The Quaints of DeQuille
Mark Twain became famous, but fellow Territorial Enterprise reporter Dan DeQuille could spin a yarn with the best of them.
BY ERIC BRYAN | January/February 2013
Reaching a daily circulation of more than 15,000 copies, Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise was at one time the largest newspaper west of the Mississippi River. Readers of this Nevada publication were treated to the prose and tales of famous journalist and author Samuel Clemens, who used the legendary nom de plume of Mark Twain. But another Enterprise reporter, renowned for his gymnastic vocabulary and whom some considered to be a better writer even than Twain, was William Wright.
Born in 1829 into an Ohio Quaker family, Wright moved to Iowa at 18, married, had five children, and began his writing career. Wright went to California in 1857 to seek his fortune in the gold mines. Then, attracted by Virginia City’s Comstock Lode, he moved to the Silver State in 1860.
Wright didn’t strike it rich in either venture, but in those years, while swinging a pick and shovel, he never relinquished his pen. His freelance work appeared in such publications as San Francisco’s Golden Era. His writing attracted Denis E. McCarthy and Joseph T. Goodman, co-owners of the Territorial Enterprise. In 1861, they hired Wright as a reporter.
Wright tried out several pen names before settling on Dan DeQuille. The moniker evolved into almost an alter ego for Wright, who was highly valued for his hands-on expertise in reporting on mining matters. Soon, he was the paper’s most esteemed writer. Twain became a colleague and roommate of DeQuille’s after the Enterprise hired him in 1862. They wrote satirical sketches about the activities and antics of one another, which proved popular with the Comstock readership.
Despite being employed as a staff writer and editor, DeQuille continued his freelance career writing short stories and sketches for the Golden Era and other important regional publications. Some of this creative writing appeared in the Enterprise; in particular, his sketches and stories, which he referred to as “quaints.” These differed from straight fiction in that they masqueraded as honest news reports.
THE SILVER MAN
DeQuille created an elaborate quaint for the February 5, 1865 edition of the Golden Era. He peppered his account with accurate scientific and geological facts gleaned from his knowledge of mining and extensive reading to provide verisimilitude.
Prospectors had made a great discovery in a mine between Owens River and Esmeralda County, DeQuille wrote, in what was called the Hot Springs Lead. This was the body of a man, stretched out on the ground, lying face up, “almost perfect, even to the fingers and toes.”
The body was petrified, and when the right arm broke off of it during its extraction, DeQuille’s invented prospector-witness, Mr. Kuhlman, assayed the limb and determined it to be “a mass of sulphuret of silver, slightly mixed with copper and iron.”
DeQuille resorted to his reliable Mr. Kuhlman for an explanation of this wonder. Kuhlman’s opinion was that the figure was the body of a Native American, who perhaps centuries before sought refuge from a raging storm in a passage in the rocks. The storm triggered a landslide, trapping the man. Through the ages his body gradually was mineralized, transforming his remains into the “‘Silver Man,’ for us in this age to wonder about.”
TRAVELING STONES OF PAHRANAGAT VALLEY
Territorial Enterprise readers enjoyed one of DeQuille’s quaints in the October 26, 1867 edition. The article reported that a prospector journeying through the Pahranagat Mountains, “the wildest and most sterile portion of southeastern Nevada,” encountered many small basins in a purely rocky area. At the bottom of each depression were unusual, almost perfectly spherical stones. They ranged from pea-sized to about six inches in diameter.
The prospector collected several of the stones, most of them “as large as a hulled walnut.” DeQuille described them as dense and heavy and having “irony” properties. If one spread the stones in disarray on a smooth, flat surface, they instantly began to roll toward each other to form a cluster. If you slid one stone as much as three feet away from the bunch and let go of it, it would roll back to rejoin the pack. DeQuille concluded that the pebbles “appeared to be formed of a loadstone or magnetic ore.”
The article seemed an innocent enough prank, until letters began arriving at the Territorial Enterprise over the next several years demanding more details about the stones. As with various quaints of DeQuille’s, other papers had picked up the story. It reached interested scientists in Germany and possibly resulted in a $10,000 offer from P.T. Barnum.
Worn down by the attention, DeQuille attempted an instance of literary pass-the-buck, which was published on March 31, 1872 in the Territorial Enterprise. In this article, DeQuille begged interested parties to refer “to Mark Twain, who probably has still on hand fifteen or twenty bushels of assorted sizes.”
But so potent was DeQuille’s original hoax that the inquiries persisted for years. He eventually published an admission on November 11, 1879, in which he cursed the stones as “diabolical cobbles” and dismissed them as fictional.
SAD FATE OF AN INVENTOR
In the July 2, 1874 edition of the Enterprise, DeQuille’s inventiveness went into overdrive. He wrote of a revolutionary device that could keep a man cool in the desert or while crossing “burning alkali plains.” A prospector could now work long hours, he wrote, in “fierce heat” without breaking a sweat.
DeQuille described the contraption as a suit made of sponge, with a water bag of India rubber fitted under the wearer’s right arm. The suit would first be soaked with water, and then occasional squeezes of the bag by the wearer kept the outfit hydrated from its hood downward. It cooled its occupant by the simple action of evaporation.
Readers soon learned that inventor Jonathan Newhouse was determined to prove the mechanism’s worthiness by conducting an experiment. Having some men at a mining camp on the edge of Death Valley lace him into the armor, Newhouse instructed them that he would return in two days, and he set off on foot into the desert in the heart of summer.
An agitated Native American appeared in the camp the following day and guided the men to a spot about 20 miles into the sands. There they found Newhouse’s body, still dressed in the cooling suit. It seemed that the apparatus had more than done its job, for the dead man’s beard was frosty, and there was an icicle more than a foot long clinging to his nose. The suit had malfunctioned, and when Newhouse couldn’t reach the laces on his back to untie them and remove the armor, he was frozen stiff in the desert.
While the mining boom faded and the local population dwindled, the Enterprise forged on, changing hands several times. It ceased publication on January 16, 1893, with the epitaph, “For sufficient reasons we stop.” DeQuille, who struggled with alcoholism, continued to write short stories and several novellas. In failing health, he retired to Iowa in 1897 and died in 1898.
Goodman, who had employed Twain and DeQuille, said regretfully, “Isn’t it so singular that Mark Twain should live and Dan DeQuille fade out? If anyone had asked me in 1863 which was to be an immortal name, I should unhesitatingly have said Dan DeQuille.”