Mark Twain? Bill Nye? Mr. Walkup? Eli Perkin? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, a business website published an article about investing in gold and mining equities. The columnist began with a very funny and facetious remark attributed to Mark Twain: 1
A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar standing on top of it.
The ascription was “unverified” according to the writer, and I have not been able find a convincing citation. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: For more than 130 years numerous variants of this quip have been circulating which makes it difficult to trace. The earliest instance located by QI appeared in “The Detroit Free Press” of Detroit, Michigan in 1881, and the text was rapidly disseminated via reprinting in several other newspapers such as the “New Haven Evening Register” of New Haven, Connecticut, “The Daily Inter Ocean” of Chicago, Illinois, and “The Wayne County Herald” of Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2 3 4 5
A mine is a hole in the ground. The discoverer of it is a natural liar. The hole in the ground and the liar combine and issue shares and trap fools.—Detroit Free Press.
The earliest instances of this family of jokes did not mention gold specifically; however, the cultural zeitgeist reflected a series of gold rushes that occurred during a multi-decade period.
Mark Twain’s name was not attached to the quip in its initial incarnations, but by 1896 he was being credited. As the phrasing evolved new versions were also ascribed to Twain. Since the famous humorist lived until 1910 it was conceivable that he employed the joke, but QI has found no direct evidence to support this linkage. For example, QI has been unable find an instance in important compilations like “Mark Twain Speaking” edited by Paul Fatout 6 and “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 7
Another prominent humorist named Bill Nye was linked to the quip in 1904, but that ascription was also poorly supported. In addition, a hodgepodge of little-known individuals has been connected to the jest over the years, but QI would label the originator anonymous.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Thanks to fine researcher Barry Popik whose exploration of the “gold mine” version of this saying also provided illumination.
In 1892 the “Saline County Journal” of Salina, Kansas printed an instance as a short comical item. An attribution was provided, but the phrase was already in circulation: 8
Mr. Walkup, of Evanston, Ill., has been victimized and he sizes up the situation thus: “A mine is a hole in the ground and the owner is a liar.”
By 1896 an instance had been reassigned to Mark Twain in a Marshall, Michigan newspaper: 9
Mark Twain’s definition of a mine is one that a good many people will endorse. Mark says: “A mine is a hole in the ground and its owner is a liar.”
In 1901 a California journal called the “Overland Monthly” printed a variant that excoriated prospectors: 10
A PROSPECTOR has been defined as “a man who owns a hole in the ground and is the biggest liar in thirteen counties,”…
In August 1903 an unidentified person in Atchison, Kansas was credited with a version that particularized the jest to a “gold mine” instead of a “mine”: 11
A man in Atchison, Kan., has given utterance of a heartfelt definition of a gold mine, which tells its own story. He says that a gold mine is “a hole in the ground owned by a liar.”
In September 1903 a convention of The American Mining Congress was held in South Dakota, and a speaker shared a humorous definition for a “mining claim”: 12
The only study I ever gave the subject was to commit Eli Perkin’s definition of a mining claim: “A mining claim, my son, is a hole in the ground, the owner of which is a liar.” (Cheers.)
In 1904 “The Black Hills Illustrated: A Terse Description of Conditions Past and Present of America’s Greatest Mineral Belt” was published, and a section written by Major A. J. Simmons presented the quip with an attribution to the well-regarded humorist Bill Nye who had died several years earlier in 1896. The term “d—d” was a censored form of the word “damned”: 13
This system of financiering was worked to such a degree that Bill Nye’s paraphrase of an early-day “gold mine,” “a hole in the ground, the owner whereof is a d—d liar,” came to be the popular accepted definition—and even at this late enlightened period there are instances where Mr. Nye’s theory of mines would find ample verification .
In January 1904 “The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness” printed a version of the joke that did not use the words “mine” or “gold”; instead, the word “bonanza” was employed to describe the illusory jackpot. The same joke was further disseminated in the humor magazine “Life” in February 1904: 14 15
LITTLE AMZI (who has an inquiring mind)—Uncle Timrod, what’s a bonanza?
FARMER NECKWHISKERS (painfully experienced)—A bonanza, durn it! is a hole in the ground, owned by a liar! That’s what a bonanza is!
In March 1904 “The Washington Post” recounted a statement made by an Iowa politician: 16
“I heard it said out there in Nevada,” interposed Mr. Lacey, of Iowa, “that the true definition of a gold mine was—‘a gold mine is a hole in the ground, the owner of which is a liar.’ Is that correct?”
In January 1905 the trade journal “American Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer” recounted the words of a speaker at a convention banquet who assigned an instance of the quip with “gold mine” to Mark Twain: 17
You have heard Mark Twain’s definition of a gold mine. A gold mine, he says, is a hole in the ground owned by a liar. (Laughter.)
In January 1907 a journal called “The World’s Work” published an article titled “The Innocent Investor and the Mining Boom” which included a variant jest that placed the liar at the top of the hole: 18
The old adage that a Western mine is “a hole in the ground with a liar at the top” holds good in a remarkably large proportion of cases.
In March 1907 “Success Magazine” printed an elaborate instance with a “champion liar”: 19
A certain western Congressman has had disastrous experience in gold-mine speculations. One day a number of colleagues were discussing the subject of speculation, when one of them said to the Western member:
“Tom, as an expert, give us a definition of the term ‘bonanza.'”
“A ‘bonanza,'” replied the Western man, with emphasis, “is a hole in the ground owned by a champion liar!”
In conclusion this family of jokes has been evolving for more than 130 years, and the creator of the initial instance was anonymous. QI believes that it is unlikely that Twain crafted the jest, and it is not clear whether he ever employed it.
Image Notes: Cropped image of hand-colored lantern slide circa 1915 of Mark Twain via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of gold by istara at Pixabay. Cropped section of an advertisement for California Clipper ship circa 1850 accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to George Mannes, senior editor at Money magazine, whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
Update History: On January 20, 2016 the November 9, 1881 citation in “Detroit Free Press” was added.
- Website: Bloomberg View, Article title: Are Shares of Gold Miners a ‘Buy’?, Author: Barry Ritholtz, Date on website: July 16, 2015, Website description: Articles by commentators about business from the Bloomberg organization, (Accessed bloombergview.com on July 19, 2015) link ↩
- 1881 November 9, Detroit Free Press, Currency, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1881 November 11, New Haven Evening Register, Don’t Care a Continental, Quote Page 2, Column 3, New Haven, Connecticut. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1881 November 30, The Daily Inter Ocean, Finance and Commerce, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Chicago, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1881 December 8, The Wayne County Herald, The Funny Men, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Honesdale, Pennsylvania. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1976, Mark Twain Speaking, Edited by Paul Fatout, Published by University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1892 September 15, Saline County Journal, (Short untitled item), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Salina, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1896 March 18, The Daily Chronicle, Brevities, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Marshall, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1901 September, Overland Monthly, Volume 38, Number 3, A Greenhorn’s Luck by Alice J. Stevens, Start Page 215, Quote Page 215, Published in San Francisco, California. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1903 August 22, Springfield Republican, Gleanings and Gossip, Quote Page 11, Column 4, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1904, Report of Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Session of The American Mining Congress, Location: Deadwood and Lead, South Dakota, Dates: September 7 thru 12, 1903, (Speaker Leslie M. Shaw), Quote Page 22, Published by Union Printing Company, Portland, Oregon. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1904, The Black Hills Illustrated: A Terse Description of Conditions Past and Present of America’s Greatest Mineral Belt, Edited by George P. Baldwin, Edited under the auspices of The Black Hills Mining Men’s Association, Looking Backward 56 Years: Broad Thoughts in Condensed Form by Major A. J. Simmons, Start Page 31, Quote Page 31, Column 2, Published by the Baldwin Syndicate, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1904 January, The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness, Volume 12, Number 1, A Definition, Quote Page 106, Ess Ess Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1904 February 18, Life, Volume 43, Number 1112, Our Foolish Contemporaries, Start Page 172, Quote Page 172, Column 1, Published at the Life Office, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1904 March 9, The Washington Post, Capitol Chat, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1905 January 21, American Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer, Volume 71, Number 15, Banquet to the Retailers, (Speaker Prof. Harry Pratt Judson), Start Page 19, Quote Page 29, Published by William P. Symonds, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1907 January, The World’s Work, Volume 13, Number 3, The Innocent Investor and the Mining Boom, Start Page 838, Quote Page 8384, Published by Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1907 March, Success Magazine, Volume 10, Number 154, A Bonanza, Quote Page 208, Published by The Success Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩