She Was a Sinking Vessel with No Freight to Throw Overboard

Mark Twain? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have heard the following quote attributed to Mark Twain:

A man who doesn’t smoke is like a sinking ship with no rats to desert it.

True of false?

Quote Investigator: QI was unable to locate a close match for that quotation in the works of Mark Twain; however, QI did find an anecdote about a woman who did not smoke, drink, or swear. The woman was ill, and Twain employed a figure of speech that compared her plight to that of a sinking vessel without any freight to throw overboard. This episode was presented in the 1897 travel book “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World”, and it may have been transmuted over time to yield the questioner’s quotation.

Here is an excerpt from Twain’s book describing the medical advice he offered to the woman [FESF]:

She had run down and down and down, and had at last reached a point where medicines no longer had any helpful effect upon her. I said I knew I could put her upon her feet in a week. It brightened her up, it filled her with hope, and she said she would do everything I told her to do. So I said she must stop swearing and drinking, and smoking and eating for four days, and then she would be all right again.

And it would have happened just so, I know it; but she said she could not stop swearing, and smoking and drinking, because she had never done those things. So there it was. She had neglected her habits, and hadn’t any. Now that they would have come good, there were none in stock. She had nothing to fall back on. She was a sinking vessel, with no freight in her to throw overboard and lighten ship withal.

Why, even one or two little bad habits could have saved her, but she was just a moral pauper. When she could have acquired them she was dissuaded by her parents, who were ignorant people though reared in the best society, and it was too late to begin now. It seemed such a pity; but there was no help for it. These things ought to be attended to while a person is young; otherwise, when age and disease come, there is nothing effectual to fight them with.

End excerpt from “Following the Equator”.

Modern retellings of tale often change the phrasing. For example, “sinking vessel”  might be changed to “sinking ship” or “foundering ship”. Also, “freight” to throw overboard might be changed to “ballast”. Here is a variant in a 2001 guide for bicycle travelers [ETMT]:

Mark Twain once wrote about a lady whose health was failing and who had no bad habits like drinking or smoking to give up. There she was, quipped Twain, a foundering ship with no ballast to throw overboard to lighten the load.

In 2008 a book of medical advice presented a version in which a doctor character was added to the tale  [FDMT]:

Mark Twain tells of a doctor at the bedside of a very sick, elderly lady. The doctor told her that she must stop drinking, cussing, and smoking. The lady said that she’d never done any of those things in her entire life. The doctor responded, “Well, that’s your problem, then. You’ve neglected your habits.” Twain added: “She was like a sinking ship with no freight to throw overboard.”

The picture further below is from the 1897 edition of “Following the Equator” , and it illustrates the story immediately following the one discussed above. Twain is trying to reduce his smoking habit, and he pledges to himself that he will smoke only one cigar per day.  This causes him to hunt for larger and larger cigars [FESF]:

Within the month my cigar had grown to such proportions that I could have used it as a crutch. It now seemed to me that a one-cigar limit was no real protection to a person, so I knocked my pledge on the head and resumed my liberty.

In conclusion, Twain did tell a humorous tale comparing a non-smoker to a sinking vessel. This is the best match QI could locate, and perhaps your quotation was derived from this story. QI appreciates your challenging question.

(Many thanks to Howard Newell whose query provided the motivation for the performance of this investigation.)

[FESF] 1897, Following the Equator: a Journey Around the World by Mark Twain, Pages 31-33, The American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Google Books full view) link

[ETMT] 2001 [Copyright 1994], The Essential Touring Cyclist by Richard A. Lovett, 2nd Edition, Page 53, Column 2, Ragged Mountain Press, Camden, Maine [McGraw-Hill Company, Blacklick, Ohio]. (Google Books preview) link

[FDMT] 2008 [Copyright 2005], “Fire Your Doctor!: How to Be Independently Healthy” by Andrew W. Saul, Page 53, Read How You Want, Accessible Publishing Systems, [Basic Health Publications, Inc., Laguna Beach, California]. (Google Books preview) link