Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name of Mark Twain, was an American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer. He was called “the father of American literature,” by William Faulkner and noted to “unhesitatingly be called ‘all-American’” partly because of his famous novels that include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. However, there are many other interesting things about Mark Twain that you may not know.
Born on 30 November 1835, in Florida, Missouri, he was raised 39 miles away in the Missouri town of Hannibal. He related his boyhood in Life on the Mississippi and had great ambition to be a steamboat pilot as that position was considered the “grandest” position of any on the river. It took him more than two years to receive his license and he could not have been happier when he did.
Another interesting fact about him is how he acquired his pen name Mark Twain. “Mark twain” was a Mississippi River term that was commonly used as the leadman’s cry to indicate the second mark on the line that measured depth. It signified two fathoms (or twelve feet), which was a safe depth for riverboats and allowed them to avoid submerged dangers, such as reefs or rocks. He explained the name further in Life on the Mississippi when he referred to Horace E. Bixby, the grizzly old pilot who taught him how to navigate the river:
“The old gentleman was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the river, and sign them ‘MARK TWAIN,’ and give them to the ‘New Orleans Picayune.’ They related to the stage and condition of the river, and were accurate and valuable; and thus far, they contained no poison.”
Although Clemens may have adapted the penname Mark Twain, he did not use it until around 1863. That was when he was working as a reporter in the rough and tumble mining town of Virginia City, Nevada. There the penname supposedly first appeared in a February 1863 newspaper column for the Territorial Enterprise. It quickly caught on and before the end of that same year there were regular references to Mark Twain, such as the following that appeared in The Placer Herald in December:
“In his letter from Washoe to the Morning Call, ‘Mark Twain,’ the humorous, local of the Territorial Entirprise, says: ‘We average about four murders in the first degree a month, in Virginia, but we never convict anybody. The murder of Abel by his brother Cain, would rank as an eminently justifiable homicide up there in Storey county. When a man merely attempts to kill another, there, and fails in his object, our Police Judge handles him with pitiless severity. He has him instantly arrested, gives him some good advice, and requests him to leave the country. This has been found to have a very salutary effect. The criminal goes home and thinks the matter over profoundly, and concludes to stay with us. But he feels badly ― he feels very badly for days and days together.”
When a young boy, Clemens first sweetheart was Laura Hawkins. She lived across the street from him in Hannibal, Missouri. He embodied her childishness in the character of Becky Thatcher in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and he used her as a model for Laura Hawkins in the novel The Gilded Age. Of their relationship the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 1899:
“When a lad Mark Twain was evidently very fond of her, although he was not a boy given to seeking the society of girls. … The two children grew up together, together they went to Sunday school, and they made mud pies and built houses from blocks. When they became old enough, they went skating together on Bear Creek, and the boy patiently taught his little sweetheart to skate. He used to bring an old split-bottomed chair to the creek with him, and on it he would push the little girl along on the ice while the other boys guyed him. … In speaking of Mark Twain’s boyhood, she says that she recognizes many of his own boyhood pranks in the story of Tom Sawyer. The story of how Tom won the bibles in Sunday-school by swapping tickets is absolutely true.”
Four months before he began writing as Mark Twain, Clemens wrote an unsigned piece titled the “Petrified Man” that appeared on 4 October 1862 in the Territorial Enterprise, along with a companion piece that followed 1 November. The story was extremely popular but was in fact a hoax just like the petrified Cardiff Giant that was discovered a few years later in Cardiff, New York. In the case of Clemens’ petrified man, he claimed it was found in the mountains south of Gravelley Ford and stated:
“Every limb and feature of the stony mummy was perfect, not even excepting the left leg, which has evidently been a wooden one during the lifetime of the owner – which lifetime, by the way, came to a close about a century ago, in the opinion of a savan who has examined the defunct. The body was in a sitting posture, and leaning against a huge mass of croppings; the attitude was pensive, the right thumb resting against the side of the nose; the left thumb partially supported the chin, the fore-finger pressing the inner corner of the left eye and drawing it partly open; the right eye was closed, and the fingers of the right hand spread apart.”
He then declared that a local Humboldt City bureaucrat named Justice Sewell or Sowell, along with a crowd, went to the spot but none of them had any idea what the petrified man’s gesture meant. The Judge then ordered an inquest where the jury determined that the petrified man had died from “exposure.” Neighbors then decided to bury him but quickly learned that he was “glued” to the bedrock and the only way to loosen him was to “blast him” loose, something Judge Sewell refused to allow. So, according to Twain, there he remained unburied being visited by 300 or so of the curious over a five or six week period.
Twain’s story was false and included several geographical inaccuracies that he thought would be obvious to anyone familiar with the area. Instead local newspapers picked up the story and tales of Twain’s petrified man were soon being printed back east and “guilelessly glorified.” Historian Bruce Michelson maintains that Twain’s hoax allowed the author to ridicule not only the local politician Sewall but also mock the gullible public, who were quick to believe in a jeering, winking, thumb-nosing petrified man.
Although he might have perpetrated a hoax or two, Mark Twain was a forward-thinking man and known to be a big proponent of new inventions and technology. One invention he invested heavily in (spending $300,000, which in today’s inflated terms equals $9,000,000) was the Paige compositor. It was a typesetting machine developed by James W. Paige, a New York inventor.
Having been a former printer, Mark Twain understood the complexity of typesetting and saw the Paige compositor as way to speed up production. He therefore invested heavily and not only used the money he made from his book profits but also a large portion of his wife’s (Olivia Langdon Clemens) inheritance. Unfortunately, the Paige typesetting machine was not as precise as it should have been and because it was complex, prone to breakdowns, and needed to be continually adjusted, he never made a dime in profit. In fact, Twain’s investment in the Paige compositor brought him financial decline and ultimate bankruptcy (although he eventually paid all his creditors in full, despite his bankruptcy relieving him of having to do so.)
Mark Twain loved playing games, but billiards was reportedly his “chief delight.” He played it when he lived in Virginia City, Nevada. He also wrote several articles about billiards and what he thought of the game. His biographer Albert Bigelow Paine also played the game with him and stated:
“He was not an even-tempered player. When the game went steadily against him, he was likely to become critical, even fault-finding in his remarks. Then, presently, he would be seized with remorse and become over-gentle and attentive, placing the balls as I knocked them into the pockets, hurrying to render this service. … Once in a burst of exasperation he made such an onslaught on the balls that he landed one or two of them on the floor. I gathered them up, and we went on playing as if nothing had happened. … Presently he said: ‘This is a most amusing game. When you play badly it amuses me, and when I play badly and lose my temper it certainly must amuse you.’”
Besides liking billiards, Mark Twain was said to be a lover of cats. That was partly because he was described as “a pale, sickly boy who did a lot more thinking than was good for him.” Tabitha Greening, a cousin of his, reported that he used to visit her family’s farm every summer and bring his own cat. Of these times, she stated:
“When he arrived at the farm father would lift his big carpet bag out of the wagon and then would come Sam with a basket in his hand. This basket he would allow no one except himself to carry. In the basket would be his pet cat. This he had trained to sit beside him at the table. His cat always had very good manners, and Sam would feed it at intervals and not allow it to help itself or become impatient at the table. He would play contentedly with a cat for hours, and his cats were very fond of him and very patient when he tried to teach them tricks.”
Twain moved his family to Hartford, Connecticut, to be nearer his publisher and then arranged for the building of an unusual looking home. It was designed by architect Edward Tuckerman Potter and Twain and his family moved into in 1874. It was a distinctive American High Gothic style home described by the Los Angeles Evening Express in the following manner:
“Mark Twain’s house at Hartford is described as outlandishly rakish, with unexpected balconies jutting out at every turn, and unprovoked staircases running irregularly up the outside. The whole structure brick and wood, is painted the darkest Indian red, and has a sort of drawbridge in the rear … and a moat for the children to be occasionally rescued from.”
A correspondent of the Woonsocket Patriot also reported on Twain’s house stating:
“I defy any one with the faintest spark of humor in his composition, to refrain from a smile on taking a first view of this fine mansion. Not that it is so peculiar in its appearance, but it has an air about it of suppressed mirth … In front, facing the street, and the first thing the visitor encounters is the kitchen and servants’ department. ― Why did you have this peculiar arrangement?’ asked a friend of Mr. Clemens. ‘So that the servants could receive calls from their beaux in the street, and not be obliged to leave their work,’ was the reply. … From the bay-window in the parlor you have a beautiful view. Primeval oaks shade a spacious lawn; while from a side window you notice a little brook, at the foot of the slight eminence on which the house is built, bubbling and dancing along, and making the merriest of music. A rapid glance at the rooms as we pass through on our way up stairs, shows that everything is finished in the finest style. On the second floor we find sunny rooms, which seem to enchant you with their cheerfulness, and in the most unexpected places one comes upon the snuggest little balconies, perched under the wide eaves like so many swallows’ nests.”
Mark Twain was a great traveler. He visited Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, England, New Zealand, Australia, and many other places. However, the spot that most fascinated him was exotic India. He was sixty years old when he went there in 1895. He loved the country so much he wrote in his notebook in capital letters, “INDIA THE MARVELOUS” and he added, “So far as I am able to judge nothing has been left undone, either by man or Nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds. Where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile.” In addition, he expanded on a 35-mile railway trip down the steep mountain of Darjeeling:
“That was the most enjoyable time I have spent in the earth. For rousing, tingling, rapturous pleasure there is no holiday trip that approaches the bird-flight down the Himalayas in a handcar. It has no fault, no blemish, no lack, expect that there are only thirty-fives of it, instead of five hundred.”
Mark Twain was born on 30 November 1835. His arrival came shortly after the appearance of Halley’s Comet, a short-period comet visible from Earth every 75-76 years and the only short-period comet that is regularly visible to the naked eye on Earth and appears twice in a human lifetime. In Paine’s biography of him, he reported that Mark Twain said:
“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year , and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappoint of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unnacountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”
Twain’s prediction about Halley’s Comet proved accurate because he died the day after the comet made its closest approach to the Earth. It was a heart attack that killed him in Redding, Connecticut at 6:22pm on 21 April 1910. He had been reading one of his favorite books, Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution.
-  H. Claridge, ed., William Faulkner Critical Assessments 1 (East Sussex: Helm Information, 1999), p. 275.
-  H. Bloom, ed., Mark Twain (Facts On File, Incorporated, 2009), p. 105.
-  M. Twain, ed., Life on the Mississippi (London: Chatto & Windus, 1883), p. 446.
-  The Placer Herald, ““Mark Twain” on Murders,” December 5, 1863, p. 2.
-  St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Twainiana,” December 10, 1899, p. 52.
-  The Works of Mark Twain: Early Tales & Sketches Vol. 1 1851-1864 (University of California Press, 1797), p. 159.
-  St. Nicholas (New York: Scribner, 1916), p. 1081–82.
-  St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. 52.
-  Ibid.
-  Los Angeles Evening Express, August 3, 1874, p. 1.
-  Intelligencer Journal, “Mark Twain’s Residence,” August 27, 1874, p. 1.
-  A. B. Paine, Mark Twain, A Biography 4 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912), p. 1013.
-  A. B. Paine. 1912, p. 1012.
-  Harper’s Magazine 112 (New York City: Harper & Brothers, 1912), p. 931.