Chapter XXII

Why the Lynching bee Failed

THEY SWARMED UP towards Sherburn's house, a-whooping and raging like Injuns, and everything had to clear the way or get run over and trompled to mush, and it was awful to see. Children was heeling it ahead of the mob, screaming and trying to get out of the way; and every window along the road was full of women's heads, and there was nigger boys in every tree, and bucks and wenches looking over every fence; and as soon as the mob would get nearly to them they would break and skaddle back out of reach. Lots of the women and girls was crying and taking on, scared most to death.

They swarmed up in front of Sherburn's palings as thick as they could jam together, and you couldn't hear yourself think for the noise. It was a little twenty-foot yard. Some sung out “Tear down the fence! tear down the fence!” Then there was a racket of ripping and tearing and smashing, and down she goes, and the front wall of the crowd begins to roll in like a wave.

Just then Sherburn steps out onto the roof of his little front porch, with a double-barrel gun in his hand, and takes his stand, perfectly ca'm and deliberate, not saying a word. The racket stopped, and the wave sucked back.

Sherburn never said a word—just stood there, looking down. The stillness was awful creepy and uncomfortable. Sherburn run his eye slow along the crowd; and wherever it struck the people tried a little to outgaze him, but they couldn't; they dropped their eyes and looked sneaky. Then pretty soon Sherburn sort of laughed; not the pleasant kind, but the kind that makes you feel like when you are eating bread that's got sand in it.

Then he says, slow and scornful:

“The idea of you lynching anybody! It's amusing. The idea of you thinking you had pluck enough to lynch a man! Because you're brave enough to tar and feather poor friendless cast-out women that come along here, did that make you think you had grit enough to lay your hands on a man? Why, a man's safe in the hands of ten thousand of your kind—as long as it's daytime and you're not behind him.

“Do I know you? I know you clear through was born and raised in the South, and I've lived in the North; so I know the average all around. The average man's a coward. In the North he lets anybody walk over him that wants to, and goes home and prays for a humble spirit to bear it. In the South one man, all by himself, has stopped a stage full of men in the daytime, and robbed the lot. Your newspapers call you a brave people so much that you think you are braver than any other people—whereas you're just as brave, and no braver. Why don't your juries hang murderers? Because they're afraid the man's friends will shoot them in the back, in the dark—and it's just what they would do.

“So they always acquit; and then a man goes in the night, with a hundred masked cowards at his back and lynches the rascal. Your mistake is, that you didn't bring a man with you; that's one mistake, and the other is that you didn't come in the dark and fetch your masks. You brought part of a man—Buck Harkness, there—and if you hadn't had him to start you, you'd 'a' taken it out in blowing.

“You didn't want to come. The average man don't like trouble and danger. You don't like trouble and danger. But if only half a man—like Buck Harkness, there—shouts ‘Lynch him! lynch him!’ you're afraid to back down—afraid you'll be found out to be what you are—cowards—and so you raise a yell, and hang yourselves on to that half-a-man's coat-tail, and come raging up here, swearing what big things you're going to do. The pitifulest thing out is a mob; that's what an army is—a mob; they don't fight with courage that's born in them, but with courage that's borrowed from their mass, and from their officers. But a mob without any man at the head of it is beneath pitifulness. Now the thing for you to do is to droop your tails and go home and crawl in a hole. If any real lynching's going to be done it will be done in the dark, Southern fashion; and when they come they'll bring their masks, and fetch a man along. Now leave—and take your half-a-man with you”—tossing his gun up across his left arm and cocking it when he says this.

The crowd washed back sudden, and then broke all apart, and went tearing off every which way, and Buck Harkness he heeled it after them, looking tolerable cheap. I could 'a' stayed if I wanted to, but I didn't want to.

I went to the circus and loafed around the back side till the watchman went by, and then dived in under the tent. I had my twenty-dollar gold piece and some other money, but I reckoned I better save it, because there ain't no telling how soon you are going to need it, away from home and amongst strangers that way. You can't be too careful. I ain't opposed to spending money on circuses when there ain't no other way, but there ain't no use in wasting it on them.

It was a real bully circus. It was the splendidest sight that ever was when they all come riding in, two and two, a gentleman and lady, side by side, the men just in their drawers and undershirts, and no shoes nor stirrups, and resting their hands on their thighs easy and comfortable— there must a been twenty of them—and every lady with a lovely complexion, and perfectly beautiful, and looking just like a gang of real sure-enough queens, and dressed in clothes that cost millions of dollars, and just littered with diamonds. It was a powerful fine sight; I never see anything so lovely. And then one by one they got up and stood, and went a-weaving around the ring so gentle and wavy and graceful, the men looking ever so tall and airy and straight, with their heads bobbing and skimming along, away up there under the tent-roof, and every lady's rose-leafy dress flapping soft and silky around her hips, and she looking like the most loveliest parasol.

And then faster and faster they went, all of them dancing, first one foot out in the air and then the other, the horses leaning more and more, and the ring-master going round and round the center pole, cracking his whip and shouting “Hi! hi!” and the clown cracking jokes behind him; and by and by all hands dropped the reins, and every lady put her knuckles on her hips and every gentleman folded his arms, and then how the horses did lean over and hump themselves! And so one after the other they all skipped off into the ring, and made the sweetest bow I ever see, and then scampered out, and everybody clapped their hands and went just about wild.

Well, all through the circus they done the most astonishing things; and all the time that clown carried on so it most killed the people. The ringmaster couldn't ever say a word to him but he was back at him quick as a wink with the funniest things a body ever said; and how he ever could think of so many of them, and so sudden and so pat, was what I couldn't no way understand. Why, I couldn't 'a' thought of them in a year. And by and by a drunken man tried to get into the ring—said he wanted to ride; said he could ride as well as anybody that ever was. They argued and tried to keep him out, but he wouldn't listen, and the whole show come to a standstill. Then the people begun to holler at him and make fun of him, and that made him mad, and he begun to rip and tear; so that stirred up the people, and a lot of men begun to pile down off of the benches and swarm towards the ring, saying, “Knock him down! throw him out!” and one or two women begun to scream. So, then, the ringmaster he made a little speech, and said he hoped there wouldn't be no disturbance, and if the man would promise he wouldn't make no more trouble he would let him ride if he thought he could stay on the horse. So everybody laughed and said all right, and the man got on. The minute he was on, the horse begun to rip and tear and jump and cavort around, with two circus men hanging on to his bridle trying to hold him, and the drunk man hanging on to his neck, and his heels flying in the air every jump, and the whole crowd of people standing up shouting and laughing till tears rolled down. And at last, sure enough, all the circus men could do, the horse broke loose, and away he went like the very nation, round and round the ring, with that sot laying down on him and hanging to his neck, with first one leg hanging most to the ground on one side, and then t'other one on t'other side, and the people just crazy. It warn't funny to me, though; I was all of a tremble to see his danger. But pretty soon he struggled up astraddle and grabbed the bridle, a-reeling this way and that; and the next minute he sprung up and dropped the bridle and stood! and the horse a-going like a house afire, too. He just stood up there, a-sailing around as easy and comfortable as if he warn't ever drunk in his life—and then he begun to pull off his clothes and sling them. He shed them so thick they kind of clogged the air, and altogether he shed seventeen suits. And, then, there he was, slim and handsome, and dressed the gaudiest and prettiest you ever saw, and he lit into that horse with his whip and made him fairly hum—and finally skipped off, and made his bow and danced off to the dressing-room, and everybody just a-howling with pleasure and astonishment.

Then the ringmaster he see how he had been fooled, and he was the sickest ringmaster you ever see, I reckon. Why, it was one of his own men! He had got up that joke all out of his own head, and never let on to nobody. Well, I felt sheepish enough to be took in so, but I wouldn't 'a' been in that ringmaster's place, not for a thousand dollars. I don't know; there may be bullier circuses than what that one was, but I never struck them yet. Anyways, it was plenty good enough for me; and wherever I run across it, it can have all of my custom every time.

Well, that night we had our show; but there warn't only about twelve people there—just enough to pay expenses. And they laughed all the time, and that made the duke mad; and everybody left, anyway, before the show was over, but one boy which was asleep. So the duke said these Arkansaw lunkheads could-n't come up to Shakespeare; what they wanted was low comedy—and maybe something ruther worse than low comedy, he reckoned. He said he could size their style. So next morning he got some big sheets of wrapping-paper and some black paint, and drawed off some handbills, and stuck them up all over the village. The bills said:

The World-Renowned Tragedians

Of the London and Continental

In their Thrilling Tragedy of
Admission 50 cents.

Then at the bottom was the biggest line of all, which said:


“There,” says he, “if that line don't fetch them, I don't know Arkansaw!”


  1. "Nonesuch" meaning something with no comparison, something that is unrivaled in the way a performance can be unrivaled in its mastery. Here, Twain likely uses the word because it sounds like "nonsense," a rough homonym that clues the reader in to the absurdity of the show the Duke and King will put on for this ornery crowd.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  2. This line prepares us for the lewd, low-brow comedy of the following chapter, in which the Duke and the King put on a show that amounts to nonsense. In the 1800s, women and children were shielded from such low-brow comedy as much as possible, even though by today's standards The Royal Nonesuch isn't particularly lewd or unusual. This poster is a tidy bit of foreshadowing that Twain uses to great effect.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  3. Twain juxtaposes this episode with the "drunk" circus performer and the scene with Boggs to show us how things should've gone: Boggs would've been drunk and harmless to anyone but himself, the crowd would've gotten a good laugh, and nobody would've died. Instead, the Sheriff had to take a hard line with Boggs, and it ended in tragedy.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  4. A parasol is a lightweight, almost decorative umbrella often used by ladies as a sunshade. It's understood to be a sign of high class and breeding, and it's here used to indicate that these woman are, if not wealthy, then certainly able to clean up for a special occasion. Note that Huck spends less time describing these lovely women than he does talking about Boggs in the previous chapter, which gives the reader a sense of his priorities.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  5. Twain juxtaposes Sherburn's long speech about courage and moral fortitude with a short scene of Huck bending the rules in order not to pay to attend the circus. His moral relativity in this instance tempers the somewhat judgmental tone Huck has adopted in these past two chapters and reminds the reader that Huck doesn't have the moral high ground. He's a scamp, too, just of a different kind.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  6. Another way to say this would be that there's strength in numbers. If not for the sheer size of the lynch mob, no one would've dared even to think of going after Sherburn, who, as Twain has established, is by far the most respectable man in this town. His extended speech here can be understood as a general comment about the nature of violent and prejudiced people: they draw their strength from communities of like-minded people, not from the moral strength of their convictions, which are without a doubt hollow.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  7. Note that Buck Harkness was not actually the one who instigated this lynch mob. In the previous chapter, Twain simply said that someone suggested Sherburn be lynched without specifying who had the idea first. Thus, Sherburn's speech, though it might seem forceful and discerning, is based on faulty logic, and if he didn't happen to also be right about these men being cowards, they would've lynched him for calling them out.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  8. Twain and Sherburn both place heavy emphasis on this idea of being a man. Modern readers will recognize this from the phrase, "A real man," which bears the same connotation: that only someone as good and upright as Sherburn can be considered a man, which implies that all these men are just animals or sorry excuses for men. This belief stems from a traditional sense of gender roles, which we can see throughout the novel.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  9. It used to be that wheat for bread was milled on large rock slabs and that sand or grit would often get caught in the flour in the process. In ancient cultures, this lifelong consumption of gritty bread would wear down a person's teeth until they were just nubs, leaving them in near constant pain. Modern milling practices prevent sand from getting in flour, but this still sometimes happened in the 1800s, when this novel is set.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor