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History with Phil: The sorted story of how Samuel Clemens got his start

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Postage stamp USA 1940 shows Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1835-1910).

Samuel Clemens was born shortly after the passing of Haley’s Comet in November 1835. Four years later, his father, John, seeking better business opportunities, moved his family to Hannibal, Missouri. While he did not find the financial rewards he had sought, Samuel’s father was appointed justice of the peace in Hannibal. In 1846, Sam’s father succumbed to a bout of pneumonia. At the age of 12, Samuel dropped out of school and worked full-time as an apprentice printer. A few years later, he worked at a local newspaper owned by his older brother. It was there that he wrote his first works, penning a small number of satirical items for the publication. In 1853, 17-year-old Clemens left Hannibal and spent the next several years working as a printer in places such as Philadelphia and New York City.

In 1857, Clemens became an apprentice steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River. The next year, he was able to get a job for his younger brother Henry on board the steamer the Pennsylvania. In those days, work aboard just about any paddle wheeler was a dangerous job, as the boilers were prone to blowing up. In the 30-year period leading up to 1849, over 300 steamers had sunk on the Mississippi River. The Pennsylvania would prove to be no exception. On June 13, disaster struck when the Pennsylvania’s boiler exploded. Nineteen year-old Henry along with many others were killed in the blast. Even though he was devastated by his loss, Clemens nonetheless pursued obtaining his pilot’s license, which he acquired in 1859. Thereafter, he worked on several steamboats until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, at which time all commercial traffic along the Mississippi was halted.

Clemens actually served, sort of, with the Confederacy.

The 25-year-old Clemens joined the Marion Rangers, a pro-Confederate militia that had been formed in Hannibal. Most historians believe that even though his family had owned a slave when he was a boy, Clemens most likely joined the militia out of loyalty to his Southern roots and not because of any heart-felt ideology. Years later, Clemens claimed that he was forced to join the Rangers by his fool friends. After two weeks of conducting drills, the poorly equipped Marion Rangers fell apart after hearing a rumor that a Union force, led by Ulysses Grant, was headed their way.

As the saying goes “it’s a small world”. In 1885, Clemens, under the name Mark Twain, would publish Grant’s memoir, which became a best-seller. Proceeds from the book’s sales were able to lift Grant’s widow out of poverty caused by her husband’s bad investments.

Shortly after leaving the Marion Rangers, Clemens decided to try his luck at silver mining in Nevada, where his brother Orion had been appointed the territorial secretary. However, after silver mining didn’t pan out, Clemens took a job as a reporter with a Virginia City newspaper in the fall of 1862. The following February, he used the pen name Mark Twain for the first time. Before that, he had used other pseudonyms, including Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sargent Fathoms, and W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab. Mark Twain was a naval term, which signified two fathoms, a safe depth for steamboats traveling on the Mississippi.

Correction for last week’s story – Marcus Daly died in the Netherlands Hotel in NYC, not in the country of The Netherlands.


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