The citizens of Hadleyburg gather in the town hall, which has been decorated to celebrate the highly-anticipated event. At the front of the room, the sack sits on a table for all to see. Addressing his fellow townspeople—along with a number of out-of-town reporters—Reverend Burgess delivers a speech about Hadleyburg’s “old and well-earned reputation for spotless honesty.” When he concludes his opening remarks (which greatly please the townspeople), Burgess takes out one of the submitted envelopes and reads it aloud: “The remark which I made to the distressed stranger was this. ‘You are very far from being a bad man: go, and reform.’” Burgess then identifies Deacon Billson as the man who wrote this note, and Billson stands to accept his reward.
Once again, readers see how proud the town of Hadleyburg is of its reputation. This is made evident by the fact that Burgess opens his speech by remarking upon the town’s “old and well-earned reputation for spotless honesty,” despite the fact that he has received 19 envelopes, all from people claiming to deserve the sack of gold. Even though this should signal to Burgess that there are at least 18 dishonest men in Hadleyburg, he decides to continue singing the praises of the community’s upstanding reputation, blinded from the truth by vanity.
At another end of the hall, Lawyer Wilson also stands. “Why do you rise, Mr. Wilson?” Billson asks. “With great pleasure,” replies Wilson. “Because I wrote that paper.” Beside himself, Billson yells, “It is an impudent falsity! I wrote it myself.” This dumbfounds everybody in the hall, until Burgess clarifies that the note’s signature reads “John Wharton Billson.” Because Wilson wrote the same thing on his own note, though, he accuses Billson of stealing and copying his submission. This accusation shocks the crowd, and Burgess scrambles to get to the bottom of the issue, taking out Wilson’s note and reading it aloud. It is, of course, the same as Billson’s.
The crowd of Hadleyburg citizens is shocked because they have never before witnessed such pointedly aggressive accusations against someone’s honor. Indeed, no one in Hadleyburg has been faced with real temptation, so there has clearly been no need to accuse anyone of anything, let alone of stealing and lying, two things that are in direct opposition to the town’s supposed upstanding moral record. In this moment, then, onlookers are forced to question the validity of their fellow citizens’ virtues.
As the crowd descends into mayhem, the local tanner—who holds a grudge against the elite Nineteeners—points out that Billson’s and Wilson’s submissions aren’t exactly the same, since Billson’s note contains the word “very,” whereas Wilson’s does not. As such, Burgess reaches into the sack to determine the exact wording of the real phrase. Inside, he finds that there are two envelopes: one labeled “The Test,” and another that bears the instructions, “Not to be examined until all written communications which have been addressed to the Chair—if any—shall have been read.” Burgess then opens The Test and reads from it: “I do not require that the first half of the remark which was made to me by my benefactor shall be quoted with exactness,” the note reads, “for it was not striking, and could be forgotten; but its closing fifteen words are quite striking.”
The stranger (or Howard Stephenson) seems to know just how to rankle the townspeople. As the confusion mounts, the apparatus of his plan presents itself as more and more elaborate. Indeed, he builds suspense by indicating that one of the letters in the sack must not be opened until every single response has been read aloud, thereby ensuring that he catches all of the Nineteeners in their lies. It’s clear, then, that this man is hell-bent on making sure his act of revenge affects every last influential member of Hadleyburg.
Burgess continues reading the stranger’s note, which upholds that the rightful claimant must quote the final fifteen words of his remark exactly as they are written on The Test. The full phrase, the stranger reveals in this note, begins in the same way that Billson’s and Wilson’s submissions begin. However, it doesn’t stop there. Instead, the remark goes on to say: “…Go, and reform—or, mark my words—some day, for your sins, you will die and go to hell or Hadleyburg—TRY AND MAKE IT THE FORMER.” At this, the audience erupts in anger, and Burgess tries to get to the bottom of Billson and Wilson’s situation by ceding the floor to Wilson, who makes his case by accusing Billson of stealing his note. Because he’s a lawyer, his speech his very convincing, and the townspeople quickly start singing his praises.
Not only does the stranger contrive to publicly portray the Nineteeners as liars, he also sets them up so that their fellow citizens think they’ve slandered Hadleyburg’s good name. Indeed, he frames them as having said that Hadleyburg is worse than hell itself—a sentiment that would no doubt upset a community enamored of itself and its sterling reputation. Nonetheless, Wilson still manages to convince his citizens that Billson is a liar and cheater. In doing so, he earns their admiration, and they seem to forget the idea that he spoke ill of their town.
As the town-hall celebrates Wilson’s victory, Burgess brings them to order once more, reminding them that they must reed the rest of the notes before opening the final envelope. He then begins to read each note in succession, and the crowd grows wild with confusion and delight—each note says the exact same thing. At the end of each recitation, Burgess states the name of the man who signed the note. In this way, he makes his way through the Nineteeners, listing them off one by one as the audience memorizes the familiar phrase, chanting it as they go along. When somebody asks Burgess how many envelopes he has, he tells them he received nineteen notes, and the crowd bursts into “a storm of derisive applause.”
What’s most interesting about this moment is the apparent joy the audience derives from the public humiliation of the Nineteeners. Even though Hadleyburg citizens are so proud of their reputation, the masses also seem to resent the prestigious Nineteeners, suggesting that their community is perhaps not as idyllic and fair as it is made out to be. Indeed, they shower the Nineteeners in a “storm of derisive applause,” happily damaging the pride of their most lauded citizens.
As the Nineteeners endure public humiliation one by one, Edward and Mary Richards sit in terrible anticipation, waiting for Edward’s name to be called. Unable to bear the pressure, he suddenly stands up and says, “My friends, you have known us two—Mary and me—all our lives, and I think you have liked us and respected us—” At this point, Burgess interrupts him, saying, “We know your good heart, Mr. Richards, but this is not a time for the exercise of charity toward offenders. I see your generous purpose in your face, but I cannot allow you to plead for these men.” Sheepishly taking his seat once more, Edward whispers to his wife, “It is pitifully hard to have to wait; the shame will be greater than ever when they find we were only going to plead for ourselves.”
In this moment, the Richardses can’t escape their own reputation as upstanding citizens—a reputation that now mocks their consciences as they wait for their public humiliation. Unable to do anything, Edward suggests that it is terrible to “wait” with his guilt, since the “shame” he feels will fester and become greater and greater the longer he keeps it to himself. Plus, he knows that the townspeople will soon understand that he was only trying to save himself, which will further cast him as an immoral and selfish man.
“Be ready,” Mary says to Edward after a while. “Your name comes now; he has read eighteen.” As the crowd chants for more, Burgess reaches into his pocket, fumbles around, and says, “I find I have read them all.” After further celebrations from the crowd—which lampoons the eighteen disgraced townspeople—somebody stands up and proposes a “cheers” “for the cleanest man in town, the one solitary important citizen in it who didn’t try to steal that money—Edward Richards.” Greatly moved, the other citizens of Hadleyburg rally behind this call, and somebody even suggests that Edward “be elected sole guardian and Symbol of the now Sacred Hadleyburg Tradition, with power and right to stand up and look the whole sarcastic world in the face.”
Although Edward and Mary Richards have been saved from public embarrassment, there’s no doubt that the crowd’s generous praise does nothing but mock their guilty consciences. Indeed, as the audience calls Edward the “cleanest man in town,” he has to sit with his shame, knowing full well that he deserves to be treated with as much—or more—scorn as the other Nineteeners. In this way, Twain asks readers to consider if public humiliation is better or worse than a clawing, private guilt. Regardless, though, Edward still cares too much about his own reputation to do anything about this misunderstanding, so he’s forced to grapple with an internal sense of shame.
Somebody in the crowd wonders aloud who gets to keep the sack. “That’s easy,” says the Tanner. He then proposes that the money should be divided between the eighteen disgraced Nineteeners, a twist of bitter irony that pleases the rest of the crowd. Nonetheless, Reverend Burgess pushes on, reading the stranger’s final note, which says: “If no claimant shall appear I desire that you open the sack and count out the money to the principal citizens of your town, they to take it in trust, and use it in such ways as to them shall seem best for the propagation and preservation of your community’s noble reputation for incorruptible honesty—a reputation to which their names and their efforts will add a new and far-reaching luster.”
The stranger’s words about propagating Hadleyburg’s “noble reputation for incorruptible honesty” by giving the money to the “principal citizens” of the town is yet another ironic twist of the knife, since the townspeople now know that eighteen of the Nineteeners are corrupt and immoral. In this way, the stranger emphasizes just how undeserving these men are.
Studying the stranger’s final note, Burgess notices a postscript revealing that there was never “any pauper stranger, nor any twenty dollar contribution, nor any accompanying benediction and compliment.” The stranger explains that he “received a deep offense” in Hadleyburg and that he decided to “damage every man in the place, and every woman—and not in their bodies or in their estate, but in their vanity—the place where feeble and foolish people are most vulnerable.” To do this, he says, he disguised himself and returned to town to study its citizens. “As soon as I found out that you carefully and vigilantly kept yourselves and your children out of temptation, I knew how to proceed,” he writes. “Why, you simple creatures, the weakest of all weak things is a virtue which has not been tested in the fire.”
The stranger’s postscript confirms that he purposely exploited Hadleyburg’s “vanity.” In particular, he acknowledges that the town’s avoidance of “temptation” rendered it an easy target, saying that “the weakest of all weak things is a virtue which has not been tested in the fire.” Although he has ultimately disgraced the town, he has also given it an impetus to change; by explaining his intentions and his methods, he has shown the citizens of Hadleyburg that their vanity has heretofore blinded them to their moral shortcomings. Now, then, the community can finally address its problems, assessing itself honestly for the first time.
The stranger explains in his final note that he was afraid of only one person in Hadleyburg: Goodson. This is because Goodson was born and raised elsewhere. Luckily for the stranger, though, Goodson died, and so he was able to carry out his plan. “I am hoping to eternally and everlastingly squelch your vanity and give Hadleyburg a new renown—one that will stick—and spread far,” he writes. “If I have succeeded, open the sack and summon the Committee on Propagation and Preservation of the Hadleyburg Reputation.” When Burgess opens the sack, he discovers that the so-called “gold” is nothing but a pile of “gilded disks of lead.” Wanting to humiliate Mr. Wilson, the tanner suggests that he step forward and receive the lead on behalf of his eighteen fellow dishonest citizens.
When the stranger says that he wants to “eternally and everlastingly squelch [the town’s] vanity and give Hadleyburg a new renown,” he is mainly referring to his desire to make the town look bad. However, the language he uses implies a sense of reform, suggesting that his act of revenge might actually allow the town to make itself anew, though in doing so they will have to part with their vanity regarding their previously spotless reputation. In the end, though, this is exactly what will enable them to change for the better (though this is not the stranger’s express intention).
“Mr. Chairman,” the Tanner shouts, “we’ve got one clean man left, anyway, out of the late aristocracy; and he needs money and deserves it.” In light of this, the Tanner insists that Jack Halliday—who is quick and charming—stand up and conduct an auction, so that the sack of “gilt” becomes something of a commodity, the proceeds of which will go to Edward and Mary Richards. The crowd loves this idea, and immediately starts bidding for the sack. Meanwhile, Edward whispers to Mary, saying, “O Mary, can we allow it? It—it—you see, it is an honor-reward, a testimonial to purity of character, and—and—can we allow it? Hadn’t I better get up and—O Mary, what ought we to do?” As he and his wife furtively discuss whether or not to come clean, the bids from their fellow townspeople rise to over $1,000.
Once again, Edward and Mary are forced to decide whether or not to confess their guilt. Each step of the way, however, admitting their shame becomes harder and harder, as the townspeople continue to heap praise on them for their honesty and integrity. In this way, Twain shows readers how destructive it can be to hold onto guilt. If Edward had come forward right away, he wouldn’t now be subject to such inner torment, and his conscience would—at the very least—be lighter. Now, though, he is about to receive a cash prize despite his dishonesty, something that will surely exacerbate the guilt that has already started to ravage him.
Amid the town hall’s commotion, a stranger stands up and points out that none of the disgraced eighteen citizens are bidding. This will not do, he says, since these men should be the ones paying for their lies. “They must buy the sack they tried to steal,” he says. “They must pay a heavy price, too—some of them are rich.” He also commends Edward for being an “honest man,” saying, “He saw my deuces and with a straight flush, and by rights the pot is his. And it shall be a jack-pot, too, if I can manage it. He disappointed me, but let that pass.” With this, he himself wins the bid at $1,282.
It’s rather obvious that the man who speaks these words is the stranger (Howard Stephenson). This is made clear by the fact that he says that Edward saw his “deuces” and “disappointed” him by not falling for his trick. Nonetheless, no one in Hadleyburg seems to notice the import of what he’s saying, as they’re all too preoccupied with the idea of humiliating the disgraced Nineteeners.
Once the stranger wins the sack, he announces that he is a “speculator in rarities,” saying that he deals with people who are “interested in numismatics” (the study or collection of coins). As such, he believes he can make the gilt coins in the sack worth more than they should be worth. “I can make every one of these leaden twenty-dollar pieces worth its face in gold, and perhaps more,” he says. “Grant me that approval, and I will give part of my gains to your Mr. Richards, whose invulnerable probity you have so justly and so cordially recognized to-night; his share shall be ten thousand dollars, and I will hand him the money to-morrow.” He then explains how he will make the coins so valuable: he will “stamp” the names of the disgraced Eighteen onto them.
It has already been made clear that the stranger hates Hadleyburg’s dishonesty. As such, it makes sense that he himself is not a dishonest man. Indeed, he intends to make good on his promise to award the person who deserves the sack with a significant amount of money. Of course, doing so has involved duping the Nineteeners, but there exists a certain amount of integrity to his plan, since he clearly wants to reward Richards for his honesty—as he doesn’t know Richards also lied in order to claim the sack.
The stranger explains that “rarities are always helped by any device which will rouse curiosity and compel remark.” This is why he intends to put the names of the disgraced eighteen onto the coins, since people far and wide will have heard of this event. The crowd loves this proposition, immediately supporting the stranger’s idea. The disgraced Eighteen, on the other hand, stand and protest, though one of them remains seated. This is Dr. Harkness, one of the two richest men in Hadleyburg. In this moment, Harkness sees an opportunity to win the election for Hadleyburg’s legislative seat. Apparently, he has been running against Mr. Pinkerton, the other richest man in town (and another disgraced Nineteener). Leaning over to the stranger, he asks how much the man wants for the sack. After trying to negotiate, Harkness eventually agrees to give the stranger $40,000.
It’s worth noting that Dr. Harkness sees an opportunity to benefit from this act of mass humiliation—an event in which he himself has been publicly embarrassed. Indeed, he realizes he can perhaps leverage this situation as a way of winning an election, though Twain doesn’t yet make clear how exactly Harkness intends to do this. Nonetheless, it’s clear that this dishonest man has no problem parleying his own disgrace into something that will ultimately benefit him. In other words, he cares so little about whether or not he has moral integrity that he completely disregards his own public shaming in order to capitalize upon an opportunity.
Still whispering to the stranger, Harkness says he will come to the man’s hotel at ten the next morning to deliver the money, but that he doesn’t want anybody to know. The stranger agrees, then stands up and addresses the other citizens, who are still yelling. “I ask the Chair to keep the sack for me until to-morrow,” he says, “and to hand these three five-hundred-dollar notes to Mr. Richards.” He then says that he will fetch the sack at nine the next morning and that he will deliver “the rest of the ten thousand to Mr. Richards in person, at his home.”
Harkness’s offer to the stranger most likely wasn’t part of the scheming man’s plan, but he quickly accepts nonetheless. After all, if he can convince Harkness—a dishonest and uncaring man—to part with $40,000, he will only have further succeeded in his plan to take revenge on Hadleyburg’s well-off citizens.