Historical Watches: The Mark Twain Watch
Watch-Tinkers and Watch Company Investments Gone Awry
Samuel Langhorne Clemens had a long love-hate relationship with watches and watchmakers.
In 1881, Clemens, on the advice of his niece's husband Charles Webster, purchased stock in the Independent Watch Company of Fredonia, later to be known as the Fredonia Watch Company.
Like so many of Clemens' unfortunate business ventures, his investment in the Fredonia Watch Company turned out to be little more than a scheme intended primarily to extract money from Clemens with little hope of positive return. The Howard Brothers, patent-medicine salesmen, who had contrived to operate a mail-order watch business, became the target of Clemens' wrath after some shady financial dealings involving their own investment in Fredonia stock.
in September, 1882, Clemens instructed Webster to publish the following letter in the local newspapers:
$5,000 WATCH STOCK FOR SALE
I desire to sell $5,000 of stock in the Independent Watch Co., of Fredonia, N.Y. Lest the possible purchaser pay too much & afterward upbraid me, I will lay the facts bare before him; then he can buy wittingly.
Two or three years ago, some persons called the Howard Brothers (given names) born & reared in Fredonia & favorably known to everybody there, conceived the idea of getting up a watch-manufacturing Company. Their cipherings & prophecies were specious & plausible, & the stock was promptly subscribed by the confiding villagers. It is not unlikely that the Howards intended, from the beginning, to unload profitably, in due time, leaving the rest to save themselves as best they might; in any case, what is not unlikely, but certain, is, that they did presently unload a large portion of their stock -- offered to sell me $25,000 of it, I to allow them to control & vote upon it several months & until after the next ensuing annual meeting(!) And next, the Company declared a dividend -- not from earnings, therefore unlawfully, & consequently laying themselves heavily liable -- & on the strength of the fresh confidence thus created by this sign of (apparent) prosperity, the Howards worked off nearly all the rest of their stock -- taking most any description of property for it that offered. The Howards are virtually out, now, & fortified with fresh capital wherewith to push their patent medicine business; and the rest of us are still in -- but most of us do not know how to make watches or manage watch factories. Therefore, I desire to withdraw. Persons wishing to make me an offer (an exorbitant one not required,) may address
- S. L. CLEMENS, (Mark Twain) HARTFORD, CONN.
Apparently the letter was never published, as Charles Webster successfully negotiated the return of Clemens' money with the Howard brothers. Webster was Clemens' business manager and publisher. The book "Mark Twain, Businessman," edited by Webster's son Samuel, offers a fascinating view into the business behind the Mark Twain name. Nevertheless, the episode reminds us once again that one never wants to find themselves on the the wrong end of Mark Twain's pen.
For more of Mark Twain's musings on watches and the detestable "watch-tinkers," click here.
"Hatching Ruin - Or Mark Twain's Road to Bankruptcy", Charles H. Gold, University of Missouri Press, 2003
"Mark Twain, Businessman", Ed. Samuel Charles Webster, Little, Brown and Company, 1946 ]