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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.

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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 is sprung as the sealed remark is revealed: “You are far from being a bad man. Go and reform—or, mark my words—some day, for your sins, you will die and go to hell or Hadleyburg—TRY AND MAKE IT THE FORMER.” Burgess then reads the claims of eighteen of the Nineteen, showing each to be a liar and cheat, but holds on to the Richardses’ letter. Edward Richards once saved Burgess from a mob, after “that one thing” (never detailed) which had disgraced Burgess and lost him his congregation. As the rest of the bag’s instructions are read, the whole joke is revealed: There is no gold, only painted lead, and no pauper gambler, no twenty dollars, no advice. The town, having thoroughly enjoyed the Eighteen’s disgrace, auctions off the bag and gives the money to the Richardses. The stranger also gives them money, as an apology.

The second story focuses on the effect of the joke on Mary and Edward Richards. They are introduced as a sweet, loving old couple, struggling to get by on Edward’s tiny salary. They are good people but, as Mary later says, their honesty is as artificial as the rest of the town’s. Edward had known that Burgess was innocent of “that thing,” but he was too afraid of the town’s disapproval to tell the truth and save the minister. Instead, he soothed his conscience by only telling Burgess when to leave town.

In spite of that admission, the Richardses are the sympathetic focus of the story. The reader observes them as they have second thoughts about advertising for the “benefactor” and through two wonderful scenes as they try to rationalize falsely claiming the money. Edward does try to confess during the reading of the names at the test, but he is misunderstood as asking for charity for others, cheered, and forced to sit down.

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