First published in 1899, The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
by Mark Twain explores themes of sinfulness and righteousness, hypocrisy, vengeance, and redemption through the tale of a supposedly incorruptible town and one man’s efforts to undermine its reputation.The story begins with the narrator stating that Hadleyburgis known throughout America as a decent town whose honest and honorable residents are sheltered from temptation. However, the town managed to offend a stranger in some unspecified way and he decides to take vengeance by sullying the town’s reputation and exposing its hypocrisy.
Initially, this involves delivering a bag of gold coins worth $40,000 to the home of the local bank cashier, Edward Richards, and his wife, Mary. Within the bag is a note explaining that a poor gambling man once passed through Hadleyburg where a kindly resident gave him twenty dollars and some words of wisdom about his sinful lifestyle. Despite the advice, the gambler wagered the money and won a great fortune, and now wishes to repay the favor with a sack of gold. The note declares that the advice the gambler received is written out and sealed in an envelope in the sack so, in order to prove his identity and claim the money, his benefactor need only write out the advice again and submit it to Reverend Burgess who will open the envelope at a public meeting.
After joking about keeping the gold, Edward places an advertisement in the local newspaper explaining the situation to Hadleyburg’s residents. However, the gold has already begun to expose the town’s secret hypocrisies. Edward tells Mary that, sometime in the past, when Reverend Burgess was falsely accused of an unnamed wrongdoing that tarnished his reputation, Edward withheld information that could have spared him. He also admits that he made it seem like a different Hadleyburg citizen, Barclay Goodson, was the one who held back this crucial evidence, tarnishing Goodson’s reputation instead of his own. Edward and Mary also discuss whether they could simply keep the gold and Edward even decides to withdraw the announcement from the newspaper. The newspaper printer, Mr. Cox,had the same discussion with his wife and he too decides to cancel the advertisement but both he and Edward arrive too late to stop the presses.
Edward and Mary receive a letter supposedly from a stranger named Howard L. Stephenson. In it, “Stephenson” claims that Barclay Goodson gave the gambling man the advice and money, and that he was a close friend of Goodson and knows the precise wording of the advice. He also writes that he has a vague memory that Goodson was extremely grateful to someone who might have been named Edward Richards for some kind gesture he performed. He writes out the advice (“You are far from being a bad man: Go, and reform.”) and says that, if Edward really did do Goodson a favor then he should use this information to claim the money, but if he did not, he should find the man who did and give him the information instead. Edward convinces himself that he performed a suitably kind deed and really does deserve the money. However, he does not know that all nineteen of the town’s couples received a similar letter, and all convinced themselves that they had performed the act of kindness and deserved the money. The nineteen couples all copy out the supposed advice and give it to Reverend Burgess.
Along with visitors and journalists, the townspeople gather to hear Burgess announce who will receive the gold. He reads out two men’s claims which are almost identical. In order to reveal whose claim is accurate, Burgess opens the envelope. The note inside reads: “You are far from being a bad man—go, and reform—or, mark my words—someday, for your sins, you will die and go to hell or Hadleyburg—try and make it the former.” To the delight of the outsiders and the shame of the residents, the dishonesty of Hadleyburg is revealed by the note and each couple’s identical claim is read out and exposed.
Edward and Mary wait for their own names but Burgess does not read them. A second envelope in the sack contains an explanation of the stranger’s plan to corrupt the town and his argument that, by shielding themselves from temptation, the people of Hadleyburg never had to test their integrity and so left themselves open to being corrupted. When the coins are revealed to be lead fakes, the townspeople decide to auction them off and give the takings to Edward as a reward for his supposed honesty.
The stranger reveals that he has been at the meeting the whole time and buys the coins for $1,282. When he reveals that he will stamp them with the names of the couples and the slogan “go and reform,” a rich politician named Clay Harkness buys the sack for $40,000. After keeping a small check for himself, the stranger delivers checks for the rest of the money to Edward.Edward and Mary are uncomfortable and unsure if they should admit that they too tried to claim the “gold.”
Their discomfort increases when they get a note from Burgess admitting that he did not read their names because he owed Edward a favor. Ashamed that he held back evidence that could have saved Burgess’s reputation and paranoid that the truth will come out, Edward burns the checks. Eventually, Edward and Mary’s guilt makes them sick and they both die shortly after Edward finally confesses. As the story ends, the shamed town changes its name and is restored to being an honest town once again.The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
remains a remarkably popular short story. Over the years, it has been interpreted in a number of ways including a satirical retelling of the story of the Garden of Eden and a response to narrowminded, snobbish townsand, perhaps, specifically Oberlin, Ohio, where Twain gave a negatively received lecture in 1885.