In May 1897, the great American humorist, novelist and social critic Samuel Clemens — best known by his pen name, Mark Twain — was in London.
It was one of the stops on a round-the-world speaking tour he’d embarked on in 1895. He hoped to use the fees from speaking engagements to pay off the considerable debts he owed in the United States, due to a series of unsuccessful investments and publishing ventures.
While Twain was in London, someone started a rumor that he was gravely ill. It was followed by a rumor that he had died.
According to a widely-repeated legend, one major American newspaper actually printed his obituary and, when Twain was told about this by a reporter, he quipped:
“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
In point of fact, all such commonly-heard versions using “greatly exaggerated” and “grossly exaggerated” are misquotes.
It is true that in late May of 1897 the English correspondent for the New York Journal, Frank Marshall White, contacted Twain in London to inquire about his health.
The editors of the newspaper had sent a cable White on May 28, asking him to get Twain’s response to reports that he was on his deathbed in England.
White relayed this request to Twain. On May 31, 1897, Twain wrote down his response and sent it to White.published in the New York Journal.
It said, in part:
Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a Journal representative informed him today of the report in New York that he was dying in poverty in London...
The great humorist, while not perhaps very robust, is in the best of health. He said:
“I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness.
The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
The origin of the more familiar misquote versions of Twain’s response seems to be the popular biography of Twain written by Albert Bigelow Paine.
Paine’s book was published in 1912, two years after Twain’s death. It includes what is apparently Paine’s own embellished variation of the story about Twain’s death quip.
In Chapter 197 of the biography, Paine said a young reporter had “ferreted out” Twain in London after being assigned to follow up on rumors that the famed humorist was “lying at the point of death.”
According to Paine, the newspaper had sent a cable to the reporter ordering him to send back a five hundred 500-word story if Twain was ill, or a thousand word story if Twain was dead.
Paine claimed that upon being shown the cable, Twain “smiled grimly” and told the young reporter:
“You don’t need as much as that. Just say the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.”
Most scholarly books of quotations now use or include the quote recorded in the New York Journal article, taken from Twain’s letter to Frank Marshall White.
However, Paine’s “grossly exaggerated” version and “The report of my death has been greatly exaggerated,” which seems to be a colloquial variation of Paine’s line, are better known and commonly assumed to be actual quotes by Twain.
Of course, as Twain wrote in his book Following the Equator, published in November 1897:
“It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive.”
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