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Samuel Clemens Con Artist

By Robert Sattelmeyer
9/18/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

Twain tapped his inner Tom Sawyer to defraud abolitionists.

In 1885 Samuel Clemens was at the height of his meteoric career. He had just published his masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, following a string of earlier bestsellers. His new publishing venture, Charles L. Webster & Co., had scored a major coup with the Civil War memoir everyone had been waiting for, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. He seemed a pillar of postwar political respectability, with a wife from a prominent Buffalo abolitionist family and a mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, where his neighbor was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the iconic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The only problem with this picture was his own past. Clemens had come from a slaveholding family in Missouri and had served in a Confederate militia unit.

So when an editor of Century Magazine invited Clemens to contribute to a popular series it was currently running, “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” the author was in an awkward position. He had not been a leader and had never been in a battle. He had camped and marched around northeastern Missouri with the Marion Rangers for a few weeks in the summer of 1861 before deserting (or retiring, as he put it). Then, like Huck Finn, he lit out for the territory: the Territory of Nevada, where he spent the rest of the war serving as secretary to his brother Orion (who had a political appointment from the Lincoln administration), as a silver miner and prospector, and as a newspaper reporter who began publishing humorous sketches under the pen name Mark Twain.

Clemens finessed his problem for the series brilliantly, by writing Century Magazine a comic anti-version of the standard war memoir. “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed” is a self-mocking account of his brief service that purports to speak for the multitudes who “started out to do something” in the war but didn’t. He and his Missouri militia mates are portrayed as a ragtag bunch of goof-offs who sponge off local farmers and resemble Tom Sawyer’s gang more than William C. Quantrill’s notorious raiders. The only violence they see is when, panic-stricken, they mistakenly shoot and kill a stranger who approaches their camp one night.

There is no evidence that this incident ever occurred, but in the memoir it gives young Sam a reason to retire from the senselessness of war. Employing his deft comedic touch, Clemens simultaneously confessed to and excused himself from his Southern and proslavery roots.

Earlier in life, however, young Sam Clemens, unknown and broke, had concocted an even more self-serving fiction— a falsehood that illustrates his unheralded participation in the abolitionist controversy during the years leading up to the Civil War. In the summer of 1854, the 18-year-old Clemens returned to Missouri from a two-year stay in the East, where he had tried without much success to support himself as a printer. He settled in St. Louis, where he found only intermittent work. Although not much is known about the next year in his life, the editors of his letters describe it as a time of “financial distress and bruised pride.” But events were then brewing on both the local and national stages that would provide Clemens an opportunity to alleviate both of those problems.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, authorizing popular sovereignty in the territories, passed Congress on May 25, setting off the rush to Kansas and Nebraska by both pro- and anti-slavery forces, and Missouri was in the eye of the storm. Meanwhile in the East, on May 26 abolitionists in Boston brought the furor over the Fugitive Slave Law to a new pitch by attempting to prevent the return of escaped slave Anthony Burns. Violence erupted, and eventually federal troops, a battalion of artillery and 22 companies of the state militia would be required to convey Burns to the ship that returned him to slavery.

That summer both the national press and the St. Louis newspapers where Clemens intermittently worked followed the Anthony Burns controversy. Missouri newspapers fanned the flames of anti-abolitionist feeling, even reprinting the inflammatory circulars of the most radical abolitionist group, the Boston Vigilance Committee. Clemens apparently shared the resulting outrage, since his recent stay in New York and Philadelphia had deepened his conventional pro-slavery and anti-abolitionist beliefs. On his way to New York City he had passed through Syracuse, which reminded him of a fugitive slave from Hannibal who had been held there. He wrote to his mother: “When I saw the Court House in Syracuse, it called to mind the time when it was surrounded by chains and companies of soldiers, to prevent the rescue of McReynolds’ nigger by the infernal abolitionists. I reckon I had better black my face, for in these Eastern States niggers are considerably better than white people.”

Sometime during the summer of 1854, in need of money and still outraged over the Burns case, Clemens concocted a way to scam the “infernal abolitionists” and relieve his own financial distress. About the beginning of September, Francis Jackson, the treasurer of the Boston Vigilance Committee, entered an unusual expense in his account book. Amid the committee’s typical disbursements—for helping slaves escape to Canada and other humanitarian donations—appeared an entry for $24.50 that had been paid to Samuel Clemens, with the notation “passage from Missouri penitentiary to Boston—he having been imprisoned there for aiding Fugitives to escape.”

The 1850 census for Missouri lists only one Samuel Clemens— still living in his hometown of Hannibal—and state archives record no one by that name having been incarcerated in the state penitentiary. So there seems little doubt that this episode was a hoax. If so, it was a neat trick. Having just spent two years unsuccessfully in the East, and probably owing money for the railroad ticket that brought him back to Missouri, young Clemens had secured the price of his fare by appealing to the Boston Vigilance Committee, representing himself as a fellow abolitionist who had suffered through two years’ imprisonment. His story was probably inspired by an incident that happened during his boyhood, when abolitionists from Quincy, Ill., across the river from Hannibal, were caught in Missouri and sentenced to terms in the state penitentiary for just such activities.

Many years later the tensions along this same boundary between free and slave states would surface in Huck Finn’s moral dilemma over helping the runaway slave Jim. Young Sam Clemens had apparently suffered no moral qualms over taking the abolitionists for a ride. But in later life the writer came to believe that white Americans owed African Americans an enormous debt, and he frequently wrote about the corrosive effects of racism. Clemens helped pay for the education of black students and artists, and supported his friend Frederick Douglass when he was about to be dismissed from his government job. Not surprisingly, however, Clemens never referred to his own brief connection with the men and women who had been helping runaway slaves in 1854.

 

Robert Sattelmeyer is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Georgia State University in Atlanta and the author of American History Through Literature (2006).

Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.  

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