The Stolen White Elephant
by Mark Twain

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

first appeared in —
The Stolen White Elephant Etc.  (1882)

Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays,

  1852-1890 February 2007


As professional detectives began to establish their profession in the public mind, Mark Twain couldn't resist jabbing them. "The Stolen White Elephant" is a tragicomedy of botched detective work. This royal white elephant is a present from the King of Siam to the Queen of England; the British representative transporting it stopped over in Jersey City to let it recuperate from its long sea voyage — and it was stolen.

Mark Twain starts the story off easy and reasonable, but during the interview of the British representative by the Chief Inspector of the New York detective force, we begin to drop off the deep end:

"Now, what does the elephant eat, and how much?"

"Well, as to what he eats, — he will eat anything. He will eat a man, he will eat a Bible, — he will eat anything between a man and a Bible."

"Good, — very good indeed, but too general. Details are necessary. — details are the only valuable things in our trade. ... How many Bibles would he eat at a meal?"

"He would eat an entire edition."

"It is hardly succinct enough. Do you mean the ordinary octavo, or the family illustrated?"

We soon learn that the Chief Inspector's unflappable acuity is neatly matched by the horde of detectives he looses upon the land in search of the white elephant. The telegraphic reports sent in by the scattered detectives, as they rush clue-hunting down all the more or less elephant-like trails, are hilarious. A classic Mark Twain story.

Moral of the tale (no spoilers here): Consider carefully before accepting a white elephant, whether for yourself or in charge for a monarch. Include "The Stolen White Elephant" in your research.


© 2007 Robert Wilfred Franson

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