Mark Twain: “Take a Dose of Your Own Poison”

Those of you who have read his books and essays surely know that Mark Twain possessed a sharp wit and a fairly rational worldview. For instance, he was BFFs with Nicola “the Celibate Scientist” Tesla and he was critical of organized religion and blind faith.

He is, after all, the fellow who wrote in Following the Equator the immortal (heh) line, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” and the slightly less pithy but still great “Let me make the superstititions of a nation and I do not care who makes its laws or its songs either.” Of course, he also said “First catch your Boer, then kick him” so who knows what the hell he was on about.

Anyway, all of that is mere precursor to this found letter Twain sent to J.H. Todd, a man who hoped to sell a cure-all called “The Elixir of Life” which (as put by Letters of Note, where you can find scans of all documents) “could cure such ailments as meningitis (which had previously killed Twain’s daughter in 1896) and diphtheria (which had also killed his 19-month-old son).”

After the jump, Twain gives you a template by which to respond to the next person who offers you homeopathy for your baby’s eczema:

Nov. 20. 1905

J. H. Todd
1212 Webster St.
San Francisco, Cal.

Dear Sir,

Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.

Adieu, adieu, adieu!

Mark Twain

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. “First catch your Boer, then kick him”

    Hey, he’s talking about my forefathers there.

    They were a backward, patriarchal, barely literate and very religious lot, so I can understand why Twain would not have had the highest opinion of them.

    Cool letter from Twain btw

  2. Huh. I was disappointed to read him mention that he might be praying later.

    Also, does anyone have any context on the “faith is believing what you know ain’t so” quote? has it in Following the Equator, but it’s just a blurb at the beginning of a chapter:

    There are those who scoff at the schoolboy, calling him frivolous and shallow: Yet it was the schoolboy who said “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”
    —Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.

    Twain wrote The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, but I don’t see that quote anywhere, nor any other books by him regarding any other Pudd’nheads.

    Basically, I’m wondering if the sentiment belonged to him or to one of his characters. Either way, it’s still a great quote, but I wouldn’t want to attribute it to him if it was one of his characters who said it.

  3. My favourite author. There’s a great page with quotes organized by theme as well as some essays and letters. The photos and memorabilia are also very amusing. I think he’s very underappreciated.

    “In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.”

    Of course my favourite quote by him:
    “I do not like work even when someone else does it.”

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