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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Charles Hinton   15 June 1873

San Francisco,

June 15, 1873.

To Mr. Charles Darwin:

Dear Sir:

I have been reading your book, “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”, and have found even more pleasure in it than in “The Descent of Man”, for it deals with facts of common observation. It has occurred to me that perhaps I, although wholly unscientific, might yet enlist myself in your corps of observers, and with this hope I send you a few experiences of my own. I shall be much delighted if you express some opinion as to their value or only acknowledge the receipt of this, that I may not write again.

On page 107, of the book first mentioned, you say: “He who has merely shaken the rattle of a dead snake can form no idea of the sound made by the living animal”. This calls to mind a device which I have seen among the backwoodsmen of the Coast Range,1 by which the buzzing sound made by the snake itself is so closely imitated that I do not think the difference could be detected by the most practised ear. The following is a rude sketch of the contrivance.


A violin string, well rozined, is fastened between the two largest rattles leaving a long loop on each side. You place one of your thumbs in each of these loops, keeping the string as taut as possible. You then revolve your thumbs one around the other; this allows the string to rub upon the skin of your hand, producing a slow, or rapid, vibration at will. I think the sharp, quick “skir-r-rr” indicates sudden anger combined with fear, as when the snake is stepped upon, and the long buzzing when either retreating from danger or calling its mate.2 I think some interesting experiments might be made with this device.

You speak of hogs and several other animals killing poisonous snakes, but do not mention dogs.3 We had a small bulldog which used to follow the plow, killing the snakes as they were driven from their holes. He was frequently bitten, but never showed any worse symptoms, than a swelling of the body for a few days. I do not understand why such animals should be so little injured when the rattlesnake’s bite is said to be so fatal to man.

My chum has a magnificent black Newfoundland dog, of very gentle disposition. When seeming very desirous of conciliating anyone, he exhibits most of the expressions which you have mentioned in describing the dog “in a humble and affectionate frame of mind”,4 but in addition raises the sides of the upper lip as far as possible showing the “eye teeth”, & producing an expression which may be either smiling or snarling, but seems to be used in the mood in which a man usually smiles. I remember a terrier that used to show nearly every tooth in his head, when delighted at seeing his master, or a friend. That this is not wholly imagination on my part is proved by the fact that many persons spoke to me of the dogs as “smiling”, before I saw them myself. I do not know whether this expression is peculiar to these individuals or common to the whole canine kind, but from your not speaking of it I inferred that the first is the case.5 If you think any of these observations of interest, I will send you the statements of others confirming them.

I have been told that when a Digger Indian is very angry he smiles or laughs.6 When the Pitt River Indians were here as prisoners I saw one “buck”, who shook an arrow at a bystander, grinning and smiling in the most repulsive manner.7 The Diggers are said to be one of the lowest tribes, and perhaps, as you have said of the Australians, would be unusually fit subjects for investigation.8

Most of the expressions of terror are so extremely transitory, and our sympathies and apprehensions, so often aroused that it must be very difficult to make any accurate observation but in San Francisco, where earthquakes are of quite common occurrence and yet cause the most violent expressions of terror and other emotions, unusually good opportunities, are offered. I will engage to keep very cool at the next “shake” and send you my observations, if you wish it. I have often noticed that people are as apt to laugh as to exhibit any other expression on such occasions. There seems to be an oscilation of emotion, which I do not understand. Once I remember when in great danger while climbing up the cliffs at Point Lobos, near the Golden Gate,9 I alternately screamed for help and then laughed, without knowing why, as neither would be of any use to me. I have observed that when one can place his feet firmly on the ground, shut his lips and collect his thoughts, he may be capable of almost any degree of courage. This led me to think that the extreme fear exhibited during earthquakes, and notably in the case of one of Gen. Walker’s10 officers who had fought in the most desperate hand to hand combats, was in great measure due to the fact that the earthquake itself produces in a man most of the expressions of terror   The mere shaking, aside from the danger, causes his knees to tremble, the muscles of his jaws to relax in the effort to remain standing, his heart to beat irregularly, his brain to become confused, and these derange the nervous system and the circulation. Is there any foundation for this theory?

A very remarkable illustration that the nerve power acts along accustomed lines causing men to do things under excitement, which they have been in the habit of doing under other states of mind, occurred to me during the second earthquake in 1868. The first, and most violent shock occurred on Sunday, and the next day we were assembled in the school house, which had been quite severely injured. Fearing that if another shock took place, many might be trampled upon in hurrying down the stairs, our teacher warned us that we should keep our seats until he had rung the usual bells, and then we should run out in lines. I give you a small plan of the school room and doors that you may the better understand the absurdness of what followed:


Quite a severe shock occurred shortly after, and at once all the boys, some 70 in number, excepting another and myself, crowded through the narrow door at the right of the sketch into the hat room to get their hats as they had been accustomed to do, although the building was threatening every moment to fall, and although the distance was much greater than through the two wide doors which stood open at the left. At the second hat room door they became wedged together, and it was some time before they escaped. Most people seem to eject the breath violently, during a shock as near as I can spell it, “Ugh, ugh, ugh, ugh-h-h-h” but seldom shout or scream.

When I commenced this I had many other things to say, but I fear I have already said to much, and that it has not interested you.

Yours, most respectfully, | Chas. Hinton.

Office, “Evening Post,” 605 Montgomery street, San Francisco, Cal.

June 21st— No letter is complete without an apology, and I have opened this to confess that I had only read about a third of your book when the above was written, but have since almost completed it. I see that you have mentioned the fact that dogs often smile or grin, and particularly terriers. My observation, however, shows that California dogs are no exception to the rule.

I have often noticed a very remarkable expression, which I have not yet found described in your book. Sometimes there is a complex emotion consisting of mingled indignation anger and sorrow. Its first expression seems to be generally a quivering and twitching of the under lip. I was once informed by a friend that a young man for whom I had a great attachment had expressed the opinion to several others that I was a “great fool” At first I would not believe it, but when my informant assured me in the most positive terms of its truth I felt my lip begin to tremble and although I endeavored to prevent it by drawing it between my teeth, the trembling increased; at the same time I felt a chill through my body and finally burst into tears. I have frequently noticed this in others, and particularly among my own brothers & sisters, and generally from a similar provocation. We are English, and perhaps the effort which English people make to supress emotion causes the lip to tremble. We have a saying “Keep a stiff upper lip”. that is do not give way to any kind of emotion but I do not understand it. If a man succeeds in preventing his lip from trembling he does not weep, but if he fails tears are sure to follow. The quivering ceases when the weeping commences.

Our greatest California poet, Charles Warren Stoddard has often told me that weeping among the Sandwich Islanders is as much a sign of joy as of sorrow, and that he has found it almost impossible to distinguish the two emotions.11 He has lived among the natives on some of the islands where foreigners seldom visit, & knowing the importance you attach to such observations I have urged him to write, & he has promised to do so. I have made notes of some seven curious facts, in this connection, which I will endeavor to describe, more concisely than I have done the above. I have heard that a peasant once made an important discovery in astronomy,12 and perhaps I may succeed in aiding some such result, at any rate shall try to be careful & trustworthy.

Yrs. | C. H.

Some observations on “Expressions in Man and Animals”


The California Coast Ranges are a series of mountain ranges that run along the Pacific coast to the north and south of San Francisco Bay.
CD had argued that the rattling sound operated in conjunction with other threatening gestures to make snakes ‘appear terrible to their enemies’ (Expression, pp. 107–8).
Expression, pp. 108–110.
Expression, p. 53.
CD described dogs grinning when pleased and affectionate in Expression, p. 121.
‘Digger Indians’ was a term used to refer to native peoples in central California, and sometimes to groups across the western United States (Lönnberg 1981, p. 215).
‘Pit (or Pitt) River Indians’ was a term applied to native peoples living along the Pit River and its tributaries in northeastern California (Wheeler-Voegelin 1974, pp. 13–14). It is now a recognised tribe of eleven bands (
On nineteenth-century views of the ‘Digger Indians’, see Lönnberg 1981. In Expression, p. 19, CD remarked that he was ‘particularly fortunate’ to receive many observations from Australia, as the Australian aborigines ranked ‘amongst the most distinct of all the races of man’.
The Golden Gate is the strait connecting San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Point Lobos is south of San Francisco.
Possibly William Walker, who led military expeditions in Mexico and central America in the 1850s.
The American writer Charles Warren Stoddard had travelled to the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands in 1864 and published a collection of poetry based on his travels (Stoddard 1867). He began contributing regular columns to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1873 (ANB).
Possibly Christoph Arnold.


ANB: American national biography. Edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. 24 vols. and supplement. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999–2002.

Expression: The expression of the emotions in man and animals. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1872.

Lönnberg, Allan. 1981. The Digger Indian stereotype in California. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 3: 215–23.

Stoddard, Charles Warren. 1867. Poems. San Francisco, Calif.: A. Roman and Co.

Wheeler-Voegelin, Erminie. 1974. Pitt River Indians of California. New York: Garland.


Observations on expression.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Hinton
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
San Francisco
Source of text
DAR 166: 222
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8944,” accessed on 24 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 21