Mark Twain's The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg is a moral fable. It's a tale of greed, hypocrisy and corruption as well as one of spiteful revenge. Before the promise of easy wealth, Hadleyburg "was the most honest and upright town in all the region round about". And the citizens of Hadleyburg were proud of their reputation. But you know the saying--'pride comes before the fall'. Through their hubris they'll show their true colors at the moment when their honesty is being tested most vigorously. And unsurprisingly it is found wanting.
So sure of themselves are they (or maybe simply not very self-aware), the people of Hadleyburg don't even realize when they give passing offense to a stranger. The reader never discovers what the offense is or even who the stranger turns out to be, but they're able to witness the folly and downfall of the best families of Hadleyburg when the stranger finally takes his revenge.
One day a sack of gold is delivered to Mr. and Mrs. Richards along with a note explaining the purpose of the money and how it is to be distributed. A kind deed was done to a stranger by one of the town's residents, twenty dollars given and good advice shared, and now the stranger (having made himself rich at the gaming table, though now is a reformed gambler) wishes to repay the money to the man who made such a good impression on him.
"If I could stay, I would find him myself; but no matter, he will be found. This is an incorruptible town, and I know I can trust it without fear. This man can be identified by the remark which he made to me; I feel persuaded that he will remember it."
The Richards are to conduct an inquiry. They are to share the contents of the note, and if the answer is 'I am the man; and the remark I made was so-and so', then they will have found their man. If the remark matches the one that is in a sealed envelope in the bag, the money is to be given him with no questions asked. For surely only an honest reply would be made by any resident of such an upstanding town as Hadleyburg.
It crosses the minds of the Richardses that they could easily take the money, burn the note and be all the richer for such little effort. They are poor and the money would be useful. But they know Mr. Richards was not the man who helped the stranger. Besides Mrs. Richards is loathe to take money made from the profits of sin--gambler's money! So, temptation aside they set forth to follow the strangers wishes.
They and the people of the town believe that only one man likely could have done such a deed, the aptly named Barclay Goodson, now absent. But who's to know for sure. Letters are sent to nineteen of the town's 'best' families. Each thinking they are to be the recipient of such wealth and they begin spending the money before it's even assured they'll be given it. They begin to live beyond their means without a care in the world. But will they be able to answer the question which matches that found in the note in the bag of money?
When at a town assembly each man is asked to give his reply, it's revealed that none knows what's truly written in the note. How could it happen when Hadleyburg is synonymous for incorruptible? The promise of a sack of gold has brought out the town's true colors. "Vain beyond imagination". With each man brought forth to make his claim and the claim is not rewarded. Mr. Richards awaits his turn to be asked the question, ready for humiliation, but he is passed over. Unknown to him, he's passed over because he did indeed do a good deed. But the rest are shown for what they truly are.
This is a story that feels as fresh and pertinent today as when it must have been when it was written in 1898. It comes with a marvelous ironic twist at the end displaying the moral ambiguities that give it a true ring of authenticity. Interestingly at the time he wrote this story, Mark Twain was living in Europe, specifically in Vienna at the time of the Dreyfus Affair. He he'd fled the states in the wake of financial problems and creditors. And one of his daughters had also just died. It's sort of a bleak story, no doubt influenced by events occurring around him.
I've read very little of mark Twain's work--I feel like I should be more enthusiastic about him than I normally am. But I was impressed by this story and he deserves a much closer look by me.