Mark Twain’s, The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg

Jim Zwick was a good friend and mentor, when I first started performing as Mark Twain. His encouragement and suggestions were enormously helpful. When I first connected with Jim, he operated a Mark Twain site, which I studied, and relied on to increase my knowledge about Samuel Clemens. The following is a review I wrote which was featured on Jim’s site in 1998. Now, the film is also available on DVD. The short story and film are among my favorites.

In Memory of Jim Zwick

The memorial picture is featured at TwainWeb. TwainWeb is the web service of the Mark Twain Forum, a mailing list for persons having a scholarly interest in the life and writings of Mark Twain (1835-1910). 

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Mark Twain’s, The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg

Guest Review for Jim Zwick by Warren Brown Dateline:

Mark Twain’s, The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg

Color/VHS , 40 minutes, 1980.

From the American Short Stories series. Distributed by Monterey Home Video, (800) 934-4336.

The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, is a splendid example of Mark Twain’s keen insight into human nature, humorously told in a short story.

One of the best kept secrets in educational filmography, this teleplay cleverly captivates the viewer with a timeless tale that exemplifies the mastery of Mark Twain’s short stories.

The story is about the revenge of the Stranger, and his fiendish plan to corrupt the entire offending town, renown for impeccable honesty and having no temptation, “Hadleyburg, synonym for incorruptible, destined to live in dictionaries forever.” The key to the plan is the unknown identity of a townsman and a $40,000 bag of gold coins.

We are quickly immersed into the heart of the story with a four-minute-four-star opening which gives us a 1980 Henry Fonda overview, a 1909 Samuel Clemens silent film cameo, an 1898 Robert Preston as the Stranger and beguiling narrator, and Fred Gwynne as the Rev. Mr. Burgess, a sly smiling “best-hated man” in town.

The story has hardly begun, and I feel as though I am living in Hadleyburg. The Stranger is dressed in a white suit. Is he Satan, or is he Mark Twain? How will the Stranger snare an entire town of honest citizens? How can the town’s Rev. Burgess not have a church? Is he evil, or is he good? I’m anxious for the film to proceed.

Each of the nineteen chief citizens of town are carefully baited with a personal letter containing a phrase spoken by the rightful heir to the bag of gold. The words and chant, “You are far from being a bad man; go and reform,” play a significant role in both the story and film and have you laughing at the childish behavior of all the townsfolk. The con is exposed in the town hall and all the chief citizens are humiliated except for Mr. Edward Richards. It was easy to corrupt the townspeople because the Stranger knew how to proceed, “the weakest of all weak things is a virtue which has not been tested in the fire.”

Mr. Richards is honored for his unfailing honesty and the film ends with words from the Stranger.

The written story differs here because it continues with an auction of the bogus gold coins for $40,000, which are specially stamped commemorating the event and humiliating one chief citizen.

The Stranger gives the money to Mr. Richards, whose guilt leads to severe delirium, deteriorating health, and resulting in death for him and his wife.

Another difference between the two versions is the use of the Stranger to narrate many items of fact, while the written version uses many letters written by the Stranger. At the beginning of the film the Stranger talks to the Rev. Burgess and also finds Mr. Richards at home, neither happen in the original story.   The film does the author justice in the conveyance of the story’s theme, even though it doesn’t follow the story line verbatim.

Except for the costumes, stylish buildings, and antique furniture, the events of the 1898 were as real to me as if they were occurring in 1998, making it easy for me to relate to the feelings of the citizens of Hadleyburg, for the nature of humans is constant.

The value of this film as family entertainment is refreshingly funny. Oh, how we like to laugh at another’s expense. Or are we merely laughing at ourselves in the mirror that Mark Twain creates for us? The educational value is excellent because the film does a superb job of bringing the story to life. The film and story are reasonably short, they are different yet arrive at the same conclusion, and are therefore good candidates for written assignments or for lively classroom discussion.

“The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” is a must see video and is an amusingly wonderful example of the brilliance of Mark Twain’s short stories. Families, individuals, teachers, and especially students will delight in the revised motto of the newly named town, “Lead Us Into Temptation.”

Ratings by this reviewer (1 inferior, 10=superior):

  • Script 9
  • Acting 9
  • Story Content 8
  • Music 8
  • Video tape 8
  • Quality Sound 7
  • Quality 8


The weakest of all weak things is a virtue that has not been tested in the fire.

      The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg

He had only one vanity, he thought he could give advice better than any other person.

The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg

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