The town of Hadleyburg, known for its honesty and incorruptibility, somehow offends a stranger, “the man” of the title. Bent on revenge, the man hatches a plan that will punish the entire town and expose the hollowness of its proud claim to virtue.
He deposits a sack of gold coins, allegedly worth $40,000, at the home of Edward Richards, one the town’s best citizens. In a note affixed to it, he describes himself as a reformed gambler who wishes to reward the Hadleyburg citizen who once did him a great kindness and who gave him the good advice that changed his life. The note also provides the test: whoever can remember what he said to the stranger (the remark is sealed in an envelope inside the sack) should receive the reward.
Mr. Richards assumes, as do all Hadleyburgians, that only Barclay Goodson, a man now deceased, would have done a good deed to a passing stranger. But he resists the temptation to keep the sack for himself and elects to pursue the matter publicly. A note is published in the local newspaper inviting the person in question to submit his remarks in writing to the Rev. Mr. Burgess, who will announce the name of the winner at a town hall meeting a month hence. Thanks to national publicity given to it by the Associated Press, the incorruptible reputation of Hadleyburg—as well as its own civic pride—quickly reaches an all-time high. But not for long.
The town’s “wild intoxication” (15) soon gives way to general moodiness and absent-mindedness, as each of its citizens in turn tries to guess the remark that Barclay Goodson might have made. But moods soon change again, en masse, when each one of the town’s nineteen most notable families receives an identical letter, from one Howard L. Stephenson, passing on to them the remark that Goodson had made to the stranger, and which he is sending to them because Goodson had once singled them out as “having done him a very great service” (17). Like the “caste-brothers” they are said to be, each household has the same response: each husband struggles to invent an account of the great service he might have once bestowed on Goodson, while his wife fantasizes about spending the money in ever wilder and more foolish “future squanderings” (22). By the time the town hall meeting is held, Rev. Burgess finds himself in possession of nineteen submitted answers.
A huge crowd of over five hundred packs the town hall. As Burgess prepares to announce the name on the first claim, each of the nineteen quietly rehearses the humble acceptance speech he is about to make. But as the notes are read in turn and compared with the original, pandemonium erupts as each of the nineteen but one is proved guilty of lying, or “humbug.” In return for a kindness he once showed him, Burgess suppressed Edward Richards’s note, and he and his wife become heroes. The sack is opened, and its contents turn out to be worthless gilded disks of lead. Still, to reward the Richardses, a decision is made to auction off the worthless coins and give them the money thus raised. To increase the bidding, a stranger in the crowd—“the man”?—noticing that none of the exposed eighteen are participating, draws them in by entering the bidding himself. He wins the sack for $1,282 but contrives a scheme that enables him to sell the sack for $40,000, the original estimate of its worth. Surprised by the existence of one honest man in Hadleyburg, he gives the lump sum to the Richardses as a reward.
But, alas, Mr. and Mrs. Richards, at first relieved and even pleased by the turn of events, soon become distraught, filled with guilt and fear of exposure. Mr. Richards falls ill and dies shortly thereafter. But before he dies, he insists on exposing himself and Burgess’s cover-up. His wife dies shortly thereafter. Hadleyburg, with its reputation irreparably damaged, decides to rename itself and to change its motto from “Lead Us Not Into Temptation” to “Lead Us Into Temptation.” The story ends with the claim, “It is an honest town once more, and the man will have to rise early that catches it napping again” (50).
Given Twain’s known penchant for irony, comedy, and satire, some readers have seen this story as a replay of the Garden of Eden story—recounting the Fall of Hadleyburg, the innocent or virtuous “city on a hill”—and see the source of its corruption—the “Man” of its title—as the incarnation of Satan. In fact, in his hilarious autobiography, Twain himself encourages such a reading. “I have always felt friendly toward Satan,” he confesses. He reports how, as a seven year old, he thought to write a biography of Satan, a project Mr. Barclay, his Sunday School teacher, nipped in the bud. But Twain often returned to this subject in stories such as “Letters to Satan,” “Sold to Satan,” “A Humane World for Satan,” “That Day in Eden,” and “The Mysterious Stranger.” Others, however, see this as a story about an already corrupt human nature, in which people merely reveal their lack of integrity just as soon as temptation is at hand or when countervailing forces are absent. Consider, in this regard, that the plot begins only after Barclay Goodson (“God’s son”) dies and that the sack of gold is placed in the hands of Edward Richards (“son of riches”). To figure out which view, if either, is most plausible, we need carefully to consider the evidence.