Did the young man who later took the pen name Mark Twain pull a fast one on some Boston abolitionists?
The renowned Thoreau scholar Robert Sattelmeyer spotted an odd entry in the Boston Vigilance Committee’s accounting books and wondered: is that the Samuel Clemens, who grew up to be Mark Twain? The committee used most of its funds to help runaway slaves escape to freedom, in direct violation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. But in an unusual expenditure in September 1854, the radical abolitionists sent $25.50 to a Samuel Clemens for “passage from Missouri Penitentiary to Boston—he having been imprisoned there two years for aiding Fugitives to escape.”
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That Samuel Clemens was nineteen years old in 1854. He has recently returned to Missouri after a couple of unsuccessful years in New York and Philadelphia working as a journeyman printer. The period from early 1854 to the middle of 1855 is a relatively blank period in Clemens’s biography, but there is no evidence he had abolitionist sympathies. Quite the contrary, in fact: Clemens was then conventionally pro-slavery and often worked setting print for newspapers that heaped calumny on abolitionism. In a letter to his mother, Clemens called those working against slavery “infernal.”
So did Clemens scam the Committee in those heady days of sectional strife over slavery and abolitionism? “Certainly Clemens’s youthful scruples with regard to money were none the highest,” Sattelmeyer writes. And Clemens already had “experience as a writer, skill at literary impersonation, and penchant for hoaxes.”
Sattelmeyer continues: “The circumstances of Clemens’s life during that period, as well as both motive and opportunity being available to him, make it likely that the applicant was not what he declared but the perpetrator of a hoax.” Sattelmeyer knows that his argument remains conjectural: the only positive piece of evidence is the 1850 U.S. census for Missouri, which records only a single Samuel Clemens in the state. There’s also no record of a Samuel Clemens in the Missouri penitentiary.
Whatever the case may be, the real Clemens would go through what he called a “desouthernizing” as he met actual abolitionists and other liberals and radicals. Sattelmeyer writes that Clemens, as Mark Twain, would “frequently mention that he was unconscious of slavery’s evils in his youth and felt during his later years that the white race owed the black a tremendous debt.” Twain paid some of that debt himself, materially contributing to the education of a number of African Americans.
While Mark Twain’s most famous book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is still much argued over—is it racist or anti-racist?—this early incident of (potential) self-serving provides a fascinating window into a complicated character. Clemens/Twain was certainly a character, an early model of personal branding as celebrity, recognizable still today with his white mane and extravagant mustache. And Sattelmeyer’s archival detective work shows how much can remain unknowable in even a well-chronicled life.