The Man Who Rode Halley’s Comet

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 disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: “Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together”  ~Samuel Clemens, 1909

 

Hannibal, Missouri – Hometown of Samuel Clemens

Born in Florida, Missouri in 1835 just 2 weeks after Halley’s Comet closest approach, Samuel Clemens was the 6th of 7 children born of Jane and John Marshall Clemens. Only four children would survive past childhood, his older brother and older sister, Orion and Pamela, and his younger sibling Henry. Though born in Florida, his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri (less than 30 miles away) when he was very young. It was growing up in Hannibal, the people, the place, the experiences, that would shape his most popular works: The adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 

A ‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read” 

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn

Samuel Clemens, of course, was more well known by the moniker MARK TWAIN. Twain, a pen name based on a unit of measurement in riverboating, was one of many that he used. Prior to settling on Mark Twain, he signed sketches as “Josh” and was often known as the humorist Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass.

A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.”

A tour through Hannibal today will lead you to many Mark Twain landmarks as the city has fully embraced itself as the home of the man William Faulkner called “the father of American Literature.” There still stands his childhood home, and even the fence that would be the inspiration to the infamous whitewashing scene in Tom Sawyer. 

Tom Sawyer’s Fence
Grab a brush, and get to work!

Just across the street you’ll find the home of Laura Hawkins; the inspiration for Becky Thatcher. One of the tiny homes that Tom Blankenship, Twain’s best friend and the basis of the character Huck Finn, has been restored and can be visited as well. 

Becky Thatcher’s Home

 

In ‘Huckleberry Finn’ I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly how he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as any boy had.”

Huckleberry Finn’s House
The home of Tom Blankenship (Huck Finn)

The museum in Hannibal offers a wonderful exhibit where you can walk through his most famous works. Including A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, Roughing It, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn. As well as a look at his time on the riverboats of the Mississippi; where he got the pen name we all know him by today. 

Mark Twain was the nom de plume of one Captain Isaiah Sellers, who used to write river news over it for the New Orleans Picayune. He died in 1863 and as he could no longer need that signature, I laid violent hands upon it without asking permission of the proprietor’s remains.”

The Origin of Mark Twain

Mark Twain was well traveled doing speaking lectures — that bordered upon what we know today as Stand-Up Comedy — around the world and everywhere within North America. Within the United States, he held residence at one time or another in Missouri, Nevada, California, Connecticut, and New York (where he and his wife are buried, side by side).

 

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

 

Travel is education.

It was due to his experiences growing up in a slave state in the pre-civil war era that shaped Mark Twain into the pro-emancipation, abolitionist that he was. Twain was also known to support the women’s suffrage movement and fought for worker’s rights. He also advocated for disability rights. Twain’s working partnerships and friends included people like Frederick Douglas, Helen Keller, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Prudence Crandall, William Dean Howell, among others. To further his own point about travel and bigotry Mark Twain’s opinions on Indigenous people, of various lands, grew more as he ventured around the world and saw the trauma left behind by imperial colonizers.

There are many humorous things in this world; among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.”

All right, then, I’ll go to hell.

He was Presbyterian, but was critical of organized religion in general, especially late in life. So much so, that his most critical writings were not published until well after his death.

“But who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most?” 

Besides being a writer, a miner (which he was no good at), a riverboat pilot, a speaker, and an activist, Twain was also an inventor. He shared a friendship with Nikola Tesla and was one of only a few people who ever spent extended time in Tesla’s lab. Twain would go on to patent a few inventions of his own including one in use today: The elastic hook closure for bras. A patent which he filed under “An Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments.” He had hope that it would do away with suspenders, which he hated. 

“…for the vest, pantaloons, or other garment upon which my strap is to be used.”

During the final year of his life he would write (dictate) his autobiography. The first edition was 736 pages long, but the notes were compiled by others and the order changed from which he recited it. It was not published in its intended, non-chronological form, until 2010 and became an unexpected hit, which put Samuel Clemens, a.k.a Mark Twain, in the very limited writer’s club of having a new bestselling book in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Mark Twain died in his home just one day after Halley’s Comet made its closest approach to the Earth in April of 1910. 

“The report of my death was an exaggeration.” 

Mark Twain’s Desk

After his death Mark Twain went on to make appearances in television and film including Star Trek, Touched By An Angel, Holmes & Watson, and Helen Keller: The Miracle Continues**

“It is no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”

 

He lived a legendary life. He grew, he learned, he observed the world and all its good and bad. He wrote much of it, and spoke on the rest. He was not a perfect man, but he lived an extraordinary life, riding a comet through history. 

Mark Twain reading to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn

“I don’t like to commit myself about heaven and hell – you see, I have friends in both places.”

Mark Twin on the Enterprise

**Disclaimer: Samuel Clemens may not have been the actual person portraying Mark Twain on screen.

 

“When in doubt, tell the truth.”

 

 

History from the Road
The Unsinkable Molly Brown

*”I am a daughter of adventure.”
– Margaret Brown, The Denver Post – August 1923*

Hannibal, Missouri. Photo Credit: writeontheroad.com

Hannibal, a small town located along the Mississippi River, in Northeastern Missouri is known for a few things. Most notable is that it is the hometown of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, but we will get back to him in a later post. 

Hannibal, the town, not the cannibal, is also the focus of a true crime documentary on Investigation Discovery about the disappearance of a young woman named Christina Whitaker. The documentary does not paint Hannibal as a pleasing picture. The seedy underbelly of the town is infested with drug abuse, sexual abuse, and apparently some shifty acting police officers. 

But today, I want to talk about some other bad behavior. This kind of bad behavior is what the late John Lewis would call Good Trouble. 

*”As long as they’re talking about me, I don’t care what they say.”
– Margaret Brown to a reporter – circa 1920″*

In Hannibal on July 18, 1867, John and Johanna Tobin named their little bundle of good trouble Margaret Tobin. Margaret was well educated in her childhood, and promptly put to work to help support her family once she reached her teenage years. 

Hannibal, MO. Photo Credit: writeontheroad.com
Margaret Brown childhood home. Photo Credit: writeontheroad.com

Upon reaching adulthood, Margaret followed her older siblings to Leadville, Colorado where she landed a job working in a department store. In Leadville, she met and fell in love with James Joseph Brown. In 1886, Margaret and J.J. were married. Margaret unashamedly admitted that she had dreamed of marrying a rich man, but silly ol’ love got in the way and ruined her plans of riches. Margaret and J.J. went on to have two children, Larry and Helen. 

Margaret and J.J. Brown. Photo credit: mollybrown.org

In 1893 Margaret’s dreams of having a wealthy husband finally came true. J.J. Brown had struck it rich in the mines near Leadville. The couple proceeded to build a mansion, and a summer home in the Denver area. 

The Brown Mansion. Pennsylvania Avenue, Denver, Colorado

Now that her dress pockets were lined with money, Margaret was finally able to do what she always dreamed of; philanthropy work. Margaret chartered the Denver Woman’s Club, whose mission was improving women’s lives with education, philanthropy, and the suffragist movement. During this time, with intention of upcoming travel, Margaret became well versed in the arts and languages of France, Russia, Germany, and Italy. 

Margaret led fundraisers for Denver’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which was completed in 1911. She worked with Colorado Judge Ben Lindsey to establish one of the United States’ first juvenile courts, which became the basis for the entire U.S. juvenile court system. 

In 1909, after 23 years of marriage, Margaret and J.J. quietly arranged a legal separation agreement. She would maintain occupation of the mansion and the summer home, while also receiving a monthly allowance, and J.J. would smile and hand it over. Margaret and J.J. would remain friends for the rest of their lives. 

In 1912 Margaret and her daughter, Helen, were traveling through France with the John Jacob Astor IV party – rich people doing rich people things. During this time Margaret got word that her eldest grandson had been stricken ill and she booked passage back to the states as soon as possible. Helen was supposed to travel with her, but decided to remain in France to continue her studies.  On the evening of April 10, 1912, Margaret was boarded as a first-class passenger on the RMS Titanic. Perhaps you have heard of it?

RMS Titanic. Photo Credit: history.com

The unsinkable Titanic sank early in the morning of April 15 after playing a losing game of chicken of the sea with an iceberg. Margaret was in her room reading when the collision took place, and was so engrossed in her novel that she wasn’t aware of any issues until a ship crewmember threw a life preserver through her cabin door and yelled at her to get to the lifeboats. 

Margaret spent the next hour assisting other passengers to lifeboats, until she was finally convinced to board one herself. Margaret was assigned to Lifeboat No. 6. Once aboard the lifeboat, Margaret would take it upon herself to help oar the boat away from the sinking behemoth. When it was safe to return, Margaret insisted Lifeboat No. 6 should return to the wreckage and find more people to rescue, as their boat wasn’t full. Quartermaster Robert Hichens denied her request insisting that drowning people would topple their lifeboat, and death would find them all. At one point, Margaret threatened the Quartermaster that she would throw him overboard either way. Whether or not No. 6 returned to help others is unclear, as history tells it both ways. 

After being rescued from the Atlantic by the RMS Carpathia, Margaret set to work organizing a survivor’s committee with other first-class survivors. Working with the committee, Margaret managed to raise over $10,000 for the first-, and second-class survivors before they reached New York. 

*”Thanks for the kind thoughts. Water was fine and swimming good. Neptune was exceedingly kind to me and I am now high and dry.” – Margaret Brown to her attorney after the sinking of the Titanic.* 

After surviving the sinking of the Titanic, Margaret Brown went on to run for office in Colorado in 1914, which was before it was even legal for women to vote. She dropped out of the race before the election so that she could travel back to France and work for the Committee for Devastated France during World War I, which consisted of rebuilding areas behind the front line and helping the French and American wounded soldiers. Once she came back to America, she went on to continue working for the rights of workers and women, children’s education and literacy, and history preservation. 

Margaret spent her last few years in New York working as a stage actress. She passed away, much quieter than she lived, in her sleep on October 26, 1932. After her death, Margaret was given the nickname the Unsinkable Molly Brown. 

 


For More Information

https://www.visithannibal.com/attractions/museums/molly-brown-birthplace-museum/

https://mollybrown.org/