What Made America’s Most-Loved Humorist So Funny?

This Saturday will be the anniversary of a certain stoned stroll down Clay Street in San Francisco in the ’60s – the 1860s, that is. The San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle (which you can hold in your hands today as the Chronicle) ran this little item on Sept. 18, 1865:

It appears that a “Hasheesh” mania has broken out among our Bohemians. Yesterday, Mark Twain and the “Mouse-Trap” man [Tremenheere Lanyon Johns] were seen walking up Clay street under the influence of the drug, followed by a “star,” who was evidently laboring under a misapprehension as to what was the matter with them.

What a tantalizing tidbit from the town once called Yerba Buena that, a century later, became known as the place where hipsters wore flowers in their hair.

At the time, concentrated cannabis in tincture or solid form was commonly available in drug stores. One, Richards & Co., stood at the corner of Clay and Sansome streets and advertised Hasheesh Candy in the Chronicle in 1872. This may be where Twain and Johns procured theirs. The corner is near the Financial District, where today Mark Twain Plaza and the Transamerica Pyramid stand.

Twain Meets Ludlow

Samuel Clemens, who had just begun to call himself Mark Twain, visited San Francisco in June of 1863, and was hired as the San Francisco Daily Morning Call‘s Nevada correspondent. In the city, he crossed paths with Fitz Hugh Ludlow, the author who was well known for writing Confessions of a Hasheesh Eater (1857).

Twain soon wrote his mother:

And if Fitzhugh Ludlow, (author of the “Hasheesh Eater,”) comes your way, treat him well also. He published a high encomium upon Mark Twain, (the same being eminently just & truthful, I beseech you to believe,) in a San Francisco paper.

Fitz Hugh Ludlow, author of The Hasheesh Easter.Fitz Hugh Ludlow, author of The Hasheesh Easter.Twain was referring to an article Ludlow wrote for the Golden Era newspaper, published in November 1863. Ludlow wrote, “In funny literature, that Irresistible Washoe Giant, Mark Twain, takes quite a unique position … He imitates nobody. He is a school by himself.” Ludlow suggested that Twain should focus on his humor rather than straight news writing, and said he would help get them published.

Twain was always looking for ways to get rich. He had just tried gold mining and in 1856 he attempted to travel to Brazil to start a business importing coca. Ludlow’s biographer David Dulchinos speculates that Twain may have been one of Fitz Hugh’s guides when he visited an opium den in San Francisco.

First given morphine for tuberculosis, Ludlow struggled with opiate addiction, except perhaps when he took cannabis pills. He wrote a short story about a doctor who uses such substitution therapy to successfully treat an opium addict.

In November 1865, Twain’s humorous piece, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” made him nationally known. He’d finally hit upon his most marketable talent, with the aid of Ludlow’s advice and possibly hashish too. The story appeared just two months after he was spotted in San Francisco on his September stroll up Clay Street.

The “star” mentioned in the Chronicle who followed the young writers was probably a policeman. Johns, Twain’s party buddy, wrote a column in The Californian called “The Mouse-Trap”. The item referenced more “experiences of the twain” in the following issue of The Californian, where A. Miner Griswold, a newspaperman Twain knew later in Buffalo, fancifully describes a case of the munchies he had after taking “hasheesh.”

Mentions in Twain’s Writings

Twain never writes that he took hashish, but he mentions it in an article for Alta California (March 3, 1868) titled “Mark Twain on His Travels” where he offered a critique of “The White Fawn”:

I think these hundreds of princely costumes are changed every fifteen minutes during half the night; splendid pageants are filing about the stage constantly, yet one seems never to see the same dress twice. The final grand transformation scene is a vision of magnificence such as no man could imagine unless he had eaten a barrel of hasheesh.

A young Mark Twain.A young Mark Twain.He was one of many authors who sought a hashish experience in the Middle East when he toured there in 1867. A popular collection of his travel letters, The Innocents Abroad, recounts a disappointing experience he had with a narghili in a Turkish Bath in Constantinople. A chapter not published in the book describes his impression of Alcazar, palace of the Moorish kings, which he saw on his first morning in Seville (after a night out on the town):

I cannot describe it. In my memory its courts & gardens will always be a hasheesh delusion, its Hall of Ambassadors a marvelous dream.

The Party’s Over?

Another Buffalo newspaperman acquainted with Twain was John Hay, who was Abraham Lincoln’s secretary and a US Secretary of State. Hay was influenced by Ludlow’s writings, and famously tried hash while a student at Brown University.

We don’t know if Buffalo buddies Twain and John Hay, or Griswold, ever used hashish together, but the party seemed to be over for the group after they married. Twain wrote from Florence, Italy in 1904 this reminiscence:

A quarter of a century ago I was visiting John Hay, now Secretary of State, at Whitelaw Reid’s house in New York…That Sunday morning, twenty-five years ago, Hay and I had been chatting and laughing an carrying-on almost like our earlier selves of ’67, when the door opened and Mrs. Hay, gravely clad, gloved, bonneted, and just from church, and fragrant with the odors of Presbyterian sanctity, stood it in….She came forward smileless, with disapproval written all over her face, said most coldly, “Good morning Mr. Clemens,” and passed on and out. [Hay] said pathetically, and apologetically, “She is very strict about Sunday.”

In 1867, a year Twain remembers as “chatting and laughing and carrying-on,” he was reportedly arrested for misconduct in New York City and spent a night in jail. Twain later admitted (reportedly) to an arrest for smoking a cigar on federal property and also a second arrest.

Twain Today

Today the United States’ top comedians are honored with The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, bestowed yearly at the Kennedy Center in DC. When Steve Martin won the prize in 2005 he joked, “If [Saturday Night Live producer] Lorne Michaels had told me I’d receive this award one year after him, I’d have said, ‘Let me have a hit of that.'”

Other comedians who’ve won the prize and toked in their lives and/or work include George Carlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, Neil Simon and Richard Pryor. Carlin said later in life that he didn’t smoke very often, but when he did, he liked to “punch up” his writing while under the influence.

Mark Twain said, “Against the force of laughter, nothing stands.” With so many of our luminaries admitting to using a little herbal inspiration, isn’t it time to tear down the prohibition that tears us apart?

Ellen Komp is an activist, writer, and regular contributor to Cannabis Culture. She manages the website VeryImportantPotheads.com and blogs at Tokin Woman.



  1. Anonymous on

    I am over 60 and in my life I have toked with pilots, doctors, surgeons, military brass and a host of other very responable people. I believe that it is the law that has made criminals out of otherwise responsible citizens. The “drug war” is simply a jobs program for the enforcement cartels. Police forces everywhere have grown and prospered on the backs of marijuana users and they are a bit reluctant to give up thier gravy train. Upton Sinclair once said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon not understanding it.” Legalization will come as a mandate from the People. A powerful wind that will simply blow holes in the status quo and lay aside 70 years of lies and deception. Truth will win in the end, it always does.

    “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
    ~ Harry Anslinger,
    U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics,
    testifying to Congress on why marijuana should be made illegal
    (Marijuana Tax Act, signed Aug. 2, 1937; effective Oct. 1, 1937.)

  2. Anonymous on

    Analysis of Mark Twain’s own words regarding his ability to write Humor

    “I have had a ‘call’ to literature, of a low order—i.e. humorous

    >+ implies Mr Twain has been aware of his propensity to humor writing all along

    It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit,

    >+ implies Mr Twain is aware humor has always been his greatest literary strength

    & if I were to listen to that maxim of stern duty which says that to do right you must multiply the one or the two or the three talents which the Almighty entrusts to your keeping, I would long ago have ceased to meddle with things for which I was by nature unfitted & turned my attention to seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures.”

    >+ implies Mr Twain was fully conscious of his lifelong ability to write humor and assigns his born to be funny character to an act of God aka The Almighty.. Twain notes that he has tried his hand at other work he was suited for but asserts he was best suited for writing humor. God made Mark Twain funny- not marijuana.

    We do not observe that people who become stoners becoming comedians
    But it is common to observe comedians who become stoners

  3. VIPelle on

    To those who have mocked my assertion that Twain’s career choice was influenced by being under the influence, I present this additional evidence, just uncovered:

    In October 1865, one month after Twain’s stoned stroll and one month before his breakthrough article “The Jumping Frog” was published, he wrote to his brother Orion:

    “I have had a ‘call’ to literarture, of a low order—i.e. humorous It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit, & if I were to listen to that maxim of stern duty which says that to do right you must multiply the one or the two or the three talents which the Almighty entrusts to your keeping, I would long ago have ceased to meddle with things for which I was by nature unfitted & turned my attention to seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures.”

    Bob Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley called it “the most important letter he ever wrote.” http://elcerrito.patch.com/articles/new-discoveries-of-twain-writings-continue

    What called him? Ludlow or something more ethereal? In either case, hashish may well have been involved.

  4. VIPelle on

    You’re right, Rabelais still holds up, there are excerpts at:

    I wish Jack Black would have made Gargantua and Pantagruel instead of Gulliver’s Travels.

    Actually, cannabis doesn’t affect the central nervous system, which is why you can’t die from an overdose.

    Twain said, in hearings where he testified against driving Osteopaths out of New York,

    ” I am confident that if any of my tribe had been in the Garden of Eden when that injunction was served they would never have contented themselves with just one apple. They would have eaten the whole crop. [Great laughter.]
    “Now what I contend is that my body is my own, at least, I have always so regarded it. If I do it harm through my experimenting it is I who suffer, not the state. And if I indulge in dangerous experiments the state don’t die. I attend to that.

    More at: http://www.twainquotes.com/19010228.html

    If Ludlow enjoyed Twain’s writing so much, it stands to reason they would have enjoyed each other’s company.

    According to Wikipedia, Terence McKenna wrote in “Food of the Gods:The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge” (New York: Bantam, 1992, pp. 163-164): “After Bayard Taylor the next great commentator on the phenomenon of hashish was the irrepressible Fitz Hugh Ludlow. This little-known bon vivant of nineteenth-century literature began a tradition of pharmo-picaresque literature that would find later practitioners in William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson… There is in Ludlow’s cannabis reportage a wonderful distillation of all that was zany in the Yankee transcendentalist approach. …Part genius, part madman, Ludlow lies halfway between Captain Ahab and P.T. Barnum, a kind of Mark Twain on hashish.” More at: http://www.veryimportantpotheads.com/ludlow.html

  5. Anonymous on

    Everybody and their dog is a ” writer ”
    but Mr Ludlow was a _published writer-
    huge difference, thus a worthy conversationalist for Mr Twain.

    It is completely plausible that these published writers would discuss their life experiences that shaped their prose-Mr Twain as a riverboat pilot seeing America float past and Mr Ludow as a Orientalist eating hashish.

    \ Likely Mt Ludlow was familiar with De Quincy’s book ” Confessions of an English Opium Eater ” and took the cannabis path to a similar exploration of a psychoactive drug.He modelled himself after deQuincy in many ways. thge 19th C equivalent of a ” Tribute Band ” It is to nmy sensitivity highly likely that Mr Ludlow not only used hashish frequently. but had a good store of high quality material on hand to share with suitable companions. Why be stoned alone when you can party?
    Considering the temperaments of the players, Ludlow & Clemmens and the potential for cannabis to act upon the imagination- which is the engine of the writer- that the chances of Mr Clemmens using hashish several times is a reasonable guess/ Hashish intoxication is hard on the Central nervous system and any disciplined person would soon find it was more hangover than flying carpet.

    Also: look into the old obscure book ” Gargantua ” by 16th C French humorist > Rabalais whom Twain was familiar with, There are several hashish inspired sections there but are referred to as by its secret term ” the herb Pantagruel” whose features described you will easily recognize as cannabis. It would be hard to believe Mr Clemmens would have missed all this classic opportunity to have a mind adventure of his own. It is still a very funny book
    400 years later

  6. VIpelle on

    I agree with you that cannabis is best used judiciously; George Carlin (mentioned in the story) has said so too. My writings should not be construed as advocating else. I never say Twain smoked it, only that he smoked a nargileh in Constantinople.

    As to Twain only using it once or twice…maybe, but the time between when he met Ludlow (1863) and he when wrote about it (1867) was four years. These were the years when he emerged as America’s top humorist. I think there were other reasons for GWB’s success.

    Ironically, if you live today in the Calaveras county seat, you can’t be treated at the Mark Twain St. Joseph’s Hospital there if you use medical marijuana, even if you’re a disabled vet or have brain cancer. http://www.tokeofthetown.com/2011/08/california_clinic_refuses_to_treat_medical_marijua.php

    THC has been shown to kill brain cancer cells.

  7. VIPelle on

    But you’re not as old as Twain!


  8. Anonymous on

    So did George Bush try cannabis a few times, more than a few times-whatever – so lets all associate cannabis mind expansion with GWB’s influence on American history. After 12,000 years of human cannabis use, you will always find somebody stoned somewhere .. brief ganga experimenters and long haul hashish chronics present very different stories, then as now. This story points out Mark Twain ate cannabis, he didn’t seem to smoke it ever.

  9. Old Hippie on

    Wow, that’s a tidbit I never even heard, and I’ve been around for awhile. Great research and detail! I’m checking out your other sites ASAP. Thank you!!!