Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) is a novel by American writer Mark Twain. Its central intrigue revolves around two boys—one, born into slavery, with 1/32 black ancestry; the other, white, born to be the master of the house. The two boys, who look similar, are switched at infancy. Each grows into the other's social role.
The story was serialized in The Century Magazine (1893–4), before being published as a novel in 1894.
The setting is the fictional Missouri frontier town of Dawson's Landing on the banks of the Mississippi River in the first half of the 19th century. David Wilson, a young lawyer, moves to town and a clever remark of his is misunderstood, which causes locals to brand him a "pudd'nhead" (nitwit). His hobby of collecting fingerprints does not raise his standing in the eyes of the townsfolk, who consider him to be eccentric and do not frequent his law practice.
"Pudd'nhead" Wilson is left in the background as the focus shifts to the slave Roxy, her son, and the family they serve. Roxy is one-sixteenth black and majority white, and her son Valet de Chambre (referred to as "Chambers") is 1/32 black. Roxy is principally charged with caring for her inattentive master's infant son Tom Driscoll, who is the same age as her own son. After fellow slaves are caught stealing and are nearly sold "down the river" to a master in the Deep South, Roxy fears for her son and herself. She considers killing her boy and herself, but decides to switch Chambers and Tom in their cribs to give her son a life of freedom and privilege.
The narrative moves forward two decades. Tom Driscoll (formerly Valet de Chambre), has been raised to believe that he is white and has become a spoiled aristocrat. He is a selfish and dissolute young man. Tom's father has died and granted Roxy her freedom in his will. She worked for a time on river boats, and saved money for her retirement. When she finally is able to retire, she discovers that her bank has failed and all of her savings are gone. She returns to Dawson's Landing to ask for money from Tom.
Tom responds to Roxy with derision. She tells him the truth about his ancestry and that he is her son and partially black; she blackmails him into financially supporting her.
Twin Italian noblemen visit Dawson's Landing to some fanfare, and Tom quarrels with one. Desperate for money, Tom robs and murders his wealthy uncle and the blame falls wrongly on one of the Italians. From that point, the novel proceeds as a crime novel. In a courtroom scene, the whole mystery is solved when Wilson demonstrates, through fingerprints, both that Tom is the murderer, and not the true Driscoll heir.
Although the real Tom Driscoll is restored to his rights, his life changes for the worse. Having been raised as a slave, he feels intense unease in white society. At the same time, as a white man, he is essentially excluded from the company of blacks.
In a final twist, the creditors of Tom's father's estate successfully petition the governor to have Tom's (Chambers) prison sentence overturned. Shown to be born to a slave mother, he is classified as a slave and is legally included among the property assets of the estate. He is sold "downriver", helping the creditors recoup their losses.
Twain originally envisioned the characters of Luigi and Angelo Capello as conjoined twins, modeled after the late-19th century Italian conjoined twins Giovanni and Giacomo Tocci. He planned for them to be the central characters of a novel to be titled Those Extraordinary Twins.
During the writing process, however, Twain realized that secondary characters such as Pudd'nhead Wilson, Roxy, and Tom Driscoll were taking a more central role in the story. More importantly, he found that the serious tone of the story of Roxy and Tom clashed unpleasantly with the light tone of the twins' story. As he explains in the introduction to "Those Extraordinary Twins":
The defect turned out to be the one already spoken of – two stories on one, a farce and a tragedy. So I pulled out the farce and left the tragedy. This left the original team in, but only as mere names, not as characters.
The characters of Luigi and Angelo remain in Pudd'nhead Wilson, as twins with separate bodies. Twain was not thorough in his separation of the twins, and there are hints in the final version of their conjoined origin, such as the fact that they were their parents' "only child", they sleep together, they play piano together, and they had an early career as sideshow performers.
"Those Extraordinary Twins" was published as a short story, with glosses inserted into the text where the narrative was either unfinished or would have duplicated parts of Pudd'nhead Wilson.