In May 1897 Mark Twain was in England, two years into an around-the-world trip that had previously taken him to South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka, and India. Twain, 61-years-old and the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, among other books, was the highest paid writer of his day. But by 1894 he had been forced to declare bankruptcy, the result of several disastrous investments. To make some money and pay off his creditors, Twain set out in 1895 on what amounted to the first global stand-up comedy tour.
Yet as his absence from the United States dragged on, a rumor started going around that he had become seriously ill and had possibly even died. One newspaper printed an obituary. The editors of another New York paper sent a cable to their English correspondent with instructions to get to the bottom of the story. Send us a 500-word article if Mark Twain is ill, they said, and a thousand-word article if he is dead.
The reporter tracked down the famous American author in London, very much alive and in good health. Accounts differ slightly from here, but according to one version, when the reporter showed Twain the cable with his article assignment, Twain said, in effect, “You don’t need that many words.… Read the rest