To thumb your nose at someone is a slightly
milder version of giving them the middle finger
Mark Twain liked satire. In 1862, when he was 27 years old and still went by his given name Samuel Clemens, he wrote a blurb for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper. In it, he attacked two things: One, he disliked the then-common fad of journalists writing about hoax "petrifactions" where a body was found to have turned to stone; and Two, he wanted to make fun of a real person he despised named Judge Sewall, a local coroner and Justice of the Peace.
Many newspapers reprinted his story. They knew it was a hoax, but since it was a good one, they published it anyway, since readership was more important than the literal truth, although some did leave clues so readers could be in on the joke.
Twain was hoping that readers would reconstruct the position he described of the petrified man’s hands, and the joke would have been clear.
It would have been a bit more obvious if the original
story had included an illustration of the stone man
making this gesture of contempt.
Overall, the story failed as satire. Twain hoped for the reader getting the joke. Instead he perpetrated yet another realistic-sounding petrifaction hoax.
Samuel Clemens may have encountered the "thumbing the nose" gesture used as a joke before, in a book called Percival Keene, written in 1842 by naval officer Frederick Marryat. In it, the main character, Percival, pulls a mean practical joke on a fellow shipmate.
Below, you can read the original Petrified Man satirical short, Twain’s response to the story in Hoaxing the Unsuspecting Public, and an excerpt from Percival Keene where Percival explains to a "Green" seaman that "thumbing the nose" is a secret freemason gesture to be given to your superior officer…
A petrified man was found some time ago in the mountains south of Gravelly Ford. Every limb and feature of the stony mummy was perfect, not even excepting the left leg, which has evidently been a wooden one during the lifetime of the owner – which lifetime, by the way, came to a close about a century ago, in the opinion of a savan who has examined the defunct. The body was in a sitting posture, and leaning against a huge mass of croppings; the attitude was pensive, the right thumb resting against the side of the nose; the left thumb partially supported the chin, the fore-finger pressing the inner corner of the left eye and drawing it partly open; the right eye was closed, and the fingers of the right hand spread apart. This strange freak of nature created a profound sensation in the vicinity, and our informant states that by request, Justice Sewell or Sowell, of Humboldt City, at once proceeded to the spot and held an inquest on the body. The verdict of the jury was that "deceased came to his death from protracted exposure," etc. The people of the neighborhood volunteered to bury the poor unfortunate, and were even anxious to do so; but it was discovered, when they attempted to remove him, that the water which had dripped upon him for ages from the crag above, had coursed down his back and deposited a limestone sediment under him which had glued him to the bed rock upon which he sat, as with a cement of adamant, and Judge S. refused to allow the charitable citizens to blast him from his position. The opinion expressed by his Honor that such a course would be little less than sacrilege, was eminently just and proper. Everybody goes to see the stone man, as many as three hundred having visited the hardened creature during the past five or six weeks.
Hoaxing the Unsuspecting Public by Mark Twain
Now, to show how really hard it is to foist a moral or a truth upon an unsuspecting public through a burlesque without entirely and absurdly missing one’s mark, I will here set down two experiences of my own in this thing. In the fall of 1862, in Nevada and California, the people got to running wild about extraordinary petrifactions and other natural marvels. One could scarcely pick up a paper without finding in it one or two glorified discoveries of this kind. The mania was becoming a little ridiculous. I was a brand-new local editor in Virginia City, and I felt called upon to destroy this growing evil; we all have our benignant, fatherly moods at one time or another, I suppose. I chose to kill the petrifaction mania with a delicate, a very delicate satire. But maybe it was altogether too delicate, for nobody ever perceived the satire part of it at all. I put my scheme in the shape of the discovery of a remarkably petrified man.
I had had a temporary falling out with Mr.—-, the new coroner and justice of the peace of Humboldt, and thought I might as well touch him up a little at the same time and make him ridiculous, and thus combine pleasure with business. So I told, in patient, belief-compelling detail, all about the finding of a petrified-man at Gravelly Ford (exactly a hundred and twenty miles, over a breakneck mountain trail from where —- lived); how all the savants of the immediate neighborhood had been to examine it (it was notorious that there was not a living creature within fifty miles of there, except a few starving Indians; some crippled grasshoppers, and four or five buzzards out of meat and too feeble to get away); how those savants all pronounced the petrified man to have been in a state of complete petrifaction for over ten generations; and then, with a seriousness that I ought to have been ashamed to assume, I stated that as soon as Mr.—- heard the news he summoned a jury, mounted his mule, and posted off, with noble reverence for official duty, on that awful five days’ journey, through alkali, sage brush, peril of body, and imminent starvation, to hold an inquest on this man that had been dead and turned to everlasting stone for more than three hundred years! And then, my hand being "in," so to speak, I went on, with the same unflinching gravity, to state that the jury returned a verdict that deceased came to his death from protracted exposure. This only moved me to higher flights of imagination, and I said that the jury, with that charity so characteristic of pioneers, then dug a grave, and were about to give the petrified man Christian burial, when they found that for ages a limestone sediment had been trickling down the face of the stone against which he was sitting, and this stuff had run under him and cemented him fast to the "bed-rock"; that the jury (they were all silver-miners) canvassed the difficulty a moment, and then got out their powder and fuse, and proceeded to drill a hole under him, in order to blast him from his position, when Mr.—-, "with that delicacy so characteristic of him, forbade them, observing that it would be little less than sacrilege to do such a thing."
From beginning to end the "Petrified Man" squib was a string of roaring absurdities, albeit they were told with an unfair pretense of truth that even imposed upon me to some extent, and I was in some danger of believing in my own fraud. But I really had no desire to deceive anybody, and no expectation of doing it. I depended on the way the petrified man was sitting to explain to the public that he was a swindle. Yet I purposely mixed that up with other things, hoping to make it obscure–and I did. I would describe the position of one foot, and then say his right thumb was against the side of his nose; then talk about his other foot, and presently come back and say the fingers of his right hand were spread apart; then talk about the back of his head a little, and return and say the left thumb was hooked into the right little finger; then ramble off about something else, and by and by drift back again and remark that the fingers of the left hand were spread like those of the right. But I was too ingenious. I mixed it up rather too much; and so all that description of the attitude, as a key to the humbuggery of the article, was entirely lost, for nobody but me ever discovered and comprehended the peculiar and suggestive position of the petrified man’s hands.
As a satire on the petrifaction mania, or anything else, my petrified Man was a disheartening failure; for everybody received him in innocent good faith, and I was stunned to see the creature I had begotten to pull down the wonder-business with, and bring derision upon it, calmly exalted to the grand chief place in the list of the genuine marvels our Nevada had produced. I was so disappointed at the curious miscarriage of my scheme, that at first I was angry, and did not like to think about it; but by and by, when the exchanges began to come in with the Petrified Man copied and guilelessly glorified, I began to feel a soothing secret satisfaction; and as my gentleman’s field of travels broadened, and by the exchanges I saw that he steadily and implacably penetrated territory after territory, state after state, and land after land, till he swept the great globe and culminated in sublime and unimpeached legitimacy in the august London Lancet, my cup was full, and I said I was glad I had done it. I think that for about eleven months, as nearly as I can remember, Mr.—-‘s daily mail-bag continued to be swollen by the addition of half a bushel of newspapers hailing from many climes with the Petrified Man in them, marked around with a prominent belt of ink. I sent them to him. I did it for spite, not for fun.
He used to shovel them into his back yard and curse. And every day during all those months the miners, his constituents (for miners never quit joking a person when they get started), would call on him and ask if he could tell them where they could get hold of a paper with the Petrified Man in it. He could have accommodated a continent with them. I hated —– in those days, and these things pacified me and pleased me. I could not have gotten more real comfort out of him without killing him.
Percival Keene – the thumbing the nose prank
The second day after our return to Spithead, I was sent on shore in the cutter to bring off a youngster who was to join the ship; he had never been to sea before; his name was Green, and he was as green as a gooseberry. I took a dislike to him the moment that I saw him, because he had a hooked nose and very small ferrety eyes. As we were pulling on board, he asked me a great many questions of all kinds, particularly about the captain and officers, and to amuse myself and the boat’s crew, who were on the full titter, I exercised my peculiar genius for invention.
At last, after I had given a character of the first lieutenant, which made him appear a sort of marine ogre, he asked how it was I got on with him:
"O, very well," replied I; "but I’m a freemason, and so is he, and he’s never severe with a brother mason."
"But how did he know you were a mason?"
"I made the sign to him the very first time that he began to scold me, and he left off almost immediately; that is, when I made the second sign; he did not when I made the first."
"I should like to know these signs. Won’t you tell them to me?"
"Tell them to you! oh no, that won’t do," replied I. "I don’t know you. Here we are on board,in bow,. rowed of all men. Now, Mr. Green, I’ll show you the way up."
Mr. Green was presented, and ushered into the service much in the same way as I was; but he had not forgotten what I said to him relative to the first lieutenant; and it so happened that, on the third day, he witnessed a jobation, delivered by the first lieutenant to one of the midshipmen, who, venturing to reply, was ordered to the mast-head for the remainder of the day; added to which, a few minutes afterwards, the first lieutenant ordered two men to be put both legs in irons. Mr. Green trembled as he saw the men led away by the master-at-arms, and he came to me:
"I do wish, Keene, you would tell me those signs," said he; "can’t you be persuaded to part with them? I’ll give you any thing that I have which you may like."
"Well," said I, "1 should like to have that long spyglass of yours, for it’s a very good one; and, as signal midshipman, will be useful to me."
"I will give it you with all my heart," replied he, "if you will tell me the signs."
"Well, then, come down below, give me the glass, and I will tell them to you."
Mr. Green and I went down to the berth, and I received the spy-glass as a present in due form. I then led him to my chest in the steerage, and in a low, confidential tone, told him as follows:
"You see, Green, you must be very particular about making those signs, for if you make a mistake, you will be worse off than if you never made them at all, for the first lieutenant will suppose that you are trying to persuade him that you are a mason, when you are not. Now, observe, you must not attempt to make the first sign until he has scolded you well; then, at any pause, you must make it; thus, you see, you must put your thumb to the tip of your nose, and extend your hand straight out from it, with all the fingers separated as wide as you can. Now, do it as I did it. Stopwait a little, till that marine passes. Yes, that is it. Well, that is considered the first proof of your being a mason, but it requires a second. The first lieutenant will, I tell you frankly, be, or rather pretend to be, in a terrible rage, and will continue to rail at you; you must, therefore, wait a little till he pauses; and then, you observe, put up your thumb to your nose, with the fingers of your hand spread out as before, and then add to it your other hand, by joining your other thumb to the little finger of the hand already up, and stretch your other hand and fingers out like the first. Then you will see the effects of the second sign. Do you think you can recollect all this? for, as T said before, you must make no mistake."
Green put his hands up as I told him, and after three or four essays declared himself perfect, and I left him.
It was about three days afterwards that Mr. Green upset a kid of dirty water upon the lower deck, which had been dry holystoned, and the mate of the lower deck, when the first lieutenant went his round, reported the circumstance to exculpate himself. Mr. Green was consequently summoned on the quarter-deck, and the first lieutenant, who was very angry, commenced, as usual, a volley of abuse on the unfortunate youngster.
Green, recollecting my instructions, waited till the first lieutenant had paused, and then made the first freemason sign, looking up very boldly at the first lieutenant, who actually drew back with astonishment at this contemptuous conduct, hitherto unwitnessed on board of a man-of-war.
"What! sir," cried the first lieutenant. "Why, sir, are you mad ? you, just come into the service, treating me in this manner! I can tell you, sir, that you will not be three days longer in the service no, sir, not three days; for either you leave the service or I do. Of all the impudence, of all the insolence, of all the contempt, I have heard of, this beats all and from such a little animal as you. Consider yourself as under an arrest, sir, till ine captain comes on board, and your conduct is reported: go down below, sir, immediately."
The lieutenant paused, and now Green gave him sign the second, as a reply, thinking that they would then come to a right understanding; but, to his astonishment, the first lieutenant was more furious than ever; and calling the sergeant of marines, ordered him to take Mr. Green down, and put him in irons, under the half-deck.
Poor Green was handed down, all astonishment at the want of success of his mason’s signs. I, who stood abaft, was delighted at the success of my joke, while the first lieutenant walked hastily up and down the deck, as much astonished as enraged at such insulting and insolent conduct from a lad who had not been a week in the service.
After a time the first lieutenant went down below, when Bob Cross, who was on deck, and who had perceived my delight at the scene, which was to him and all others so inexplicable, came up to me and said:
"Master Keene, I’m sure, by your looks, you know something about this. That foolish lad never had dared do so, if he knew what it was he had done. Now, don’t look so demure, but tell me how it is."
I walked aft with Bob Cross, and confided my secret to him; he laughed heartily, and said :
"Well, Tommy Dott did say that you were up to any thing, and so I think you are; but you see this is a very serious affair for poor Green, and, like the fable of the frogs, what is sport to you is death to others. The poor lad will be turned out of the service, and lose his chance of being a post captain; so you must allow me to explain the matter so that it gets to the ears of the first lieutenant as soon as possible."
"Well," replied I, " do as you like, Bob; if any one’s to be turned out of the service for such nonsense, it ought to be me, and not Green, poor snob."
"No fear of your being turned out; the first lieutenant won’t like you the worse, and the other officers will like you better, especially as I shall say that it is by your wish that I explain all to get Mr. Green out of the scrape. I’ll to the surgeon and tell him; but. Master Keene, don’t you call such matters nonsense, or you’ll find yourself mistaken one of these days. I never saw such disrespect on a quarter-deck in all my life worse than mutiny a thousand times." Here Bob Cross burst out into a fit of laughter, as he recalled Green’s extended fingers to his memory, and then he turned away and went down below to speak to the surgeon.
As soon as Cross had quitted the deck, I could not restrain my curiosity as to the situation of my friend Green; I therefore went down the ladder to the half-deck, and there, on the starboard side between the guns, I perceived the poor fellow, with his legs in irons, his hands firmly clasped together, looking so woeful and woe-begone, every now and then raising his eyes up to the beams of the upper deck, as if he would appeal to heaven, that I scarcely could refrain from laughing. I went up to him and said :
"Why, Green, how is all this ? what has happened?"
"Happened ?" said the poor fellow; "happened? see what has happened; here I am."
"Did you make the freemason’s signs?" replied I.
"Didn’t I? Yes I did; Oh, what will become of me?"
"You could not have made them right; you must have forgotten them."
"I’m sure I made them as you told me; I’m quite sure of that."
"Then perhaps I did not recollect them exactly myself: however, be of good heart; I will have the whole matter explained to the first lieutenant."
"Pray do; only get me out of this. I don’t want the glass back."
"I’ll have it done directly," replied I.
As I went away, Bob Cross came up, and said I was wanted by the first lieutenant in the gun-room. "Don’t be afraid," said he; they’ve been laughing at it already, and the first lieutenant is in a capital humour; still he’ll serve you out well; you must expect that."
"Shall I make him the sign, Cross?" replied I, laughing.
"No, no; you’ve gone far enough, and too far already; mind what I say to you."
I went down into the gun-room, when a tittering ceased as the sentry opened the door, and I walked in.
"Did you want me, sir?" said I to the first lieutenant, touching my hat, and looking very demure.
"So, Mr. Keene, I understand it was you who have been practising upon Mr. Green, and teaching him insult and disrespect to his superior officers on the quarter-deck. Well, sir?"
I made no reply, but appeared very penitent.
"Because a boy has just come to sea, and is ignorant of his profession, it appears to be a custom which I shall take care shall not be followed up to play him all manner of tricks, and tell him all manner of falsehoods. Now, sir, what have you to say for yourself?"
"Mr. Green and I have both just come to sea, sir, and the midshipmen all play us so many tricks," replied I, humbly, " that I hardly know whether what I do is right or wrong."
"But, sir, it was you who played this trick to Mr. Green."
"Yes, sir, I told him so for fun, but I didn’t think he was such a fool as to believe me. I only said that you were a freemason, and that freemasons were kind to each other, and that you gave one another signs to know one another by; I heard you say you were a freemason, sir, when I dined in the gun-room."
"Well, sir, I did say so ; but that is no reason for your teaching him to be impudent."
"He asked me for the signs, sir, and I didn’t know them exactly; so I gave him the signs that Mr. Dott and I always make between us."
"Mr. Dott and you a pretty pair, as I said before. I’ve a great mind to put you in Mr. Green’s place; at all events, I shall report your conduct when the captain conies from London. There, sir, you may go."
I put on a penitent face as I went out, wiping my eyes with the back of my hands. After I went out, I waited a few seconds at the gun-room door, and then the officers, supposing that I was out of hearing, gave vent to their mirth, the first lieutenant laughing the loudest.
Cross is right, thought I, as 1 went up the ladder; a minute afterwards, Mr. Green was set free, and, after a severe reprimand, was allowed to return to his duty.
"You are well out of that trick, my hearty," said Bob Cross; " the first lieutenant won’t say a word to the captain, never fear; but don’t try it again."
– The Works of Mark Twain; Early Tales & Sketches, Vol. 1 1851-1864, Amazon>>
– Percival Keene by Frederick Marryat, Project Gutenberg>>
– When Giants Roamed the Earth, Archaeology>>
– Sins against science: the scientific media hoaxes of Poe, Twain, and others by Lynda Walsh, Amazon>>
– Thumbing Your Nose pin, Antique and Collectables Exchange>>