Private History of the Jumping Frog Story
by Mark Twain
Five or six years ago a lady from Finland asked me to tell her a story in
our Negro dialect, so that she could get an idea of what that variety of
speech was like. I told her one of Hopkinson Smith's Negro stories, and
gave her a copy of 'Harper's Monthly' containing it. She translated it for
a Swedish newspaper, but by an oversight named me as the author of it
instead of Smith. I was very sorry for that, because I got a good lashing
in the Swedish press, which would have fallen to his share but for that
mistake; for it was shown that Boccaccio had told that very story, in his
curt and meagre fashion, five hundred years before Smith took hold of it
and made a good and tellable thing out of it.
I have always been sorry for Smith. But my own turn has come now. A few
weeks ago Professor Van Dyke, of Princeton, asked this question:
'Do you know how old your "Jumping Frog" story is?'
And I answered:
'Yes—forty-five years. The thing happened in Calaveras County, in
the spring of 1849.'
'No; it happened earlier—a couple of thousand years earlier; it is a
I was astonished—and hurt. I said:
'I am willing to be a literary thief if it has been so ordained; I am even
willing to be caught robbing the ancient dead alongside of Hopkinson
Smith, for he is my friend and a good fellow, and I think would be as
honest as any one if he could do it without occasioning remark; but I am
not willing to antedate his crimes by fifteen hundred years. I must ask
you to knock off part of that.'
But the professor was not chaffing: he was in earnest, and could not abate
a century. He offered to get the book and send it to me and the Cambridge
text-book containing the English translation also. I thought I would like
the translation best, because Greek makes me tired. January 30th he sent
me the English version, and I will presently insert it in this article. It
is my 'Jumping Frog' tale in every essential. It is not strung out as I
have strung it out, but it is all there.
To me this is very curious and interesting. Curious for several reasons.
I heard the story told by a man who was not telling it to his hearers as a
thing new to them, but as a thing which they had witnessed and would
remember. He was a dull person, and ignorant; he had no gift as a
story-teller, and no invention; in his mouth this episode was merely
history—history and statistics; and the gravest sort of history,
too; he was entirely serious, for he was dealing with what to him were
austere facts, and they interested him solely because they were facts; he
was drawing on his memory, not his mind; he saw no humour in his tale,
neither did his listeners; neither he nor they ever smiled or laughed; in
my time I have not attended a more solemn conference. To him and to his
fellow gold-miners there were just two things in the story that were worth
considering. One was the smartness of its hero, Jim Smiley, in taking the
stranger in with a loaded frog; and the other was Smiley's deep knowledge
of a frog's nature—for he knew (as the narrator asserted and the
listeners conceded) that a frog likes shot and is already ready to eat it.
Those men discussed those two points, and those only. They were hearty in
their admiration of them, and none of the party was aware that a
first-rate story had been told in a first-rate way, and that it brimful of
a quality whose presence they never suspected—humour.
Now, then, the interesting question is, did the frog episode happen in
Angel's Camp in the spring of '49, as told in my hearing that day in the
fall of 1865? I am perfectly sure that it did. I am also sure that its
duplicate happened in Boeotia a couple of thousand years ago. I think it
must be a case of history actually repeating itself, and not a case of a
good story floating down the ages and surviving because too good to be
allowed to perish.
I would now like to have the reader examine the Greek story and the story
told by the dull and solemn Californian, and observe how exactly alike
they are in essentials.
THE ATHENIAN AND THE FROG.(1)
An Athenian once fell in with a Boeotian who was sitting by the road-side
looking at a frog. Seeing the other approach, the Boeotian said his was a
remarkable frog, and asked if he would agree to start a contest of frogs,
on condition that he whose frog jumped farthest should receive a large sum
of money. The Athenian replied that he would if the other would fetch him
a frog, for the lake was near. To this he agreed, and when he was gone the
Athenian took the frog, and, opening its mouth, poured some stones into
its stomach, so that it did not indeed seem larger than before, but could
not jump. The Boeotian soon returned with the other frog, and the contest
began. The second frog first was pinched, and jumped moderately; then they
pinched the Boeotian frog. And he gathered himself for a leap, and used
the utmost effort, but he could not move his body the least. So the
Athenian departed with the money. When he was gone the Boeotian, wondering
what was the matter with the frog, lifted him up and examined him. And
being turned upside down, he opened his mouth and vomited out the stones.
And here is the way it happened in California:
FROM 'THE CELEBRATED JUMPING FROG OF CALAVERAS COUNTY'
Well, thish-yer Smiley had rat-tarriers and chicken cocks, and tom-cats,
and all of them kind of things, till you couldn't rest, and you couldn't
fetch nothing for him to bet on but he'd match you. He ketched a frog one
day, and took him home, and said he cal'lated to educate him; and so he
never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn
that frog to jump. And you bet you he did learn him, too. He'd give him a
little punch behind, and the next minute you'd see that frog whirling in
the air like a doughnut—see him turn one summerset, or maybe a
couple if he got a good start, and come down flat-footed and all right,
like a cat. He got him up so in the matter of ketching flies, and kep'him
in practice so constant, that he'd nail a fly every time as fur as he
could see him. Smiley said all a frog wanted was education, and he could
do 'most anything—and I believe him. Why, I've seen him set Dan'l
Webster down here on this flor—Dan'l Webster was the name of the
frog—and sing out, 'Flies, Dan'l, flies!' and quicker'n you could
wink he'd spring straight up and snake a fly off'n the counter there, and
flop down on the floor ag'in as solid as a gob of mud, and fall to
scratching the side of his head with his hind foot as indifferent as if he
hadn't no idea he'd been doin' any more'n any frog might do. You never see
a frog so modest and straightfor'ard as he was, for all he was so gifted.
And when it come to fair and square jumping on a dead level, he could get
over more ground at one straddle than any animal of his breed you ever
see. Jumping on a dead level was his strong suit, you understand; and when
it came to that, Smiley would ante up money on him as long as he had a
red. Smiley was monstrous proud of his frog, and well he might be, for
fellers that had travelled and been everywheres all said he laid over any
frog that ever they see.
Well, Smiley kep' the beast in a little lattice box, and he used to fetch
him down-town sometimes and lay for a bet. One day a feller—a
stranger in the camp, he was—come acrost him with his box, and says:
'What might it be that you've got in the box?'
And Smiley says, sorter indifferent-like, 'It might be a parrot, or it
might be a canary, maybe, but it's ain't—it's only just a frog.'
And the feller took it, and looked at it careful, and turned it round this
way and that, and says, 'H'm—so 'tis. Well, what's he good for?'
'Well,' Smiley says, easy and careless, 'he's good enough for one thing, I
should judge—he can outjump any frog in Calaveras County.'
The feller took the box again and took another long, particular look, and
give it back to Smiley, and says, very deliberate, 'Well,' he says, 'I
don't see no p'ints about that frog that's any better'n any other frog.'
'Maybe you don't,' Smiley says. 'Maybe you understand frogs and maybe you
don't understand 'em; maybe you've had experience, and maybe you ain't
only a amature, as it were. Anyways, I've got my opinion, and I'll resk
forty dollars that he can outjump any frog in Calaveras County.'
And the feller studies a minute, and then says, kinder sad like, 'Well,
I'm only a stranger here, and I ain't got no frog, but if I had a frog I'd
And then Smiley says: 'That's all right—that's all right; if you'll
hold my box a minute, I'll go and get you a frog.' And so the feller took
the box and put up his forty dollars along with Smiley's and set down to
So he set there a good while thinking and thinking to hisself, and then he
got the frog out and prized his mouth open and took a teaspoon and filled
him full of quail shot—filled him pretty near up to his chin—and
set him on the floor. Smiley he went to the swamp and slopped around in
the mud for a long time, and finally he ketched a frog and fetched him in
and give him to this feller, and says:
'Now, if you're ready, set him alongside of Dan'l, with his fore-paws just
even with Dan'l's, and I'll give the word.' Then he says, 'One—two—three—git!'
and him and the feller touched up the frogs from behind, and the new frog
hopped off lively; but Dan'l give a heave, and hysted up his shoulders—so—like
a Frenchman, but it warn't no use—he couldn't budge; he was planted
as solid as a church, and he couldn't no more stir than if he was anchored
out. Smiley was a good deal surprised, and he was disgusted, too, but he
didn't have no idea what the matter was, of course.
The feller took the money and started away; and when he was going out at
the door he sorter jerked his thumb over his shoulder—so—at
Dan'l, and says again, very deliberate: 'Well,' he says, 'I don't see no
p'ints about that frog that's any better'n any other frog.'
Smiley he stood scratching his head and looking down at Dan'l a long time,
and at last he says, 'I do wonder what in the nation that frog throw'd off
for—I wonder if there ain't something the matter with him—he
'pears to look mighty baggy, somehow.' And he ketched Dan'l by the nape of
the neck, and hefted him, and says, 'Why, blame my cats if he don't weigh
five pound!' and turned him upside down, and he belched out a double
handful of shot. And then he see how it was, and he was the maddest man—he
set the frog down and took out after that feeler, but he never ketched
The resemblances are deliciously exact. There you have the wily Boeotain
and the wily Jim Smiley waiting—two thousand years apart—and
waiting, each equipped with his frog and 'laying' for the stranger. A
contest is proposed—for money. The Athenian would take a chance 'if
the other would fetch him a frog'; the Yankee says: 'I'm only a stranger
here, and I ain't got a frog; but if I had a frog I'd bet you.' The wily
Boeotian and the wily Californian, with that vast gulf of two thousand
years between, retire eagerly and go frogging in the marsh; the Athenian
and the Yankee remain behind and work a best advantage, the one with
pebbles, the other with shot. Presently the contest began. In the one case
'they pinched the Boeotian frog'; in the other, 'him and the feller
touched up the frogs from behind.' The Boeotian frog 'gathered himself for
a leap' (you can just see him!), but 'could not move his body in the
least'; the Californian frog 'give a heave, but it warn't no use—he
couldn't budge.' In both the ancient and the modern cases the strangers
departed with the money. The Boeotian and the Californian wonder what is
the matter with their frogs; they lift them and examine; they turn them
upside down and out spills the informing ballast.
Yes, the resemblances are curiously exact. I used to tell the story of the
'Jumping Frog' in San Francisco, and presently Artemus Ward came along and
wanted it to help fill out a little book which he was about to publish; so
I wrote it out and sent it to his publisher, Carleton; but Carleton
thought the book had enough matter in it, so he gave the story to Henry
Clapp as a present, and Clapp put it in his 'Saturday Press,' and it
killed that paper with a suddenness that was beyond praise. At least the
paper died with that issue, and none but envious people have ever tried to
rob me of the honour and credit of killing it. The 'Jumping Frog' was the
first piece of writing of mine that spread itself through the newspapers
and brought me into public notice. Consequently, the 'Saturday Press' was
a cocoon and I the worm in it; also, I was the gay-coloured literary moth
which its death set free. This simile has been used before.
Early in '66 the 'Jumping Frog' was issued in book form, with other
sketches of mine. A year or two later Madame Blanc translated it into
French and published it in the 'Revue des Deux Mondes,' but the result was
not what should have been expected, for the 'Revue' struggled along and
pulled through, and is alive yet. I think the fault must have been in the
translation. I ought to have translated it myself. I think so because I
examined into the matter and finally retranslated the sketch from the
French back into English, to see what the trouble was; that is, to see
just what sort of a focus the French people got upon it. Then the mystery
was explained. In French the story is too confused and chaotic and
unreposeful and ungrammatical and insane; consequently it could only cause
grief and sickness—it could not kill. A glance at my retranslation
will show the reader that this must be true.
THE FROG JUMPING OF THE COUNTY OF CALAVERAS
Eh bien! this Smiley nourished some terriers a rats, and some cocks of
combat, and some cats, and all sorts of things: and with his rage of
betting one no had more of repose. He trapped one day a frog and him
imported with him (et l'emporta chez lui) saying that he pretended to make
his education. You me believe if you will, but during three months he not
has nothing done but to him apprehend to jump (apprendre a sauter) in a
court retired of her mansion (de sa maison). And I you respond that he
have succeeded. He him gives a small blow by behind, and the instant after
you shall see the frog turn in the air like a grease-biscuit, make one
summersault, sometimes two, when she was well started, and refall upon his
feet like a cat. He him had accomplished in the art of to gobble the flies
(gober des mouches), and him there exercised continually—so well
that a fly at the most far that she appeared was a fly lost. Smiley had
custom to say that all which lacked to a frog it was the education, but
with the education she could do nearly all—and I him believe. Tenez,
I him have seen pose Daniel Webster there upon this plank—Daniel
Webster was the name of the frog—and to him sing, 'Some flies,
Daniel, some flies!'—in a fash of the eye Daniel had bounded and
seized a fly here upon the counter, then jumped anew at the earth, where
he rested truly to himself scratch the head with his behind-foot, as if he
no had not the least idea of his superiority. Never you not have seen frog
as modest, as natural, sweet as she was. And when he himself agitated to
jump purely and simply upon plain earth, she does more ground in one jump
than any beast of his species than you can know.
To jump plain—this was his strong. When he himself agitated for that
Smiley multiplied the bests upon her as long as there to him remained a
red. It must to know, Smiley was monstrously proud of his frog, and he of
it was right, for some men who were travelled, who had all seen, said that
they to him would be injurious to him compare to another frog. Smiley
guarded Daniel in a little box latticed which he carried bytimes to the
village for some bet.
One day an individual stranger at the camp him arrested with his box and
'What is this that you have then shut up there within?'
Smiley said, with an air indifferent:
'That could be a paroquet, or a syringe (ou un serin), but this no is
nothing of such, it not is but a frog.'
The individual it took, it regarded with care, it turned from one side and
from the other, then he said:
'Tiens! in effect!—At what is she good?'
'My God!' responded Smiley, always with an air disengaged, 'she is good
for one thing, to my notice (a mon avis), she can better in jumping (elle
peut batter en sautant) all frogs of the county of Calaveras.'
The individual retook the box, it examined of new longly, and it rendered
to Smiley in saying with an air deliberate:
'Eh bien! I no saw not that that frog had nothing of better than each
frog.' (Je ne vois pas que cette grenouille ait rien de mieux qu'aucune
grenouille.) (If that isn't grammar gone to seed, then I count myself no
'Possible that you not it saw not,' said Smiley; 'possible that you—you
comprehend frogs; possible that you not you there comprehend nothing;
possible that you had of the experience, and possible that you not be but
an amateur. Of all manner (de toute maniere) I bet forty dollars that she
batter in jumping no matter which frog of the country of Calaveras.'
The individual reflected a second, and said like sad:
'I not am but a stranger here, I no have not a frog; but if I of it had
one, I would embrace the bet.'
'Strong, well!' respond Smiley; 'nothing of more facility. If you will
hold my box a minute, I go you to search a frog (j'irai vous chercher.)'
Behold, then, the individual who guards the box, who puts his forty
dollars upon those of Smiley, and who attends (et qui attendre). He
attended enough longtimes, reflecting all solely. And figure you that he
takes Daniel, him opens the mouth by force and with a teaspoon him fills
with shot of the hunt, even him fills just to the chin, then he him puts
by the earth. Smiley during these times was at slopping in a swamp.
Finally he trapped (attrape) a frog, him carried to that individual, and
'Now if you be ready, put him all against Daniel, with their before-feet
upon the same line, and I give the signal'—then he added: 'One, two
Him and the individual touched their frogs by behind, and the frog new put
to jump smartly, but Daniel himself lifted ponderously, exhalted the
shoulders thus, like a Frenchman—to what good? He could not budge,
he is planted solid like a church, he not advance no more than if one him
had put at the anchor.
Smiley was surprised and disgusted, but he not himself doubted not of the
turn being intended (mais il ne se doutait pas du tour bien entendre). The
indidivual empocketed the silver, himself with it went, and of it himself
in going is that he no gives not a jerk of thumb over the shoulder—like
that—at the poor Daniel, in saying with his air deliberate—(L'individu
empoche l'argent, s'en va et en s'en allant est-ce qu'il ne donne pas un
coup de pouce pas-dessus l'epaule, comme ca, au pauvre Daniel, en disant
de son air delibere).
'Eh bien! I no see not that that frog has nothing of better than another.'
Smiley himself scratched longtimes the head, the eyes fixed upon Daniel,
until that which at last he said:
'I me demand how the devil it makes itself that this beast has refused. Is
it that she had something? One would believe that she is stuffed.'
He grasped Daniel by the skin of the neck, him lifted and said:
'The wolf me bite if he no weigh not five pounds.'
He him reversed and the unhappy belched two handfuls of shot (et le
malheureux, etc.). When Smiley recognised how it was, he was like mad. He
deposited his frog by the earth and ran after that individual, but he not
him caught never.
It may be that there are people who can translate better than I can, but I
am not acquainted with them.
So ends the private and public history of the Jumping Frog of Calaveras
County, an incident which has this unique feature about it—that it
is both old and new, a 'chestnut' and not a 'chestnut;' for it was
original when it happened two thousand years ago, and was again original
when it happened in California in our own time.
London, July, 1900.—Twice, recently, I have been asked this
'Have you seen the Greek version of the "Jumping Frog"?'
And twice I have answered—'No.'
'Has Professor Van Dyke seen it?'
'I suppose so.'
'Then you supposition is at fault.'
'Because there isn't any such version.'
'Do you mean to intimate that the tale is modern, and not borrowed from
some ancient Greek book.'
'Yes. It is not permissible for any but the very young and innocent to be
so easily beguiled as you and Van Dyke have been.'
'Do you mean that we have fallen a prey to our ignorance and simplicity?'
'Yes. Is Van Dyke a Greek scholar?'
'I believe so.'
'Then he knew where to find the ancient Greek version if one existed. Why
didn't he look? Why did he jump to conclusions?'
'I don't know. And was it worth the trouble, anyway?'
As it turns out, now, it was not claimed that the story had been
translated from the Greek. It had its place among other uncredited
stories, and was there to be turned into Greek by students of that
language. 'Greek Prose Composition'—that title is what made the
confusion. It seemed to mean that the originals were Greek. It was not
well chosen, for it was pretty sure to mislead.
Thus vanishes the Greek Frog, and I am sorry: for he loomed fine and grand
across the sweep of the ages, and I took a great pride in him.
(1) Sidgwick, Greek Prose Composition, page 116