Mark Twain, A Biography, 1835-1866
Albert Bigelow Paine
Part 1 out of 5
This etext was produced by David Widger
MARK TWAIN, A BIOGRAPHY
By Albert Bigelow Paine
VOLUME I, Part 1: 1835-1866
THE PERSONAL AND LITERARY LIFE OF
SAMUEL LANGHORNE CLEMENS
ALBERT BIGELOW PAINE
CLARA CLEMENS GABRILOWITSCH
WHO STEADILY UPHELD THE
AUTHOR'S PURPOSE TO WRITE
HISTORY RATHER THAN EULOGY AS
THE STORY OF HER FATHER'S LIFE
Dear William Dean Howells, Joseph Hopkins Twichell, Joseph T. Goodman,
and other old friends of Mark Twain:
I cannot let these volumes go to press without some grateful word to you
who have helped me during the six years and more that have gone to their
First, I want to confess how I have envied you your association with Mark
Twain in those days when you and he "went gipsying, a long time ago."
Next, I want to express my wonder at your willingness to give me so
unstintedly from your precious letters and memories, when it is in the
nature of man to hoard such treasures, for himself and for those who
follow him. And, lastly, I want to tell you that I do not envy you so
much, any more, for in these chapters, one after another, through your
grace, I have gone gipsying with you all. Neither do I wonder now, for I
have come to know that out of your love for him grew that greater
unselfishness (or divine selfishness, as he himself might have termed
it), and that nothing short of the fullest you could do for his memory
would have contented your hearts.
My gratitude is measureless; and it is world-wide, for there is no land
so distant that it does not contain some one who has eagerly contributed
to the story. Only, I seem so poorly able to put my thanks into words.
Albert Bigelow Paine.
Certain happenings as recorded in this work will be found to differ
materially from the same incidents and episodes as set down in the
writings of Mr. Clemens himself. Mark Twain's spirit was built of the
very fabric of truth, so far as moral intent was concerned, but in his
earlier autobiographical writings--and most of his earlier writings were
autobiographical--he made no real pretense to accuracy of time, place, or
circumstance--seeking, as he said, "only to tell a good story"--while in
later years an ever-vivid imagination and a capricious memory made
history difficult, even when, as in his so-called "Autobiography," his
effort was in the direction of fact.
"When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or
not," he once said, quaintly, "but I am getting old, and soon I shall
remember only the latter."
The reader may be assured, where discrepancies occur, that the writer of
this memoir has obtained his data from direct and positive sources:
letters, diaries, accountbooks, or other immediate memoranda; also from
the concurring testimony of eye-witnesses, supported by a unity of
circumstance and conditions, and not from hearsay or vagrant printed
On page 492 of the old volume of Suetonius, which Mark Twain read until
his very last day, there is a reference to one Flavius Clemens, a man of
wide repute "for his want of energy," and in a marginal note he has
"I guess this is where our line starts."
It was like him to write that. It spoke in his whimsical fashion the
attitude of humility, the ready acknowledgment of shortcoming, which was
his chief characteristic and made him lovable--in his personality and in
Historically, we need not accept this identity of the Clemens ancestry.
The name itself has a kindly meaning, and was not an uncommon one in
Rome. There was an early pope by that name, and it appears now and again
in the annals of the Middle Ages. More lately there was a Gregory
Clemens, an English landowner who became a member of Parliament under
Cromwell and signed the death-warrant of Charles I. Afterward he was
tried as a regicide, his estates were confiscated, and his head was
exposed on a pole on the top of Westminster Hall.
Tradition says that the family of Gregory Clemens did not remain in
England, but emigrated to Virginia (or New Jersey), and from them, in
direct line, descended the Virginia Clemenses, including John Marshall
Clemens, the father of Mark Twain. Perhaps the line could be traced, and
its various steps identified, but, after all, an ancestor more or less
need not matter when it is the story of a descendant that is to be
Of Mark Twain's immediate forebears, however, there is something to be
said. His paternal grandfather, whose name also was Samuel, was a man of
culture and literary taste. In 1797 he married a Virginia girl, Pamela
Goggin; and of their five children John Marshall Clemens, born August 11,
1798, was the eldest--becoming male head of the family at the age of
seven, when his father was accidentally killed at a house-raising. The
family was not a poor one, but the boy grew up with a taste for work. As
a youth he became a clerk in an iron manufactory, at Lynchburg, and
doubtless studied at night. At all events, he acquired an education, but
injured his health in the mean time, and somewhat later, with his mother
and the younger children, removed to Adair County, Kentucky, where the
widow presently married a sweetheart of her girlhood, one Simon Hancock,
a good man. In due course, John Clemens was sent to Columbia, the
countyseat, to study law. When the living heirs became of age he
administered his father's estate, receiving as his own share three negro
slaves; also a mahogany sideboard, which remains among the Clemens
effects to this day.
This was in 1821. John Clemens was now a young man of twenty-three,
never very robust, but with a good profession, plenty of resolution, and
a heart full of hope and dreams. Sober, industrious, and unswervingly
upright, it seemed certain that he must make his mark. That he was
likely to be somewhat too optimistic, even visionary, was not then
regarded as a misfortune.
It was two years later that he met Jane Lampton; whose mother was a Casey
--a Montgomery-Casey whose father was of the Lamptons (Lambtons) of
Durham, England, and who on her own account was reputed to be the
handsomest girl and the wittiest, as well as the best dancer, in all
Kentucky. The Montgomeries and the Caseys of Kentucky had been Indian
fighters in the Daniel Boone period, and grandmother Casey, who had been
Jane Montgomery, had worn moccasins in her girlhood, and once saved her
life by jumping a fence and out-running a redskin pursuer. The
Montgomery and Casey annals were full of blood-curdling adventures, and
there is to-day a Casey County next to Adair, with a Montgomery County
somewhat farther east. As for the Lamptons, there is an earldom in the
English family, and there were claimants even then in the American
branch. All these things were worth while in Kentucky, but it was rare
Jane Lampton herself--gay, buoyant, celebrated for her beauty and her
grace; able to dance all night, and all day too, for that matter--that
won the heart of John Marshall Clemens, swept him off his feet almost at
the moment of their meeting. Many of the characteristics that made Mark
Twain famous were inherited from his mother. His sense of humor, his
prompt, quaintly spoken philosophy, these were distinctly her
contribution to his fame. Speaking of her in a later day, he once said:
"She had a sort of ability which is rare in man and hardly existent in
woman--the ability to say a humorous thing with the perfect air of not
knowing it to be humorous."
She bequeathed him this, without doubt; also her delicate complexion; her
wonderful wealth of hair; her small, shapely hands and feet, and the
pleasant drawling speech which gave her wit, and his, a serene and
It was a one-sided love affair, the brief courtship of Jane Lampton and
John Marshall Clemens. All her life, Jane Clemens honored her husband,
and while he lived served him loyally; but the choice of her heart had
been a young physician of Lexington with whom she had quarreled, and her
prompt engagement with John Clemens was a matter of temper rather than
tenderness. She stipulated that the wedding take place at once, and on
May 6, 1823, they were married. She was then twenty; her husband twenty-
five. More than sixty years later, when John Clemens had long been dead,
she took a railway journey to a city where there was an Old Settlers'
Convention, because among the names of those attending she had noticed
the name of the lover of her youth. She meant to humble herself to him
and ask forgiveness after all the years. She arrived too late; the
convention was over, and he was gone. Mark Twain once spoke of this, and
"It is as pathetic a romance as any that has crossed the field of my
personal experience in a long lifetime."
THE FORTUNES OF JOHN AND JANE CLEMENS
With all his ability and industry, and with the-best of intentions, John
Clemens would seem to have had an unerring faculty for making business
mistakes. It was his optimistic outlook, no doubt--his absolute
confidence in the prosperity that lay just ahead--which led him from one
unfortunate locality or enterprise to another, as long as he lived.
About a year after his marriage he settled with his young wife in
Gainsborough, Tennessee, a mountain town on the Cumberland River, and
here, in 1825, their first child, a boy, was born. They named him
Orion--after the constellation, perhaps--though they changed the accent
to the first syllable, calling it Orion. Gainsborough was a small place
with few enough law cases; but it could hardly have been as small, or
furnished as few cases; as the next one selected, which was Jamestown,
Fentress County, still farther toward the Eastward Mountains. Yet
Jamestown had the advantage of being brand new, and in the eye of his
fancy John Clemens doubtless saw it the future metropolis of east
Tennessee, with himself its foremost jurist and citizen. He took an
immediate and active interest in the development of the place,
established the county-seat there, built the first Court House, and was
promptly elected as circuit clerk of the court.
It was then that he decided to lay the foundation of a fortune for
himself and his children by acquiring Fentress County land. Grants could
be obtained in those days at the expense of less than a cent an acre, and
John Clemens believed that the years lay not far distant when the land
would increase in value ten thousand, twenty, perhaps even a hundred
thousandfold. There was no wrong estimate in that. Land covered with
the finest primeval timber, and filled with precious minerals, could
hardly fail to become worth millions, even though his entire purchase of
75,000 acres probably did not cost him more than $500. The great tract
lay about twenty nines to the southward of Jamestown. Standing in the
door of the Court House he had built, looking out over the "Knob" of the
Cumberland Mountains toward his vast possessions, he said:
"Whatever befalls me now, my heirs are secure. I may not live to see
these acres turn into silver and gold, but my children will."
Such was the creation of that mirage of wealth, the "Tennessee land,"
which all his days and for long afterward would lie just ahead--a golden
vision, its name the single watchword of the family fortunes--the dream
fading with years, only materializing at last as a theme in a story of
phantom riches, The Gilded Age.
Yet for once John Clemens saw clearly, and if his dream did not come true
he was in no wise to blame. The land is priceless now, and a corporation
of the Clemens heirs is to-day contesting the title of a thin fragment of
it--about one thousand acres--overlooked in some survey.
Believing the future provided for, Clemens turned his attention to
present needs. He built himself a house, unusual in its style and
elegance. It had two windows in each room, and its walls were covered
with plastering, something which no one in Jamestown had ever seen
before. He was regarded as an aristocrat. He wore a swallow-tail coat
of fine blue jeans, instead of the coarse brown native-made cloth. The
blue-jeans coat was ornamented with brass buttons and cost one dollar and
twenty-five cents a yard, a high price for that locality and time. His
wife wore a calico dress for company, while the neighbor wives wore
homespun linsey-woolsey. The new house was referred to as the Crystal
Palace. When John and Jane Clemens attended balls--there were continuous
balls during the holidays--they were considered the most graceful
Jamestown did not become the metropolis he had dreamed. It attained
almost immediately to a growth of twenty-five houses--mainly log houses--
and stopped there. The country, too, was sparsely settled; law practice
was slender and unprofitable, the circuit-riding from court to court was
very bad for one of his physique. John Clemens saw his reserve of health
and funds dwindling, and decided to embark in merchandise. He built
himself a store and put in a small country stock of goods. These he
exchanged for ginseng, chestnuts, lampblack, turpentine, rosin, and other
produce of the country, which he took to Louisville every spring and fall
in six-horse wagons. In the mean time he would seem to have sold one or
more of his slaves, doubtless to provide capital. There was a second
baby now--a little girl, Pamela,--born in September, 1827. Three years
later, May 1830, another little girl, Margaret, came. By this time the
store and home were in one building, the store occupying one room, the
household requiring two--clearly the family fortunes were declining.
About a year after little Margaret was born, John Clemens gave up
Jamestown and moved his family and stock of goods to a point nine miles
distant, known as the Three Forks of Wolf. The Tennessee land was safe,
of course, and would be worth millions some day, but in the mean time the
struggle for daily substance was becoming hard.
He could not have remained at the Three Forks long, for in 1832 we find
him at still another place, on the right bank of Wolf River, where a
post-office called Pall Mall was established, with John Clemens as
postmaster, usually addressed as "Squire" or "Judge." A store was run in
connection with the postoffice. At Pall Mall, in June, 1832, another
boy, Benjamin, was born.
The family at this time occupied a log house built by John Clemens
himself, the store being kept in another log house on the opposite bank
of the river. He no longer practised law. In The Gilded Age we have
Mark Twain's picture of Squire Hawkins and Obedstown, written from
descriptions supplied in later years by his mother and his brother Orion;
and, while not exact in detail, it is not regarded as an exaggerated
presentation of east Tennessee conditions at that time. The chapter is
too long and too depressing to be set down here. The reader may look it
up for himself, if he chooses. If he does he will not wonder that Jane
Clemens's handsome features had become somewhat sharper, and her manner a
shade graver, with the years and burdens of marriage, or that John
Clemens at thirty-six-out of health, out of tune with his environment--
was rapidly getting out of heart. After all the bright promise of the
beginning, things had somehow gone wrong, and hope seemed dwindling away.
A tall man, he had become thin and unusually pale; he looked older than
his years. Every spring he was prostrated with what was called
"sunpain," an acute form of headache, nerve-racking and destroying to all
persistent effort. Yet he did not retreat from his moral and
intellectual standards, or lose the respect of that shiftless community.
He was never intimidated by the rougher element, and his eyes were of a
kind that would disconcert nine men out of ten. Gray and deep-set under
bushy brows, they literally looked you through. Absolutely fearless, he
permitted none to trample on his rights. It is told of John Clemens, at
Jamestown, that once when he had lost a cow he handed the minister on
Sunday morning a notice of the loss to be read from the pulpit, according
to the custom of that community. For some reason, the minister put the
document aside and neglected it. At the close of the service Clemens
rose and, going to the pulpit, read his announcement himself to the
congregation. Those who knew Mark Twain best will not fail to recall in
him certain of his father's legacies.
The arrival of a letter from "Colonel Sellers" inviting the Hawkins
family to come to Missouri is told in The Gilded Age. In reality the
letter was from John Quarles, who had married Jane Clemens's sister,
Patsey Lampton, and settled in Florida, Monroe County, Missouri. It was
a momentous letter in The Gilded Age, and no less so in reality, for it
shifted the entire scene of the Clemens family fortunes, and it had to do
with the birthplace and the shaping of the career of one whose memory is
likely to last as long as American history.
A HUMBLE BIRTHPLACE
Florida, Missouri, was a small village in the early thirties--smaller
than it is now, perhaps, though in that day it had more promise, even if
less celebrity. The West was unassembled then, undigested, comparatively
unknown. Two States, Louisiana and Missouri, with less than half a
million white persons, were all that lay beyond the great river.
St. Louis, with its boasted ten thousand inhabitants and its river trade
with the South, was the single metropolis in all that vast uncharted
region. There was no telegraph; there were no railroads, no stage lines
of any consequence--scarcely any maps. For all that one could see or
guess, one place was as promising as another, especially a settlement
like Florida, located at the forks of a pretty stream, Salt River, which
those early settlers believed might one day become navigable and carry
the merchandise of that region down to the mighty Mississippi, thence to
the world outside.
In those days came John A. Quarles, of Kentucky, with his wife, who had
been Patsey Ann Lampton; also, later, Benjamin Lampton, her father, and
others of the Lampton race. It was natural that they should want Jane
Clemens and her husband to give up that disheartening east Tennessee
venture and join them in this new and promising land. It was natural,
too, for John Quarles--happy-hearted, generous, and optimistic--to write
the letter. There were only twenty-one houses in Florida, but Quarles
counted stables, out-buildings--everything with a roof on it--and set
down the number at fifty-four.
Florida, with its iridescent promise and negligible future, was just the
kind of a place that John Clemens with unerring instinct would be certain
to select, and the Quarles letter could have but one answer. Yet there
would be the longing for companionship, too, and Jane Clemens must have
hungered for her people. In The Gilded Age, the Sellers letter ends:
"Come!--rush!--hurry!--don't wait for anything!"
The Clemens family began immediately its preparation for getting away.
The store was sold, and the farm; the last two wagon-loads of produce
were sent to Louisville; and with the aid of the money realized, a few
hundred dollars, John Clemens and his family "flitted out into the great
mysterious blank that lay beyond the Knobs of Tennessee." They had a
two-horse barouche, which would seem to have been preserved out of their
earlier fortunes. The barouche held the parents and the three younger
children, Pamela, Margaret, anal the little boy, Benjamin. There were
also two extra horses, which Orion, now ten, and Jennie, the house-girl,
a slave, rode. This was early in the spring of 1835.
They traveled by the way of their old home at Columbia, and paid a visit
to relatives. At Louisville they embarked on a steamer bound for St.
Louis; thence overland once more through wilderness and solitude into
what was then the Far West, the promised land.
They arrived one evening, and if Florida was not quite all in appearance
that John Clemens had dreamed, it was at least a haven--with John
Quarles, jovial, hospitable, and full of plans. The great Mississippi
was less than fifty miles away. Salt River, with a system of locks and
dams, would certainly become navigable to the Forks, with Florida as its
head of navigation. It was a Sellers fancy, though perhaps it should be
said here that John Quarles was not the chief original of that lovely
character in The Gilded Age. That was another relative--James Lampton, a
cousin--quite as lovable, and a builder of even more insubstantial
John Quarles was already established in merchandise in Florida, and was
prospering in a small way. He had also acquired a good farm, which he
worked with thirty slaves, and was probably the rich man and leading
citizen of the community. He offered John Clemens a partnership in his
store, and agreed to aid him in the selection of some land. Furthermore,
he encouraged him to renew his practice of the law. Thus far, at least,
the Florida venture was not a mistake, for, whatever came, matters could
not be worse than they had been in Tennessee.
In a small frame building near the center of the village, John and Jane
Clemens established their household. It was a humble one-story affair,
with two main rooms and a lean-to kitchen, though comfortable enough for
its size, and comparatively new. It is still standing and occupied when
these lines are written, and it should be preserved and guarded as a
shrine for the American people; for it was here that the foremost
American-born author--the man most characteristically American in every
thought and word and action of his life--drew his first fluttering
breath, caught blinkingly the light of a world that in the years to come
would rise up and in its wide realm of letters hail him as a king.
It was on a bleak day, November 30, 1835, that he entered feebly the
domain he was to conquer. Long, afterward, one of those who knew him
"He always seemed to me like some great being from another planet--never
quite of this race or kind."
He may have been, for a great comet was in the sky that year, and it
would return no more until the day when he should be borne back into the
far spaces of silence and undiscovered suns. But nobody thought of this,
He was a seven-months child, and there was no fanfare of welcome at his
coming. Perhaps it was even suggested that, in a house so small and so
sufficiently filled, there was no real need of his coming at all. One
Polly Ann Buchanan, who is said to have put the first garment of any sort
on him, lived to boast of the fact,--[This honor has been claimed also
for Mrs. Millie Upton and a Mrs. Damrell. Probably all were present and
assisted.]--but she had no particular pride in that matter then. It was
only a puny baby with a wavering promise of life. Still, John Clemens
must have regarded with favor this first gift of fortune in a new land,
for he named the little boy Samuel, after his father, and added the name
of an old and dear Virginia friend, Langhorne. The family fortunes would
seem to have been improving at this time, and he may have regarded the
arrival of another son as a good omen.
With a family of eight, now, including Jennie, the slavegirl, more room
was badly needed, and he began building without delay. The result was
not a mansion, by any means, being still of the one-story pattern, but it
was more commodious than the tiny two-room affair. The rooms were
larger, and there was at least one ell, or extension, for kitchen and
dining-room uses. This house, completed in 1836, occupied by the Clemens
family during the remainder of the years spent in Florida, was often in
later days pointed out as Mark Twain's birthplace. It missed that
distinction by a few months, though its honor was sufficient in having
sheltered his early childhood.--[This house is no longer standing.
When it was torn down several years ago, portions of it were carried off
and manufactured into souvenirs. Mark Twain himself disclaimed it as his
birthplace, and once wrote on a photograph of it: "No, it is too stylish,
it is not my birthplace."]
BEGINNING A LONG JOURNEY
It was not a robust childhood. The new baby managed to go through the
winter--a matter of comment among the family and neighbors. Added
strength came, but slowly; "Little Sam," as they called him, was always
delicate during those early years.
It was a curious childhood, full of weird, fantastic impressions and
contradictory influences, stimulating alike to the imagination and that
embryo philosophy of life which begins almost with infancy. John Clemens
seldom devoted any time to the company of his children. He looked after
their comfort and mental development as well as he could, and gave advice
on occasion. He bought a book now and then--sometimes a picture-book--
and subscribed for Peter Parley's Magazine, a marvel of delight to the
older children, but he did not join in their amusements, and he rarely,
or never, laughed. Mark Twain did not remember ever having seen or heard
his father laugh. The problem of supplying food was a somber one to John
Clemens; also, he was working on a perpetual-motion machine at this
period, which absorbed his spare time, and, to the inventor at least, was
not a mirthful occupation. Jane Clemens was busy, too. Her sense of
humor did not die, but with added cares and years her temper as well as
her features became sharper, and it was just as well to be fairly out of
range when she was busy with her employments.
Little Sam's companions were his brothers and sisters, all older than
himself: Orion, ten years his senior, followed by Pamela and Margaret at
intervals of two and three years, then by Benjamin, a kindly little lad
whose gentle life was chiefly devoted to looking after the baby brother,
three years his junior. But in addition to these associations, there
were the still more potent influences Of that day and section, the
intimate, enveloping institution of slavery, the daily companionship of
the slaves. All the children of that time were fond of the negroes and
confided in them. They would, in fact, have been lost without such
protection and company.
It was Jennie, the house-girl, and Uncle Ned, a man of all work--
apparently acquired with the improved prospects--who were in real charge
of the children and supplied them with entertainment. Wonderful
entertainment it was. That was a time of visions and dreams, small.
gossip and superstitions. Old tales were repeated over and over, with
adornments and improvements suggested by immediate events. At evening
the Clemens children, big and little, gathered about the great open
fireplace while Jennie and Uncle Ned told tales and hair-lifting legends.
Even a baby of two or three years could follow the drift of this
primitive telling and would shiver and cling close with the horror and
delight of its curdling thrill. The tales always began with "Once 'pon a
time," and one of them was the story of the "Golden Arm" which the
smallest listener would one day repeat more elaborately to wider
audiences in many lands. Briefly it ran as follows:
"Once 'Pon a time there was a man, and he had a wife, and she had a' arm
of pure gold; and she died, and they buried her in the graveyard; and one
night her husband went and dug her up and cut off her golden arm and tuck
it home; and one night a ghost all in white come to him; and she was his
wife; and she says:
"W-h-a-r-r's my golden arm? W-h-a-r-r's my golden arm? W-h-a-r-r's my
As Uncle Ned repeated these blood-curdling questions he would look first
one and then another of his listeners in the eyes, with his bands drawn
up in front of his breast, his fingers turned out and crooked like claws,
while he bent with each question closer to the shrinking forms before
him. The tone was sepulchral, with awful pause as if waiting each time
for a reply. The culmination came with a pounce on one of the group, a
shake of the shoulders, and a shout of:
"YOU'VE got it!' and she tore him all to pieces!"
And the children would shout "Lordy!" and look furtively over their
shoulders, fearing to see a woman in white against the black wall; but,
instead, only gloomy, shapeless shadows darted across it as the
flickering flames in the fireplace went out on one brand and flared up on
another. Then there was a story of a great ball of fire that used to
follow lonely travelers along dark roads through the woods.
"Once 'pon a time there was a man, and he was riding along de road and he
come to a ha'nted house, and he heard de chains'a-rattlin' and a-rattlin'
and a-rattlin', and a ball of fire come rollin' up and got under his
stirrup, and it didn't make no difference if his horse galloped or went
slow or stood still, de ball of fire staid under his stirrup till he got
plum to de front do', and his wife come out and say: 'My Gord, dat's
devil fire!' and she had to work a witch spell to drive it away."
"How big was it, Uncle Ned?"
"Oh, 'bout as big as your head, and I 'spect it's likely to come down dis
yere chimney 'most any time."
Certainly an atmosphere like this meant a tropic development for the
imagination of a delicate child. All the games and daily talk concerned
fanciful semi-African conditions and strange primal possibilities. The
children of that day believed in spells and charms and bad-luck signs,
all learned of their negro guardians.
But if the negroes were the chief companions and protectors of the
children, they were likewise one of their discomforts. The greatest real
dread children knew was the fear of meeting runaway slaves. A runaway
slave was regarded as worse than a wild beast, and treated worse when
caught. Once the children saw one brought into Florida by six men who
took him to an empty cabin, where they threw him on the floor and bound
him with ropes. His groans were loud and frequent. Such things made an
impression that would last a lifetime.
Slave punishment, too, was not unknown, even in the household. Jennie
especially was often saucy and obstreperous. Jane Clemens, with more
strength of character than of body, once undertook to punish her for
insolence, whereupon Jennie snatched the whip from her hand. John
Clemens was sent for in haste. He came at once, tied Jennie's wrists
together with a bridle rein, and administered chastisement across the
shoulders with a cowhide. These were things all calculated to impress a
In pleasant weather the children roamed over the country, hunting berries
and nuts, drinking sugar-water, tying knots in love-vine, picking the
petals from daisies to the formula "Love me-love me not," always
accompanied by one or more, sometimes by half a dozen, of their small
darky followers. Shoes were taken off the first of April. For a time a
pair of old woolen stockings were worn, but these soon disappeared,
leaving the feet bare for the summer. One of their dreads was the
possibility of sticking a rusty nail into the foot, as this was liable to
cause lockjaw, a malady regarded with awe and terror. They knew what
lockjaw was--Uncle John Quarles's black man, Dan, was subject to it.
Sometimes when he opened his mouth to its utmost capacity he felt the
joints slip and was compelled to put down the cornbread, or jole and
greens, or the piece of 'possum he was eating, while his mouth remained a
fixed abyss until the doctor came and restored it to a natural position
by an exertion of muscular power that would have well-nigh lifted an ox.
Uncle John Quarles, his home, his farm, his slaves, all were sources of
never-ending delight. Perhaps the farm was just an ordinary Missouri
farm and the slaves just average negroes, but to those children these
things were never apparent. There was a halo about anything that
belonged to Uncle John Quarles, and that halo was the jovial, hilarious
kindness of that gentle-hearted, humane man. To visit at his house was
for a child to be in a heaven of mirth and pranks continually. When the
children came for eggs he would say:
"Your hens won't lay, eh? Tell your maw to feed 'em parched corn and
drive 'em uphill," and this was always a splendid stroke of humor to his
Also, he knew how to mimic with his empty hands the peculiar patting and
tossing of a pone of corn-bread before placing it in the oven. He would
make the most fearful threats to his own children, for disobedience, but
never executed any of them. When they were out fishing and returned late
he would say:
"You--if I have to hunt you again after dark, I will make you smell like
a burnt horn!"
Nothing could exceed the ferocity of this threat, and all the children,
with delightful terror and curiosity, wondered what would happen--if it
ever did happen--that would result in giving a child that peculiar savor.
Altogether it was a curious early childhood that Little Sam had--at least
it seems so to us now. Doubtless it was commonplace enough for that time
THE WAY OF FORTUNE
Perhaps John Quarles's jocular, happy-go-lucky nature and general conduct
did not altogether harmonize with John Clemens's more taciturn business
methods. Notwithstanding the fact that he was a builder of dreams,
Clemens was neat and methodical, with his papers always in order. He had
a hearty dislike for anything resembling frivolity and confusion, which
very likely were the chief features of John Quarles's storekeeping. At
all events, they dissolved partnership at the end of two or three years,
and Clemens opened business for himself across the street. He also
practised law whenever there were cases, and was elected justice of the
peace, acquiring the permanent title of "Judge." He needed some one to
assist in the store, and took in Orion, who was by this time twelve or
thirteen years old; but, besides his youth, Orion--all his days a
visionary--was a studious, pensive lad with no taste for commerce. Then
a partnership was formed with a man who developed neither capital nor
business ability, and proved a disaster in the end. The modest tide of
success which had come with John Clemens's establishment at Florida had
begun to wane. Another boy, Henry, born in July, 1838, added one more
responsibility to his burdens.
There still remained a promise of better things. There seemed at least a
good prospect that the scheme for making Salt River navigable was likely
to become operative. With even small boats (bateaux) running as high as
the lower branch of the South Fork, Florida would become an emporium of
trade, and merchants and property-owners of that village would reap a
harvest. An act of the Legislature was passed incorporating the
navigation company, with Judge Clemens as its president. Congress was
petitioned to aid this work of internal improvement. So confident was
the company of success that the hamlet was thrown into a fever of
excitement by the establishment of a boatyard and, the actual
construction of a bateau; but a Democratic Congress turned its back on
the proposed improvement. No boat bigger than a skiff ever ascended Salt
River, though there was a wild report, evidently a hoax, that a party of
picnickers had seen one night a ghostly steamer, loaded and manned,
puffing up the stream. An old Scotchman, Hugh Robinson, when he heard of
"I don't doubt a word they say. In Scotland, it often happens that when
people have been killed, or are troubled, they send their spirits abroad
and they are seen as much like themselves as a reflection in a looking-
glass. That was a ghost of some wrecked steamboat."
But John Quarles, who was present, laughed:
"If ever anybody was in trouble, the men on that steamboat were," he
said. "They were the Democratic candidates at the last election. They
killed Salt River improvements, and Salt River has killed them. Their
ghosts went up the river on a ghostly steamboat."
It is possible that this comment, which was widely repeated and traveled
far, was the origin of the term "Going up Salt River," as applied to
defeated political candidates.--[The dictionaries give this phrase as
probably traceable to a small, difficult stream in Kentucky; but it seems
more reasonable to believe that it originated in Quarles's witty
No other attempt was ever made to establish navigation on Salt River.
Rumors of railroads already running in the East put an end to any such
thought. Railroads could run anywhere and were probably cheaper and
easier to maintain than the difficult navigation requiring locks and
dams. Salt River lost its prestige as a possible water highway and
became mere scenery. Railroads have ruined greater rivers than the
Little Salt, and greater villages than Florida, though neither Florida
nor Salt River has been touched by a railroad to this day. Perhaps such
close detail of early history may be thought unnecessary in a work of
this kind, but all these things were definite influences in the career of
the little lad whom the world would one day know as Mark Twain.
A NEW HOME
The death of little Margaret was the final misfortune that came to the
Clemens family in Florida. Doubtless it hastened their departure.
There was a superstition in those days that to refer to health as good
luck, rather than to ascribe it to the kindness of Providence, was to
bring about a judgment. Jane Clemens one day spoke to a neighbor of
their good luck in thus far having lost no member of their family. That
same day, when the sisters, Pamela and Margaret, returned from school,
Margaret laid her books on the table, looked in the glass at her flushed
cheeks, pulled out the trundle-bed, and lay down.
She was never in her right mind again. The doctor was sent for and
diagnosed the case "bilious fever." One evening, about nine o'clock,
Orion was sitting on the edge of the trundle-bed by the patient, when the
door opened and Little Sam, then about four years old, walked in from his
bedroom, fast asleep. He came to the side of the trundle-bed and pulled
at the bedding near Margaret's shoulder for some time before he woke.
Next day the little girl was "picking at the coverlet," and it was known
that she could not live. About a week later she died. She was nine
years old, a beautiful child, plump in form, with rosy cheeks, black
hair, and bright eyes. This was in August, 1839. It was Little Sam's
first sight of death--the first break in the Clemens family: it left a
sad household. The shoemaker who lived next door claimed to have seen
several weeks previous, in a vision, the coffin and the funeral-
procession pass the gate by the winding road, to the cemetery, exactly as
Matters were now going badly enough with John Clemens. Yet he never was
without one great comforting thought--the future of the Tennessee land.
It underlaid every plan; it was an anodyne for every ill.
"When we sell the Tennessee land everything will be all right," was the
refrain that brought solace in the darkest hours. A blessing for him
that this was so, for he had little else to brighten his days.
Negotiations looking to the sale of the land were usually in progress.
When the pressure became very hard and finances were at their lowest ebb,
it was offered at any price--at five cents an acre, sometimes. When
conditions improved, however little, the price suddenly advanced even to
its maximum of one thousand dollars an acre. Now and then a genuine
offer came along, but, though eagerly welcomed at the moment, it was
always refused after a little consideration.
"We will struggle along somehow, Jane," he would say. "We will not throw
away the children's fortune."
There was one other who believed in the Tennessee land--Jane Clemens's
favorite cousin, James Lampton, the courtliest, gentlest, most prodigal
optimist of all that guileless race. To James Lampton the land always
had "millions in it"--everything had. He made stupendous fortunes daily,
in new ways. The bare mention of the Tennessee land sent him off into
figures that ended with the purchase of estates in England adjoining
those of the Durham Lamptons, whom he always referred to as "our
kindred," casually mentioning the whereabouts and health of the "present
earl." Mark Twain merely put James Lampton on paper when he created
Colonel Sellers, and the story of the Hawkins family as told in The
Gilded Age reflects clearly the struggle of those days. The words
"Tennessee land," with their golden promise, became his earliest
remembered syllables. He grew to detest them in time, for they came to
One of the offers received was the trifling sum of two hundred and fifty
dollars, and such was the moment's need that even this was considered.
Then, of course, it was scornfully refused. In some autobiographical
chapters which Orion Clemens left behind he said:
"If we had received that two hundred and fifty dollars, it would have
been more than we ever made, clear of expenses, out of the whole of the
Tennessee land, after forty years of worry to three generations."
What a less speculative and more logical reasoner would have done in the
beginning, John Clemens did now; he selected a place which, though little
more than a village, was on a river already navigable--a steamboat town
with at least the beginnings of manufacturing and trade already
established--that is to say, Hannibal, Missouri--a point well chosen, as
shown by its prosperity to-day.
He did not delay matters. When he came to a decision, he acted quickly.
He disposed of a portion of his goods and shipped the remainder overland;
then, with his family and chattels loaded in a wagon, he was ready to set
out for the new home. Orion records that, for some reason, his father
did not invite him to get into the wagon, and how, being always sensitive
to slight, he had regarded this in the light of deliberate desertion.
"The sense of abandonment caused my heart to ache. The wagon had gone a
few feet when I was discovered and invited to enter. How I wished they
had not missed me until they had arrived at Hannibal. Then the world
would have seen how I was treated and would have cried 'Shame!'"
This incident, noted and remembered, long after became curiously confused
with another, in Mark Twain's mind. In an autobiographical chapter
published in The North American Review he tells of the move to Hannibal
and relates that he himself was left behind by his absentminded family.
The incident of his own abandonment did not happen then, but later, and
somewhat differently. It would indeed be an absent-minded family if the
parents, and the sister and brothers ranging up to fourteen years of age,
should drive off leaving Little Sam, age four, behind.
--[As mentioned in the Prefatory Note, Mark Twain's memory played him
many tricks in later life. Incidents were filtered through his vivid
imagination until many of them bore little relation to the actual
occurrence. Some of these lapses were only amusing, but occasionally
they worked an unintentional injustice. It is the author's purpose in
every instance, so far as is possible, to keep the record straight.]
THE LITTLE TOWN OF HANNIBAL
Hannibal in 1839 was already a corporate community and had an atmosphere
of its own. It was a town with a distinct Southern flavor, though rather
more astir than the true Southern community of that period; more Western
in that it planned, though without excitement, certain new enterprises
and made a show, at least, of manufacturing. It was somnolent (a slave
town could not be less than that), but it was not wholly asleep--that is
to say, dead--and it was tranquilly content. Mark Twain remembered it as
"the white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer morning,. . . the
great Mississippi, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide
tide along; . . . the dense forest away on the other side."
The little city was proud of its scenery, and justly so: circled with
bluffs, with Holliday's Hill on the north, Lover's Leap on the south, the
shining river in the foreground, there was little to be desired in the
way of setting.
The river, of course, was the great highway. Rafts drifted by;
steamboats passed up and down and gave communication to the outside
world; St. Louis, the metropolis, was only one hundred miles away.
Hannibal was inclined to rank itself as of next importance, and took on
airs accordingly. It had society, too--all kinds--from the negroes and
the town drunkards ("General" Gaines and Jimmy Finn; later, Old Ben
Blankenship) up through several nondescript grades of mechanics and
tradesmen to the professional men of the community, who wore tall hats,
ruffled shirt-fronts, and swallow-tail coats, usually of some positive
color-blue, snuff-brown, and green. These and their families constituted
the true aristocracy of the Southern town. Most of them had pleasant
homes--brick or large frame mansions, with colonnaded entrances, after
the manner of all Southern architecture of that period, which had an
undoubted Greek root, because of certain drawing-books, it is said,
accessible to the builders of those days. Most of them, also, had means
--slaves and land which yielded an income in addition to their
professional earnings. They lived in such style as was considered
fitting to their rank, and had such comforts as were then obtainable.
It was to this grade of society that judge Clemens and his family
belonged, but his means no longer enabled him to provide either the
comforts or the ostentation of his class. He settled his family and
belongings in a portion of a house on Hill Street--the Pavey Hotel; his
merchandise he established modestly on Main Street, with Orion, in a new
suit of clothes, as clerk. Possibly the clothes gave Orion a renewed
ambition for mercantile life, but this waned. Business did not begin
actively, and he was presently dreaming and reading away the time. A
little later he became a printer's apprentice, in the office of the
Hannibal Journal, at his father's suggestion.
Orion Clemens perhaps deserves a special word here. He was to be much
associated with his more famous brother for many years, and his
personality as boy and man is worth at least a casual consideration.
He was fifteen now, and had developed characteristics which in a greater
or less degree were to go with him through life. Of a kindly, loving
disposition, like all of the Clemens children, quick of temper, but
always contrite, or forgiving, he was never without the fond regard of
those who knew him best. His weaknesses were manifold, but, on the
whole, of a negative kind. Honorable and truthful, he had no tendency to
bad habits or unworthy pursuits; indeed, he had no positive traits of any
sort. That was his chief misfortune. Full of whims and fancies,
unstable, indeterminate, he was swayed by every passing emotion and
influence. Daily he laid out a new course of study and achievement, only
to fling it aside because of some chance remark or printed paragraph or
bit of advice that ran contrary to his purpose. Such a life is bound to
be a succession of extremes--alternate periods of supreme exaltation and
despair. In his autobiographical chapters, already mentioned, Orion sets
down every impulse and emotion and failure with that faithful humility
which won him always the respect, if not always the approval, of men.
Printing was a step downward, for it was a trade, and Orion felt it
keenly. A gentleman's son and a prospective heir of the Tennessee land,
he was entitled to a profession. To him it was punishment, and the
disgrace weighed upon him. Then he remembered that Benjamin Franklin had
been a printer and had eaten only an apple and a bunch of grapes for his
dinner. Orion decided to emulate Franklin, and for a time he took only a
biscuit and a glass of water at a meal, foreseeing the day when he should
electrify the world with his eloquence. He was surprised to find how
clear his mind was on this low diet and how rapidly he learned his trade.
Of the other children Pamela, now twelve, and Benjamin, seven, were put
to school. They were pretty, attractive children, and Henry, the baby,
was a sturdy toddler, the pride of the household. Little Sam was the
least promising of the flock. He remained delicate, and developed little
beyond a tendency to pranks. He was a queer, fanciful, uncommunicative
child that detested indoors and would run away if not watched--always in
the direction of the river. He walked in his sleep, too, and often the
rest of the household got up in the middle of the night to find him
fretting with cold in some dark corner. The doctor was summoned for him
oftener than was good for the family purse--or for him, perhaps, if we
may credit the story of heavy dosings of those stern allopathic days.
Yet he would appear not to have been satisfied with his heritage of
ailments, and was ambitious for more. An epidemic of measles--the black,
deadly kind--was ravaging Hannibal, and he yearned for the complaint.
He yearned so much that when he heard of a playmate, one of the Bowen
boys, who had it, he ran away and, slipping into the house, crept into
bed with the infection. The success of this venture was complete. Some
days later, the Clemens family gathered tearfully around Little Sam's bed
to see him die. According to his own after-confession, this gratified
him, and he was willing to die for the glory of that touching scene.
However, he disappointed them, and was presently up and about in search
of fresh laurels.--[In later life Mr. Clemens did not recollect the
precise period of this illness. With habitual indifference he assigned
it to various years, as his mood or the exigencies of his theme required.
Without doubt the "measles" incident occurred when he was very young.]--
He must have been a wearing child, and we may believe that Jane Clemens,
with her varied cares and labors, did not always find him a comfort.
"You gave me more uneasiness than any child I had," she said to him once,
in her old age.
"I suppose you were afraid I wouldn't live," he suggested, in his
She looked at him with that keen humor that had not dulled in eighty
years. "No; afraid you would," she said. But that was only her joke,
for she was the most tenderhearted creature in the world, and, like
mothers in general, had a weakness for the child that demanded most of
her mother's care.
It was mainly on his account that she spent her summers on John Quarles's
farm near Florida, and it was during the first summer that an incident
already mentioned occurred. It was decided that the whole family should
go for a brief visit, and one Saturday morning in June Mrs. Clemens, with
the three elder children and the baby, accompanied by Jennie, the slave-
girl, set out in a light wagon for the day's drive, leaving Judge Clemens
to bring Little Sam on horseback Sunday morning. The hour was early when
Judge Clemens got up to saddle his horse, and Little Sam was still
asleep. The horse being ready, Clemens, his mind far away, mounted and
rode off without once remembering the little boy, and in the course of
the afternoon arrived at his brother-in-law's farm. Then he was
confronted by Jane Clemens, who demanded Little Sam.
"Why," said the judge, aghast, "I never once thought of him after I left
Wharton Lampton, a brother of Jane Clemens and Patsey Quarles, hastily
saddled a horse and set out, helter-skelter, for Hannibal. He arrived in
the early dusk. The child was safe enough, but he was crying with
loneliness and hunger. He had spent most of the day in the locked,
deserted house playing with a hole in the meal-sack where the meal ran
out, when properly encouraged, in a tiny stream. He was fed and
comforted, and next day was safe on the farm, which during that summer
and those that followed it, became so large a part of his boyhood and
lent a coloring to his later years.
We have already mentioned the delight of the Clemens children in Uncle
John Quarles's farm. To Little Sam it was probably a life-saver. With
his small cousin, Tabitha,--[Tabitha Quarles, now Mrs. Greening, of
Palmyra, Missouri, has supplied most of the material for this chapter.]--
just his own age (they called her Puss), he wandered over that magic
domain, fording new marvels at every step, new delights everywhere. A
slave-girl, Mary, usually attended them, but she was only six years
older, and not older at all in reality, so she was just a playmate, and
not a guardian to be feared or evaded. Sometimes, indeed, it was
necessary for her to threaten to tell "Miss Patsey" or "Miss Jane," when
her little charges insisted on going farther or staying later than she
thought wise from the viewpoint of her own personal safety; but this was
seldom, and on the whole a stay at the farm was just one long idyllic
dream of summer-time and freedom.
The farm-house stood in the middle of a large yard entered by a stile
made of sawed-off logs of graduated heights. In the corner of the yard
were hickory trees, and black walnut, and beyond the fence the hill fell
away past the barns, the corn-cribs, and the tobacco-house to a brook--
a divine place to wade, with deep, dark, forbidden pools. Down in the
pasture there were swings under the big trees, and Mary swung the
children and ran under them until their feet touched the branches, and
then took her turn and "balanced" herself so high that their one wish was
to be as old as Mary and swing in that splendid way. All the woods were
full of squirrels--gray squirrels and the red-fox species--and many birds
and flowers; all the meadows were gay with clover and butterflies, and
musical with singing grasshoppers and calling larks; there were
blackberries in the fence rows, apples and peaches in the orchard, and
watermelons in the corn. They were not always ripe, those watermelons,
and once, when Little Sam had eaten several pieces of a green one, he was
seized with cramps so severe that most of the household expected him to
Jane Clemens was not heavily concerned.
"Sammy will pull through," she said; "he wasn't born to die that way."
It is the slender constitution that bears the strain. "Sammy" did pull
through, and in a brief time was ready for fresh adventure.
There were plenty of these: there were the horses to ride to and from the
fields; the ox-wagons to ride in when they had dumped their heavy loads;
the circular horsepower to ride on when they threshed the wheat. This
last was a dangerous and forbidden pleasure, but the children would dart
between the teams and climb on, and the slave who was driving would
pretend not to see. Then in the evening when the black woman came along,
going after the cows, the children would race ahead and set the cows
running and jingling their bells--especially Little Sam, for he was a
wild-headed, impetuous child of sudden ecstasies that sent him capering
and swinging his arms, venting his emotions in a series of leaps and
shrieks and somersaults, and spasms of laughter as he lay rolling in the
His tendency to mischief grew with this wide liberty, improved health,
and the encouragement of John Quarles's good-natured, fun-loving slaves.
The negro quarters beyond the orchard were especially attractive. In one
cabin lived a bed-ridden, white-headed old woman whom the children
visited daily and looked upon with awe; for she was said to be a thousand
years old and to have talked with Moses. The negroes believed this; the
children, too, of course, and that she had lost her health in the desert,
coming out of Egypt. The bald spot on her head was caused by fright at
seeing Pharaoh drowned. She also knew how to avert spells and ward off
witches, which added greatly to her prestige. Uncle Dan'l was a
favorite, too-kind-hearted and dependable, while his occasional lockjaw
gave him an unusual distinction. Long afterward he would become Nigger
Jim in the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn tales, and so in his gentle
guilelessness win immortality and the love of many men.
Certainly this was a heavenly place for a little boy, the farm of Uncle
John Quarles, and the house was as wonderful as its surroundings. It was
a two-story double log building, with a spacious floor (roofed in)
connecting the two divisions. In the summer the table was set in the
middle of that shady, breezy pavilion, and sumptuous meals were served in
the lavish Southern style, brought to the table in vast dishes that left
only room for rows of plates around the edge. Fried chicken, roast pig,
turkeys, ducks, geese, venison just killed, squirrels, rabbits,
partridges, pheasants, prairie-chickens--the list is too long to be
served here. If a little boy could not improve on that bill of fare and
in that atmosphere, his case was hopeless indeed. His mother kept him
there until the late fall, when the chilly evenings made them gather
around the wide, blazing fireplace. Sixty years later he wrote of that
I can see the room yet with perfect clearness. I can see all its
buildings, all its details: the family-room of the house, with the
trundle-bed in one corner and the spinning-wheel in another a wheel
whose rising and falling wail, heard from a distance, was the
mournfulest of all sounds to me, and made me homesick and low-
spirited, and filled my atmosphere with the wandering spirits of the
dead; the vast fireplace, piled high with flaming logs, from whose
ends a sugary sap bubbled out, but did not go to waste, for we
scraped it off and ate it; . . . the lazy cat spread out on the
rough hearthstones, the drowsy dogs braced against the jambs,
blinking; my aunt in one chimney-corner and my uncle in the other
smoking his corn-cob pipe; the slick and carpetless oak floor
faintly mirroring the flame tongues, and freckled with black
indentations where fire-coals had popped out and died a leisurely
death; half a dozen children romping in the background twilight;
splint-bottom chairs here and there--some with rockers; a cradle--
out of service, but waiting with confidence.
One is tempted to dwell on this period, to quote prodigally from these
vivid memories--the thousand minute impressions which the child's
sensitive mind acquired in that long-ago time and would reveal everywhere
in his work in the years to come. For him it was education of a more
valuable and lasting sort than any he would ever acquire from books.
Nevertheless, on his return to Hannibal, it was decided that Little Sam
was now ready to go to school. He was about five years old, and the
months on the farm had left him wiry and lively, even if not very robust.
His mother declared that he gave her more trouble than all the other
children put together.
"He drives me crazy with his didoes, when he is in the house," she used
to say; "and when he is out of it I am expecting every minute that some
one will bring him home half dead."
He did, in fact, achieve the first of his "nine narrow escapes from
drowning" about this time, and was pulled out of the river one afternoon
and brought home in a limp and unpromising condition. When with mullein
tea and castor-oil she had restored him to activity, she said: "I guess
there wasn't much danger. People born to be hanged are safe in water."
She declared she was willing to pay somebody to take him off her hands
for a part of each day and try to teach him manners. Perhaps this is a
good place to say that Jane Clemens was the original of Tom Sawyer's
"Aunt Polly," and her portrait as presented in that book is considered
perfect. Kind-hearted, fearless, looking and acting ten years older than
her age, as women did in that time, always outspoken and sometimes
severe, she was regarded as a "character" by her friends, and beloved by
them as, a charitable, sympathetic woman whom it was good to know. Her
sense of pity was abnormal. She refused to kill even flies, and punished
the cat for catching mice. She, would drown the young kittens, when
necessary, but warmed the water for the purpose. On coming to Hannibal,
she joined the Presbyterian Church, and her religion was of that clean-
cut, strenuous kind which regards as necessary institutions hell and
Satan, though she had been known to express pity for the latter for being
obliged to surround himself with such poor society. Her children she
directed with considerable firmness, and all were tractable and growing
in grace except Little Sam. Even baby Henry at two was lisping the
prayers that Sam would let go by default unless carefully guarded. His
sister Pamela, who was eight years older and always loved him dearly,
usually supervised these spiritual exercises, and in her gentle care
earned immortality as the Cousin Mary of Tom Sawyer. He would say his
prayers willingly enough when encouraged by sister Pamela, but he much
preferred to sit up in bed and tell astonishing tales of the day's
adventure--tales which made prayer seem a futile corrective and caused
his listeners to wonder why the lightning was restrained so long. They
did not know they were glimpsing the first outcroppings of a genius that
would one day amaze and entertain the nations. Neighbors hearing of
these things (also certain of his narrations) remonstrated with Mrs.
"You don't believe anything that child says, I hope."
"Oh yes, I know his average. I discount him ninety per cent. The rest
is pure gold." At another time she said: "Sammy is a well of truth, but
you can't bring it all up in one bucket."
This, however, is digression; the incidents may have happened somewhat
A certain Miss E. Horr was selected to receive the payment for taking
charge of Little Sam during several hours each day, directing him
mentally and morally in the mean time. Her school was then in a log
house on Main Street (later it was removed to Third Street), and was of
the primitive old-fashioned kind, with pupils of all ages, ranging in
advancement from the primer to the third reader, from the tables to long
division, with a little geography and grammar and a good deal of
spelling. Long division and the third reader completed the curriculum in
that school. Pupils who decided to take a post-graduate course went to a
Mr. Cross, who taught in a frame house on the hill facing what is now the
Miss Horr received twenty-five cents a week for each pupil, and opened
her school with prayer; after which came a chapter of the Bible, with
explanations, and the rules of conduct. Then the A B C class was called,
because their recital was a hand-to-hand struggle, requiring no
The rules of conduct that first day interested Little Sam. He calculated
how much he would need to trim in, to sail close to the danger-line and
still avoid disaster. He made a miscalculation during the forenoon and
received warning; a second offense would mean punishment. He did not
mean to be caught the second time, but he had not learned Miss Horr yet,
and was presently startled by being commanded to go out and bring a stick
for his own correction.
This was certainly disturbing. It was sudden, and then he did not know
much about the selection of sticks. Jane Clemens had usually used her
hand. It required a second command to get him headed in the right
direction, and he was a trifle dazed when he got outside. He had the
forests of Missouri to select from, but choice was difficult. Everything
looked too big and competent. Even the smallest switch had a wiry,
discouraging look. Across the way was a cooper-shop with a good many
One had blown across and lay just in front of him. It was an
inspiration. He picked it up and, solemnly entering the school-room,
meekly handed it to Miss Herr.
Perhaps Miss Horr's sense of humor prompted forgiveness, but discipline
must be maintained.
"Samuel Langhorne Clemens," she said (he had never heard it all strung
together in that ominous way), "I am ashamed of you! Jimmy Dunlap, go
and bring a switch for Sammy." And Jimmy Dunlap went, and the switch was
of a sort to give the little boy an immediate and permanent distaste for
school. He informed his mother when he went home at noon that he did not
care for school; that he had no desire to be a great man; that he
preferred to be a pirate or an Indian and scalp or drown such people as
Miss Horr. Down in her heart his mother was sorry for him, but what she
said was that she was glad there was somebody at last who could take him
He returned to school, but he never learned to like it. Each morning he
went with reluctance and remained with loathing--the loathing which he
always had for anything resembling bondage and tyranny or even the
smallest curtailment of liberty. A School was ruled with a rod in those
days, a busy and efficient rod, as the Scripture recommended. Of the
smaller boys Little Sam's back was sore as often as the next, and he
dreamed mainly of a day when, grown big and fierce, he would descend with
his band and capture Miss Horr and probably drag her by the hair, as he
had seen Indians and pirates do in the pictures. When the days of early
summer came again; when from his desk he could see the sunshine lighting
the soft green of Holliday's Hill, with the purple distance beyond, and
the glint of the river, it seemed to him that to be shut up with a
Webster's spelling-book and a cross old maid was more than human nature
could bear. Among the records preserved from that far-off day there
remains a yellow slip, whereon in neat old-fashioned penmanship is
MISS PAMELA CLEMENS
Has won the love of her teacher and schoolmates by her amiable
deportment and faithful application to her various studies.
E. Horr, Teacher.
If any such testimonial was ever awarded to Little Sam, diligent search
has failed to reveal it. If he won the love of his teacher and playmates
it was probably for other reasons.
Yet he must have learned, somehow, for he could read presently and was
soon regarded as a good speller for his years. His spelling came as a
natural gift, as did most of his attainments, then and later.
It has already been mentioned that Miss Horr opened her school with
prayer and Scriptural readings. Little Sam did not especially delight in
these things, but he respected them. Not to do so was dangerous. Flames
were being kept brisk for little boys who were heedless of sacred
matters; his home teaching convinced him of that. He also respected Miss
Horr as an example of orthodox faith, and when she read the text "Ask and
ye shall receive" and assured them that whoever prayed for a thing
earnestly, his prayer would be answered, he believed it. A small
schoolmate, the balker's daughter, brought gingerbread to school every
morning, and Little Sam was just "honing" for some of it. He wanted a
piece of that baker's gingerbread more than anything else in the world,
and he decided to pray for it.
The little girl sat in front of him, but always until that morning had
kept the gingerbread out of sight. Now, however, when he finished his
prayer and looked up, a small morsel of the precious food lay in front of
him. Perhaps the little girl could no longer stand that hungry look in
his eyes. Possibly she had heard his petition; at all events his prayer
bore fruit and his faith at that moment would have moved Holliday's Hill.
He decided to pray for everything he wanted, but when he tried the
gingerbread supplication next morning it had no result. Grieved, but
still unshaken, he tried next morning again; still no gingerbread; and
when a third and fourth effort left him hungry he grew despairing and
silent, and wore the haggard face of doubt. His mother said:
"What's the matter, Sammy; are you sick?"
"No," he said, "but I don't believe in saying prayers any more, and I'm
never going to do it again."
"Why, Sammy, what in the world has happened?" she asked, anxiously. Then
he broke down and cried on her lap and told her, for it was a serious
thing in that day openly to repudiate faith. Jane Clemens gathered him
to her heart and comforted him.
"I'll make you a whole pan of gingerbread, better than that," she said,
"and school will soon be out, too, and you can go back to Uncle John's
And so passed and ended Little Sam's first school-days.
EARLY VICISSITUDE AND SORROW
Prosperity came laggingly enough to the Clemens household. The year 1840
brought hard times: the business venture paid little or no return; law
practice was not much more remunerative. Judge Clemens ran for the
office of justice of the peace and was elected, but fees were neither
large nor frequent. By the end of the year it became necessary to part
with Jennie, the slave-girl--a grief to all of them, for they were fond
of her in spite of her wilfulness, and she regarded them as "her family."
She was tall, well formed, nearly black, and brought a good price. A
Methodist minister in Hannibal sold a negro child at the same time to
another minister who took it to his home farther South. As the steamboat
moved away from the landing the child's mother stood at the water's edge,
shrieking her anguish. We are prone to consider these things harshly
now, when slavery has been dead for nearly half a century, but it was a
sacred institution then, and to sell a child from its mother was little
more than to sell to-day a calf from its lowing dam. One could be sorry,
of course, in both instances, but necessity or convenience are matters
usually considered before sentiment. Mark Twain once said of his mother:
"Kind-hearted and compassionate as she was, I think she was not conscious
that slavery was a bald, grotesque, and unwarranted ursurpation. She had
never heard it assailed in any pulpit, but had heard it defended and
sanctified in a thousand. As far as her experience went, the wise, the
good, and the holy were unanimous in the belief that slavery was right,
righteous, sacred, the peculiar pet of the Deity, and a condition which
the slave himself ought to be daily and nightly thankful for."
Yet Jane Clemens must have had qualms at times--vague, unassembled doubts
that troubled her spirit. After Jennie was gone a little black chore-boy
was hired from his owner, who had bought him on the east shore of
Maryland and brought him to that remote Western village, far from family
He was a cheery spirit in spite of that, and gentle, but very noisy. All
day he went about singing, whistling, and whooping until his noise became
monotonous, maddening. One day Little Sam said:
"Ma--[that was the Southern term]--,make Sandy stop singing all the
time. It's awful."
Tears suddenly came into his mother's eyes.
"Poor thing! He is sold away from his home. When he sings it shows
maybe he is not remembering. When he's still I am afraid he is thinking,
and I can't bear it."
Yet any one in that day who advanced the idea of freeing the slaves was
held in abhorrence. An abolitionist was something to despise, to stone
out of the community. The children held the name in horror, as belonging
to something less than human; something with claws, perhaps, and a tail.
The money received for the sale of Jennie made judge Clemens easier for a
time. Business appears to have improved, too, and he was tided through
another year during which he seems to have made payments on an expensive
piece of real estate on Hill and Main streets. This property, acquired
in November, 1839, meant the payment of some seven thousand dollars, and
was a credit purchase, beyond doubt. It was well rented, but the tenants
did not always pay; and presently a crisis came--a descent of creditors--
and John: Clemens at forty-four found himself without business and
without means. He offered everything--his cow, his household furniture,
even his forks and spoons--to his creditors, who protested that he must
not strip himself. They assured him that they admired his integrity so
much they would aid him to resume business; but when he went to St.
Louis to lay in a stock of goods he was coldly met, and the venture came
He now made a trip to Tennessee in the hope of collecting some old debts
and to raise money on the Tennessee land. He took along a negro man
named Charlie, whom he probably picked up for a small sum, hoping to make
something through his disposal in a better market. The trip was another
failure. The man who owed him a considerable sum of money was solvent,
but pleaded hard times:
It seems so very hard upon him--[John Clemens wrote home]--to pay
such a sum that I could not have the conscience to hold him to it.
. . I still have Charlie. The highest price I had offered for him
in New Orleans was $50, in Vicksburg $40. After performing the
journey to Tennessee, I expect to sell him for whatever he will
I do not know what I can commence for a business in the spring. My
brain is constantly on the rack with the study, and I can't relieve
myself of it. The future, taking its completion from the state of
my health or mind, is alternately beaming in sunshine or over-
shadowed with clouds; but mostly cloudy, as you may suppose. I want
bodily exercise--some constant and active employment, in the first
place; and, in the next place, I want to be paid for it, if
This letter is dated January 7, 1842. He returned without any financial
success, and obtained employment for a time in a commission-house on the
levee. The proprietor found some fault one day, and Judge Clemens walked
out of the premises. On his way home he stopped in a general store, kept
by a man named Sehns, to make some purchases. When he asked that these
be placed on account, Selms hesitated. Judge Clemens laid down a five-
dollar gold piece, the last money he possessed in the world, took the
goods, and never entered the place again.
When Jane Clemens reproached him for having made the trip to Tennessee,
at a cost of two hundred dollars, so badly needed at this time, he only
replied gently that he had gone for what he believed to be the best.
"I am not able to dig in the streets," he added, and Orion, who records
"I can see yet the hopeless expression of his face."
During a former period of depression, such as this, death had come into
the Clemens home. It came again now. Little Benjamin, a sensitive,
amiable boy of ten, one day sickened, and died within a week, May 12,
1842. He was a favorite child and his death was a terrible blow. Little
Sam long remembered the picture of his parents' grief; and Orion recalls
that they kissed each other, something hitherto unknown.
Judge Clemens went back to his law and judicial practice. Mrs. Clemens
decided to take a few boarders. Orion, by this time seventeen and a very
good journeyman printer, obtained a place in St. Louis to aid in the
The tide of fortune having touched low-water mark, the usual gentle stage
of improvement set in. Times grew better in Hannibal after those first
two or three years; legal fees became larger and more frequent. Within
another two years judge Clemens appears to have been in fairly hopeful
circumstances again--able at least to invest some money in silkworm
culture and lose it, also to buy a piano for Pamela, and to build a
modest house on the Hill Street property, which a rich St. Louis cousin,
James Clemens, had preserved for him. It was the house which is known
today as the "Mark Twain Home."--['This house, in 1911, was bought by
Mr. and Mrs. George A. Mahan, and presented to Hannibal for a memorial
museum.]--Near it, toward the corner of Main Street, was his office,
and here he dispensed law and justice in a manner which, if it did not
bring him affluence, at least won for him the respect of the entire
community. One example will serve:
Next to his office was a stone-cutter's shop. One day the proprietor,
Dave Atkinson, got into a muss with one "Fighting" MacDonald, and there
was a tremendous racket. Judge Clemens ran out and found the men down,
punishing each other on the pavement.
"I command the peace!" he shouted, as he came up to them.
No one paid the least attention.
"I command the peace!" he shouted again, still louder, but with no
A stone-cutter's mallet lay there, handy. Judge Clemens seized it and,
leaning over the combatants, gave the upper one, MacDonald, a smart blow
on the head.
"I command the peace!" he said, for the third time, and struck a
considerably smarter blow.
That settled it. The second blow was of the sort that made MacDonald
roll over, and peace ensued. Judge Clemens haled both men into his
court, fined them, and collected his fee. Such enterprise in the cause
of justice deserved prompt reward.
DAYS OF EDUCATION
The Clemens family had made one or two moves since its arrival in
Hannibal, but the identity of these temporary residences and the period
of occupation of each can no longer be established. Mark Twain once
"In 1843 my father caught me in a lie. It is not this fact that gives me
the date, but the house we lived in. We were there only a year."
We may believe it was the active result of that lie that fixed his memory
of the place, for his father seldom punished him. When he did, it was a
thorough and satisfactory performance.
It was about the period of moving into the new house (1844) that the Tom
Sawyer days--that is to say, the boyhood of Samuel Clemens--may be said
to have begun. Up to that time he was just Little Sam, a child--wild,
and mischievous, often exasperating, but still a child--a delicate little
lad to be worried over, mothered, or spanked and put to bed. Now, at
nine, he had acquired health, with a sturdy ability to look out for
himself, as boys will, in a community like that, especially where the
family is rather larger than the income and there is still a younger
child to claim a mother's protecting care. So "Sam," as they now called
him, "grew up" at nine, and was full of knowledge for his years. Not
that he was old in spirit or manner--he was never that, even to his
death--but he had learned a great number of things, mostly of a kind not
acquired at school.
They were not always of a pleasant kind; they were likely to be of a kind
startling to a boy, even terrifying. Once Little Sam--he was still
Little Sam, then--saw an old man shot down on the main street, at
noonday. He saw them carry him home, lay him on the bed, and spread on
his breast an open family Bible which looked as heavy as an anvil. He
though, if he could only drag that great burden away, the poor, old dying
man would not breathe so heavily. He saw a young emigrant stabbed with a
bowie-knife by a drunken comrade, and noted the spurt of life-blood that
followed; he saw two young men try to kill their uncle, one holding him
while the other snapped repeatedly an Allen revolver which failed to go
off. Then there was the drunken rowdy who proposed to raid the
"Welshman's" house one dark threatening night--he saw that, too. A widow
and her one daughter lived there, and the ruffian woke the whole village
with his coarse challenges and obscenities. Sam Clemens and a boon
companion, John Briggs, went up there to look and listen. The man was at
the gate, and the warren were invisible in the shadow of the dark porch.
The boys heard the elder woman's voice warning the man that she had a
loaded gun, and that she would kill him if he stayed where he was. He
replied with a ribald tirade, and she warned that she would count ten-
that if he remained a second longer she would fire. She began slowly and
counted up to five, with him laughing and jeering. At six he grew
silent, but he did not go. She counted on: seven--eight--nine--The boys
watching from the dark roadside felt their hearts stop. There was a long
pause, then the final count, followed a second later by a gush of flame.
The man dropped, his breast riddled. At the same instant the
thunderstorm that had been gathering broke loose. The boys fled wildly,
believing that Satan himself had arrived to claim the lost soul.
Many such instances happened in a town like that in those days. And
there were events incident to slavery. He saw a slave struck down and
killed with a piece of slag for a trifling offense. He saw an
abolitionist attacked by a mob, and they would have lynched him had not a
Methodist minister defended him on a plea that he must be crazy. He did
not remember, in later years, that he had ever seen a slave auction, but
"I am suspicious that it is because the thing was a commonplace
spectacle, and not an uncommon or impressive one. I do vividly remember
seeing a dozen black men and women chained together lying in a group on
the pavement, waiting shipment to a Southern slave-market. They had the
saddest faces I ever saw."
It is not surprising that a boy would gather a store of human knowledge
amid such happenings as these. They were wild, disturbing things. They
got into his dreams and made him fearful when he woke in the middle of
the night. He did not then regard them as an education. In some vague
way he set them down as warnings, or punishments, designed to give him a
taste for a better life. He felt that it was his own conscience that
made these things torture him. That was his mother's idea, and he had a
high respect for her moral opinions, also for her courage. Among other
things, he had seen her one day defy a vicious devil of a Corsican--a
common terror in the town-who was chasing his grown daughter with a heavy
rope in his hand, declaring he would wear it out on her. Cautious
citizens got out of her way, but Jane Clemens opened her door wide to the
refugee, and then, instead of rushing in and closing it, spread her arms
across it, barring the way. The man swore and threatened her with the
rope, but she did not flinch or show any sign of fear. She stood there
and shamed him and derided him and defied him until he gave up the rope
and slunk off, crestfallen and conquered. Any one who could do that must
have a perfect conscience, Sam thought. In the fearsome darkness he
would say his prayers, especially when a thunderstorm was coming, and vow
to begin a better life in the morning. He detested Sunday-school as much
as day-school, and once Orion, who was moral and religious, had
threatened to drag him there by the collar; but as the thunder got louder
Sam decided that he loved Sunday-school and would go the next Sunday
without being invited.
Fortunately there were pleasanter things than these. There were picnics
sometimes, and ferry-boat excursions. Once there was a great Fourth-of-
July celebration at which it was said a real Revolutionary soldier was to
be present. Some one had discovered him living alone seven or eight
miles in the country. But this feature proved a disappointment; for when
the day came and he was triumphantly brought in he turned out to be a
Hessian, and was allowed to walk home.
The hills and woods around Hannibal where, with his playmates, he roamed
almost at will were never disappointing. There was the cave with its
marvels; there was Bear Creek, where, after repeated accidents, he had
learned to swim. It had cost him heavily to learn to swim. He had seen
two playmates drown; also, time and again he had, himself, been dragged
ashore more dead than alive, once by a slave-girl, another time by a
slaveman--Neal Champ, of the Pavey Hotel. In the end he had conquered;
he could swim better than any boy in town of his age.
It was the river that meant more to him than all the rest. Its charm was
permanent. It was the path of adventure, the gateway to the world. The
river with its islands, its great slow-moving rafts, its marvelous
steamboats that were like fairyland, its stately current swinging to the
sea! He would sit by it for hours and dream. He would venture out on it
in a surreptitiously borrowed boat when he was barely strong enough to
lift an oar out of the water. He learned to know all its moods and
phases. He felt its kinship. In some occult way he may have known it as
his prototype--that resistless tide of life with its ever-changing sweep,
its shifting shores, its depths, its shadows, its gorgeous sunset hues,
its solemn and tranquil entrance to the sea.
His hunger for the life aboard the steamers became a passion. To be even
the humblest employee of one of those floating enchantments would be
enough; to be an officer would be to enter heaven; to be a pilot was to
be a god.
"You can hardly imagine what it meant," he reflected once, "to a boy in
those days, shut in as we were, to see those steamboats pass up and down,
and never to take a trip on them."
He had reached the mature age of nine when he could endure this no
longer. One day, when the big packet came down and stopped at Hannibal,
he slipped aboard and crept under one of the boats on the upper deck.
Presently the signal-bells rang, the steamboat backed away and swung into
midstream; he was really going at last. He crept from beneath the boat
and sat looking out over the water and enjoying the scenery. Then it
began to rain--a terrific downpour. He crept back under the boat, but
his legs were outside, and one of the crew saw him. So he was taken down
into the cabin and at the next stop set ashore. It was the town of
Louisiana, and there were Lampton relatives there who took him home.
Jane Clemens declared that his father had got to take him in hand; which
he did, doubtless impressing the adventure on him in the usual way.
These were all educational things; then there was always the farm, where
entertainment was no longer a matter of girl-plays and swings, with a
colored nurse following about, but of manlier sports with his older boy
cousins, who had a gun and went hunting with the men for squirrels and
partridges by day, for coons and possums by night. Sometimes the little
boy had followed the hunters all night long and returned with them
through the sparkling and fragrant morning fresh, hungry, and triumphant
just in time for breakfast.
So it is no wonder that at nine he was no longer "Little Sam," but Sam
Clemens, quite mature and self-dependent, with a wide knowledge of men
and things and a variety of accomplishments. He had even learned to
smoke--a little--out there on the farm, and had tried tobacco-chewing,
though that was a failure. He had been stung to this effort by a big
girl at a school which, with his cousin Puss, he sometimes briefly
"Do you use terbacker?" the big girl had asked, meaning did he chew it.
"No," he said, abashed at the confession.
"Haw!" she cried to the other scholars; "here's a boy that can't chaw
Degraded and ashamed, he tried to correct his fault, but it only made him
very ill; and he did not try again.
He had also acquired the use of certain strong, expressive words, and
used them, sometimes, when his mother was safely distant. He had an
impression that she would "skin him alive" if she heard him swear. His
education had doubtful spots in it, but it had provided wisdom.
He was not a particularly attractive lad. He was not tall for his years,
and his head was somewhat too large for his body. He had a "great ruck"
of light, sandy hair which he plastered down to keep it from curling;
keen blue-gray eyes, and rather large features. Still, he had a fair,
delicate complexion, when it was not blackened by grime or tan; a gentle,
winning manner; a smile that, with his slow, measured way of speaking,
made him a favorite with his companions. He did not speak much, and his
mental attainments were not highly regarded; but, for some reason,
whenever he did speak every playmate in hearing stopped whatever he was
doing and listened. Perhaps it would be a plan for a new game or lark;
perhaps it was something droll; perhaps it was just a commonplace remark
that his peculiar drawl made amusing. Whatever it was, they considered
it worth while. His mother always referred to his slow fashion of
speaking as "Sammy's long talk." Her own speech was still more
deliberate, but she seemed not to notice it. Henry--a much handsomer lad
and regarded as far more promising--did not have it. He was a lovable,
obedient little fellow whom the mischievous Sam took delight in teasing.
For this and other reasons the latter's punishments were frequent enough,
perhaps not always deserved. Sometimes he charged his mother with
partiality. He would say:
"Yes, no matter what it is, I am always the one to get punished"; and his
mother would answer:
"Well, Sam, if you didn't deserve it for that, you did for something
Henry Clemens became the Sid of Tom Sawyer, though Henry was in every way
a finer character than Sid. His brother Sam always loved him, and fought
for him oftener than with him.
With the death of Benjamin Clemens, Henry and Sam were naturally drawn
much closer together, though Sam could seldom resist the temptation of
tormenting Henry. A schoolmate, George Butler (he was a nephew of
General Butler and afterward fought bravely in the Civil War), had a
little blue suit with a leather belt to match, and was the envy of all.
Mrs. Clemens finally made Sam and Henry suits of blue cotton velvet, and
the next Sunday, after various services were over, the two sauntered
about, shedding glory for a time, finally going for a stroll in the
woods. They walked along properly enough, at first, then just ahead Sam
spied the stump of a newly cut tree, and with a wild whooping impulse
took a running leap over it. There were splinters on the stump where the
tree had broken away, but he cleared them neatly. Henry wanted to match
the performance, but was afraid to try, so Sam dared him. He kept daring
him until Henry was goaded to the attempt. He cleared the stump, but the
highest splinters caught the slack of his little blue trousers, and the
cloth gave way. He escaped injury, but the precious trousers were
damaged almost beyond repair. Sam, with a boy's heartlessness, was
fairly rolling on the ground with laughter at Henry's appearance.
"Cotton-tail rabbit!" he shouted. "Cotton-tail rabbit!" while Henry,
weeping, set out for home by a circuitous and unfrequented road. Let us
hope, if there was punishment for this mishap, that it fell in the proper
These two brothers were of widely different temperament. Henry, even as
a little boy, was sturdy, industrious, and dependable. Sam was volatile
and elusive; his industry of an erratic kind. Once his father set him to
work with a hatchet to remove some plaster. He hacked at it for a time
well enough, then lay down on the floor of the room and threw his hatchet
at such areas of the plaster as were not in easy reach. Henry would have
worked steadily at a task like that until the last bit was removed and
the room swept clean.
The home incidents in 'Tom Sawyer', most of them, really happened. Sam
Clemens did clod Henry for getting him into trouble about the colored
thread with which he sewed his shirt when he came home from swimming; he
did inveigle a lot of boys into whitewashing, a fence for him; he did
give Pain-killer to Peter, the cat. There was a cholera scare that year,
and Pain-killer was regarded as a preventive. Sam had been ordered to
take it liberally, and perhaps thought Peter too should be safeguarded.
As for escaping punishment for his misdeeds in the manner described in
that book, this was a daily matter, and the methods adapted themselves to
the conditions. In the introduction to Tom Sawyer Mark Twain confesses
to the general truth of the history, and to the reality of its
characters. "Huck Finn was drawn from life," he tells us. "Tom Sawyer
also, but not from an individual--he is a combination of the
characteristics of three boys whom I knew."
The three boys were--himself, chiefly, and in a lesser degree John Briggs
and Will Bowen. John Briggs was also the original of Joe Harper in that
book. As for Huck Finn, his original was Tom Blankenship, neither
elaborated nor qualified.
There were several of the Blankenships: there was old Ben, the father,
who had succeeded "General" Gains as the town drunkard; young Ben, the
eldest son--a hard case with certain good traits; and Tom--that is to
say, Huck--who was just as he is described in Tom Sawyer: a ruin of rags,
a river-rat, an irresponsible bit of human drift, kind of heart and
possessing that priceless boon, absolute unaccountability of conduct to
any living soul. He could came and go as he chose; he never had to work
or go to school; he could do all things, good or bad, that the other boys
longed to do and were forbidden. He represented to them the very
embodiment of liberty, and his general knowledge of important matters,
such as fishing, hunting, trapping, and all manner of signs and spells
and hoodoos and incantations, made him immensely valuable as a companion.
The fact that his society was prohibited gave it a vastly added charm.
The Blankenships picked up a precarious living fishing and hunting, and
lived at first in a miserable house of bark, under a tree, but later
moved into quite a pretentious building back of the new Clemens home on
Hill Street. It was really an old barn of a place--poor and ramshackle
even then; but now, more than sixty years later, a part of it is still
standing. The siding of the part that stands is of black walnut, which
must have been very plentiful in that long-ago time. Old drunken Ben
Blankenship never dreamed that pieces of his house would be carried off
as relics because of the literary fame of his son Tom--a fame founded on
irresponsibility and inconsequence. Orion Clemens, who was concerned
with missionary work about this time, undertook to improve the
Blankenships spiritually. Sam adopted them, outright, and took them to
his heart. He was likely to be there at any hour of the day, and he and
Tom had cat-call signals at night which would bring him out on the back
single-story roof, and down a little arbor and flight of steps, to the
group of boon companions which, besides Tom, included John Briggs, the
Bowen boys, Will Pitts, and one or two other congenial spirits. They
were not vicious boys; they were not really bad boys; they were only
mischievous, fun-loving boys-thoughtless, and rather disregardful of the
comforts and the rights of others.
TOM SAWYER'S BAND
They ranged from Holliday's Hill on the north to the Cave on the south,
and over the fields and through all the woods about. They navigated.
the river from Turtle Island to Glasscock's Island (now Pearl, or Tom
Sawyer's Island), and far below; they penetrated the wilderness of the
Illinois shore. They could run like wild turkeys and swim like ducks;
they could handle a boat as if born in one. No orchard or melon patch
was entirely safe from them; no dog or slave patrol so vigilant that they
did not sooner or later elude it. They borrowed boats when their owners
were not present. Once when they found this too much trouble, they
decided to own a boat, and one Sunday gave a certain borrowed craft a
coat of red paint (formerly it had been green), and secluded it for a
season up Bear Creek. They borrowed the paint also, and the brush,
though they carefully returned these the same evening about nightfall, so
the painter could have them Monday morning. Tom Blankenship rigged up a
sail for the new craft, and Sam Clemens named it Cecilia, after which
they didn't need to borrow boats any more, though the owner of it did;
and he sometimes used to observe as he saw it pass that, if it had been
any other color but red, he would have sworn it was his.
Some of their expeditions were innocent enough. They often cruised up to
Turtle Island, about two miles above Hannibal, and spent the day
feasting. You could have loaded a car with turtles and their eggs up
there, and there were quantities of mussels and plenty of fish. Fishing
and swimming were their chief pastimes, with general marauding for
adventure. Where the railroad-bridge now ends on the Missouri side was
their favorite swimming-hole--that and along Bear Creek, a secluded
limpid water with special interests of its own. Sometimes at evening
they swam across to Glasscock's Island--the rendezvous of Tom Sawyer's
"Black Avengers" and the hiding-place of Huck and Nigger Jim; then, when
they had frolicked on the sand-bar at the head of the island for an hour
or more, they would swim back in the dusk, a distance of half a mile,
breasting the strong, steady Mississippi current without exhaustion or
fear. They could swim all day, likely enough, those graceless young
scamps. Once--though this was considerably later, when he was sixteen--
Sam Clemens swam across to the Illinois side, and then turned and swam
back again without landing, a distance of at least two miles, as he had
to go. He was seized with a cramp on the return trip. His legs became
useless, and he was obliged to make the remaining distance with his arms.
It was a hardy life they led, and it is not recorded that they ever did
any serious damage, though they narrowly missed it sometimes.
One of their Sunday pastimes was to climb Holliday's Hill and roll down
big stones, to frighten the people who were driving to church.
Holliday's Hill above the road was steep; a stone once started would go
plunging and leaping down and bound across the road with the deadly
swiftness of a twelve-inch shell. The boys would get a stone poised,
then wait until they saw a team approaching, and, calculating the
distance, would give it a start. Dropping down behind the bushes, they
would watch the dramatic effect upon the church-goers as the great
missile shot across the road a few yards before them. This was Homeric
sport, but they carried it too far. Stones that had a habit of getting
loose so numerously on Sundays and so rarely on other days invited
suspicion, and the "Patterollers" (river patrol--a kind of police of
those days) were put on the watch. So the boys found other diversions
until the Patterollers did not watch any more; then they planned a grand
coup that would eclipse anything before attempted in the stone-rolling
A rock about the size of an omnibus was lying up there, in a good
position to go down hill, once, started. They decided it would be a
glorious thing to see that great boulder go smashing down, a hundred
yards or so in front of some unsuspecting and peaceful-minded church-
goer. Quarrymen were getting out rock not far away, and left their picks
and shovels over Sundays. The boys borrowed these, and went to work to
undermine the big stone. It was a heavier job than they had counted on,
but they worked faithfully, Sunday after Sunday. If their parents had
wanted them to work like that, they would have thought they were being
Finally one Sunday, while they were digging, it suddenly got loose and
started down. They were not quite ready for it. Nobody was coming but
an old colored man in a cart, so it was going to be wasted. It was not
quite wasted, however. They had planned for a thrilling result; and
there was thrill enough while it lasted. In the first place, the stone
nearly caught Will Bowen when it started. John Briggs had just that
moment quit digging and handed Will the pick. Will was about to step
into the excavation when Sam Clemens, who was already there, leaped out
with a yell:
"Look out, boys, she's coming!"
She came. The huge stone kept to the ground at first, then, gathering a
wild momentum, it went bounding into the air. About half-way down the
hill it struck a tree several inches through and cut it clean off. This
turned its course a little, and the negro in the cart, who heard the
noise, saw it come crashing in his direction and made a wild effort to
whip up his horse. It was also headed toward a cooper-shop across the
road. The boys watched it with growing interest. It made longer leaps
with every bound, and whenever it struck the fragments the dust would
fly. They were certain it would demolish the negro and destroy the
cooper-shop. The shop was empty, it being Sunday, but the rest of the
catastrophe would invite close investigation, with results. They wanted
to fly, but they could not move until they saw the rock land. It was
making mighty leaps now, and the terrified negro had managed to get
directly in its path. They stood holding their breath, their mouths
open. Then suddenly they could hardly believe their eyes; the boulder
struck a projection a distance above the road, and with a mighty bound
sailed clear over the negro and his mule and landed in the soft dirt
beyond-only a fragment striking the shop, damaging but not wrecking it.
Half buried in the ground, that boulder lay there for nearly forty years;
then it was blasted up for milling purposes. It was the last rock the
boys ever rolled down. They began to suspect that the sport was not
Sometimes the boys needed money, which was not easy to get in those days.
On one occasion of this sort, Tom Blankenship had the skin of a coon he
had captured, which represented the only capital in the crowd. At
Selms's store on Wild Cat corner the coonskin would bring ten cents, but
that was not enough. They arranged a plan which would make it pay a good
deal more than that. Selins's window was open, it being summer-time, and
his pile of pelts was pretty handy. Huck--that is to say, Tom--went in
the front door and sold the skin for ten cents to Selms, who tossed it
back on the pile. Tom came back with the money and after a reasonable
period went around to the open window, crawled in, got the coonskin, and
sold it to Selms again. He did this several times that afternoon; then
John Pierce, Selins's clerk, said:
"Look here, Selms, there is something wrong about this. That boy has
been selling us coonskins all the afternoon."
Selms went to his pile of pelts. There were several sheepskins and some
cowhides, but only one coonskin--the one he had that moment bought.
Selms himself used to tell this story as a great joke.
Perhaps it is not adding to Mark Twain's reputation to say that the boy
Sam Clemens--a pretty small boy, a good deal less than twelve at this
time--was the leader of this unhallowed band; yet any other record would
be less than historic. If the band had a leader, it was he. They were
always ready to listen to him--they would even stop fishing to do that--
and to follow his projects. They looked to him for ideas and
organization, whether the undertaking was to be real or make-believe.
When they played "Bandit" or "Pirate" or "Indian," Sam Clemens was always
chief; when they became real raiders it is recorded that he was no less
distinguished. Like Tom Sawyer, he loved the glare and trappings of
leadership. When the Christian Sons of Temperance came along with a
regalia, and a red sash that carried with it rank and the privilege of
inventing pass-words, the gaud of these things got into his eyes, and he
gave up smoking (which he did rather gingerly) and swearing (which he did
only under heavy excitement), also liquor (though he had never tasted it
yet), and marched with the newly washed and pure in heart for a full
month--a month of splendid leadership and servitude. Then even the red
sash could not hold him in bondage. He looked up Tom Blankenship and
"Say, Tom, I'm blamed tired of this! Let's go somewhere and smoke!"
Which must have been a good deal of a sacrifice, for the uniform was a
Limelight and the center of the stage was a passion of Sam Clemens's
boyhood, a love of the spectacular that never wholly died. It seems
almost a pity that in those far-off barefoot old days he could not have
looked down the years to a time when, with the world at his feet,
venerable Oxford should clothe him in a scarlet gown.
He could not by any chance have dreamed of that stately honor. His
ambitions did not lie in the direction of mental achievement. It is true
that now and then, on Friday at school, he read a composition, one of
which--a personal burlesque on certain older boys--came near resulting in
bodily damage. But any literary ambition he may have had in those days
was a fleeting thing. His permanent dream was to be a pirate, or a
pilot, or a bandit, or a trapper-scout; something gorgeous and active,
where his word--his nod, even--constituted sufficient law. The river
kept the pilot ambition always fresh, and the cave supplied a background
for those other things.
The cave was an enduring and substantial joy. It was a real cave, not
merely a hole, but a subterranean marvel of deep passages and vaulted
chambers that led away into bluffs and far down into the earth's black
silences, even below the river, some said. For Sam Clemens the cave had
a fascination that never faded. Other localities and diversions might
pall, but any mention of the cave found him always eager and ready for
the three-mile walk or pull that brought them to its mystic door. With
its long corridors, its royal chambers hung with stalactites, its remote
hiding-places, its possibilities as the home of a gallant outlaw band, it
contained everything that a romantic boy could love or long for. In Tom
Sawyer Indian Joe dies in the cave. He did not die there in real life,
but was lost there once, and was living on bats when they found him. He
was a dissolute reprobate, and when, one night, he did die there came up
a thunder-storm so terrific that Sam Clemens at home and in bed was
certain that Satan had come in person for the half-breed's wicked soul.
He covered his head and said his prayers industriously, in the fear that
the evil one might conclude to save another trip by taking him along,
The treasure-digging adventure in the book had a foundation in fact.
There was a tradition concerning some French trappers who long before had
established a trading-post two miles above Hannibal, on what is called
the "bay." It is said that, while one of these trappers was out hunting,
Indians made a raid on the post and massacred the others. The hunter on
returning found his comrades killed and scalped, but the Indians had
failed to find the treasure which was buried in a chest. He left it
there, swam across to Illinois, and made his way to St. Louis, where he
told of the massacre and the burial of the, chest of gold. Then he
started to raise a party to go back for it, but was taken sick and died.
Later some men came up from St. Louis looking for the chest. They did
not find it, but they told the circumstances, and afterward a good many
people tried to find the gold.
Tom Blankenship one morning came to Sam Clemens and John Briggs and said
he was going to dig up the treasure. He said he had dreamed just where
it was, and said if they would go with him and dig he would divide up.
The boys had great faith in dreams, especially Tom's dreams. Tom's
unlimited freedom gave him a large importance in their eyes. The dreams
of a boy like that were pretty sure to mean something. They followed Tom
to the place with some shovels and a pick, and he showed them where to
dig. Then he sat down under the shade of a papaw-tree and gave orders.
They dug nearly all day. Now and then they stopped to rest, and maybe to
wonder a little why Tom didn't dig some himself; but, of course, he had
done the dreaming, which entitled him to an equal share.
They did not find it that day, and when they went back next morning they
took two long iron rods; these they would push and drive into the ground
until they struck something hard. Then they would dig down to see what
it was, but it never turned out to be money. That night the boys
declared they would not dig any more. But Tom had another dream. He
dreamed the gold was exactly under the, little papaw-tree. This sounded
so circumstantial that they went back and dug another day. It was hot
weather too, August, and that night they were nearly dead. Even Tom gave
it up, then. He said there was something about the way they dug, but he
never offered to do any digging himself.
This differs considerably from the digging incident in the book, but it
gives us an idea of the respect the boys had for the ragamuffin original
of Huckleberry Finn.--[Much of the detail in this chapter was furnished
to the writer by John Briggs shortly before his death in 1907.]--Tom
Blankenship's brother, Ben, was also drawn upon for that creation, at
least so far as one important phase of Huck's character is concerned. He
was considerably older, as well as more disreputable, than Tom. He was
inclined to torment the boys by tying knots in their clothes when they
went swimming, or by throwing mud at them when they wanted to come out,
and they had no deep love for him. But somewhere in Ben Blankenship
there was a fine generous strain of humanity that provided Mark Twain
with that immortal episode in the story of Huck Finn--in sheltering the
This is the real story:
A slave ran off from Monroe County, Missouri, and got across the river
into Illinois. Ben used to fish and hunt over there in the swamps, and
one day found him. It was considered a most worthy act in those days to
return a runaway slave; in fact, it was a crime not to do it. Besides,
there was for this one a reward of fifty dollars, a fortune to ragged
outcast Ben Blankenship. That money and the honor he could acquire must
have been tempting to the waif, but it did not outweigh his human
sympathy. Instead of giving him up and claiming the reward, Ben kept the
runaway over there in the marshes all summer. The negro would fish and
Ben would carry him scraps of other food. Then, by and by, it leaked
out. Some wood-choppers went on a hunt for the fugitive, and chased him
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