Mark Twain On Juries

Mark Twain’s Roughing It has become one of my favorite books (see posting of 1/14/2007).  His frequent and extensive digressions that quickly jump from a serious explanation to a hilarious leg-pulling read like a collection of individual short stories.  As he says, “I would apologize for this digression but for the fact that the information I am about to offer is apology enough in itself.  And since I digress constantly anyhow, perhaps it is as well to eschew apologies altogether and thus prevent their growing irksome.

Samuel Clemens, whose primary creation and life’s work was his alter-ego Mark Twain, was not happy with our jury system, and we still haven’t figured out how to improve it.

”Alfred the Great, when he invented trial by jury and knew that he had admirably framed it to secure justice in his age of the world, was not aware that in the nineteenth century . . . it would prove the most ingenious and infallible agency for defeating justice that human wisdom could contrive.  For how could he imagine that we simpletons would go on using his jury plan after circumstances had stripped it of its usefulness, any more than he could imagine that we would go on using his candle-clock after we had invented chronometers?  In his day news could not travel fast, and hence he could easily find a jury of honest, intelligent men who had not heard of the case they were called to try–but in our day of telegraphs and newspapers his plan compels us to swear in juries composed of fools and rascals, because the system rigidly excludes honest men and men of brains.”

Twain illustrates with a story:

“A noted desperado killed Mr. B., a good citizen, in the most wanton and cold-blooded way.  Of course the papers were full of it, and all men capable of reading, read about it.  And of course all men not deaf and dumb and idiotic, talked about it.  A jury-list was made out, and Mr. B. L., a prominent banker and a valued citizen, was questioned precisely as he would have been questioned in any court in America:

“Have you heard of this homicide?”


“Have you held conversations upon the subject?”


“Have you formed or expressed opinions about it?”


“Have you read the newspaper accounts of it?”


“We do not want you.”

When the peremptory challenges were all exhausted, a jury of twelve men was impaneled–a jury who swore they had neither heard, read, talked about nor expressed an opinion concerning a murder which the very cattle in the corrals, the Indians in the sage-brush and the stones in the streets were cognizant of!  It was a jury composed of two desperadoes, two low beer-house politicians, three bar-keepers, two ranchmen who could not read, and three dull, stupid, human donkeys!  It actually came out afterward, that one of these latter thought that incest and arson were the same thing. [That is one funny comment!  RW]

The verdict rendered by this jury was, Not Guilty.  What else could one expect?


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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