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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Chapters 19–20 | Summary



Chapter 19: The Prophecy Realized

Chapter 19 opens with an aphorism about how annoying a good example can be and a second one about how "a difference of opinion ... makes horse-races."

David Wilson tries to convince Judge Driscoll, who is still intent on shooting Luigi, that the Italian is not an assassin as Tom insists. But the old man is not moved, much to Luigi's amazement. Wilson says an old childless couple who adopts a ward late in life will never see the devil in him. Wilson also warns Luigi the town will expect him "kill Judge Driscoll on sight" or be killed by him.

That night Tom returns to Dawson's Landing unseen. He dresses in women's clothing and carries the twins' Indian knife. He intends to slip into the judge's bedroom and steal the key to the safe in the adjoining sitting room. But as he enters the sitting room, he sees his uncle asleep on the sofa with the cashbox on a table next to a stack of banknotes. As he creeps past his uncle, Tom pulls out the knife. The sheath falls as he reaches for the money. The sound wakes the judge, who cries out and grabs the intruder. Tom stabs his uncle, tosses the knife aside, and runs upstairs to his room.

The twins are out for a solitary evening stroll when they hear the judge's cries for help. They enter the house and are standing over the body of the murdered man when Mrs. Pratt and her servants run into the sitting room. Tom, wearing girl's clothes and a veil over his face, has just exited the gate as three elderly women rush past him. He burns his clothing, wipes the blood from his hand, and disguises himself as a tramp. Using a canoe to leave the town, he moves upstream, then boards a steamboat headed for St. Louis. In St. Louis he reads one of the twins has been arrested for murdering the judge. He thinks about how he couldn't sell the murder weapon when he wanted to and reflects, "We never know when fortune is trying to favor us." Tom buys Roxy's freedom, mails the proof to Wilson, and wires his aunt, Rachel Pratt, that he will travel back immediately.

Wilson takes charge of the investigation, making sure Robinson and Blake thoroughly examine the murder scene as well as Tom's room upstairs. The twins are taken away to jail. A coroner's jury finds Luigi committed the murder and Angelo was an accessory to it.

Wilson examines the handle of the infamous Indian knife, determining the twins did not handle it. He also concludes, with the cashbox still on the table, that robbery was not a motive. Because the judge was a gentleman, he doubts a woman could have done this. When Tom arrives from St. Louis, he is the object of pity—hardly a suspect in the murder of his dear uncle and benefactor.

Chapter 20: The Murderer Chuckles

Chapter 20's aphorism reflects that circumstantial evidence should be treated with caution.

The day of the trial arrives, and though Wilson is their attorney, things look bleak for the twins. Everyone is in attendance, from Tom and Mrs. Pratt sitting with Pembroke Howard, the judge's friend and prosecutor, to Roxy and Chambers sitting in the segregated section of the audience.

Howard makes the case against the twins. He bases it on the scurrilous rumor planted by Tom that Luigi is a black-hearted assassin and Angelo a conspirator. Howard says they acted out of revenge and fear they would lose their lives to the judge. Many had heard the judge declare the Indian knife would be produced when it was needed for an assassination.

As the trial continues, the twins proclaim their innocence. Witnesses confirm they arrived at the scene almost immediately following the twins and saw no blood or evidence the brothers had committed the murder. Wilson noted the three elderly women met a veiled young woman leaving the Driscoll premises after the murder. Because this person of interest is unaccounted for, he is granted a stay of proceedings until the next day.

Tom, confident the three old women will never be able to identify him, admires "for the hundredth time, the shrewd ingenuities by which he had insured himself against detection." He decides it would be fun to tease Wilson about the poor prospects of his two clients and drops in at the lawyer's house. He finds Wilson looking through his files of glass slides, searching for a woman's fingermarks that match the marks on the knife handle. While he teases Wilson, Tom picks up a slide and puts it down. He picks up another and discovers it is labeled "Roxy." This inspires Tom to reminisce about how he knew Wilson took his prints and Roxy's boy's prints back when they were young. When Wilson takes the slide from Tom and looks at it, he feels faint and says he must retire. Tom leaves.

Wilson sees that Tom's prints on the slide match the prints on the knife handle. But Wilson, who has kept complete and organized files ever since arriving in Dawson's Landing, now pulls out Tom's files from when he was 12 years old and 7 months old.

Something is not right. He falls into a troubled sleep only to jolt awake and take another, closer look at his files. He has "a revelation" about something that has been hidden for 23 years.


These chapters contain the climax of the story. Tom's life has led to this point. What happens the night of the judge's death brings together Tom's thievery, his use of disguises, and the twins' jeweled knife. It also returns to the notion of betraying a parent. Earlier Tom betrayed his mother, Roxy, and risked causing her death when he sold her down the river. Now he has betrayed and actually murdered the man who acted as his father. Oddly, he uses the money he steals to buy Roxy's freedom; however, this is only in order to keep her from telling others his true identity. Ironically, committing this murder, which Tom believes has made him both safe from discovery and secure in his wealth, will prove his downfall.

Another event also finds an echo here. Earlier it was revealed Luigi killed someone with a knife to prevent that person killing his brother, Angelo. He killed a would-be thief and murderer to protect a family member. However, now Tom has used the very same knife to murder a family member while committing theft.

By now, modern readers are likely far ahead of the author. As with many villains in melodramas, Tom's ego gets the better of him, and he prematurely celebrates his triumph by visiting and teasing Wilson. While touching Wilson's glass slides—and leaving his fingerprints on them—he reminds Wilson of the prints taken of the two babies years ago. Twain's contemporary readers might have been unaware of the importance of Wilson's collection of slides, but modern readers know the value of keeping such records. The only question is how exactly Wilson will utilize them as he jumps out of bed with his "revelation."

Twain wisely closes his novel with a trial—the essence of a good melodrama. All the characters are gathered in one place and by now, they have established themselves as good or bad. Readers know the accused are innocent, but the evidence weighs heavily against them. The town's most prominent lawyer, Pembroke Howard—"the great lawyer"—has proclaimed the evidence against the twins and appears to have bested the untried novice, Wilson. The stage is set for the hero, Pudd'nhead Wilson, to step forward and save the day. The aphorism that opens Chapter 20 is completely appropriate. All the circumstantial evidence on which Howard has based his case will be overturned when confronted with Wilson's scientific evidence.

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