The story is divided into four parts: first, the introduction of Hadleyburg, the Richardses, and the stranger’s plot to corrupt and disgrace the town; then the description of the Nineteeners’ vanities and greed as they fall for the plot; third, the exposure of the town’s artificial honesty; and finally, the effects of the plot on the Richardses. There are, however, really two stories woven together.
The first is the corruption of Hadleyburg. The town’s motto is “Lead us not into temptation.” Hadleyburg is famed for, and vain about, its reputation for honesty. However, the narrator, presumably Twain, makes it clear that appearances are all that the town really cares about. It is “a mean town, a hard, stingy town.” Eventually Hadleyburg offends a passing stranger, a gambler, who resolves to revenge himself on the town by exposing its artificial virtue. He leaves a sack supposedly containing forty thousand dollars in gold with Mary and Edward Richards, asking them to find an unknown benefactor. This person had given the gambler twenty dollars and advice. Whoever correctly repeats that advice can claim the money.
Edward publishes the stranger’s instructions, the story is picked up by the Associated Press, and the town awakes famous and even more conceited. Everyone believes that the only person in town who would have actually given money to a stranger is Barclay Goodson, the “best hated man among us”—the only person willing publicly to call the town narrow, self-righteous, and stingy. Goodson is dead, however, so the money could be claimed by anyone who could figure out the remark made to the gambler. Each Nineteener tries. Soon, each receives a letter from a Howard L. Stephenson, who says that he heard Goodson give the advice, “You are far from being a bad man: go and reform.” Each Nineteener immediately leaves a letter with that remark, claiming the sack, with the Reverend Mr. Burgess. Burgess will run “The Test”: the reading of the “real” remark sealed in the bag.
In part 3, the first part of the stranger’s trap...
(The entire section is 851 words.)