The Gilded Age; a Tale of Today

Author: Mark Twain

Chapter XLVII.

Philip’s first effort was to get Harry out of the Tombs. He gained permission to see him, in the presence of an officer, during the day, and he found that hero very much cast down.

"I never intended to come to such a place as this, old fellow," he said to Philip; "it’s no place for a gentleman, they’ve no idea how to treat a gentleman. Look at that provender," pointing to his uneaten prison ration. "They tell me I am detained as a witness, and I passed the night among a lot of cut-throats and dirty rascals—a pretty witness I’d be in a month spent in such company."

"But what under heavens," asked Philip, "induced you to come to New York with Laura! What was it for?"

"What for? Why, she wanted me to come. I didn’t know anything about that cursed Selby. She said it was lobby business for the University. I’d no idea what she was dragging me into that confounded hotel for. I suppose she knew that the Southerners all go there, and thought she’d find her man. Oh! Lord, I wish I’d taken your advice. You might as well murder somebody and have the credit of it, as get into the newspapers the way I have. She’s pure devil, that girl. You ought to have seen how sweet she was on me; what an ass I am."

"Well, I’m not going to dispute a poor, prisoner. But the first thing is to get you out of this. I’ve brought the note Laura wrote you, for one thing, and I’ve seen your uncle, and explained the truth of the case to him. He will be here soon."

Harry’s uncle came, with; other friends, and in the course of the day made such a showing to the authorities that Harry was released, on giving bonds to appear as a witness when wanted. His spirits rose with their usual elasticity as soon as he was out of Centre Street, and he insisted on giving Philip and his friends a royal supper at Delmonico’s, an excess which was perhaps excusable in the rebound of his feelings, and which was committed with his usual reckless generosity. Harry ordered, the supper, and it is perhaps needless to say, that Philip paid the bill.

Neither of the young men felt like attempting to see Laura that day, and she saw no company except the newspaper reporters, until the arrival of Col. Sellers and Washington Hawkins, who had hastened to New York with all speed.

They found Laura in a cell in the upper tier of the women’s department. The cell was somewhat larger than those in the men’s department, and might be eight feet by ten square, perhaps a little longer. It was of stone, floor and all, and tile roof was oven shaped. A narrow slit in the roof admitted sufficient light, and was the only means of ventilation; when the window was opened there was nothing to prevent the rain coming in. The only means of heating being from the corridor, when the door was ajar, the cell was chilly and at this time damp. It was whitewashed and clean, but it had a slight jail odor; its only furniture was a narrow iron bedstead, with a tick of straw and some blankets, not too clean.

When Col. Sellers was conducted to this cell by the matron and looked , in, his emotions quite overcame him, the tears rolled down his cheeks and his voice trembled so that he could hardly speak. Washington was unable to say anything; he looked from Laura to the miserable creatures who were walking in the corridor with unutterable disgust. Laura was alone calm and self-contained, though she was not unmoved by the sight of the grief of her friends.

"Are you comfortable, Laura?" was the first word the Colonel could get out.

"You see," she replied. "I can’t say it’s exactly comfortable."

"Are you cold?"

"It is pretty chilly. The stone floor is like ice. It chills me through to step on it. I have to sit on the bed."

"Poor thing, poor thing. And can you eat any thing?"

"No, I am not hungry. I don’t know that I could eat any thing, I can’t eat that."

"Oh dear," continued the Colonel, "it’s dreadful. But cheer up, dear, cheer up;" and the Colonel broke down entirely.

"But," he went on, "we’ll stand by you. We’ll do everything for you. I know you couldn’t have meant to do it, it must have been insanity, you know, or something of that sort. You never did anything of the sort before."

Laura smiled very faintly and said,

"Yes, it was something of that sort. It’s all a whirl. He was a villain; you don’t know."

"I’d rather have killed him myself, in a duel you know, all fair. I wish I had. But don’t you be down. We’ll get you the best counsel, the lawyers in New York can do anything; I’ve read of cases. But you must be comfortable now. We’ve brought some of your clothes, at the hotel. What else, can we get for you?"

"Laura suggested that she would like some sheets for her bed, a piece of carpet to step on, and her meals sent in; and some books and writing materials if it was allowed. The Colonel and Washington promised to procure all these things, and then took their sorrowful leave, a great deal more affected than the criminal was, apparently, by her situation.

The colonel told the matron as he went away that if she would look to Laura’s comfort a little it shouldn’t be the worse for her; and to the turnkey who let them out he patronizingly said,

"You’ve got a big establishment here, a credit to the city. I’ve got a friend in there—I shall see you again, sir."

By the next day something more of Laura’s own story began to appear in the newspapers, colored and heightened by reporters’ rhetoric. Some of them cast a lurid light upon the Colonel’s career, and represented his victim as a beautiful avenger of her murdered innocence; and others pictured her as his willing paramour and pitiless slayer. Her communications to the reporters were stopped by her lawyers as soon as they were retained and visited her, but this fact did not prevent—it may have facilitated—the appearance of casual paragraphs here and there which were likely to beget popular sympathy for the poor girl.

The occasion did not pass without "improvement" by the leading journals; and Philip preserved the editorial comments of three or four of them which pleased him most. These he used to read aloud to his friends afterwards and ask them to guess from which journal each of them had been cut. One began in this simple manner:—

History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of
the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken
fragments of antique legends. Washington is not Corinth, and Lais,
the beautiful daughter of Timandra, might not have been the
prototype of the ravishing Laura, daughter of the plebeian house of
Hawkins; but the orators add statesmen who were the purchasers of
the favors of the one, may have been as incorruptible as the
Republican statesmen who learned how to love and how to vote from
the sweet lips of the Washington lobbyist; and perhaps the modern
Lais would never have departed from the national Capital if there
had been there even one republican Xenocrates who resisted her
blandishments. But here the parallel: fails. Lais, wandering away
with the youth Rippostratus, is slain by the women who are jealous
of her charms. Laura, straying into her Thessaly with the youth
Brierly, slays her other lover and becomes the champion of the
wrongs of her sex.

Another journal began its editorial with less lyrical beauty, but with equal force. It closed as follows:—

With Laura Hawkins, fair, fascinating and fatal, and with the
dissolute Colonel of a lost cause, who has reaped the harvest he
sowed, we have nothing to do. But as the curtain rises on this
awful tragedy, we catch a glimpse of the society at the capital
under this Administration, which we cannot contemplate without alarm
for the fate of the Republic.

A third newspaper took up the subject in a different tone. It said:—

Our repeated predictions are verified. The pernicious doctrines
which we have announced as prevailing in American society have been
again illustrated. The name of the city is becoming a reproach.
We may have done something in averting its ruin in our resolute
exposure of the Great Frauds; we shall not be deterred from
insisting that the outraged laws for the protection of human life
shall be vindicated now, so that a person can walk the streets or
enter the public houses, at least in the day-time, without the risk
of a bullet through his brain.

A fourth journal began its remarks as follows:—

The fullness with which we present our readers this morning the
details of the Selby-Hawkins homicide is a miracle of modern
journalism. Subsequent investigation can do little to fill out the
picture. It is the old story. A beautiful woman shoots her
absconding lover in cold-blood; and we shall doubtless learn in due
time that if she was not as mad as a hare in this month of March,
she was at least laboring under what is termed "momentary insanity."

It would not be too much to say that upon the first publication of the facts of the tragedy, there was an almost universal feeling of rage against the murderess in the Tombs, and that reports of her beauty only heightened the indignation. It was as if she presumed upon that and upon her sex, to defy the law; and there was a fervent, hope that the law would take its plain course.

Yet Laura was not without friends, and some of them very influential too. She had in keeping a great many secrets and a great many reputations, perhaps. Who shall set himself up to judge human motives. Why, indeed, might we not feel pity for a woman whose brilliant career had been so suddenly extinguished in misfortune and crime? Those who had known her so well in Washington might find it impossible to believe that the fascinating woman could have had murder in her heart, and would readily give ear to the current sentimentality about the temporary aberration of mind under the stress of personal calamity.

Senator Dilworthy, was greatly shocked, of course, but he was full of charity for the erring.

"We shall all need mercy," he said. Laura as an inmate of my family was a most exemplary female, amiable, affectionate and truthful, perhaps too fond of gaiety, and neglectful of the externals of religion, but a woman of principle. She may have had experiences of which I am ignorant, but she could not have gone to this extremity if she had been in her own right mind."

To the Senator’s credit be it said, he was willing to help Laura and her family in this dreadful trial. She, herself, was not without money, for the Washington lobbyist is not seldom more fortunate than the Washington claimant, and she was able to procure a good many luxuries to mitigate the severity of her prison life. It enabled her also to have her own family near her, and to see some of them daily. The tender solicitude of her mother, her childlike grief, and her firm belief in the real guiltlessness of her daughter, touched even the custodians of the Tombs who are enured to scenes of pathos.

Mrs. Hawkins had hastened to her daughter as soon as she received money for the journey. She had no reproaches, she had only tenderness and pity. She could not shut out the dreadful facts of the case, but it had been enough for her that Laura had said, in their first interview, "mother, I did not know what I was doing." She obtained lodgings near, the prison and devoted her life to her daughter, as if she had been really her own child. She would have remained in the prison day and night if it had been permitted. She was aged and feeble, but this great necessity seemed to give her new life.

The pathetic story of the old lady’s ministrations, and her simplicity and faith, also got into the newspapers in time, and probably added to the pathos of this wrecked woman’s fate, which was beginning to be felt by the public. It was certain that she had champions who thought that her wrongs ought to be placed against her crime, and expressions of this feeling came to her in various ways. Visitors came to see her, and gifts of fruit and flowers were sent, which brought some cheer into her hard and gloomy cell.

Laura had declined to see either Philip or Harry, somewhat to the former’s relief, who had a notion that she would necessarily feel humiliated by seeing him after breaking faith with him, but to the discomfiture of Harry, who still felt her fascination, and thought her refusal heartless. He told Philip that of course he had got through with such a woman, but he wanted to see her.

Philip, to keep him from some new foolishness, persuaded him to go with him to Philadelphia; and, give his valuable services in the mining operations at Ilium.

The law took its course with Laura. She was indicted for murder in the first degree and held for trial at the summer term. The two most distinguished criminal lawyers in the city had been retained for her defence, and to that the resolute woman devoted her days with a courage that rose as she consulted with her counsel and understood the methods of criminal procedure in New York.

She was greatly depressed, however, by the news from Washington. Congress adjourned and her bill had failed to pass the Senate. It must wait for the next session.


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Chicago: Mark Twain, "Chapter XLVII.," The Gilded Age; a Tale of Today, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in The Gilded Age; a Tale of Today (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed July 12, 2024,

MLA: Twain, Mark. "Chapter XLVII." The Gilded Age; a Tale of Today, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in The Gilded Age; a Tale of Today, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 12 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Twain, M, 'Chapter XLVII.' in The Gilded Age; a Tale of Today, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, The Gilded Age; a Tale of Today, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 12 July 2024, from