The story opens in Dawson’s Landing, Missouri, in 1830.
On February 1, Mrs. Percy Driscoll gives birth to a baby boy named Thomas. On the same day, the Driscoll’s slave Roxana (or Roxy) also gives birth to a baby boy named Chambers. Within a week, Mrs. Driscoll dies of complications from childbirth.
Also on February 1, David Wilson arrives in Dawson’s Landing from New York. At twenty-five, Wilson has a law degree and seeks to set up a practice in Dawson’s Landing.
On his first day in town, Wilson hears a vicious dog snarling and offhandedly remark, “I wish I owned half of that dog.” When someone asks him why, he says, “Because I would kill my half.”
The people of Dawson’s Landing cannot figure out what to think of Wilson’s remark. After some discussion, they conclude that he is mentally inferior, a “pudd’nhead.” The nickname sticks with Wilson for the next twenty years.
Puddn’head is not able to make a success of his law practice (the townspeople assume that a "pudd’head" would not make a reliable lawyer), so he takes jobs in land surveying and accounting. He also engages in the hobby of collecting people’s fingerprints.
One day Puddn’head overhears Roxana and another slave, Jasper, talking outside his window. When he looks out, he sees Roxana with two babies, hers and her master’s, in the baby wagon. Wilson tells Roxana that the babies are so similar that he cannot tell them apart. Roxana tells Puddn’head that she can tell them apart but that her master, Percy Driscoll, cannot.
Puddn’head makes a set of fingerprints from Roxana and both of the babies. Two months later he takes their fingerprints again as he likes to print people in “series” at intervals.
On September 4, Roxana’s master notices that a small sum of money is missing. This has happened several times before. This time Driscoll announces that he has had...
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The childless Driscolls enjoy having Tom to raise: “Mrs. York Driscoll enjoyed two years of bliss with that prize, Tom.”
After two years Mrs. Driscoll dies, and Mr. Driscoll and his sister Mrs. Pratt, also childless, continue to raise Tom.
Tom is sent to Yale when he turns nineteen. He lasts two years there and then returns to Dawson’s Landing with improved manners but no apparent desire to find a career or to take care of himself. He also returns with two new habits, drinking and gambling, that he conceals from Judge Driscoll.
Tom is not satisfied with small town life and begins making trips to St. Louis to indulge in his new habits.
Judge Driscoll retires and, with Pudd’nhead Wilson, starts the Freethinkers' Society. Unlike the rest of Dawson’s Landing, Driscoll admires Wilson’s intelligence but is unable to convince the townsfolk that Tom is not a fool.
The widow Cooper, known about town as Aunt Patsy, receives a letter from Italian twins from St. Louis, Luigi and Angelo Capello, who wish to rent a room in her house. This causes great excitement for the widow and her daughter Rowena. They show the letter to the townsfolk, who are equally excited at the prospect of meeting such an unusual pair of people. Such a thing has never happened in Dawson’s Landing before. Everyone eagerly awaits the twins’ arrival on Thursday.
The next day, much of the town comes to Aunt Patsy’s house to meet the twins and treat them like royalty. The twins are socially adept and converse easily and comfortably with everyone.
Near the end of the gathering, they sit down at the piano together and delight the houseful of people with their playing:
All the music that they had ever heard before seemed spiritless prentice-work and barren of grace or charm when compared with these intoxicating floods of melodious sound. They realized that for once in their lives they were hearing masters.
Earlier that morning, Pudd’nhead Wilson had been in his house looking out the window toward the Driscoll house when he saw, in Tom Driscoll’s...
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Tom feels that because he has knelt down to a black woman, a former slave, he has fallen to the lowest possible level. Upon returning home, he thinks to himself, "I thought I had struck the deepest depths of degradation before, but oh, dear, it was nothing to this."
Tom goes to the haunted house to meet Roxy at the appointed time. Roxy has set up one room as a living quarters. She tells Tom that he is actually her son, a black man, and no relation to the Driscolls. She threatens to reveal to Judge Driscoll that she switched Tom and Chambers years ago to save her own son from the perils of slavery.
At first, Tom is belligerent and disbelieving, but Roxy’s manner convinces him that it is true. Roxy tells him that he must give her half of his $50 monthly allowance in exchange for her silence.
Tom asks who is real father is. Roxy tells him that his father is the now-deceased Colonel Cecil Burleigh Essex. Roxy says that he should be proud of his heritage because "Dey ain’t another nigger in dis town dat’s as high-bawn as you is."
With his new knowledge, Tom has a difficult night’s sleep. He suddenly begins to reflect on the unfortunate fate of the black man and intolerable conditions of the slave.
Initially, Tom’s new knowledge changes how he looks at his world. He suddenly feels inferior to the people he has known his whole life—the way a slave might normally feel.
To pay his gambling debts of $300, Tom had previously gone on a “theft-raid” through the town, sneaking into people’s houses and stealing their valuables. He made enough money from that raid to settle his debts in St. Louis and avoid another “smashing of the will” by his uncle.
But Tom soon got himself into another financial mess and planned another theft-raid to pay for it. He disguised himself as a girl; he was actually the “girl” whom Puddn’head Wilson saw through the window the day the...
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Judge Driscoll, already in bed, hears nothing of the fracas at the Rum Party meeting. In the morning he goes fishing with his longtime friend Pembroke Howard.
Later on their way home, they meet a man who tells them that the Judge’s nephew Tom received a “kicking” at the hands of Luigi the previous night. He also tells them that Tom immediately took Luigi to trial over the altercation. Luigi’s lawyer was Puddn’head Wilson; it was his first case. Luigi was found guilty and fined $5.
Judge Driscoll, however, is furious that Tom took Luigi to trial over the matter; this is not the way gentlemen settle their differences. When he demands that Tom challenge Luigi to a duel, Tom refuses: "Oh, please don’t ask me to do it, uncle! He is a murderous devil—I never could—I—I’m afraid of him."
The Judge cannot stomach Tom’s fear and cowardice, so he tears up the will, disinheriting him again.
Tom leaves the house, distraught over his predicament. Eventually he winds up at Wilson’s house, where he tells Puddn’head his troubles.
While they are talking, Judge Robinson and two other townsmen arrive and the three begin talking about all of the thievery going on in town lately. Tom, the unknown actual thief, listens with interest.
Their conversation reveals that they believe that the latest thief is an old black woman. One of the stolen items is a very valuable knife belonging to the twins. They also reveal that a large reward has been offered for the return of the knife and the name of the thief. For this reason, the thief cannot hope to sell the valuable knife because it would surely result in the thief’s own identification and capture.
This news secretly staggers Tom. He knows he cannot sell the most valuable item in his possession—the twins’ knife.
As their conversation closes, Judge Robinson and the other men ask Wilson to run for the office of...
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The people of Dawson’s Landing are very excited over recent events and most excited about the duel between Luigi and Judge Driscoll. The twins’ popularity in the town soars and they are asked to “stand for seats in the forthcoming aldermanic board.”
Tom is not pleased with the twins’ popularity. One day he meets Constable Blake and Puddn’head Wilson in the street. During their conversation, Tom insinuates that Blake has done an incompetent job of investigating the thefts and that Wilson’s plan for discovering and apprehending the thief of the twins’ valuable knife is flawed and hopeless.
By the end of the conversation, Tom cleverly has convinced Blake and Wilson that the twins’ missing...
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Luigi has challenged Judge Driscoll to a duel but Judge Driscoll refuses, saying that he will not fight with an assassin “in the field of honor.”
This puts Luigi and Judge Driscoll in the position of having to be ready to kill each other the next time they see each other. Puddn’head Wilson warns Luigi:
The Judge is still a little used up by his campaign work, and will not get out for a day or so; but when he does get out, you want to be on the alert.
Tom, having returned from St. Louis, sneaks into the house to rob the Judge. He puts on his girl’s clothes and, feeling vulnerable, also takes the twins' Indian knife with him for protection. His plan is to...
(The entire section is 659 words.)