Mark Twain Drafts the Ultimate Letter of Complaint (1905)


Click above for a larg­er ver­sion of page one and click here to see page two. 

I recent­ly made the mis­take of craft­ing a let­ter of com­plaint that sound­ed much more tem­per­ate than I felt. On the advice of my hus­band, I delet­ed any­thing smack­ing of emo­tion, lim­it­ing my griev­ances to incon­tro­vert­ible fact. A month lat­er and I am still wait­ing for a reply.

Wish that I had let it all hang out, as Mark Twain did in the above 1905 let­ter to J. H. Todd, a snake oil sales­man whose “Elixir of Life” was alleged to cure even the most ter­mi­nal of med­ical con­di­tions. How sat­is­fy­ing it would have been to indulge in phras­es like “idiot of the 33rd degree” and “scion of an ances­tral pro­ces­sion of idiots stretch­ing back to the Miss­ing Link”!

Hav­ing answered phones in cus­tomer ser­vice, I can attest that there are times when such phras­es are mis­di­rect­ed. This was not one of them. Sub­ject your­self to a thor­ough read­ing of the Elixir’s claims (a typog­ra­phy chal­lenge on order of a Dr. Bron­ner’s label) and you will share the author’s out­rage.

Char­la­tans could be dealt with light­ly in lit­er­a­ture—wit­ness Huck­le­ber­ry Finn’s self-pro­claimed Duke—but hav­ing lost chil­dren to two of the dis­eases Tod­d’s potion pur­port­ed to cure, Twain refused to let Todd off the hook in real life. His “unkind state of mind” is as brac­ing as it is war­rant­ed.

Though I doubt he got a reply either.


Nov. 20. 1905

J. H. Todd

1212 Web­ster St.

San Fran­cis­co, Cal.

Dear Sir,

Your let­ter is an insol­u­ble puz­zle to me. The hand­writ­ing is good and exhibits con­sid­er­able char­ac­ter, and there are even traces of intel­li­gence in what you say, yet the let­ter and the accom­pa­ny­ing adver­tise­ments pro­fess to be the work of the same hand. The per­son who wrote the adver­tise­ments is with­out doubt the most igno­rant per­son now alive on the plan­et; also with­out doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ances­tral pro­ces­sion of idiots stretch­ing back to the Miss­ing Link. It puz­zles me to make out how the same hand could have con­struct­ed your let­ter and your adver­tise­ments. Puz­zles fret me, puz­zles annoy me, puz­zles exas­per­ate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the per­son who has puz­zled me. A few moments from now my resent­ment will have fad­ed and passed and I shall prob­a­bly even be pray­ing for you; but while there is yet time I has­ten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poi­son by mis­take, and enter swift­ly into the damna­tion which you and all oth­er patent med­i­cine assas­sins have so remorse­less­ly earned and do so rich­ly deserve.

Adieu, adieu, adieu!

Mark Twain

via Let­ters of Note

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mark Twain Wrote the First Book Ever Writ­ten With a Type­writer

Mark Twain Shirt­less in 1883 Pho­to

Mark Twain Cap­tured on Film by Thomas Edi­son in 1909. It’s the Only Known Footage of the Author.

Ayun Hal­l­i­day sus­pects Mum­my Pow­der is not an effec­tive treat­ment for epilep­sy. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

by | Permalink | Comments (6) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (6)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.