Mark Twain and the Three-Dollar Dog

By Mike Feinsilber

As John Muller was winding up his talk at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., over the weekend, someone in the audience called out, “Tell the dog story.”

With apparent reluctance, Muller, author of Mark Twain in Washington D. C.: The Adventures of a Capital Correspondent, started leafing through his book, looking for the dog story. He said it was better to tell it in Twain’s words than his own.

“It’s on page 65,” called out the questioner.

“How do you know?” asked Muller.

“I read the book.”

The questioner was right. The dog story captures the spirit of Twain’s stint as an upstart Washington correspondent in the winter of 1867-68, during which he turned 33.

While in Washington, Twain:

*Worked as private secretary to a senator from the new state of Nevada, and roomed with the senator until the keeper of their boarding house, fed up with Twain’s smoking in bed and ruining her linens with the ashes, told the senator that either Twain went or the boarding house went;

*Changed lodgings at least five more times;

*Adopted a cynical attitude toward Congress, the capital and its weather;

*Wrote and sold (usually for a dollar) more than two dozen articles about events in Washington to newspapers in California, Chicago and New York;

*Had an interview with General Ulysses Grant, who, Twain said, smoked two cigars simultaneously while refusing to take a stand on whether President Andrew Johnson should be impeached or on anything else;

*Met Olivia Langdon during a trip to New York to attend a reading by Charles Dickens and courted her, mostly through the mail, until she became his wife;

*Drew upon his travels abroad to deliver, to great success, his first public lecture during which, the Evening Star noted, he compared the proportion of arable land to desert in Syria “to that of absolute lemons in the pies known as lemon pies” at his Washington hotel;

*Claimed to have resigned abruptly as Nevada Senator William Stewart’s secretary, was impeached after attempting to address the House, and was fired as the doorkeeper to the Senate;

*Consumed quantities of liquor from a jug with a roommate, William Swinton, a former Civil War correspondent.

The dog story: As Twain and Muller tell it, Swinton and Twain once found themselves in need of three dollars. The need may have been “to support the jug,” as Twain put it, adding that “because of the jug we were always sailing pretty close to the wind and any tardiness in the arrival of any part of income was sure to cause us some inconvenience.”

Swinton, who had studied for the ministry, told Twain to go out and find three dollars.  “The Lord will provide,” he assured Twain.

Twain said Swinton “didn’t seem to have any doubt  that we would succeed, but I knew that that was his religion working in him; I didn’t have the same confidence.”

Twain said he spent an hour wandering around, then took a break at the Ebbitt House hotel, where “a dog came loafing along. He paused, glanced up at me and said with his eyes, ‘Are you friendly?’” Twain, with his own eyes, said he was. Twain stroked its brown head. Along, garbed in blue and gold splendor, ambled up General Nelson A. Miles, a hero of the Civil War.

With a light in his eyes, the general patted the dog. He asked if the dog was for sale.

“I was greatly moved,” Twain related. The way Swinton had been proved right “seemed a marvelous thing to me.”

The general asked the dog’s price. Three dollars, said Twain. The general offered to pay more. No, said Twain; three dollars. The general paid up and led the dog upstairs.

A while later, a gentleman came along, looking around, looking under tables, looking everywhere.

Twain asked if he was looking for a dog.

The gentleman’s face lit up.

Without implicating himself, Twain said he’d seen a gentleman go upstairs with a dog. He said he would help find the dog, but would like payment for his troubles: Three dollars. The man offered to pay more. No, said Twain, “three is the price.”

After all, Twain reasoned, Swinton had said the Lord would provide three dollars “and it seemed to me that it would be sacrilegious to take a penny more.”

Twain got the general’s room number, went upstairs, found the general caressing the dog, and said he needed the dog back.

The general was dismayed. “Why he is my dog; you sold him to me—and at your own price.”

True, all true, said Twain. But the man wants him again.

“What man?,” demanded the general.

“The man that owns him; he wasn’t my dog.”

After some back and forth, Twain returned the same three dollars the general had paid him and left with the dog to collect three dollars from the gentleman.

He left in a good conscience, Twain said. “I had acted honorably; I never could have used the three dollars that I sold the dog for because it was not rightly my own. But the three I got for restoring him to his rightful owner was righteously and properly mine because I had earned it. That man might never have gotten the dog back at all if it hadn’t been for me.”
If you like the dog story, you will like John Muller’s book. He is an associate librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.. He is also a journalist, playwright, policy analyst, co-founder of a theater company, DreamCity  Theater Group, and the author of Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia. He calls himself a “novice historian.” He is 29. In his book, he starts three pages of acknowledgements this way: “First and foremost, thanks to God.”
Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.



  1. Pat Fleming says

    Hooray for Mark Twain and Mike for bringing yet another Twain story to our attention. I wonder if the morass of our current politics reflect that absence of someone in the mold of Twain and Will Rogers.


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