A Day Among the Liars by Edward Page Mitchell
MY DEAR FRIEND: You will no doubt be glad to hear about the newly
established infirmary at Lugville. I visited it a few days ago in
company with Mr. Merkle, a Boston lawyer, whom I happened to meet upon
the train. On the way down he gave me a most interesting account of the
endowment of this institution by the late Lorin Jenks, to whose
discriminating philanthropy the world owes a charity that is not less
novel in its conception than noble and practical in its aim.
Mr. Lorin Jenks, as you know, was president of the Saco Stocking and
Sock Mills. He was a bachelor, and a very remarkable man. He made a
million dollars one day by observing women as they purchased hose in a
cheap store in Tremont Row. Mr. Jenks noticed that females who
hesitated a good while about paying fifty cents a pair for plain white
stockings eagerly paid seventy-five cents for the same quality
ornamented with red clocks at the ankles. It cost twenty-two cents a
pair to manufacture the stockings. The red flosselle for the clocks
cost a quarter of a cent.
"That observation," said Mr. Merkle, "was the foundation of Jenks's
great fortune. The Saco Mills immediately stopped making plain hosiery.
From that time forth Jenks manufactured nothing but stockings with red
clocks, which he retailed at sixty cents. I am told that there is not a
woman under sixty-five in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, or
Vermont who does not own at least half a dozen pairs of poor Jenks's
sixty-cent red dockers."
"That fact," said I, "would interest Mr. Matthew Arnold. It shows
that sweetness and light--"
"Pardon me. It shows that Jenks was a practical man, as well as a
philosopher. Busy as he was during his life, he took great interest in
politics, like all sensible citizens. He was also a metaphysician. He
closely followed contemporary speculative thought, inclining, until
shortly before his death, to the Hegelian school. Every midsummer, he
left the stocking mill to run itself and repaired joyfully to Concord
to listen to the lectures in the apple orchard. It is my private
opinion that Messrs. Plato, Kant & Co. bled him pretty heavily for
the privilege. But at Concord Jenks acquired new ideas as to his duty
to the race."
Mr. Merkle paused to hand his ticket to the conductor.
"During the last years of his life, inasmuch as he was known to be
eccentric, philanthropic, and without a family, Jenks was much beset by
people who sought to interest him in various schemes for the
amelioration of the human race. A week before he died he sent for
"'Merkle,' says he, 'I want you to draw me a will so leathery that
no shark in Pemberton Square can bite it in two.'
"'Well,' says I, 'what is it now, Jenks?'
"'I wish,' says he, 'to devote my entire fortune to the endowment of
an institution, the idea of which occurred to me at Concord.'
"'That's right,' said I, rather sharply. 'Put honest money made in
red clock hose into the Concord windmill--that's a fine final act for a
"'Wait a minute,' said Jenks, and I fancied I saw a smile around the
corners of his mouth. 'It isn't the Concord school I want to endow,
although I don't deny there may be certain expectations in and around
the orchard. But why spend money in teaching wisdom to the wise?' And
then he proceeded to unfold his noble plan for the foundation of an
Infirmary for the Mendacious."
The train was hauling up at the platform of the Lugville
"A few days later," continued the lawyer, as we arose from our
seats, "this far-seeing and public-spirited citizen died. By the terms
of his will, the income of $1,500,000 in governments, Massachusetts
sixes, Boston and Albany stock, and sound first mortgages on New
England property is devoted to the infirmary, under the direction of
thirteen trustees. How the trust has been administered, you will see
for yourself in a few minutes."
We were met at the door of the infirmary by a pleasant-faced
gentleman who spoke with a slight German accent and introduced himself
as the assistant superintendent.
"Excuse me," said he, politely, "but which of you is the
"Oh, neither," replied Merkle, with a laugh. "I am the counsel for
the Board, and this gentleman is merely a visitor who is interested in
the workings of the institution."
"Ah, I see," said the assistant superintendent. "Will you kindly
walk this way?"
We entered the office, and he handed me a book and a pen. "Please
inscribe your name," said he, "in the Visitors' Book." I did so, and
then turned to speak to Merkle, but the lawyer had disappeared.
"Our system," said the assistant superintendent, "is very simple.
The theory of the institution is that the habit of mendacity, which in
many cases becomes chronic, is a moral disease, like habitual
inebriety, and that it can generally be cured. We take the liar who
voluntarily submits himself to our treatment, and for six months we
submit him to the forcing process. That is, we encourage him in lying,
surround him with liars, his equals and superiors in skill, and cram
him with falsehood until he is fairly saturated. By this time the
reaction has set in, and the patient is usually starved for the truth.
He is prepared to welcome the second course of treatment. For the next
half year the opposite method is pursued. The satiated and disgusted
liar is surrounded by truthful attendants, encouraged to peruse
veracious literature, and by force of lectures, example, and moral
influence brought to understand how much more creditable it is to say
the thing which is than the thing which is not. Then we send him back
into the world; and I must say that cases of relapse are
"Do you find no incurables?" I asked.
"Yes," said the assistant superintendent, "once in a while. But an
incurable liar is better off here in the infirmary than outside, and it
is better for the outside community to have him here."
Somebody came in, bringing a new patient. After sending for the
superintendent, the assistant invited me to follow him. "I will show
you how our patients live, and how they amuse themselves," he said. "We
will go first, if you please, through the left wing, where the
saturating process may be observed."
He led the way across a hall into a large room, comfortably
furnished, and occupied by two dozen or more gentlemen, some reading,
some writing, while others sat or stood in groups engaged in animated
talk. Indeed, had it not been for the iron bars at the windows, I might
have fancied myself in the lounging room of a respectable club. My
guide stopped to speak to an inmate who was listlessly turning the
leaves of a well-thumbed copy of Baron Münchausen, and left me
standing near enough to one of the groups to overhear parts of the
"My rod creaked and bent double," a stout, red-faced gentleman was
saying, "and the birch spun like a testotum. I tell you if Pierre
Chaveau hadn't had the presence of mind to grip the most convenient
part of my trousers with the boat hook, I should have been dragged into
the lake in two seconds or less. Well, sir, we fought sixty-nine
minutes by actual time taking, and when I had him in, and had got him
back to the hotel, he tipped the scale, the speckled beauty did, at
thirty-seven pounds and eleven-sixteenths, whether you believe it or
"Nonsense," said a quiet little gentleman who sat opposite. "That is
The first speaker looked flattered at this and colored with
pleasure. "Nevertheless," he retorted, "it's a fact, on my honor as a
sportsman. Why do you say it's impossible?"
"Because," said the other, calmly, "it is an ascertained scientific
fact, as every true fisherman in this room knows perfectly well, that
there are no trout in Mooselemagunticook weighing under half a
"Certainly not," put in a third speaker. "The bottom of the lake is
a sieve--a sort of schistose sieve formation--and all the fish smaller
than the fifty-pounders fall through."
"Why doesn't the water drop through, too?" asked the stout patient,
in a triumphant tone.
"It used to," replied the quiet gentleman gravely, "until the Maine
legislature passed an act preventing it."
My guide rejoined me and we went on across the room. "These
sportsman liars," he said, "are among the mildest and most easily cured
cases that come here. We send them away in from six to nine weeks' time
with the habit broken up and pledged not to fish or hunt any more. The
man who lies about the fish he has caught, or about the intelligence of
his red setter dog is often in all other respects a trustworthy
citizen. Yet such cases form nearly forty per cent of all our
"What are the most obstinate cases?"
"Undoubtedly those which you will see in the Travelers' and
Politicians' wards of the infirmary. The more benign cases, such as the
fishermen liars, the society liars, the lady-killer or bonnes fortunes
liars, the Rocky Mountain and frontier liars [excepting Texas cases],
the railroad prospectus liars, the psychical research liars, and the
miscellaneous liars of various classes, we permit during the first
stage of treatment to mingle freely with each other. The effect is
good. But we keep the Travelers and the Politicians strictly
He was about to conduct me out of the room by a door opposite that
through which we had entered when a detached phrase uttered by a
pompous gentleman arrested my attention.
"Scipio Africanus once remarked to me--"
"There couldn't be a better example," said my guide, as we passed
out of the room, "of what we call the forcing system in the treatment
of mendacity. That patient came to us voluntarily about two months ago.
The form of his disease is a common one. Perfectly truthful in all
other respects, he cannot resist the temptation to claim personal
acquaintance and even intimacy with distinguished individuals. His
friends laughed at him so much for this weakness that when he heard of
the establishment of the infirmary he came here like a sensible man,
and put himself under our care. He is doing splendidly. When he found
that his reminiscences of Beaconsfield and Bismarck and Victor Hugo
created no sensation here, but were, on the contrary, at once matched
and capped by still more remarkable experiences narrated by other
inmates, he was at first a little staggered. But the habit is so
strong, and the peculiar vanity that craves admiration on this score is
so exacting, that he began to extend his acquaintance, gradually and
cautiously, back into the past. Soon we had him giving reminiscences of
Talleyrand, of Thomas Jefferson, and of Lord Cornwallis. Observe the
psychologic effect of our system. The ordinary checks on the
performances of such a liar being removed, and, no doubt, suspicion,
nor even wonder being expressed at any of his anecdotes, he has gone
back through Voltaire and William the Silent to Charlemagne, and so on.
There happens to be in the institution another patient with precisely
the same trouble. They are, therefore, in active competition, and each
serves to force the other back more rapidly. Not long ago I heard our
friend in here describing one of Heliogabalus' banquets, which he had
attended as an honored guest. Why, I was there, too!' cried the other
liar. 'It was the night they gave us the boar's head stuffed with goose
giblets and that delicious dry Opimian muscadine.'"
"Well," I asked, "and what is your prognosis in this case?"
"Just now the two personal reminiscence liars are driving each other
back through ancient history at the rate of about three centuries a
week. The flood isn't likely to stop them. Before long they will be
matching reminiscences of the antediluvian patriarchs, and then they'll
bring up square on Adam. They can't go any further than Adam. By that
time they will be ready for the truth-cure process; and after a few
weeks spent in an atmosphere of strict veracity in the other wing of
the infirmary, they'll go out into the world again perfectly cured, and
much more useful citizens than before they came to us."
We went upstairs and saw the scrupulously neat bedrooms which the
patients occupy; through the separate wards where the isolated classes
are treated; across to the right wing of the building and into a
lecture room where the convalescent liars were gathered to hear a most
interesting dissertation on "The Inexpediency of Falsehood from the
Legal Point of View." I was not surprised to recognize in the lecturer
my railroad acquaintance, the Boston lawyer, Merkle.
On our way back to the reception room, or office, we met a
pleasant-looking gentleman about forty years old. "He is a well-known
society man," the assistant superintendent whispered as the inmate
approached, "and he was formerly the most politely insincere person in
America. Nobody could tell when he was uttering the truth, or, indeed,
whether he ever did utter the truth. His habit became so exaggerated
that his relatives induced him to come to Lugville for treatment. I am
glad to have you see him, for he is a good example of a radical cure.
We shall be ready to discharge him by the first of next week."
The cured liar was about to pass us, but the assistant
superintendent stopped him. "Mr. Van Ransevoort," he said, "let me make
you acquainted with this gentleman, who has been inspecting our
"I am glad to meet you, Mr. Van Ransevoort," I said.
He raised his hat and made me an unexceptionable bow. "And I," he
replied, with a smile of charming courtesy, "am neither glad nor sorry
to meet you, sir. I simply don't care a d--n."
The somewhat startling candor of his words was so much at variance
with the perfect politeness of his manner that I was taken aback. I
stammered something about not desiring to intrude. But as he still
stood there as if expecting the conversation to be continued, I added,
"I suppose you are looking forward to your release next week?"
"Yes, sir," he replied, "I shall be rather glad to get out again,
but my wife will be sorry."
I looked at the assistant superintendent. He returned a glance full
of professional pride.
"Well, good-by, Mr. Van Ransevoort," I said. "Perhaps I shall have
the pleasure of meeting you again."
"I hope not, sir; it's rather a bore," said he, shaking my hand most
cordially, and giving the assistant superintendent a friendly nod as he
I could fill many more pages than I have time to write with
descriptions of what I saw in the infirmary. Intelligence and
thoroughness were apparent in all of the arrangements. I encountered
and conversed with liars of more variation and degree of mendacity than
you would believe had distinct existence. The majority of the cases
were commonplace enough. Liars of real genius seem to be as rare inside
the establishment as they are outside. I became convinced from my
observations during the profitable afternoon which I spent at Lugville
that chronic mendacity is a disease, as the assistant superintendent
said, and that it is amenable, in a great number of cases, to proper
treatment. On the importance of the experiment that is being carried on
at Lugville with so much energy and apparent success, it is not
necessary to dilate.
I sincerely hope that you will not misconstrue my motives in laying
the matter before you; and I cannot too strongly urge you to go down to
Lugville yourself at the earliest opportunity. You ought to see with
your own eyes how admirably Lorin Jenks's bequest is administered, and
what a prospect of reform and regeneration the infirmary's system holds
out to unfortunates. The regular visitors' day is Wednesday. No doubt
they would admit you at any time.