
.......The saddler suggests that Jack Halliday step up and auction the coins. The proceeds, he says, should go to the only honest man left, Edward Richards. Outsiders wanting souvenirs—including Brixton folk and a representative of P. T. Barnum—make bids. The auction commences. Richards is in a quandary. Should he be honest and admit that he, too, submitted a note? Or should he accept the money after the auction.
.......A stranger observing the proceedings—THE stranger—notes to himself that none of the men who submitted notes is bidding on the coins. “They must buy the sack they tried to steal,” he thinks. But he admires Richards for not submitting to temptation and thinks he ought to receive a reward of $10,000. The stranger enters the bidding and ends up with the sack for $1,282.
.......Explaining why he made the purchase, the stranger says he is a “speculator in rarities” and can sell the lead coins for a considerable sum if the townsfolk allow him to stamp on the coins the names of the eighteen men who wrote notes. The audience overwhelmingly approves the proposal, but all of the eighteen men except Clay Harkness vehemently object. Harkness, a wealthy man, is running for the legislature against Pinkerton in an extremely close race, and both men have been doing their best to win it. Harkness, who is sitting near the stranger, leans over to him and whispers that he will buy the sack. The stranger says it will cost $40,000. Harkness agrees to pay the sum to him at the latter's hotel the following morning at 10 o'clock. No one else is to know of the agreement.
.......The stranger rises and excuses himself from the proceedings, asking Burgess to keep the sack for him until morning. He leaves three $500 bills for Richards as a down payment on the reward for his honesty. The meeting ends.
.......At home, Edward and Mary are gloomy in spite of seeing the money lying on a table before them.
.......In the morning, the stranger takes the sack to his hotel and at ten o'clock completes the transaction with Harkness. At eleven, he calls at the Richards home, leaves an envelope, and abruptly exits. Mary recognized him as the stranger who attended the meeting the night before. Edward is suspicious. He thinks the stranger is trying to trick him the way he tricked the others the previous evening. He says the stranger wants the world to laugh at him. The envelope contains checks and a note. Edward tells his wife to burn the checks, then snatches them from her and goes to the stove. There, he discovers that they are signed by Harkness. They amount to $38,500. The note says,
I am a disappointed man. Your honesty is beyond the reach of temptation. I had a different idea about it, but I wronged you in that, and I beg pardon, and do it sincerely. I honour you—and that is sincere too. This town is not worthy to kiss the hem of your garment. Dear sir, I made a square bet with myself that there were nineteen debauchable men in your self-righteous community. I have lost. Take the whole pot, you are entitled to it........Mr. and Mrs. Richards are overcome with guilt. A messenger arrives with another note, this one from Burgess. In it, the minister says he saved Richards the previous evening by not reading his note. This favor—this lie—was in return for a favor that Richards once did for Burgess. (Burgess is referring to the serious offense of which he had been accused. Richards covered up for him. However, Burgess is unaware that Richards could have exonerated him but did not do so.)
.......Mary and Edward are now more miserable than ever before.
.......Three days before the election, each voter receives one of the fake coins, stamped with the image of Pinkerton. The electorate thus perceives him as the sole culprit from Friday's proceedings, making Harkness the overwhelming favorite in the election.
.......Meanwhile, Edward and Mary Richards's guilt begins to ease.
.......At church on Sunday, the sermon centers on people who hide serious sins. When Mr. and Mrs. Richards leave, they nod hello to Burgess as he turns a corner, but he does not notice them and consequently does not return their greeting. They think he is deliberately ignoring them. The narrator says, “Was it possible that he knew that Richards could have cleared him of guilt in that bygone time, and had been silently waiting for a chance to even up accounts?”
.......Richards thinks that his servant must have heard an incriminating conversation between himself and his wife, then later repeated it to Burgess. While talking the matter over, their fear of being exposed eats at them. And they recall that Burgess never returned the note Richards submitted in the competition for the gold. Edward thinks Burgess kept it to use against him. During the night, Edward and Mary become so sick with worry that they call a doctor. The rest of the populace is deeply concerned, for Edward and Mary are the pride of the town. Within two days, they become delirious, and nurses attending them say they show off checks amounting to $38,500. Where could they have gotten this new money?
.......The next day, the Richardses destroy the checks, telling the nurses that the windfall had come from the devil. They then begin to ramble on about strange things, and the doctor tells the nurses not to repeat their words. But a rumor circulates that Richards had written a note to claim the gold and that Burgess ignored it at the proceedings but later revealed it. Faith in the Richardses dwindles as their guilt further sickens them.
.......Six days pass. On his deathbed, Richards summons Burgess and, in front of him and other witnesses, confesses that he did in fact submit a note in the competition for the gold. Moreover, he owns up that he once could have saved Burgess when the latter was falsely accused of wrongdoing. But he did not speak up. In retaliation, he says, Burgess decided to expose him shortly after the proceedings at the town hall. Burgess denies doing so. But in his delirium, Richards does not hear him. Instead, with his dying breath, he says he forgives Burgess for exposing him. His forgiveness of Burgess actually becomes a second wrong against the minister, since the minister in fact did nothing to expose Richards. Richards's wife dies shortly thereafter.
.......In the ensuing days, the legislature enacts a law that changes the shameful name of the community.
.......“It is an honest town once more, and the man will have to rise early that catches it napping again,” the narrator says.
.......The climax occurs when the town-hall proceedings expose the prominent citizens as liars.
The Evil Within
.......In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare wrote, “A goodly apple rotten at the heart. O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” (1.3.83-84). In “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” Mark Twain develops the theme that corruption underlies the pristine exterior of a community that vaingloriously promotes its integrity. The stranger (also referred to as a foreigner and a gambler) schemes to expose Hadleyburg as a fraud. He succeeds. All of the principal citizens who avow uprightness use deceit to attempt to win the gold.
.......After suffering an undisclosed offense in Hadleyburg, the stranger seeks revenge against the town. He is willing to go to great lengths to achieve his goal.
.......The town redeems itself after the deceivers are exposed. As the narrator says in the last sentence of the story, “It is an honest town once more, and the man will have to rise early that catches it napping again."
.......The title implies that Hadleyburg was morally upright until the stranger corrupted it. However, the story indicates otherwise. Even before the stranger set foot in the town, Hadleyburg was vain and self-righteous. Moreover, crime apparently was a problem, as Mary Richards indicates when she is alone for the first time with the sack of gold.
......."Mercy on us, and the door not locked!".......In addition, racial prejudice existed in the town, as indicated in a passage in which Edward Richards is trying to recall the "great service" that he supposedly performed for Barclay Goodson. The narrator says,
Goodson, years and years ago, came near marrying a very sweet and pretty girl, named Nancy Hewitt, but in some way or other the match had been broken off; the girl died, Goodson remained a bachelor. . . . Soon after the girl's death the village found out, or thought it had found out, that she carried a spoonful of negro blood in her veins. He [Richards] seemed to dimly remember that it was HE that found out about the negro blood; that it was he that told the village; that the village told Goodson where they got it; that he thus saved Goodson from marrying the tainted girl. . . ........However, in spite of Hadleyburg's moral failings before the arrival of the stranger, the title seems apt. True, "The Man That Exposed Hadleyburg" would be more accurate than "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg." But corrupted is a stronger word; the reader can feel its cutting edge. There are times in literature when the wrong word is right and the right word can only sit back and grumble.
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the story. (For definitions of figures of speech, click here.)
A slight shudder shook her frameHyperbole
he could hear his microbes gnaw, the place was so stillIrony
A major irony in the story is that the stranger uses lies and deceit to expose lies and deceit. One may fairly argue that Hadleyburg corrupted him before he corrupted Hadleyburg.Metaphor
The house had gotten itself all ready to burst into the proper tornado of applause. . . .Metaphor/Personification
an angry cloud began to settle darkly upon the faces of the citizenshipOnomatopoeia
there was a buzz of conversation going on
bread upon the waters: After the stranger leaves the sack at the home of Edward and Mary Richards, Mary thinks, "What a strange thing it is! . . . And what a fortune for that kind man who set his bread afloat upon the waters!" The clause that ends the sentence alludes to the first verse of the eleventh book of Ecclesiastes in the Old
Testament. The King James version of the Bible renders this verse as "Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days." The New Living version of the Bible renders it as "Send your grain across the seas, and in time, profits will flow back to you." What the passage means, in simple terms, is that those who perform a kindness will eventually reap a reward.
1...Write an essay defending the thesis that the stranger, in exposing the hypocrisy of a small town, represents the author, Mark Twain.
Hadleyburg village woke up world-celebrated—astonished—happy—vain. Vain beyond imagination. Its nineteen principal citizens and their wives went about shaking hands with each other, and beaming, and smiling, and congratulating, and saying THIS thing adds a new word to the dictionary—HADLEYBURG, synonym for INCORRUPTIBLE—destined to live in dictionaries for ever.However, a previous passage says, "Hadleyburg had the ill luck to offend a passing stranger—possibly without knowing it, certainly without caring, for Hadleyburg was sufficient unto itself, and cared not a rap for strangers or their opinions." Now, then, how do you reconcile these two passages? One says, in effect, that Hadleyburg residents care about what the world thinks of the them. The other says they do not care "a rap" of what outsiders think of them.
3...Write an essay defending or attacking the thesis that competition for money brings out the worst in people.
4...Write an essay defending the thesis that competition for money brings out the best and the worst in people
5...Who is the most admirable character in the story? Who is the least admirable? Explain your answers.
6. Mark Twain peppers the narrative with humor. An example is the passage in which Edward Richards is trying to recall the good deed he performed for Barclay Goodson and considers the possibility that he had saved Goodson from drowning. He almost convinces himself that he "tugged Goodson ashore in an unconscious state with a great crowd looking on and applauding." But then Richards remembers that he does not know how to swim. What are other examples of humor in the story?