Samuel Clemens just happened to be in France when, in 1894, one of the great commotions of history burst out: a Jewish officer in the French Army, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was convicted of treason because he was Jewish. It would take a dozen years for the affair to work itself through, as French government after government fell in response to the endless outraged uproar expressed in the press, on the streets, and even within families. Clemens, fascinated, was swept up in the agitation, and by 1897, was planning a book about Dreyfus. The project fell through – but Clemens, who hated the French anyway, never failed to use the Dreyfus case to excoriate the French, or defend the Jews. He wrote several pieces which did both, among them “Concerning the Jews” (1899), “My First Lie and How I Got Out of It” (1899), “My Boyhood Dreams” (1900), and the satirical fantasy about twisted legal justice, “From the London Times of 1904.”
Here Clemens urgently seeks a detail of Dreyfus' degradation and abuse:
Where did you get that about the officer striking Dreyfus in the face with the hilt of his sword? In a French paper? Has it been contradicted? Did the paper find fault with the act & denounce it?
The incident about which Clemens inquires would seem to be a report of Dreyfus’ departure for the Ile de Re, on route to Devil’s Island, when an infantry officer reached with his sword over the head of a gendarme and struck Dreyfus with the pommel, inflicting a wound from which blood flowed. The story was carried, initially, in the Petit Parisien and discussed in L’éclair on January 25, 1895.
Autograph Letter Signed (“S.L. Clemens”), 1 page, duodecimo, no place, February 11 [no year; 1895]. To Mr. Wilson.