by Mark Twain. Originally published in 1893-1894 by Century Magazine in seven installments. New York: Barnes and Noble Classic, 2005. 256pp. $5.95 paper. ISBN: 9781593082550.

Reviewed by Christopher P. Banks, Department of Political Science, Kent State University. Email: cbanks6 [at] kent.edu.


At first blush Mark Twain’s PUDD’NHEAD WILSON would not seem appropriate for inclusion in a special issue analyzing literature that contributes to political science or criminal justice pedagogy. Published in the United States in 1894 as THE TRAGEDY OF PUDD’NHEAD WILSON AND THE COMEDY OF THOSE EXTRAORDINARY TWINS, the book actually contains two tales, the sums of which arguably constitute “comic tragedy” (Railton 2002). The first story narrates events surrounding the protagonist’s life before the Civil War. In Dawson’s Landing, a village nestled between St. Louis and the mighty Mississippi, a fair-skinned slave nanny, Roxy (owned by Judge Driscoll’s brother), switches at birth Judge Driscoll’s nephew, Tom, with her own enslaved boy, Chambers. The shorter appendage, THOSE EXTRAORDINARY TWINS, continues the saga after the plot concludes in PUDD’NHEAD WILSON by examining the fate of Angelo and Luigi Capello, foreigners involved in the main story who become ensnared as principal suspects in Judge Driscoll’s murder trial.

Although critics have debated whether the separate stories are best considered as a unitary essay (O’Connell 2002), or whether PUDD’NHEAD WILSON is Twain’s most insightful exposition on slavery or racism (Spangler 1970) in conjunction with the ill-effect of public opinion (Coburn 1970), arguably the first chronicle is the most coherent story with the best potential for application in law and social sciences courses. The novel is an excellent literary devise to compare and contrast themes recurring in judicial process, law and society, or criminal justice courses. After a brief account of PUDD’NHEAD WILSON’s plot, the review will outline the particular ways in which the short novel can be put to use in those types of courses.

PUDD’NHEAD WILSON traces the tragic consequences flowing from the double-life that Tom lives as an undeserving and often monstrous heir to his rich uncle’s estate. He is undeserving because he is really a slave who can pass as a white; and he is a monster because he is relentlessly irresponsible and merciless in his cruelty towards his mother, Roxy. She is a slave who at great expense to her own security keeps Tom’s true identity secret. More than once, she gets Tom out of the trouble he causes by abusing his uncle’s finances and honorable reputation with a pattern of compulsive gambling and cowardice. Tom’s lack of courage ultimately brings him into conflict with his uncle, Judge Driscoll, who is forced to defend Tom’s honor in a duel when Tom refuses to fight after being humiliated in public by Luigi Capello. His lack of fortitude also [*361] is the reason why Judge Driscoll, and Tom, conspire to discredit Luigi publicly after the duel (which Driscoll and Luigi survive). It becomes part of a chain of events that leads to Tom killing his uncle and conveniently laying the blame on the Capello twins, who ran to assist the Judge who had been fatally stabbed by Tom. Tom had tried to steal the Judge’s money while his uncle slept in his house office.

Tom’s secret life, as not only a false heir but also as a thief, intersects with the protagonist, David Wilson, as the story unfolds. As Twain tells it, Wilson is a young lawyer whose reputation is sullied by making an innocuous but ill-considered remark shortly after arriving in town. The misstep causes the village residents to refer to him as “pudd’nhead,” a regrettable label that clings to him for the next twenty years and prevents him from practicing his calling. But, much later on, Wilson’s public reputation grows when he represents, and successfully defends Luigi at a public trial after he is falsely accused of killing the Judge.

Although Wilson is described as “college-bred”, Twain reveals little about his law training other than to say he “had finished a post-college course in an Eastern law school” (p.8) before coming to Dawson’s Landing. Twain expands on two of Wilson’s “pet fads” (p.10), however, which comprise “palmistry” and an unclassified habit “which dealt with people’s finger-marks” (p.11). The latter inclination, which for Pudd’nhead becomes more of a preoccupation, causes him to record meticulously the fingerprints of all of Dawson’s Landing inhabitants over their lifetimes. He kept them on small sheets of glass that were always in his possession or in his office. As it turns out, Wilson’s fingerprinting assumes central importance in exposing Tom as the Judge Driscoll’s murderer near the end of the story.

Several aspects of PUDD’NHEAD WILSON have exciting potential for classroom use. First, Twain’s decision to highlight fingerprinting as a central plot element was ahead of its time, as was Twain’s description of it as an evidentiary tool in a jury trial. As he wrote, “Every human being carries with him from his cradle to his grave certain physical marks which do not change their character, and by which he can always be identified…These marks are his signature, his physiological autograph…[that cannot] become illegible by the wear and the mutations of time” (p.133). In the story, the duplicity underlying Tom’s claim as an heir to his uncle’s estate because of Roxy’s decision to switch the babies at birth could not hide the truth that he was a murderer—a principle that lies at the core of the underlying assumptions of the truth-seeking adversarial model of the criminal justice system.

Under that model of adversarial justice, the prosecutors retain the evidentiary burden to prove Tom’s guilt in front of the jury representing a cross-section of the community (whether the jury in PUDD’NHEAD fairly represented anything other than male, slaveholding white folks is another issue for class discussion). Likewise, Wilson had the onus to rebut the prosecution’s case, which he did through an innovative strategy of forensic science that was still in its infancy at the time Twain wrote the book. In addition to reinforcing the basic [*362] tenets of criminal advocacy and procedure, instructors can use PUDD’NHEAD WILSON as a vehicle to introduce students to contemporary topics in forensic science and to show how lawyers relying upon it can vindicate those who are falsely accused of crimes with DNA “fingerprints” or the like. In the process, the classroom can become engaged in analyzing how scientific evidence is a problem of resources for counsel representing indigent clients, as well as the foundation for the rise of “innocence commissions” that work towards reversing wrongful convictions in criminal justice cases (Schehr and Sears 2005; Scheck and Neufeld 2002).

Next, because the events leading up to Tom’s murder trial track the ordinary sequence of facts that are put before a jury trying a criminal case, the novel can be an effective means to construct, and then dispel, the common perception that the truth, and perhaps justice, only emerge from adversarial criminal proceedings resulting in jury verdicts. As any lawyer or student of law and courts knows, most laymen falsely believe that the true facts of a criminal prosecution are exposed only after the jury discovers it with the help of skillful lawyer-advocates who are engaged in a trial supervised by an unbiased judge. That typical impression is reinforced on a daily basis on the law-and-order cop shows on cable television, and it finds expression in PUDD’NHEAD WILSON. After all, the bad guy was caught in a highly publicized trial that involved a jury and the skilled efforts of a courtroom advocate, just like on T.V. Yet, and as a result of the common misperceptions surrounding the judicial process, the book can be utilized as a myth-buster to illustrate that 95% or more of criminal adjudications are not settled by a singular trial event, but rather by plea bargains or behind the scenes deals that are cut between the prosecution and defense, without jury knowledge or input. Nor is it always accurate, one can also observe, that lawyers are even put in a position to succeed in high-profile criminal trials when the clients are often indigent, the caseload pressures are high, and the resources (and sometimes lawyer competency) are woefully inadequate to the task at hand.

In this light, the issue of why the trial process has become less a courtroom show, or perhaps (more charitably) less a naked exhibition of the raw legal talents of orators who spar for the truth in front of peers sitting in judgment of the accused may be fodder for a classroom debate about the transformation of the legal profession after the introduction of the casebook method as the principal means to train lawyers after 1870. In PUDD’NHEAD WILSON, the lawyer found the truth in an open courtroom and, in an earlier day, that forum typically was the venue for great status and reputation. But, with the rise of the casebook method in U.S. law schools, legal apprenticeship for law training dissipated, and so too did the chances for earning big wins in a courtroom, a phenomenon that coincided with the rise of more efficient, profit-minded Wall Street-modeled law firms. In essence, the book could be the starting point for an analysis of the transformation of the practice of law into the business of law. In addition, an identical classroom discussion could consider the thorny questions that arise over the fairness of prosecutorial discretion and plea [*363] bargains, the reduced role of juries as a source of community conscience and wisdom, and whether trials themselves have become relics of the past because of the costs, time, and caseload demands associated with modern litigation (Yeazell 2004).

Finally, PUDD’NHEAD WILSON can be an example in literature to mull over what many believe ought to be the true “end game” of criminal litigation: that justice is achieved. Although Luigi is set free by a jury of his peers, the trial could not erase the twenty-three years of slavery that Chambers endured because of Roxy and Tom’s deception. As Twain recounts, due to the trial Chambers “suddenly found himself rich and free”, but he “could neither read nor write, and his speech was the base dialect of the negro quarter. His gait, his attitudes, his gestures, his bearing, his laugh—all were vulgar and uncouth; his manners were the manners of a slave”, and the “poor fellow” only “felt at home and at peace nowhere but in the kitchen” (p. 140). Similarly, as Twain explains at the novel’s conclusion, Tom’s confession and subsequent life imprisonment only hurt the creditors who suffered a bigger loss in settling the murdered Judge’s estate after the murderer’s true identity was discovered, in large part because Tom was not rightfully considered a slave and estate property. If he was, he would not have been free to murder his uncle. “As soon as the Governor understood the case,” Twain writes, “he pardoned Tom at once, and the creditors sold him down the river” (p. 140).

In spite of Luigi’s acquittal, and as happens in many litigated matters in real life, PUDD’NHEAD WILSON illustrates that the application of law in a jury trial may sometimes led to unintended consequences and injustice. One of the case’s victims, Chambers, was not helped at all by the orderly application of adversarial justice in a criminal trial; and Tom, although he was punished, was sanctioned by the extralegal effect of a gubernatorial pardon arising from the overriding interests of creditors, a judgment that in the end was not what the jury intended through the imposition of a life sentence. The comic tragedy of PUDD’NHEAD WILSON, then, serves up the cold lesson that is often repeated in law and courts courses—sometimes the law, despite its best intentions, is a source of great misfortune for those who either intentionally or unwittingly become entangled in the judicial process.

Coburn, Mark D. 1970. “Training is Everything: Communal Opinion and the Individual in Pudd’nhead Wilson.” MODERN LANGUAGE QUARTERLY 31 (2): 209-219.

O’Connell, Catharine. 2002. “Resecting ’Those Extraordinary Twins: Pudd’nhead Wilson’ and the Costs of ‘Killing Half.’” NINETEENTH-CENTURY LITERATURE 57 (1): 100-124.

Railton, Stephen. 2002. “The Tragedy of Mark Twain.” NINETEENTH-CENTURY LITERATURE 56 (4): 518-544.

Scheck, Barry C. and Peter J. Neufeld. 2002. “Toward the Formation of ’Innocence Commissions in America.’” JUDICATURE 86 (September/October): 98-105. [*364]

Schehr, Robert Carl and Jamie Sears. 2005. “Innocence Commissions: Due Process Remedies and Protection for the Innocent Critical.” CRIMINOLOGY 13: 181–209.

Spangler, George M. “Pudd’nhead Wilson: A Parable of Property.” AMERICAN LITERATURE 42 (1): 28-37.

Yeazell, Stephen C. 2004. “Getting What We Asked For, Getting What We Paid For, and Not Liking What We Got: The Vanishing Civil Trial.” JOURNAL OF EMPIRICAL LEGAL STUDIES 1: 943-971.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Christopher P. Banks.