Quote Origin: Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

Mark Twain? Frank Marshall White? Albert Bigelow Paine? Apocryphal?

Public domain illustration of Mark Twain

Question for Quote Investigator: A famous anecdote about the humorist Mark Twain occurred when he was an elderly gentleman. A prominent newspaper reported that Twain was either gravely ill or dead. Journalists rushed to learn more about the story, and they found that Twain was still alive and in good health. When Twain was asked about the faulty report he responded with a quip. Here are four versions:

(1) The report of my death was an exaggeration
(2) Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated
(3) The report of my death has been grossly exaggerated
(4) The rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated

Would you please help to dispel the uncertainty about what Twain really said by exploring this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: An entertaining thematic precursor to this quip was written by Mark Twain in 1863 while he was in Virginia City, Nevada. Twain sent a series of letters about his experiences in Nevada to the “Daily Morning Call” of San Francisco, California which published them.1 One of Twain’s letters2 described a false rumor about a local resident’s death. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:3

There was a report about town, last night, that Charles Strong, Esq., Superintendent of the Gould & Curry, had been shot and very effectually killed. I asked him about it at church this morning. He said there was no truth in the rumor.

Another precursor appeared in a short item within “The Daily Examiner” of San Francisco in 1882. The writer was an anonymous journalist:4

The rumor in reference to John Davis’ death was greatly exaggerated, and that gentleman was in Oakland to-day, apparently as well as ever.

On June 1, 1897 several newspapers reported that Mark Twain was seriously ill. The “Plainfield Courier-News” of New Jersey5 and the “Lebanon Daily News” of Pennsylvania6 both credited “The New York Herald” for the pessimistic story:

The sad news comes from London that Mark Twain is grievously ill and possibly dying. Worse still, we are told that his brilliant intellect is shattered and that he is sorely in need of money. Bravely and sturdily he fought up to the last, endeavoring to regain some portion of his lost fortune, and now it seems that his indomitable energy has at last left him and that we are not likely again to have any of those flashes of genius which long ago showed Mark Twain as the greatest living American humorist.

After all, the news from London may be exaggerated, though Mark Twain’s friends in this city are inclined to believe that it is true. For years Mark Twain was one of the most popular authors in this country as well as in Great Britain.

Several journalists attempted to contact Twain in London to determine the truth. The “New York Journal” published a story by journalist Frank Marshall White on the following day, June 2, 1897. Twain provided a rebuttal to the somber news:7

Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a Journal representative informed him to-day of the report in New York that he was dying in poverty in London.

He is living in comfort and even luxury in a handsomely furnished house in a beautiful square in Chelsea with his wife and children . . .

The great humorist, while not perhaps very robust, is in the best of health. He said:

“I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about. I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. James Ross Clemens, of St. Louis, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness.

“The report of my death was an exaggeration. The report of my poverty is harder to deal with. My friends might know that unless I were actually dying in poverty I should not live in poverty when I am receiving offers to lecture by every mail.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

On June 3, 1897 “The Evening Star” of Washington, D.C. printed a article which used the adjective “greatly” when presenting Twain’s response:8

“Mark Twain” says that his reported death has been greatly “exaggerated.” The idea of an exaggerated death is worthy of Mark’s prime in the joking line.

On June 12, 1897 a version of the quip was applied to a different person whose death was uncertain:9

And now Schlatter, whose skeleton was reported to have been found in New Mexico, makes his appearance and says the stories of his death have been “greatly exaggerated.”

In November 1897 “The Commercial Appeal” of Tennessee printed another version of the anecdote with the adjective “greatly”:10

Some time ago a report of Mark Twain’s death was sent to England, and one of his English friends cabled to Hartford to ascertain if it were true. Mark at once cabled back: “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”.

In January 1898 “The Niobrara Tribune” of Nebraska printed a version of the anecdote with the adjective “grossly”:11

A good story is being told about Mark Twain. Some time ago reports of his death in London were circulated in Hartford, Conn., his American home, and Mr. Charles Dudley Warner cabled to a friend in London asking if the news was true. The friend handed the cablegram to Twain himself, who cabled back: “Reports of my death grossly exaggerated; Mark Twain.”

In September 1906 Twain published an installment of his autobiography in “The North American Review” of New York. Twain included a passage which presented his recollections of the event, and he included the word “greatly” in his quip:12

This reminds me—nine years ago, when we were living in Tedworth Square, London, a report was cabled to the American journals that I was dying. I was not the one. It was another Clemens, a cousin of mine,—Dr. J. Ross Clemens, now of St. Louis—who was due to die but presently escaped, by some chicanery or other characteristic of the tribe of Clemens.

The London representatives of the American papers began to flock in, with American cables in their hands, to inquire into my condition. There was nothing the matter with me, and each in his turn was astonished, and disappointed, to find me reading and smoking in my study and worth next to nothing as a text for transatlantic news.

One of these men was a gentle and kindly and grave and sympathetic Irishman, who hid his sorrow the best he could, and tried to look glad, and told me that his paper, the Evening Sun, had cabled him that it was reported in New York that I was dead. What should he cable in reply? I said—

“Say the report is greatly exaggerated.”

He never smiled, but went solemnly away and sent the cable in those words. The remark hit the world pleasantly, and to this day it keeps turning up, now and then, in the newspapers when people have occasion to discount exaggerations.

Twain died in 1910. In 1912 Twain’s friend Albert Bigelow Paine published “Mark Twain: A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens” which contained the following passage about the event. Paine included the word “grossly” in Twain’s quip:13

A reporter ferreted him out and appeared at Tedworth Square with cabled instructions from his paper. He was a young man, and innocently enough exhibited his credentials. His orders read: “If Mark Twain very ill, five hundred words. If dead, send one thousand.”

Clemens smiled grimly as he handed back the cable. “You don’t need as much as that,” he said. “Just say the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.”

Also, in 1912 a newspaper in Virginia City, Montana published an instance with the words “rumors” and “demise”:14

. . . Mark Twain, who made the comment that “the rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated” . . .

In 1940 “Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events by Mark Twain” edited by Bernard DeVoto was published. It contained a version of the tale15 which matched the text given in “The North American Review” in 1906.

In 1948 the compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger included a pertinent entry16 which was based on the passage in the 1912 biography of Twain.

In 2006 Professor W. Joseph Campbell of American University published “The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms”. Campbell discussed the anecdote and pointed to the key early reports in “The New York Herald” and the “New York Journal”.17

In summary, the earliest published report on June 2, 1897 credited Mark Twain with this version of the quip:  “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” In the following days and weeks the adjectives “greatly” and “grossly” were added to the quip in some newspaper reports. In 1906 Twain recalled a slightly different phrasing: “Say the report is exaggerated.” In 1912 Albert Bigelow Paine’s biography of Twain contained this version: “Just say the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.”

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of Mark Twain. The image has been cropped, resized, and retouched.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to top researcher Barbara Schmidt who provided valuable assistance tracing the 1863 citation. Special thanks to Robert Hirst of the Mark Twain Project, Berkeley who provided a scan of the 1863 letter in “The San Francisco Daily Morning Call”. Also thanks to previous researchers including R. Kent Rasmussen, Ralph Keyes, W. Joseph Campbell, Fred R. Shapiro, and Nigel Rees.

Update History: On June 21, 2024 the 1863 citation for the scan of Twain’s letter in “The San Francisco Daily Morning Call” was added to the article.

  1. Website: Twain Quotes, Edited by Barbara Schmidt, Article description: Reprint of piece from “The San Francisco Daily Morning Call” of California, Article author: Mark Twain, Date letter was written: July 5, 1863, Date letter was published: July 9, 1863, Website description: Authoritative collection of Mark Twain quotations, newspaper clippings, and related resources. (Accessed twainquotes.com on June 5, 2024) link ↩︎
  2. 1979, The Works of Mark Twain, Volume 15, Early Tales & Sketches 1851-1864, Volume 1, Edited by Edgar Marquess Branch and Robert H. Hirst, With the Assistance of Harriet Elinor Smith, Chapter 54: “Mark Twain’s” Letter, Letter Date: July 5, 1863, Publication date in “Daily Morning Call”: July 9, 1863, Quote Page 258, Published for The Iowa Center for Textual Studies by the University of California Press, Berkeley, California. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  3. 1863 July 9, The San Francisco Daily Morning Call, “Mark Twain’s” Letter, Date on Letter: July 5, 1863, Letter Section: False Report, San Francisco, California. (Verified with an article scan obtained via Mark Twain Project, University of California, Berkeley) ↩︎
  4. 1882 January 25, The Daily Examiner, Oakland Brevities, Quote Page 2, Column 5, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  5. 1897 June 1, Plainfield Courier-News, Mark Twain’s Illness, Quote Page 3, Column 6, Plainfield, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  6. 1897 June 1, Lebanon Daily News, Mark Twain’s Illness, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Lebanon, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  7. 1897 June 2, New York Journal, Mark Twain Amused by Frank Marshall White, Quote Page 1, Column 3, New York, New York.  (Library of Congress; Chronicling America) link ↩︎
  8. 1897 June 3, The Evening Star, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Washington, D.C.  (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  9. 1897 June 12, The Morning News, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Muncie, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  10. 1897 November 6, The Commercial Appeal, A Barbarous Game, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Memphis, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  11. 1898 January 5, The Niobrara Tribune, Twain Was Alive, Quote Page 3, Column 6, Niobrara, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  12. 1906 September 21, The North American Review, Volume 183, Number 588, Chapters From My Autobiography by Mark Twain, Start Page 449, Quote Page 460, The North American Review Publishing Company, Franklin Square, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  13. 1912, Mark Twain: A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens by Albert Bigelow Paine, Volume 3 of 4, Chapter 197: Finishing the Book of Travel, Quote Page 1039, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  14. 1912 August 9, The Madisonian, Local News of the Week, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Virginia City, Montana. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  15. 1940, Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events by Mark Twain, Edited by Bernard DeVoto, Third Edition, Section: In a Writer’s Workshop, Sub-section: 10 “The Report of My Death” (April 3, 1906), Quote Page 252 and 253, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  16. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips, Edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Topic: Death, Quote Page 76, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  17. 2006, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms by W. Joseph Campbell, Chapter 2: The Clash of Paradigms, Quote Page 78 and 79, Routledge: Imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎