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.
- 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) ↩