For three generations, Hadleyburg has been known as “the most honest and upright town in all the region.” Its citizens are so proud of this reputation that they teach the values of honesty and integrity to their “babies in the cradle.” As a result, “the principles of honest dealing” become a “staple of their culture,” and the town makes a collective effort to keep temptations away from young people “throughout the formative years” of their upbringing. In doing this, they believe they give honesty “every chance to harden and solidify” into the very “bones” of every Hadleyburg citizen. Surrounding towns even envy Hadleyburg’s sterling reputation as an “incorruptible” community, which makes the townspeople very proud.
Twain goes out of his way to establish Hadleyburg’s proud sense of itself early in the story. Not only do the citizens of Hadleyburg celebrate their “reputation,” but they actively propagate it, passing it on to their children so that the community upholds its highly-esteemed righteousness. Interestingly enough, though, they make sure to keep temptation away from young people, meaning that nobody in Hadleyburg ever has to question their morality. Instead of interrogating their reputation, then, the townspeople see their upstanding morality as something inherent to their very existence—something set deep in their “bones.”
Hadleyburg eventually has the “ill luck to offend a passing stranger—possibly without knowing it, certainly without caring,” since the town believes that it is “sufficient unto itself and care[s] not a rap for strangers or their opinions.” Unfortunately, this particular stranger is a “bitter” and “revengeful” man who takes it upon himself to ruin Hadleyburg. For the entire year after Hadleyburg wronged him, this man brainstorms the best way to harm the town. He comes up with many good plans, but none of them are “quite sweeping enough,” since he doesn’t want to “let so much as one person escape unhurt” from his scheme. Finally, he devises the perfect plan: he will corrupt the town.
The fact that Hadleyburg cares “not a rap for strangers or their opinions” showcases the town’s insularity. Indeed, the citizens of Hadleyburg are uninterested in fraternizing with outsiders, an attitude that clearly invites scorn. When this “bitter” and “revengeful” stranger passes through the community, then, it’s unsurprising that he doesn’t feel welcome. As such, he chooses to wound Hadleyburg’s sense of itself, knowing that the most important thing to the townspeople is their reputation for being incorruptible. In this way, Hadleyburg’s vanity and self-centeredness attracts malice from the outside world.
One night, the stranger returns to Hadleyburg and goes to the elderly bank cashier’s house. This man—Edward Richards—is one of the nineteen most prominent and well-respected citizens of Hadleyburg, a group known as the “Nineteeners.” When the stranger arrives, Edward isn’t home, but his wife Mary opens the door. The stranger tells Mary that he wants to leave a sack for Edward, adding that this sack should be “delivered to the rightful owner when he shall be found.” He explains that Edward doesn’t know him, and that he’s only passing through town. Now that he has dropped off the sack, he will be on his way. “There is a paper attached to the sack which will explain everything,” he adds. As the man leaves, Mary finds herself relieved to see him go—she’s frightened of him, since he’s a “mysterious big stranger.”
When the stranger leaves after having dropped off a sack filled with heretofore unknown contents, Mary is relieved to see him go—an indication of just how unaccustomed she is to dealing with outsiders. She even thinks of him as a “mysterious big stranger,” a phrase that casts him as an ominous person simply because he isn’t from Hadleyburg. Once again, then, Twain establishes the insularity that grips Hadleyburg and its citizens, demonstrating that people like Mary are instinctively suspicious of strangers. In her defense, though, it’s also worth noting that this particular stranger actually does want to do harm, since he intends to take revenge on the town.
Despite her trepidation, Mary can’t contain her curiosity. Closing the door, she opens the sack and the letter attached to it. The note explains that the sack contains “gold coin weighing a hundred and sixty pounds four ounces,” and Mary runs to lock the doors and pull down the window shades. She then reads on: “I am a foreigner, and am presently going back to my own country, to remain there permanently,” it says. “I am grateful to America for what I have received at her hands during my long stay under her flag; and to one of her citizens—a citizen of Hadleyburg—I am especially grateful for a great kindness done me a year or two ago. Two great kindnesses, in fact.” Going on, the stranger’s letter explains that he used to be a “ruined gambler,” but that someone in Hadleyburg helped him reform.
Once again, it becomes clear that the stranger’s plan to corrupt Hadleyburg will most likely play on the town’s vanity, its proud conception of itself as a morally upstanding community. Indeed, the stranger praises Hadleyburg, saying that he has received “two great kindnesses” in the town. For a Hadleyburg citizen, this would be rather unsurprising, since the townspeople think they are so wonderfully generous and moral. Readers, on the other hand, know that the stranger has malicious intentions, and it seems in this moment that he plans to blind Hadleyburg to his ominous plot by further inflating its ego.
“I arrived in this village at night, hungry and without a penny,” the stranger says in his note. He badly needed money, he says, so a kind man gave him twenty dollars. “He also gave me fortune,” writes the stranger, “for out of that money I have made myself rich at the gaming-table. And finally, a remark which he made to me has remained with me to this day, and has at last conquered me; and in conquering has saved the remnant of my morals; I shall gamble no more.” The stranger explains that he doesn’t know who saved him, but that he wants this person found and rewarded for his kindnesses. Although the stranger himself can’t stay to track down this man, he’s confident the task will be done. “This is an honest town, an incorruptible town, and I know I can trust it without fear,” he notes.
By saying, “I know I can trust [Hadleyburg] without fear,” the stranger exploits the town’s vanity, appealing to the citizens’ belief that they are exceptionally honest. As such, he invites them to walk into his trap, giving them a large sum of money without monitoring what they do with it—a significant temptation. Since no one in Hadleyburg has ever faced temptation, the citizens are ill-equipped to face this kind of situation.
The stranger’s note explains that the man who helped him in his time of need can be “identified by the remark which he made” upon parting with the twenty dollars. The stranger says that the investigation can either be carried out privately (with Mr. Richards seeking out likely candidates) or publicly (with Mr. Richards taking this note to the newspaper to be published). If Edward Richards decides to conduct this inquiry privately, any claimant should deliver to him a written note that states the remark he uttered on that fateful night. Inside the sack, there is a sealed envelope that holds the correct response. If the claimant’s submission matches the exact wording, then Richards should give him the money without asking further questions.
The stranger’s instructions are quite specific, and they cultivate a sense of mystery about the sack of gold and who deserves it. In this way, he further tempts the people of Hadleyburg, for they have never before confronted this kind of intrigue and secrecy, especially one that involves such a tantalizing reward. Regardless of what Richards decides to do—conduct the investigation privately or publicly—there’s no doubt that the plan will ravage the town, turning people against one another as each person wonders who the stranger intends to reward.
If Mr. Richards decides to conduct this inquiry publicly, the stranger writes, then he should follow these instructions: “Thirty days from now, let the candidate appear at the town-hall at eight in the evening (Friday), and hand his remark, in a sealed envelope, to the Rev. Mr. Burgess (if he will be kind enough to act); and let Mr. Burgess there and then destroy the seals of the sack, open it, and see if the remark is correct; if correct, let the money be delivered with my sincere gratitude, to my benefactor thus identified.”
The only difference between this option and the private option is the fanfare that would without a doubt come along with conducting the inquiry under the public eye. It’s easy to see that the stranger most likely hopes this is the option Richards chooses, since it would publicize the entire ordeal, ultimately shaming the town far and wide. Of course, because Hadleyburg citizens are so proud of their reputation, this would deal the town a significant blow.
Mary Richards finishes reading the stranger’s note and has to sit down because she’s so flustered. “If it had only been my husband that did it!” she muses, “for we are so poor, so old and poor!” She then remembers that the sack contains “gambler’s money,” though, meaning that she couldn’t possibly “touch it,” since it represents the “wages of sin.” Before long, Edward comes home and reads the note affixed to the sack, exclaiming that 160 pounds of gold is equal to $40,000. “Why, we’re rich, Mary, rich,” he says. “All we’ve got to do is bury the money and burn the papers. If the gambler ever comes to inquire, we’ll merely look coldly upon him and say: ‘What is this nonsense you are talking!’” But at his wife’s urging, he stops fantasizing about taking the money, eventually growing serious and considering the situation in earnest.
The fact that Edward’s first reaction to the sack of gold is to quickly bury it and tell no one reveals the true weakness of his moral integrity. This is exactly the kind of attitude that the stranger hopes the citizens of Hadleyburg will adopt—having never been tempted in any significant moral capacity, people like Edward quickly falter in their supposed honesty and uprightness.
“The public method is better,” Edward asserts. “Think what a noise it will make! And it will make all the other towns jealous; for no stranger would trust such a thing to any town but Hadleyburg, and they know it. It’s a great card for us.” With this, he rushes off to the printing-office, where he tells the publisher, Mr. Cox, about the ordeal. When he returns home, he and his wife make guesses as to who is the rightful claimant of the sack. “Barclay Goodson,” they both say at the same time. Goodson was known as a good man, but he also publicly criticized Hadleyburg, calling it “honest, narrow, self-righteous, and stingy.” People respected him, but they also resented him; “I reckon he was the best-hated man among us, except the Reverend Burgess,” Edward says.
Already, curiosity has taken hold of Mary and Edward Richards. They have only had the sack of gold for perhaps an hour, and yet they can’t help but immediately start guessing who deserves it as a reward. This is the kind of curiosity the stranger is clearly banking on to make his plan for revenge work. On another note, Twain introduces the first character (other than the stranger) in the story that doesn’t seem to share Hadleyburg’s vanity: Goodson. The fact that the rest of the town hates Goodson for this is a testament to how strongly the townspeople cling to their reputation—anyone who doesn’t ascribe to their proud mentality (even if they’re actually more righteous than anyone else) is essentially ostracized and “hated.”
Mary says that Reverend Burgess deserves the townspeople’s scorn. “He will never get another congregation here,” she says. “[Poor] as the town is, it knows how to estimate him. Edward, doesn’t it seem odd that the stranger should appoint Burgess to deliver the money?” After some initial hesitation, Edward suggests that Burgess isn’t actually a bad man. His wife protests, but he says, “He is not a bad man. I know. The whole of his unpopularity had its foundation in that one thing—the thing that made so much noise.” He then adds that Burgess was innocent—“It is a confession,” he says. “I am ashamed, but I will make it. I was the only man who knew he was innocent. I could have saved him, and—and—well, you know how the town was wrought up—I hadn’t the pluck to do it. It would have turned everybody against me.”
Twain doesn’t reveal what, exactly, Reverend Burgess did to lose the town’s respect, but the specifics of this backstory aren’t all that important. What is important is the way Edward talks about Burgess. Indeed, the fact that he didn’t help clear Burgess’s name even though he (Edward) was “the only man who knew [Burgess] was innocent” suggests that his desire to uphold his reputation eclipses his morality. It also suggests that Burgess may have been falsely accused, and that Edward was the one who actually deserved the town’s scorn. Of course, it’s impossible to determine this for sure, since Twain doesn’t give further details about this incident, but it’s reasonable to wonder how Edward knows Burgess is innocent in the first place.
At first, Mary can’t formulate a response because she’s shocked to hear that her husband didn’t come forward to save Burgess from public humiliation. After a moment, though, she tells him she’s glad he kept quiet, since speaking up would have sullied their reputation. She then wonders why Burgess is always so kind to them, and Edward tells her it’s because the reverend thinks he owes him. “It’s another confession,” he says. “When the thing was new and hot, and the town made a plan to ride him on a rail, my conscience hurt me so that I couldn’t stand it, and I went privately and gave him notice, and he got out of the town and staid out till it was safe to come back.” He then assures Mary that the truth of this matter will never come out, since everybody thinks Goodson was the one to warn Burgess.
When Edward says, “My conscience hurt me so that I couldn’t stand it,” it seems even more likely that he was the true culprit of whatever crime or disgrace Burgess committed. Worse, he’s not only comfortable letting Burgess take the fall for him, but also content with allowing the town to think Goodson was the one who helped Burgess escape. With this, Twain firmly establishes Edward’s feeble moral character and his desire to uphold his reputation at all costs.
Mary and Edward both start thinking again about the sack of gold, growing increasingly irritated as they ponder the riches contained therein. “Lead us not into t—…but—but—we are so poor, so poor!” Mary laments. Edward, for his part, stands up, puts on his hat, and rushes into the street, where he meets Mr. Cox, who—like him—is rushing to the printing-office. In the same way that Edward discussed the particulars of the note with Mary, Cox talked to his own wife about the ordeal. “Nobody knows this secret but the Richardses…and us…nobody,” his wife pointed out, sending Cox rushing back into the night. “Nobody knows about this but us?” he whispers to Edward when they meet. “Not a soul—on honor, not a soul!” Edward replies. As they mount the stairs of the printing-office, Cox mutters: “If it isn’t too late to—”
When Mary considers the sack of gold, she begins to quote from the Gospel of Matthew (and the “Lord’s Prayer” derived from it): “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” However, she abruptly stops before even fully speaking the word “temptation.” Instead, she switches track, saying, “But—but—we are so poor, so poor!” In this way, she starts pitying herself, slowly trying to convince herself that it would be morally permissible to keep the sack for herself instead of following the stranger’s instructions (or the Bible itself). This kind of thinking is what sends both Edward and Mr. Cox back out into the street, clearly both wanting to stop the newspaper from printing the story so that they can split the gold without anyone else knowing.
Just when Edward and Mr. Cox decide to intercept the message they’ve already delivered to the printing-offices, a young boy who works at the press emerges from within and tells them he’s already sent the papers off. Disappointed, Edward and Cox part ways, returning home to their wives and discussing the matter at greater length, lamenting the fact that they didn’t simply take the gold before submitting the story to the paper. To make things worse, they know that Goodson—who they believe is the rightful claimant of the sack—is dead, meaning that taking the gold wouldn’t have been robbing him of his reward. “But, Mary,” Edward says, “you know how we have been trained all our lives long, like the whole village, till it is absolutely second nature to us to stop not a single moment to think when there’s an honest thing to be done—”
Even though he has just gone out of his way to be dishonest, Edward reassures himself by speaking proudly about his instincts, saying: “It is absolutely second nature to us to stop not a single moment to think when there’s an honest thing to be done.” Of course, he has just tried to undo his impulse toward honesty, but since his efforts to do so failed, he now decides to take comfort in the illusion of his—and the town of Hadleyburg’s—moral integrity, which readers see is quite feeble despite how wholeheartedly people like Edward and Mary believe in it.
Mary cuts off her husband, telling him she knows they’ve been “trained” to act honestly. “It’s been one everlasting training and training and training in honesty—honesty shielded, from the very cradle, against every possible temptation, and so it’s artificial honesty, and weak as water when temptation comes, as we have seen this night,” she says. She explains that she never doubted her own moral character until tonight, when the first temptation to arise completely unwound her ethical integrity. “Edward,” she says, “it is my belief that this town’s honesty is as rotten as mine is; as rotten as yours is. It is a mean town, a hard, stingy town, and hasn’t a virtue in the world but this honesty it is so celebrated for and so conceited about.” The couple falls silent before admitting to one another that they want to guess the remark that will win the gold.
Mary’s assessment of Hadleyburg and its weak moral character is quite accurate, as evidenced by her own actions and Edward’s multiple ethical failures (including his desire to keep the gold himself, his decision not to help Reverend Burgess, and his willingness to let the town blame Goodson for helping the reverend). Yet even though Mary finally acknowledges that Hadleyburg’s morality is “artificial” because it has never been tested by “temptation,” she and Edward still readily admit that they want to guess how to win a reward that doesn’t belong to them—a fact that further exposes their lack of integrity.