How Mark Twain learned journalism in Nevada

Tonight is the Nevada Press Association’s annual awards banquet, which is in Elko this year, and like any journalism event, there will be plenty of stories told — some of which are true and many of which get better with age.

Nevada has a rich history of journalism, and there have been many colorful storytellers who worked in the press, particularly in the state’s early days.

Take Mark Twain and Dan DeQuille.

You know Twain, the pen name of Samuel Clemens. Clemens came to Nevada in 1861 with his brother, who had been appointed territorial secretary. It was during his few years in the state that he first used the name Mark Twain.

In his book “Roughing It,” Twain describes taking a job as a rookie reporter at the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City. Twain’s boss instructed him to move past gossip, innuendo or conjecture and get the facts and report them. He added: “Unassailable certainty is the thing that gives a newspaper the firmest and most valuable reputation."

Twain took that to heart. He went out into the town, “questioning everybody, boring everybody, and finding out that nobody knew anything.”

After five hours, he went back to his boss and was told to go see if a hay wagon had come into town; he could make a story out of that and write about the hay business.

Twain found “one wretched old hay truck dragging in from the country,” which was just enough. He turned that one wagon into 16 wagons from 16 different places and thus had 16 different stories.

That was a start for Twain, who would continue to twist stories when he needed something to write about.

“I let fancy get the upper hand of fact too often when there was a dearth of news,” he wrote.

But Twain wasn’t the most memorable writer of the era.

DeQuille, the pen name of William Wright, was Twain’s friend, colleague and roommate. A longtime writer on the Territorial Enterprise’s staff, DeQuille could make up a story, which he called “quaints.” Those fictional stories often focused on an incredible scientific find and he caught many a reader with his tales.

Some of his quaints ended up getting play across the world, like the story of the man who made an air conditioned suit and headed out across Death Valley. He wrote that the man was later found frozen to death with an icicle hanging from his nose — the machine was running but something went wrong and he couldn’t turn it off.

There was also the story of the stones of the Pahranagat Valley that would roll together when separated by a short distance. After the story was picked up around the world, a German scientist wanted a sample and wouldn’t believe DeQuille when he said they weren’t real.

There are many other stories of the early days of journalism in Nevada, but today, journalism standards and ethics are much higher. Making things up and passing them off as fact is a cardinal sin in the industry. But I should note that both Mark Twain and Dan DeQuille are members of the Nevada Press Association’s Hall of Fame.

If you have a good Nevada story, whether real or a "quaint," email it to: finding.nevada@lasvegassun.com.

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