Saturday, May 29, 2010

Mark Twain and the Legend of the "Vibrating Sex Toy"

This is how spectacularly silly myths get started.

Our story begins with Guy Adams, writing in the Independent, about Mark Twain's unpublished autobiography, which has been (more or less) sealed for 100 years, as stipulated in Twain's will. Adams claims, without citation or anything much in the way of research:
A section of the memoir will detail his little-known but scandalous relationship with Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, who became his secretary after the death of his wife Olivia in 1904. Twain was so close to Lyon that she once bought him an electric vibrating sex toy.
The next thing you know, "Mark Twain and the Vibrator" (or some equally salacious headline) gets picked up by dozens of media outlets and blogs, including John Hudson at the Atlantic and Adrian Chen at (of course) Gawker.

There is a bit of truth buried in two embarrassing falsehoods here: Twain and Lyon did have a stormy relationship, but:

(1) "The Autobiography of Mark Twain does not contain any references to sex toys or vibrators of any kind," and

(2) there is a separate document, the "Ashcroft-Lyon MS., which does contain [a reference] to a pair of vibrating machines." The machine in question was in fact "the then-popular health aide the Arnold Vibrating Machine, a very above-board medical appliance which Clemens recommended to friends." It was designed to cure headaches and back pains.

You can read more about it here (via the University of California Press blog), from the editors of the forthcoming autobiography themselves, who wryly note that "this is not news."

The Independent has yet to correct or retract this section of the article.