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Rant #293
(published August 31, 2006)
Our Precious Lunatic
by Mark Twain
The Richardson-McFarland jury had been out one hour and fifty minutes. A breathless silence brooded over court and auditory—a silence and a stillness so absolute, notwithstanding the vast multitude of human beings packed together there, that when some one far away among the throng under the northeast balcony cleared his throat with a smothered little cough it startled everybody uncomfortably, so distinctly did it grate upon the pulseless air. At that imposing moment the bang of a door was heard, then the shuffle of approaching feet, and then a sort of surging and swaying disorder among the heads at the entrance from the jury-room told them that the Twelve were coming. Presently all was silent again, and the foreman of the jury rose and said:

"Your Honor and Gentleman: We, the jury charged with the duty of determining whether the prisoner at the bar, Daniel McFarland, has been guilty of murder, in taking by surprise an unarmed man and shooting him to death, or whether the prisoner is afflicted with a sad but irresponsible insanity which at times can be cheered only by violent entertainment with firearms, do find as follows, namely:

"That the prisoner, Daniel McFarland, is insane as above described. Because:

  1. His great grandfather's stepfather was tainted with insanity, and frequently killed people who were distasteful to him. Hence, insanity is hereditary in the family.
  2. For nine years the prisoner at the bar did not adequately support his family. Strong circumstantial evidence of insanity.
  3. For nine years he made of his home, as a general thing, a poor-house; sometimes (but very rarely) a cheery, happy habitation; frequently the den of a beery, drivelling, stupefied animal; but never, as far as ascertained, the abiding place of a gentleman. These be evidences of insanity.
  4. He once took his young unmarried sister-in-law to the museum; while there his hereditary insanity came upon him to such a degree that he hiccupped and staggered; and afterward, on the way home, even made love to the young girl he was protecting. These are the acts of a person not in his right mind.
  5. For a good while his sufferings were so great that he had to submit to the inconvenience of having his wife give public readings for the family support; and at times, when he handed these shameful earnings to the barkeeper, his haughty soul was so torn with anguish that he could hardly stand without leaning against something. At such times he has been known to shed tears into his sustenance till it diluted to utter inefficiency. Inattention of this nature is not the act of a Democrat unafflicted in mind.
  6. He never spared expense in making his wife comfortable during her occasional confinements. Her father is able to testify to this. There was always an element of unsoundness about the prisoner's generosities that is very suggestive at this time and before this court.
  7. Two years ago the prisoner came fearlessly up behind Richardson in the dark, and shot him in the leg. The prisoner's brave and protracted defiance of an adversity that for years had left him little to depend upon for support but a wife who sometimes earned scarcely anything for weeks at a time, is evidence that he would have appeared in front of Richardson and shot him in the stomach if he had not been insane at the time of the shooting.
  8. Fourteen months ago the prisoner told Archibald Smith that he was going to kill Richardson. This is insanity.
  9. Twelve months ago he told Marshall P. Jones that he was going to kill Richardson. Insanity.
  10. Nine months ago he was lurking about Richardson's home in New Jersey, and said he was going to kill Richardson. Insanity.
  11. Seven months ago he showed a pistol to Seth Brown and said that that was for Richardson. He said Brown testified that at that time it seemed plain that something was the matter with McFarland, for he crossed the street diagonally nine times in fifty yards, apparently without any settled reason for doing so, and finally fell in the gutter and went to sleep. He remarked at the time that McFarland acted strange—believed he was insane. Upon hearing Brown's evidence, John W. Galen, M.D., affirmed at once that McFarland was insane.
  12. Five months ago, McFarland showed his customary pistol, in his customary way, to his bed-fellow, Charles A. Dana, and told him he was going to kill Richardson the first time an opportunity offered. Evidence of insanity.
  13. Five months and two weeks ago McFarland asked John Morgan the time of day, and turned and walked rapidly away without waiting for an answer. Almost indubitable evidence of insanity. And—
  14. It is remarkable that exactly one week after this circumstance, the prisoner, Daniel McFarland, confronted Albert D. Richardson suddenly and without warning, and shot him dead. This is manifest insanity. Everything we know of the prisoner goes to show that if he had been sane at the time, he would have shot his victim from behind.
  15. There is an absolutely overwhelming mass of testimony to show that an hour before the shooting, McFarland was ANXIOUS AND UNEASY, and that five minutes after it he was EXCITED. Thus the accumulating conjectures and evidences of insanity culminate in this sublime and unimpeachable proof of it. Therefore—
"Your Honor and Gentlemen—We the jury pronounce the said Daniel McFarland INNOCENT OF MURDER, BUT CALAMITOUSLY INSANE."

The scene that ensued almost defies description. Hats, handkerchiefs and bonnets were frantically waved above the massed heads in the courtroom, and three tremendous cheers and a tiger told where the sympathies of the court and people were. Then a hundred pursed lips were advanced to kiss the liberated prisoner, and many a hand thrust out to give him a congratulatory shake—but presto! with a maniac's own quickness and a maniac's own fury the lunatic assassin of Richardson fell upon his friends with teeth and nails, boots and office furniture, and the amazing rapidity with which he broke heads and limbs, and rent and sundered bodies, till nearly a hundred citizens were reduced to mere quivering heaps of fleshy odds and ends and crimson rags, was like nothing in this world but the exultant frenzy of a plunging, tearing, roaring devil of a steam machine when it snatches a human being and spins him and whirls him till he shreds away to nothingness like a "Four o'clock" before the breath of a child.

The destruction was awful. It is said that within the space of eight minutes McFarland killed and crippled some six score persons and tore down a large portion of the City Hall building, carrying away and casting into Broadway six or seven marble columns fifty-four feet long and weighing nearly two tons each. But he was finally captured and sent in chains to the lunatic asylum for life.

(By late telegrams it appears that this is a mistake.—Editor)

But the really curious part of this whole matter is yet to be told. And that is, that McFarland's most intimate friends believe that the very next time that it ever occurred to him that the insanity plea was not a mere politic pretense, was when the verdict came in. They think that the startling thought burst upon him then, that if twelve good and true men, able to comprehend all the baseness of perjury, proclaimed under oath that he was a lunatic, there was no gainsaying such evidence and that he UNQUESTIONABLY WAS INSANE!

Possibly that was really the way of it. It is dreadful to think that maybe the most awful calamity that can befall a man, namely, loss of reason, was precipitated upon this poor prisoner's head by a jury that could have hanged him instead, and so done him a mercy and his country a service.


May 11—I do not expect anybody to believe so astounding a thing, and yet it is the solemn truth that instead of instantly sending the dangerous lunatic to the insane asylum (which I naturally supposed they would do, and so I prematurely said they had) the court has actually SET HIM AT LIBERTY. Comment is unnecessary. — M. T.

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