Abroad with Mark Twain and Eugene Field/Mark Sheds Light on English History

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We had set out to look at the rich collections of jewels, curiosities and "other loot" (Mark's description) hoarded by the (late) Hapsburgs in the immense pile called Hofburg, when the author of "Joan of Arc," then in the making, switched me off to another room.

"Let's go and dig out the Witch Hammer," he said. "Wonder whether they have a new edition at the Imperial Library."

I forget now which edition of that murderous book we examined, but I do remember some of the figures we jotted down at the librarian's suggestion. The Witch Hammer, that is, a voluminous "treatise for discovering, torturing, maiming and burning witches," was first published, we learned, in 1487, and twenty-eight editions were put through the press during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Later Mark listened to my reading from the Latin text with so stern a mien I suggested that he looked like a Grand Inquisitor.

"I pity your ignorance," he drawled, "Troquemada and the rest didn't think of being unhappy re those auto-da-fes, for every witch-fire lit by their orders meant a warm jingle in their own pockets. When they tortured an accused person, the cost of the proceedings was collected by the sheriff, ditto when they burned some old lady, or a child maybe—it was all grist to their mill, for the Grand Inquisitor got a rake-off on all prosecutions, and in those good old days it cost more to break a human being on the wheel than to feed him and care for him in jail. The great Napoleon, you once told me, found some three hundred crowned leeches infesting Germany when he started to break up their little game. What do you suppose they lived on, those kinglets, princes, graves and dukes—on the dog tax? No, most of them lived on the interest of the fortunes their ancestors had accumulated by prosecuting and burning witches."

Some years later Mark related the story of our search for the Witch Hammer before a motley crowd of litterateurs at Brown's Hotel, London. "Fine," said Bram Stoker, "tell us some more; I have a short story on witchcraft in hand."

"In that case," said Mark, "don't forget Henry VIII, Elizabeth and the first James. Wife-killing Henry started the witch-burning business in 'merry' England, Elizabeth revived the sport, and the son of Mary Stuart, whose Bible lies on every drawing-room table at home, used both pen and axe to exterminate witches and 'demons.' I read up closely on the subject when I got down to Joan of Arc's trial."

Some of our English friends didn't seem pleased with Mark's reminiscences of British intolerance. "What about Salem?" asked one of them.

"Oh, Salem," replied Mark, drawing out the word like a rubber band, "you needn't get cocky about Salem. The Massachusetts witchcraft delusion was only an echo of your own English persecutions, and a flash in the pan at that. I have the data in my booklet here. Admitted we fool Americans did hang twenty-two and tortured some fifty people under the English-German-Spanish witchcraft acts—to our shame and disgrace—compare these figures with the records of man and woman burnings ordered by your 'bloody Mary' alone. On the very morning of the day when the old cat died, seven or eight Britishers were billed to be reduced to cinders at Smithfield (where you buy your steak nowadays), and if the devil hadn't made room for her Majesty in hell before noon, there would have been so many more martyrs."

He turned to Stoker. "Bram," he said, "the only satisfactory way to do a witchcraft story is to filch it bodily from Balzac. The Frenchman got the thing down to perfection in one of his Droll yarns—I know a shop in the Strand where you can buy a pirated edition—reproduced by the camera—for half a crown."

"Hold," he added, "I can give you the recipe of the witch salve, so called. Fisher and I dug it up at the Berlin Royal Library. It was a compound of hemlock, mandragora, henbane and belladonna. No wonder it set persons, thus embalmed all over the naked body, crazy, tickled them to indulge in all sorts of insane antics, that lent themselves to devilish interpretation at a period when every tenth person aspired to boom a religion of his own."