Mark Twain on Risk Analysis

From 1871:

I hunted up statistics, and was amazed to find that after all the glaring newspaper headings concerning railroad disasters, less than three hundred people had really lost their lives by those disasters in the preceding twelve months. The Erie road was set down as the most murderous in the list. It had killed forty-six—or twenty-six, I do not exactly remember which, but I know the number was double that of any other road. But the fact straightway suggested itself that the Erie was an immensely long road, and did more business than any other line in the country; so the double number of killed ceased to be matter for surprise.

By further figuring, it appeared that between New York and Rochester the Erie ran eight passenger trains each way every day—sixteen altogether; and carried a daily average of 6,000 persons. That is about a million in six months—the population of New York city. Well, the Erie kills from thirteen to twenty-three persons out of its million in six months; and in the same time 13,000 of New York’s million die in their beds! My flesh crept, my hair stood on end. “This is appalling!” I said. “The danger isn’t in travelling by rail, but in trusting to those deadly beds. I will never sleep in a bed again.”

Posted on February 23, 2010 at 7:16 AM51 Comments


G.H.H. Mitchell February 23, 2010 7:21 AM

This sounds too good to be true. I’ll have to go to the library to see if this quotation can be substantiated.

Kingsnake February 23, 2010 7:49 AM

Worse yet than sleeping in a bed: Living. It’s 100% fatal. There ought to be a law against it!

hwKeitel February 23, 2010 8:04 AM

generally, life ends with death.

but it’s wrong to compare the reason with the place. people die in trains and they die in beds. but, how many people die because of trains and because of beds?

anyway, it’s cool that people think about this for centuries, but it seems “we” havn’t learnt that much.

spaceman spiff February 23, 2010 8:28 AM

It is said that there are only two certainties in life – death and taxes. Taxes, I am certain of. Death is still only theoretical… 🙂

matt a February 23, 2010 8:31 AM

My favorite MT quote (paraphrased):

A man once asked me a question and I was happy to say I was able to answer him. I said, “I don’t know.”…

Randy February 23, 2010 8:35 AM

There’s an even greater risk of the chemical compound dihydrogen monoxide. I’m sure many of you remember the warnings associated with this over the past few years. 🙂

moo February 23, 2010 9:29 AM

What country do you live in? There are lots and lots and lots of laws against living. Many of them can be worked around, but I read somewhere an estimate that every American now commits on average, three felonies a day. I wonder how people are supposed to respect a legal system which has so many byzantine laws that they break numerous laws every day without even knowing.

I’m no advocate of anarchy, but I do think there should be a mandatory review and renewal of all laws every couple years. If our lawmakers had to spend all their time doing that, they would be too busy to pass NEW bad laws. They would also be incented to throw out trivial or bad laws and only keep the important ones, to lessen their own workload. It would be nice to live in a society that actually knows and respects and obeys its own laws. But it will never happen unless the set of laws becomes small enough and sensible enough and accessible enough, for everybody to learn them all in grade school.

peri February 23, 2010 9:39 AM

“I hunted up statistics, and was amazed to find that after all the glaring newspaper headings concerning railroad disasters, less than three hundred people had really lost their lives by those disasters in the preceding twelve months.”

Mark Twain also wrote in 1901: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”,_damned_lies,_and_statistics

I am guessing in that quote Twain is dismissing the public’s over exposure by the press to passenger deaths in trains. I always thought they were really dangerous to people working at train stations until 1872, the year after this quote, when Westinghouse invented the fail-safe air brake:

HJohn February 23, 2010 9:53 AM

Two points:

1) I agree the train risks is small and of no cause for alarm, similar to plane risks now.

2) To compare a person that dies in their sleep of old age to a child who has their life cut short in an accident is a poor comparison.

Better is the comparison of planes, trains, and cars.

D February 23, 2010 10:16 AM

@HJohn: They didn’t have planes and cars I Clemens’ day. He’s exchanging one baseless fear for another. Humor from sarcasm and irony. Typical Mark Twain.

Shane February 23, 2010 10:18 AM


I would agree if I didn’t feel as though this was being framed differently. Sounds to me as though MT is saying that, due to the strikingly large number of passengers safely transported vs. the number dead from ‘disasters’, the accidents may as well be attributed to natural occurrences. Which would be to say that chance and fate could be seen to play a greater role in these railroad disasters than an unsafe industry might, the law of averages and the like. At least that’s what I take from it, and in that instance, I find it both humorous and sobering when compared to death of natural causes among a large population.

Simply put, to me, it says death is a natural occurrence, be it via railroad disaster, old age, murder or disease, and that, in this instance at least, the sensationalism behind these stories is obviously not motivated by the concern over the loss of life or the quantities thereof.

I don’t think anyone is comparing (let alone making judgements on) whether a child’s life lost is more or less tragic than a life lost of old age.

That’s one of those great philosophical questions that can never be answered, and if you think you know the answer, you’re wrong.

DC February 23, 2010 10:21 AM

I can only fervently wish that your meme gets far wider attention. We should all do whatever we can to advance this idea (which has actually been around for awhile, just never got good enough traction).

Are parts of the Patriot act still classified? So even if you do due diligence you could still fail to be following some law?

HJohn February 23, 2010 10:27 AM

@D: “They didn’t have planes and cars I Clemens’ day. He’s exchanging one baseless fear for another. Humor from sarcasm and irony. Typical Mark Twain.”

In that context, it makes sense. His point about the fear being baesless are correct.

HJohn February 23, 2010 10:28 AM

@Shane at February 23, 2010 10:18 AM

I would agree with that. In the humorous context it makes perfect sense.

Paeniteo February 23, 2010 10:54 AM

@peri: “(…)in Cardinal Richelieu’s time; they might hang an honest man for writing six lines!”

Unless I missed some irony in your words, I believe that you misinterpreted the quote.
The crime for which one could be hanged was not “writing six lines” as such, but rather such a crime could could be found in any six lines from any person (read: everybody could get hanged if only so much as six lines written by/about him became known).
Nowadays, the quote is commonly used to support the argument that any kind of data collection about persons can be somehow abused.

J February 23, 2010 11:11 AM

In the USA, assuming you trust CDC data, cancers and heart diseases overwhelm other causes of death even when you eliminate data for the very young and the elderly. Something to mitigate the mortality of, say, lung cancer would have a tremendous impact on a great many.

I don’t know how the economics work out. That is, if I send $50 to a reputable lung cancer research organization, does it do more or less good than if I send $50 to an organization doing railroad death prevention research.

peri February 23, 2010 1:08 PM

@Paeniteo: “Unless I missed some irony in your words”

Your first instinct was right; it was heavy in irony.

Awesome Robot February 23, 2010 1:36 PM

“Please stop quoting me. Not everything I say is some witty quotation.” – Mark Twain

(Actually, The Onion)

Chuck February 23, 2010 1:55 PM

Nobody has commented on Twain’s numbers—he reports quite dangerous trains!

There are many ways to slice and dice his numbers. Here’s one. He reports 16 trains (departures to/from NYC, Rochester per day). That’s about 3,000 trains per six months. Twain gives 13 to 23 deaths for those 3,000 trains. That’s about 1 death every 200 train departures!

Scheduled aviation in the U.S. has less than 0.1 fatal accidents per 100,000 takeoffs.

Another way. It’s about 300 miles from NYC to Rochester. So, 3,000 trains generate about one million miles and the death rate is somewhere between 13 deaths /million miles and 23 deaths/million miles.

Looking at I calculate that commercial aviation runs about 10 deaths/billion miles.


Pieter February 23, 2010 2:32 PM

“Life is a sexually transmitted disease with a 100% fatality rate.”

You missed the “with interesting side effects” part 🙂

Shane February 23, 2010 2:46 PM


Those numbers mean next to nothing given the context. He’s talking about trains nearly 140 years ago, when the population of the US was around 50 million. You’re talking about airplanes in the present day when the population of the US is upwards of 250 million.

Not only has there been a measured increase in life expectancy during that 139 years, there have also been innumerable advances in safety with regards to all types of transportation since then.

Not to mention that everyone in the US knows that the safest way to travel here, statistically speaking, is on a commercial airline.

Seems to me a number of you are trying really hard to compare apples to pomegranates, instead of simply taking the point/quote for what it is: nothing more than a satirical observation on sensationalism/FUD in the media, something which, no matter the numbers, is still completely relevant to this very day, if not more so.

Clive Robinson February 23, 2010 2:56 PM

On reading about the latest engineering feat, the thought often occurs to me “what would MT have thought?”

It all started when I first read about the Japanese plan to choped the top of a mountin and dumped it in the sea to make an artificial island to put an airport on. I was strangely reminded of MT’s famous statment about investing in land because they where not making any more of it…

Clive Robinson February 23, 2010 3:04 PM

@ Shane,

“You’re talking about airplanes in the present day when the population of the US is upwards of 250 million.”

Err life has moved on abit since that figure.

The US is reported to have some 310million double what it was under 50 years ago…

What was somebody saying about life being an STD…

Mind you I blaim those 1950’s parents telling their children “no sex before you marry”. As a statment it was guarented to cause problems 😉

HJohn February 23, 2010 3:10 PM

@Clive Robinson: ” I was strangely reminded of MT’s famous statment about investing in land because they where not making any more of it…”

You probably enjoy some of Yogi Berra’s amusing quotes as well.

One of my favorite quotes comes from John McEnroe: “the older I get, the better I was.”

Shane February 23, 2010 3:18 PM


Too true, but my statement stands 😉

Besides, what’s an extra 60 million when I already can’t breath on the train?

daisy stanton February 23, 2010 10:07 PM

I’m still trying to get over the fact that Mark Twain said “less than three hundred people” rather than “fewer…”! I would have pegged him firmly in the fewer-than camp.

MTwain February 24, 2010 3:44 PM

It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.

wellcrafttedtoo February 24, 2010 3:51 PM

Actually, the years around 1871 were pretty risky, compared with today.

The middle class of this country was small, the lower class and burgeoning numbers of immigrants high, and an very, very wealthy elite (hmm, sound familiar?) topped it all off. Work was dangerous for the average person–few laws or regs existed to protect those in ag, industry, manufacting, and that’s where most worked (not ‘white collar’ or service).

Labor and labor unions were going nuts; the early l870’s were years filled with bitter and violent labor demonstrations and strikes that often became deadly.

Huge numbers of immigrants were pouring into the country, desperate for work, and willing to do any work. The early years of the 1870’s were hot and dry in large areas of the country and major cities (Chicago) and other areas (northern Wisconsin and beyond) struggled with devastating fires.

Most people did not attend school beyond the 8th grade, if that far. And, obvious but hard to believe, in 1871, the Civil War which had plundered almost the entire generation of younger men who fought it (and leveled, literally, a large swath of the South) had ended a mere SIX years earlier. The South was still reeling from the brutal beating it’d taken, its economy was in taters, and its state governments in complete disarray.

Hmm, what else was going on?

Oh yes, the railroads were a big, growing, monied, and powerful industry, and yes they could be very dangerous. In a few years there would be a growing public push to rebuild the train station in NYC (resulting in the construction of Grand Central as we know it today) because the existing one couldn’t handle the volume of trains going in and out of the city, and too many crashes were taking place.


A fascinating year to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live then!

Shane February 25, 2010 9:47 AM


sigh I don’t care what the population is at this very second (as if Google or anyone else could actually provide you with an accurate figure for even my one city block, let alone the country).

The magnitude of the number was my point. Upwards of 5 times the population of 1871, and my point stands, again. It was a different time, nay, a different AGE, start of the industrial revolution. Obviously it cannot be compared to present day numbers in any respect (train, plane, car, health, lifespan, etc).

The numbers themselves are irrelevant to me. Their comparison is what I was dissenting on.


Wang-Lo February 26, 2010 12:04 PM

@wellcrafttedtoo: “The South[‘s]… economy was in taters…”

I thought that even after the war the South’s economy was almost entirely in cotton.


wellcraftedtoo February 28, 2010 6:02 PM

@shane–no intent to offend, and I agree with your larger point. (but, a 50+ mil diff is on the big side.)

@wang-lo–hah, very good! sorry for the misspelling.

Donald Johnston March 15, 2010 4:31 PM

When I was living in Florida there was a rash (a few) car jackings that ended up in the murder of German tourists. This lead to the rental car industry being required to move away from identifying marks on the cars and special license plates. It seemed the bad guys would cruise the highways, bump into rental cars, etc. Of course there were big right ups in the news paper but finally someone point out that far more people died in Germany just driving to the airport on the Autobahn then were ever killed all over the USA.

Charlie March 15, 2010 6:17 PM

I rode the train for many years. I was on a train that caught fire and filled with smoke, one that floated up off the tracks in a flood, and one where the engineer was struck by a large rock dropped by a kid on an overpass.

Nobody was ever killed. The only person harmed (other than the engineer whose face was caved in with a rock) was a woman on the train that caught fire – she noticed the smoke before anyone else, stood up and screamed “FIRE” and then ran the length of the car, screaming at the top of her lungs the whole way, and knocked herself unconscious against the steel door.

Seriously. She just ran right into the door face first.

LeMoyne March 22, 2010 3:38 AM

@ Donald
Murderous car-jackings with firearms aren’t a big threat in Germany. And I seriously doubt that “far more” people die going to the airport in Germany than were ever killed all over the USA.

Randy March 23, 2010 7:36 PM

It always bothers me when people talk about how safe airplane travel is. It’s a fallacy that results from faulty reasoning. When we take a trip by any other means we don’t look at the miles traveled safely, we look at if we successfully and safely completed our journey. If you look at only miles traveled, of course airplanes are going to seem safer because of the vast distances they cover. If you look at safely completed journeys then the safety rate for airplanes plummet.

One other factor. If you’re in an accident while traveling by bus, car, ferryboat, bicycle, Yak, etc., chances are great that you will survive the accident, most likely without serious injuries. If you’re in an accident while traveling by airplane the odds are that you will die.

I’ll take the greater chance of accident with greater chance of survival any day.

Dave April 17, 2010 4:42 AM

Surely we should all know better than to be hoodwinked by Twain’s miscomparison of the figures; 13,000 New York bed deaths in 1.4 billion person-hours (1 million people, 8 hours a night in bed, 180 nights in six months), while the Erie “killed” 13 people out of 1 million person-trips – but how many hours per trip? And then there’s the issue of the variables not being independent – because we’ve all heard of people being too ill to travel. Shame, Twain, shame.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.