Mark Twain, Business Man: Letters and Memoirs


As A boy in Hannibal, Missouri, Sam Clemens had a love of deviltry that often landed him in hot water. He was also a tall talker. These two attributes — his cussedness and his storytelling — are among the strongest impressions of those who knew him when he was young. When Sam began his training as a river pilot, he made his home with his sister, Pamela Clemens Moffett, in St. Louis. Pamela’s daughter Annie was five years old at the time. She promptly fell in love with her uncle Sam, and her recollections of him then and throughout the rest of his life are a treasure-trove from which the Atlantic will draw in this and subsequent issues. When Annie grew up she married Charles L. Webster, who for many years was to be Mark Twain’s publisher, man of business, and close friend. Annie’s recollections, the hundreds of Mark Twain letters to her husband, and the earlier Clemens family letters which she inherited have been skillfully edited for the Atlantic by her son, Samuel Charles Webster. None oi this correspondence has been published before. In later installments we shall see the middle-aged Mark Twain, as extravagant a business man as ever lived. — THE EDITOR

MARK TWAIN was over seventy when he dictated to Albert Bigelow Paine an account of his experiences as a publisher. This was supposed to be the first true autobiography ever written. But once Mark Twain started talking, his imagination look him in hand and no facts were allowed to cloud the document. He never reread it and he did not want it referred to again.

In this account, published in 1940 as a chapter of Mark Twain in Eruption, he attributes the failure of Charles L. Webster & Company entirely to my father, Charles L. Webster. Fortunately I have an almost day to day record of the activities of that publishing house, one of the foremost in America, up to the time my father retired; a record in Mark Twain’s own letters— some four hundred and fifty of them. Mark Twain’s self-portrait, drawn twenty years later, pictured him as a troubled Milquetoast dominated by an incompetent tyrant. The letters he wrote at the time make him seem much more like a dynamo happily unloading surplus electricity on the helpless head of a man he had already overcharged.

On my mother’s side the Mark Twain connection started, according to him, with her birthday, and according to her, three days later. He claimed she was born on July 4, whereas she and the family Bible and her mother said it was July 1. He said he had to stop for a Fourth of July parade when he was on his way to see his new niece. And as for the Bible, he never did consider it a trustworthy record of any scientific or historical event.

My mother, Annie Moffett Webster, who is now nearly ninety-two, was the daughter of his sister Pamela (pronounced Pa-me-la); she grew up in St. Louis in the same house with him and was devoted to him. He was like an elder brother to her. She is the only person living who remembers him as a young man.

Copyright 1944, by the Mark Twain Company.

Copyright 1944, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

A brief summary of Sam Clemens’s early life will explain the family relationship. he was born in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835, but grew up in Hannibal about thirty miles away. He was born in Florida because the family made a last-minute change of plans, according to a story his mother told Annie, her granddaughter. They had intended to settle in St. Louis at the end of their long journey from Tennessee, but when they got there they were horrified to hear that a Negro boy had recently been lynched by burning. Moreover, there was cholera in the city. So they moved on to Florida, where their relatives, John Quarles and his wife, were already settled. The wife was Patsy, the adored younger sister of Jane Lampton Clemens, Mark Twain’s mother.

If they had settled in St. Louis, Uncle Sam’s background would have been quite different, and Huckleberry Finn might never have been written. The poor Negro boy had an influence on American literature.

John Marshall Clemens, father of Mark Twain, came originally from Virginia. When he was twentyfive John Clemens married Jane Lampton, who was in a hurry to get away from her stepmother. She had never known any form of restraint and did not like it. All through her life she put stepmothers in the same category as Yankees.

John Clemens was always hard up. He was elected justice of the peace in Hannibal, but his judgeship paid more in honor than in salary, and very little in either, and the Tennessee lands that he had banked on most of his life could not be turned into cash even at a low price. Yet from letters of the time, we find him spending his money on learning the principles of grammar from a “course of twenty oral lectures” and sending on the information to his oldest son, Orion, who was learning the printing trade in St. Louis. No doubt Sam, who was nine years old, was getting the same information at first hand from his father. Though Mark Twain got his humor, his temperament, and his red hair from the Lamptons, his accuracy in workmanship came from his father. His accuracy in facts he never got from anybody.

The Tennessee land that Mark Twain was to make famous is the subject of a letter written by John Clemens. This land consisted of 75,000 acres of virgin soil which unfortunately remained virgin for a good many years, although it had everything. John Clemens had paid nearly a cent an acre for this land many years before, and the letter shows that he

was asking twenty, which ’would have been a good profit even for those days. Mark Twain in The Gilded Age gives the impression that the family was always hanging on to the land. It was the other way around; the land was hanging on to them. They were always trying to get rid of it. Here is the record of one attempt: —

HANNIBAL, Mo. 10th Sept. 1846.
Messrs. Meredith & McCullough have placed in my hands your letter to them of Augt. 24th 1846, in which you make certain propositions for the sale of my Tennessee lands.
Although the terms you propose are not so favourable as I hoped to obtain — yet, being persuaded that they are proposed in a spirit of candour and fairness, as the best that in your opinion can be afforded — and impelled, as I am, by circumstances to resort to the avails of those lands rather than continue to hold them an indefinite length of time — I have concluded to accede to those terms.
Your propositions are so plain and direct that I have no fear of misapprehending them, or that we shall ever disagree as to their import; but, that you may be assured of a perfect, agreement in our understanding of them, I will here state, substantially, the terms proposed in your letter, as I understand them, and to which I agree, to wit.
That you are to have the exclusive sale of my Tennessee lands for two years on t he terms proposed. —That you will be at the expense of agencies and advertising as in your letter mentioned; and will make sales as speedily and advantageously as possible.
That you shall not sell any of the lands for less than twenty cents per acre. — That I shall receive first five cents per acre of the purchase money, and secondly I shall receive one half of what you sell for, over and above five cents per acre — so that I shall get at the least, twelve & half cents per acre —and for lands sold at fifty cents per acre, I shall get twenty-seven & half cents per acre, &c.
That you shall be entitled to half the amount received over and above five cents per acre — and, that as you make sales of the land I shall execute to the purchasers Warrantee deeds. — This is the substance, as I understand it, of all that is material in your propositions. But if this statement is, in any particular, defective, we may still recur to the letter — for I mean to accede to the terms therein stated. Should you at any time desire any further information that it may be in my power to give respecting the lands, it shall be promptly furnished.
Yours very respectfully

P. S. Messrs Meredith & McCullough will not henceforth be considered as having anything to do with this matter — as I could not afford to divide with them what I shall get, and they do not expect it. J.M.C.


JUDGE CLEMENS died in March of the following year, when Sam was eleven years old. After that Sam convinced his mother that school was not for him. No doubt she could see that though school was developing his ingenuity, it was not accomplishing its main purpose. He spent most of his time making visionary plans for getting even with his teachers.

Jane Clemens was a strong-minded woman, and experimental. If school did not work she would try something else. So she apprenticed him to a printer. He came home to meals when he was hungry or homesick.

The other Clemens children had taken school in an amenable spirit. Except for Sam, they were a tractable family. Orion (pronounced O-rioti) was the oldest son. It was unusual to name a child for the constellation under which he was born, but not an unheard-of practice. We can be pretty certain that the idea was his mother’s. To the end of her days anything mystical interested her, and when she was an old lady in Fredonia, New York, there was nothing she enjoyed more than the visits from her physician, Dr. Brown, who was a Spiritualist. Jane Clemens always answered his questions about her ailments as fast as possible so that she would have time to hear the latest news from the spirit world.

Ten years older than Sam, Orion exasperated Sam throughout his life in spite of, or because of, the bond of affection between them, Pamela, my grandmother, came next, eight years older than Sam—old enough to remember something of the life in remote Tennessee before the family moved to Missouri. What she remembered most vividly was a fascinating aspect of school life that most of us never experienced — the strange grunting that rose through the floor from the jugs that sought shelter underneath the seat of learning.

Two other children, Margaret and Benjamin, died during Sam’s childhood, the latter when Sam was old enough to feel the loss keenly. Sam came after Benjamin, and after Sam came Henry. Sam was named for his grandfather, and probably also his uncle. His middle name, Langhorne, according to family tradition, came from a friend of his father who had been most kind to him in Virginia.

For the first three years of Sam Clemens’s life he was probably the spoiled darling of the household. Then along came Henry. Sam was advanced to the ranks and became of secondary importance. It was when Sam was four years old, and Henry eleven months, that the well-known incident of Sam’s accidental abandonment occurred. The family left Hannibal to pay a visit at John Quarles’s farm at Florida. Jane Clemens took the baby and the older children, and Judge Clemens was to have taken Sam. Through a misunderstanding Sam was left behind in the Hannibal house and not rescued till dusk, crying and hungry, after having been alone all day. Psychoanalysts might feel that this experience of abandonment would leave a deep mark in the unconscious of a supplanted baby. They might find significance in the fact that Sam’s great affection for his gentle younger brother went along with a desire to jibe at him.

For the three years following the death of Judge Clemens, Sam continued to learn the printing business. Orion worked at a printing plant in St. Louis, sending the family three dollars weekly, and Pamela gave piano and guitar lessons. Mr. Paine says: “It was a hard task for the girl, for she was timid and not over-strong; but she was resolute and patient and won success, Pamela Clemens was a noble character and deserves a fuller history than can be afforded in this work.”

The letter to Orion that follows is written partly by Pamela and partly by her mother. Sam, coming back from the printing house for an evening at home, must often have seen the picture of Pamela and her scholars that Jane Clemens describes. I think he used this memory when he wrote The Mysterious Stranger,

HANNIBAL Jan. 29, 1850
We received a few days since your letter enclosing $300 [$3.00?] for which accept our thanks and assurances that it will not be at all in our way. I suppose you have not been attacked with the yellow fever, that by the way is raging so here that it is feared it will carry off nearly half the inhabitants, if it does [not] indeed depopulate the town. In consequence of it many of our best citizens intend starting to California so soon as they can make preparations, among whom are Charles Bowes Mr. Moss Mr. Shoots Mr. Melon and others too numerous to mention. Nearly all those who went from here last spring have written back that they are making large fortunes in California. . . .
(The letter is continued by Pamela’s mother.)

January the 30th 1850
DEAR SON The last Journal of Mr. Buchannan to day the next one will be Rayman and Buckhannan they have put it down to $1.00 pr year weekly. I have not heard much said about it. I have heard nothing favourable about it. Sam says little Joe told him his mother said she would rather have Orion than Sam Rayman. 1 think about the time you come up they will be through and you can get it your own way. Now I don’t want you to have it. I think if you could get some of the printers in St. Louis that are doing well to buy the of [i.e., “office”] and give you an intrust, let you come up and take charge of the office, get some old person to assist a little in editing merely to have their name. Robert Buchannan will have the office in his hands and I think will be sick of his bargin by that time. If you could have a partner in St. Louis to help you, I could board the hands and you could have Henry. Sam says he can’t leave Ament, he intends to make him pay wages and you would want him to wait, he can’t credit any. . . .
Since I commenced writing an invitation came for Pamela to spend the evening out but she is in the dining room giving Margaret Blesser a lesson on the Guitar, Sarah Fuqua and I are in the parlour, Sarah is practicing and I writing. . . .
Tomorrow evening the music scollars meet again. Margaret Saxton Sarah Fuqua and Mary Buckhannan all play dewets, the scoliars are improving very fast. When you come I think they will play well. . . .

The more I try to analyze Jane Clemens the more dazed I get. There is a tendency in her letters to leave the sentences sliding off into space, to omit essential words, and to let the letters fall where they will. She never seemed to look over a letter and correct it. Once, about twenty-five years after this period, in a letter to Uncle Sam, she meant to say “Kiss Susy for me” and instead wrote “ Kill Susy for me.” She told Pamela what a funny mistake she had made. “But you didn’t send it, did you?” asked Pamela, naturally shocked. “Oh, yes,” her mother answered calmly, “Sam will understand what I meant.”

Sam’s answer came promptly. He W’rote: “I said to Livy ’It is a hard thing to ask of loving parents, but Ma is getting old and her slightest whim must be our law’; so I called in Downey, and Livy and I held the child with the tears streaming down our faces while he sawed her head off.” His mother’s reaction to that letter was outraged indignation at the method by which the child had been dispatched. “Sawed her head off!” she kept saying. “Sawed her head off!”


ORION secured ownership of the Hannibal Journal and Sam and Henry went to work for him. But Orion never seemed to be able to make things go, and in 1853 when Sam wns seventeen he broke away and went forth to see the world. He made for the World’s Fair which was being held in New York; then he went to Philadelphia and got a job as printer on the Philadelphia Inquirer. Like most travelers, he found that foreign parts had been both overand under-estimated. He liked Philadelphia and the Philadelphians “amazingly,” but he had this to say in a letter home: —

“I always thought the eastern people were patterns of uprightness, but I never saw so many whiskey-swilling, God-despising heathens as I find in this part of the country. I believe I am the only person in the Inquirer office that does not drink. One young fellow makes $18 for a few weeks and gets on a grand ‘bender’ and spends every cent it.”

After he left Philadelphia, Sam went back to New York for a brief visit and then returned to Missouri. Orion had married Mollie Stotts in 1854 and with his mother and brother Henry had moved Keokuk, Mollie’s home, where he had opened shop for commercial printing. Sam worked for Orion for five dollars a week and board. Why he accepted these ruinous wages I can’t guess. Maybe he thought it was his duty to help Orion out.

Sam could be noble, but he didn’t enjoy a sense virtue as much as he hated frustration. He stuck it out in Keokuk for a year, but Orion’s business methods irked him, as usual, and the urge to move on grew stronger as he approached his twenty-first birthday. South America at this time was being played up as a promised land, offering the combination of adventure and wealth that always ignited Sam Clemens. On August 5, 1856, he wrote to his brother Henry what his mother later called “scolding letter.” At this time Annie, Pamela’s four-year-old daughter, was visiting her Keokuk relatives, who had a new baby of their own. This was not just the atmosphere to suit an adventurous young man of twenty.

MY DEAR BROTHER: Annie is well. Got your letter postmarked 5th about two hours ago — came d-d quick (to be a little profane). . . . I can start to New York and go to South America! (This reminds me that Annie is well). Although Orion talks grandly about furnishing me with fifty or a hundred dollars in six weeks, I am not such an ass as to think he will ret ain the same opinion such an eternity of time — in all probability he will be entirely out of the notion by that time. Though I don’t like to attribute selfish motives to him, you could see yourself that his object in favoring my wishes was that I might take all the hell of pioneering in a foreign land, and then when everything was placed on a firm basis, and beyond all risk, he could follow himself. But you would soon discover, when the time arrived, that he couldn’t leave Mollie and that “love of a baby”. With these facts before my eyes, (I must not forget to say that Annie is well) I could not depend upon Orion for ten dollars. So I have “ feelers ” out in several directions, and have already asked for a hundred dollars from one source (keep it to yourself). . . .
. . . Emma Graham has gone home and Bettie Barrett has gone up the country. I may as well remark that Annie is well. I spent Sunday afternoon up there and brought away a big bouquet of Ete’s d-d stinking flowers. (I mean no disrespect to her or her taste.) Any single one of the lot smells worse than a Sevastopol “stink-pot”. Between you and I, I believe that the secret of Ma’s willingness to allow me to go to South America lies in the fact that she is afraid I am going to get married! Success to the hallucination, . . .
Write soon.
Your brother,

P.S. I will just add that Annie is WELL.

To earn the money to take him to South America, Sam went to Cincinnati and spent the winter of 1856-1857 working as a printer. There he associated with a Scotchman named Macfarlane, a vast reader and a philosopher. Nothing else is known about him, but he left his mark on Sam.

In April Sam started out for South America, by way of New Orleans, on the steamer Paul Jones. Fate was one of the passengers. His old love of the river came back to him, and before he reached New Orleans he had struck up a bargain with the veteran pilot, Horace Bixby, to take him on as a cub pilot and teach him the river for five hundred dollars — one hundred down and the rest after he had begun to draw pay.

There was only one member of the family at that time who could produce a hundred dollars; so when he reached St. Louis on his maiden trip Sam went at once to his brother-in-law, William A. Moffett, a well-to-do produce merchant, and borrowed the money.

Says my mother: “One of my earliest recollections is the stir caused by the announcement that Uncle Sam had decided to become a pilot. It seemed to me as if everyone was running up and down stairs and sitting on the steps to talk over the news. Piloting in those days was a dramatic and well-paid profession, and in a river town it was a great honor to have a pilot in the family.”

The Moffetts decided to move into a larger house so that Sam, and presently his brother Henry, as well as their mother, could live with them. It seemed to Annie, a child just short of five years old, as if they moved instantly, but there must have been some interval of preparation. She has a vivid memory of moving to the new house on Locust Street, a few blocks away, because as she was walking between her uncle Sam and her grandmother, carrying what she probably considered the family’s most valuable possession, the current cat, the cat very naturally added to the excitement by getting away, and Annie recaptured it by the tail. Her uncle Sam was delighted by the whole performance.


BY AUGUST Sam seems to have been up the river as far as Keokuk, and again as far as Cairo, below St. Louis. There are no family letters of the river period, probably because Sam would usually reach home as soon as a letter. But we have a letter to Belle Stotts, sister of Orion’s wife. The reason it is among our family letters is that after Orion’s death Mollie sent on to us all the letters that Sam had sent to Orion, and included this one to her sister. When Albert Bigelow Paine was compiling Mark Twain’s letters we let him use all the family letters, and they constitute most of the material in the early part of his book. This one seems to have been overlooked — or perhaps Mr. Paine was wary of including it. Almost any time Uncle Sam mentioned any female in a letter, Mr. Paine would duck.

The Ella Creel referred to in the letter was a cousin. Colonel William Casey of Kentucky had three daughters: Jane Paxton, Polly Creel, and Peggy Lampton — the second name in each case being the husband’s name. Peggy Lampton was the mother of Jane Lampton Clemens. Ella Creel’s mother was a first cousin of Mark Twain’s mother.

CAIRO, Saturday, Aug. 11 [1857]
DEAR BELLE: Confound me if I wouldn’t eat up half a dozen of you small girls if I just had the merest shadow of a chance this morning. Here I am, now about 3 weeks out from Keokuk, and 2 from St. Louis, and yet I have not heard a word from you —and may not possibly, for 2 or 3 more weeks, as we shall go no further up the river at present, but turn back from here and go to New Orleans.
Just go on, though — go on. I have had a pleasant trip, and there is consolation in that. I quarreled with the mate, and “made it up” with him; and I quarreled with him again, and made it up again; and quarreled and “made up” the third time — and I have got the shell of half a watermelon by me now, ready to drop on his head as soon as he comes out of the “Texas,” — which will produce quarrel No. 4, if I have made my calculations properly.
Yes, and I have disobeyed the Captain’s orders over and over again, which produced a “state of feeling” in his breast, much to my satisfaction — (bless your soul I always keep the law on my side, you see, when the Chief Officer is concerned,) and I am ready now to quarrel with anybody in the world that can’t whip me. Ah me, I feel as strong as a yoke of oxen this morning, and nothing could afford me greater pleasure than a pitched battle with you three girls. It can’t be, though. However, I’ll “fix” the mate when he comes out.
Belle, you ought to see the letter I wrote last night for a friend of mine. He is fearfully love-sick and he feared he should die, if he didn’t “pour out his soul” {he said — “stomach,” I should say,) in an epistolary form to the “being,” (Ella Creel knows what that word means) who has entrapped his virgin affections. Poor devil—he said “Make the letter sweet — fill it full of love,” and I did, as sure as you live. But if the dose don’t turn the young lady inside out she must certainly be endowed with the stomach of an ostrich.
But did you girls see the Aurora Borealis last night (Friday?) It was very beautiful, but it did not last long. I reckon you girls had been home from choirmeeting about an hour when I saw it — or perhaps you were out on the bluff—Somebody remarked “Snag ahead!” and I lost the finest part of the sight.
Now, Belle, can’t you write to me right away, to “Care of Eclipse Wharf Boat, Memphis, Tenn?” Of course you can, if you will. I sent you 2 pieces of instrumental music and a song to Ella Creel from Vicksburgh — did they arrive safely?
Oh, confound Cairo.
Good-bye my dear

For the next four years Sam’s home was the Moffett house in St. Louis. As far as Annie was concerned, he would appear unexpectedly and leave in the same way without warning. His arrival was a big moment. He always brought her some kind of present. She especially remembers a white Canton flannel rabbit with pink eyes, and a book about a mouse that lived in a cake — he ate a hole for himself and moved in. The memory of that book has never faded.

“In 1858 or ‘59,” my mother recalls, “a traveling portrait painter named Brady came to St. Louis and our whole family was painted. There are six portraits — my grandmother, mother, father, Uncle Sam, Uncle Henry, and myself. It was after Uncle Henry’s death in the explosion of the river boat Pennsylvania, and his portrait was copied from a daguerreotype. I can remember Grandma curling my hair when I was to sit for my portrait. I also remember that the portraits cost fifty dollars apiece. The portrait of Uncle Sam is not now in the collection. Aunt Mollie, Uncle Orion’s wife, gave it to the Keokuk library a good many years later. My grandmother was only fifty-five at this time, but her portrait looks older because of the cap she is wearing.

“Uncle Sam at this time was a young man of about twenty-four. He wore sideburns and had chestnut hair, I should have said, though some call it red. It was very curly. My grandmother said that as a boy he would soak his hair in a tub of water and plaster it down to try to make it straight.

“I was very fond of Uncle Sam,” she says, “but I did not think he was the genius of the family. I remember when I was about eight I thought he needed a little religious instruction, and started to tell him the story of Moses. Uncle Sam was strangely obtuse, and finally I went to my father and said, ‘Papa, Uncle Orion has good sense and Mama has good sense, but I don’t think Uncle Sain has good sense. I told him the story of Moses and the bullrushes and he said he knew Moses very well, that he kept a secondhand store on Market Street. I tried very hard to explain that it wasn’t the Moses I meant, but he just couldn’t understand.’

“When I think of Uncle Sam during those early years it is always as a singer. He would sit at the piano and play and sing by the hour, the same song over and over: —

There was an old horse
And his name was Jerusalem.
He went to Jerusalem,
He came from Jerusalem.
Ain’t I glad I’m out of the wilderness!
Oh! Bang!

“He seems to have been flattered by my appreciation of this effort because he began to call me ‘Old Horse.’ It was ‘Old Horse, get me that book’ or ‘Old Horse, run up to my room for a paper.’

“As I grew a little older it must have struck me that to be called ‘Old Horse’ even by Uncle Sam was not suitable. My cousin, Jenny Clemens, Uncle Orion’s daughter, who was visiting us, had also been insulted by our uncle. He had taken to calling her ‘ trundle bed trash,’ a current term for the extra children who had to sleep in little trundle beds. Jenny and I sat on the steps of our house and invented what has now come to be knowm as a sitdown strike. We resolved to run no more errands for Uncle Sam until he stopped calling us by these names. I do not remember how the strike was adjusted. He probably knew how to make us forget our resolutions.

“I remember being taken to a lecture on mesmerism, and trying out my own mesmeric powers on Uncle Sam afterwards. He proved an extraordinary subject. No sooner had I made passes in front of him than he went into a rigid trance, under which he did just what I told him to, and made the most astonishing remarks. I boasted about my powers, but had no success with other members of the family or the children in the neighborhood.

“In later years I asked Grandma if she noticed any difference between Sam and the other children. She said yes — when he had gone anywhere, if only downtown, when he came home all the children would gather around to hear what he had to tell. He knew even then how to make things interesting. She also said that when she saw a crowd running she didn’t ask what was the matter, but ‘What has Sam done now?’

“When Sam was about three he was distressed because he had ‘no tail behind [behind].’ He said, ‘The dog has a tail behind, the cat has a tail behind, and I haven’t any tail behind at all at all.’ His uncle (I think it was his uncle Hannibal) made a tail of paper and pinned it on his little dress and he went around very proud and happy.”

According to Mark Twain his mother had the gift of telling a joke with a straight face, but my mother thinks that very often she didn’t see the joke herself. My mother writes: “Once in her old age when she had gone back to visit Kentucky she heard two men behind her in the train discussing whether Mark Twain was born in Hannibal. She asked the man who was with her to tell them that he was born in Florida. One of the men was unconvinced, That was too much for Grandma. She turned around and said, ‘I’m his mother. I ought to know. I was there!”’


ON account of the paper shortage we skip Uncle Sam’s reaction to the Civil War, which was so emotional and so full of contradictions that it dazed my mother, a child of nine. It leaves me dazed, too. The war forced Uncle Sam to leave the river, and he went West with Orion, who had been appointed Secretary of the Territory of Nevada. Sam immediately came down with the gold fever.

It was a nervous time for him. Rich veins were being discovered on all sides. Men would come in one day without a cent, and the next be rolling in riches — or rolling, anyway. Naturally Sam caught fire. He was not a gambler in the strict sense of the word. He didn’t bet on races, play cards for large stakes, or even play the market to any extent. But he enjoyed taking chances where adventure was involved. And he tried to reinforce optimism with judgment. In one of his letters to Orion he wrote: “I have 75 feet in a spur of the ‘Antelope’, which promises nothing save that it is an offshoot from a good family— and I am aristocrat enough to attach some importance to that sort of thing.”

Orion of course caught the craze, and Sam appointed himself Orion’s financial adviser. Uncle Sam had gone to Nevada as Orion’s secretary, but somewhere along the road the roles seem to have changed around. The following letter doesn’t quite show the restraint of a man writing to his boss: —

ESMERALDA, May 17. [1862]
. . . Yes, I have received the $100 — much obliged. Stand by, now, for we shall let a contract on the Flyaway to-morrow, which will cost about $200 — sink a shaft 25 feet deep.
No, let the Humboldt ground alone, but keep yourself posted about the rise of property in Dayton, so that you may know what you are about when you start in to sell those lots. And post yourself about Carson property, too — so that you can sell your town lot for all it is worth. The cards are the Flyaway and the Monitor — and we will stake the whole pile on them. If they win, we are all right — if they lose, I am busted. . . .
Never send anything by that d-d stage again, that can come by MAIL, as I have said before. The pkg. envelopes cost me 50 cents. . . .
I hope Barstow will leave the “S.L.C.” off my Gate City letters, in case he publishes them. Put my Enterprise letters in the scrap book — but send no extracts from them East. . . .
Remember me cordially to Capt. Nye, and ask the old cuss how “Bill” is. If I wasn’t so glad to hear that the “old man” is back again, and if I hadn’t been swearing so much to-day that I am about run out, I would give him a dose of slang just because I am at a safe distance and can do so with impunity. He be d - d anyhow — just for a starter. Ask Tom to give my dear love to Miss P. —she with the long curls, out ihere under the hill.
Yr. Bro.

The reason he wanted to leave the “S.L.C.” off his letters to the Keokuk paper was to avoid repercussions from home. “Ma and Pamela seem to be down on my last to the Gate City,'’ he had written to Orion several weeks earlier.

Orion may have been difficult to work with, but he does seem to have had some practical ideas. In May, Sam had written him: “Do you own in those water powers? If so — well, I recollect you do — it is bully. Isn’t confiscating ten miles of one of God Almighty’s rivers coming it rather strong perhaps? The more the better, though, if the thing can be stood.” For a minute here Uncle Sam was letting his conscience get the better of him. But scruples over water power were unheard of at this time. He wavered, but he didn’t waver long.

In the middle of the first page of a letter Uncle Sam wrote to his family from Nevada in May, 1862, is a tiny flake of gold. In a postscript to the letter he wrote: “‘Prospect’ from ’M.H.’ledge sticking to

piece of yellow paper in the middle of this page.” This gold has always stuck to the letter. It is a symbol of the fabulous riches Uncle Sam dreamed of when he was down with the gold fever.

His failure as a miner did not shake Sam’s confidence in his own judgment. Years later his letters from Europe show that he still had that same buoyant self-confidence. Why he always picked the losers I haven’t been quite able to make out. The only money he ever made was from writing and lecturing and the large profits of Charles L. Webster & Company, which he promptly lost.

When he worked for other people, Mark Twain made good at everything he undertook. He was a good printer, a good pilot, and a good newspaperman. He might have made a good President. But making both ends meet was not his line. When he tried to run a newspaper in Buffalo, he says himself he lost $20,000 in one year.1

Jane Clemens’s wish — expressed in a letter dated October 12, 1862—that Sam would give up gold mining and go into newspaper work had been granted even before she wrote the letter. He had already accepted an offer from the Virginia City [Nevada] Enterprise.

Reporters on the Enterprise were real people who were allowed to express their opinions and let out their emotions. They were more like our columnists today. They would pitch into their fellow reporters, write up absurd hoaxes seriously, and have a good time generally. This was just up Sam’s alley. His side line in reporting became getting rid of grudges that bothered him. Very soon an official named Sewell, a coroner at Humboldt, was incautious enough to incur Sam’s wrath by withholding news from the reporters in an officious and irritating manner. Sam got back at him by inventing the story of the petrified man, which was copied in other newspapers and spread all over the country.

The petrified man was supposed to be a prehistoric man whose body had been found in a cave. Sam wrote him up as a great discovery, and only a careful reading of the text would show that the petrified man was found in a sitting posture, thumbing his nose. Sewell, he reported, was holding an inquest over the deceased to try to find out how he had died, and whether anybody could be held accountable. The “Hon. Secretary” to whom he tells the story is of course Orion.

VIRGINIA CITY, N.T., Oct. 21, 1862.
To THE HON. THE SEC’Y. AND DEPUTY SEC. N.T. . . . Did you see that squib of mine headed “Petrified Man?” It is an unmitigated lie, made from whole cloth. I got it up to worry Sewell. Every day, I send him some California paper containing it; moreover, I am getting things so arranged that he will soon begin to receive letters from all parts of the country, purporting to come from scientific men, asking for further information concerning the wonderful stone man. If I had plenty of time, I would worry the life out of the poor cuss, [remainder missing]


UNCLE Sam would go to a good deal of trouble to teach anyone a lesson. As a small boy in Hannibal, when he had to stop something he wanted to do to escort some young lady callers home, he went out of his way to lead them through the Jimson weeds, which was very unpleasant going. In Nevada he went to considerable pains to cure his mother of the habit of writing on any sheets of paper that happened to be handy. She had no particular feeling for uniformity. In a letter from Virginia City he wrote: “Ma, write on whole letter sheets. Is paper scarce in St. Louis? ” To reinforce his orders he sent her a letter composed of papers of every size, color, and shape, including wrapping paper, the scraps all jumbled together and stuffed into an envelope. She spent several indignant hours sorting it out.

But the mere joy of teasing his mother was enough, even without a reform motive. Another time a letter came marked in each corner “Private,” “Strictly Confidential,” and so on. The family were all on edge to hear what it was about, but Grandma Clemens refused even to open it in their presence. She marched upstairs to read it — but in a minute she was down again, blazing with wrath. It was written in Chinese.

The Chinese letter has disappeared, but a postscript to one of his Western letters reads: “Beck Jolly will read Ma’s Chinese letter for her.” This was probably a further hoax. Beck Jolly was the pilot of the river boat John J. Roe.

His mother could always be trusted to rise to the bait. Once she said to Sam: “What do you think Annie said? She thought goobers grew on trees!” (Goobers are peanuts.) lie responded at once, “Isn’t that silly? Everyone knows they grow on bushes.” “Bushes!” she cried. “Why — of course they don’t grow on bushes!” — and she was off, with Sam adding just enough argument to keep the fire blazing.

Mark Twain’s Virginia City days were among his happiest. He was leading an easy life, doing just the work he enjoyed, a friend of everybody in town, or an enemy. But occasionally he would get a little irritated when some other vagabond struck it rich, as the next letter shows: —

VIRGINIA, Feb. 16, 1853.
I suppose I ought to write, but I hardly know what to write about. I am not in a very good humor, to-night. I wanted to rush down and take some comfort for a few days, in San Francisco, but there is no one here, now, to take my place. They let me go, about the first of the month, to stay twenty-four hours in Carson, and I staid a week. Perhaps they haven’t much confidence in me now. If they have, I am proud to say it is misplaced. I am very well satisfied here. They pay me six dollars a day, and I make 50 per cent profit by only doing three dollars’ worth of work. . . .
Well, I have no news to report, unless it will interest you to know that they “struck it rich” in the “Burnside” ledge last night. The stock was worth ten dollars a foot this morning. It sells at a hundred to-night. I don’t own in it, Madam, though I might have owned several hundred feet of it yesterday, you know, & I assume I would, if I had known they were going to “strike it.” None of us are prophets, though. However, I take an absorbing delight in the stock market. I love to watch the prices go up. My time will come after a while, & then I’ll rob somebody. I pick up a foot or two occasionally for lying about somebody’s mine. I shall sell out one of these days, when I catch a susceptible emigrant. If Orion writes you a crazy letter about the “Emma Gold & Silver Mining Company,” pay no attention to it. It is rich, but he owns very little stock in it. If he gets an eighth share in the adjoining company though let him blow. It will be all right. He may never get it, however.
What do you show my letters for? Can’t you let me tell a lie occasionally to keep my hand in for the public, without exposing me? . . .
Uncle Sam brought back some nice-looking stock in various gold and silver mines. I remember taking some of the revenue stamps off them in later years, so they were not a total loss.
From Virginia City Uncle Sam went to California as a reporter on the San Francisco Call. Here he got the California fever, which is harder to get rid of than the gold fever. But San Francisco was a much larger town than Virginia City. In Virginia City, where everybody knew everybody else, he could give his writing a personal touch that was not possible in San Francisco. From being a local celebrity he dropped to a place of secondary importance. However, when The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County was published in 1865, he became known all over the country.
In one of its chapters he gives a dissertation on the perfect letter and uses one from my mother as a good example. She tells him that her cat has had more kittens than Lottie’s and she named one after Uncle Sam but she thinks it’s going to die, that she gave Miss Dooscnberry one of his pictures but she said she didn’t want it, and similar pieces of news. He said it was the only letter he ever got from the States that had any information in it. My mother thinks he doctored it a little, but Aunt Mollie told her she really did write him some such letter.
After a while he drifted away from the Call, and the Sacramento Union sent him on a trip to the Sandwich Islands. In a letter of May 4, 1866, published in the Letters, he tells how a spirited colt “let out with his left” [in the Letters the word “leg” is inserted!] and kicked him across a ten-acre lot when he was all ready to take a girl to a party. The unpublished part of the letter goes on: —
... If I hadn’t had a considerable weakness for her she might have gone to the devil under the circumstances, but as it was, I went after her. I got even with the colt; it was a very rough road, but I got there at 5 minutes past 5, & then had to quit, my leg hurt me so. She was ready and her horse was saddled, but we didn’t go. But I had a jolly time — played cribbage nearly all night.
If I were worth even $5,000 I would try to marry that plantation — but as it is, I resign myself to a long & useful bachelordom as cheerfully as I may. I had a pleasant time of it at Ulupalakua Plantation. It is 3,000 feet above the level of the sea (in plain sight from here, 25 miles;) two pretty & accomplished girls in the family & the plantation yields an income of $60,000 a year — chance for some enterprising scrub. . . .
Yrs aff’y


THE next two pieces of unpublished matter from letters of the period require a little background of family history to make them clear. Fate began to twist the thread back in Hannibal days. My mother writes in her family story: “One Hannibal story that both my mother and grandmother told me many times was of an election for mayor. One of the candidates furnished free whiskey, and practically every man in town was drunk. Something in the whiskey made them all very silly. Uncle Orion came home and the family were all gathered around. He was very foolish. Sam would exclaim, ‘Why Orion! Why Orion!’ He enjoyed it at first, but after a while he said, ‘Orion, don’t be such a fool.’”

I do not know what they put in whiskey in those days, but the “something in the whiskey” which my mother says affected Orion also affected the family fortunes. The next day Orion went out and signed the pledge, and with his natural conscientiousness he took it seriously. It was the pledge that ruined the family. At one time Orion refused to sell the Tennessee land to some winegrowers, and this fine-edged piece of scrupulousness was to Sam like soap to Old Faithful. From Honolulu, on May 22, 1866, he wrote to Orion’s wife, Mollie: —

... It is Orion’s duty to attend to that land, & after shutting me out of my attempt to sell it (for which I shall never entirely forgive him,) if he lets it be sold for taxes, all his religion will not wipe out the sin. It is no use to quote Scripture to me, Mollie, — I am in poverty & exile now because of Orion’s religious scruples. Religion & poverty cannot go together. I am satisfied Orion will eventually save himself, but in doing it he will damn the balance of the family. I want no such religion. He has got a duty to perform by us —will he perform it?

I have crept into the old subject again, & opened the old sore afresh that cankers within me. It has got into many letters to you & I have burned them. But it is no use disguising it — I always feel bitter & malignant when I think of Ma & Pamela grieving at our absence & the land going to the dogs when I could have sold it & been at home now, instead of drifting about the outskirts of the world, battling for bread. If I were in the east, now, I could stop the publication of a piratical book which has stolen some of my sketches. . . .

Yr Bro


Shortly afterward, on June 21, he mentions the subject in a letter to the family. His mother was still the Supreme Court. He begins his letter: “I expect I have made Orion mad, but I don’t care a cent. He wrote me to go home and sell the Tenn. land & I wrote him to go to thunder and take care of it himself. I tried to sell it once and he broke up the trade. . . .”

Perhaps if the Clemens family had sold the Tennessee land for a large sum Uncle Sam would have sidetracked his writing. The moral lesson to be drawn from this whole episode is confused. Was the family fortune made because there was “something” in the whiskey?

The Tennessee land finally drifted away somehow. Perhaps there was a flood. My mother remembers getting $250 from it for a quitclaim deed. I think I remember signing some papers about it myself. I know Uncle Sam wouldn’t allow it to be mentioned after a while. Anyway, the family has always been careful since then to see that there is no water or other foreign substance in the whiskey.

  1. I don’t believe it. S. C. W.