Fascinating Facts About The Complicated Life Of Mark Twain

Adventurous, eloquent and funny, Mark Twain wrote the classics The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He is quoted every day for his wit and wisdom. But this author did much more than write stories. Learn how Twain’s early steamboating and gold mining careers influenced his future works. From inventions to personal passions you probably didn’t know about, here are mind-boggling facts about the life of Mark Twain. How much do you know about this influential author?

Twain’s tragic past both haunted and inspired much of his work . . .

In His Early Life, He Witnessed A Lot Of Death

A Confederate flag decorates the tombstone of a Confederate soldier killed in the Civil War,
Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images

Mark Twain was born as Samuel Clemens in 1835. The sixth of seven children, Clemens remained frail and sickly until he turned seven. Of his six siblings, only four would survive until adulthood. The family grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, where violence occurred frequently.

When Clemens was nine, he witnessed a local man murder a cattle rancher. At ten years old, he watched a slave die when a white overseer struck him with a piece of iron. With the Civil War fast approaching, young Clemens would continue to confront death for the forseeable future.

His Family Owned Slaves

Slave Labor On A Cotton Plantation In The Southern States Of America 1860 Colorised black and white print artist unknown
The Print Collector / Getty Images

In his early life, Clemens grew up around slaves and therefore perceived slavery as normal. His Uncle Dan owned slaves that were well treated, and Clemens would often listen to their stories. Dan later became the inspiration for the character Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Unfortunately, when Clemens was young, his father mistreated one slave in front of his son. Throughout Mark Twain’s writings, he struggled with these different sides of slavery. Later, his wife Olivia would persuade Twain to support the abolitionist movement.

Unfortunately, Twain’s most scarring experience was still to come.

He Had Little Formal Education

Samuel Clemens age 15

Samuel Clemens only attended school up until his preteen years. He began working after his father died of pneumonia in 1847. Clemens was 12 years old when he began his first full-time job as an apprentice printer. He studied at local libraries in his free time.

However, his work did teach Clemens in its own unique way. In 1851, he worked in typesetting for a newspaper owned by his older brother Orion. There, he eventually wrote short, satirical articles for publication. By 17, Clemens already moved out and started working in cities such as New York City and Philadelphia.

His Brother’s Death Scarred Him

Pinterest / JC K…

In 1857, at 22-years-old, Clemens apprenticed as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River. A year later, he convinced his younger brother Henry to join him. Then, in June, a boiler exploded near Memphis in Pennsylvania. Nineteen-year-old Henry was one of the victims who perished in the blast.

Though Clemens ached from the incident, he still managed to get his steamboat license in 1859. He left the river boating career when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Sadly, Clemens felt responsible for his brother’s passing for the rest of his life.

Twain’s failed early careers may surprise you.

He Joined The Confederate Army

Kennesaw Mountain US Civil War 1861-65An 1891 color illustration The Atlanta Campaign
Stock Montage / Getty Images

In 1861, the Civil War swept through Hannibal, Missouri. Clemens joined the Marion Rangers, a pro-Confederate militia, for a couple of weeks. The group ended up disbanding after hearing that Union general Ulysses Grant headed their way.

At the time, he did not have strong ideological convictions about the Civil War, likely joining the militia out of loyalty to the Southern states. Oddly enough, later in life, Clemens would befriend Ulysses Grant, later publishing the president’s memoir in 1885.

He Tried Gold Mining

Rising Price of Gold Spurs Increases In Prospecting In California 2011 gold mining
David Paul Morris / Getty Images

In the 1860s, Twain’s older brother Orion worked as a secretary to the governor of Nevada. Having no other job, Twain decided to assist his brother in Nevada and aimed to strike it rich through gold mining. Eventually, he traveled 40 miles across the desert to Humbolt County.

He found plenty of fools gold and quartz veins, but nothing worth the mass of wealth he had sought. Disappointed, he returned to Nevada. His gold mining experience can be summed up in the famous quote, “A mine is a hole in the ground with a liar standing next to it.”

To Avoid Duels, He Traveled All Over California

Young Mark Twain Headshot
Twitter / @openculture

In May 1864, Mark Twain challenged a rival newspaperman to a duel in Nevada. Before the fight took place, however, Twain fled. He headed to San Francisco, supposedly to avoid the territory’s anti-dueling laws.

After working a tedious job as a reporter for about a year, Twain posted bail for his friend who got arrested in a bar brawl. Twain didn’t have the funds to cover the bond, so he skipped town with his friend and traveled to Tuolumne County. There, he published his first hit story.

Coming up, learn the smart, mischievous way Twain’s first publication went big.

Mark Twain Was Not His Original Pen Name

Mark Twain in rocking chair
Reddit / u/Eggtat

Before he began publishing under his famous pen name in 1863, Clemens juggled other name ideas. These failed names included W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab and Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass.

Eventually, Clemens settled on a name inspired by his steamboating years. Steamboats ideally sailed on rivers two fathoms deep, or 12 feet. In sailing slang, “mark” means fathom (six feet) and “twain” means two. The sailor checking the river depth would call out “mark twain” to mean the river depth equals 12 feet, “safe water” for riverboats back then.

His First Hit Story Sprung From Jumping Frogs

Mark Twain and The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
Twitter / @clandro

While at a bar in Calaveras County, California, Twain listened to a man tell a story about a jumping frog contest. This story would later inspire him in 1865, when, back in San Francisco, his friend wrote him asking for a contribution to his storybook.

By the time Twain wrote and finalized his jumping frog story, the book had already been published. But the publisher sent the piece to the Saturday Press in New York, where it became a hit. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was reprinted in various newspapers throughout 1865.

He Anonymously Reviewed His Own Work

Mark Twain in garden circa 1900
Pinterest / Beverly Lett

In 1867, Twain published his first full novel, Innocents Abroad. The work stemmed from a five-month Mediterranean cruise where Twain wrote humorously about the sights for American newspapers. The book became a bestseller, but not without a little help from Twain himself.

Innocents Abroad reached the top charts after an anonymous critic raved about the work. The anonymous critic was none other than Twain himself. Fortunately, this ‘anonymous’ review was followed up by another review in The Atlantic by critic William Dean Howells, who eventually became Twain’s good friend.

Mysterious and unexplained events were sprinkled throughout Twain’s life . . .

His Wife Had Been Miraculously Healed

olivia langdon clemens and sam clemens
Pinterest / Garland Waltz

When Twain met Olivia Langdon, he witnessed a miraculous healing session. A faith healer named Dr. Newton prayed over Olivia, had her sit up, and watched her take several steps. Before then, she couldn’t stand without nausea and fainting spells.

Twain later asked Newton how he performed this. Newton didn’t know for sure, but believed some subtle electric energy in the body might have had something to do with it. In any case, Twain was grateful because he married Olivia in 1870. Unfortunately, she still suffered from poor health for the rest of her life.

He Was Fascinated With The Paranormal

Photographer Creates Epic New Worlds Andrew Brooks has spent the last ten years creating these layered snapshots of imaginary worlds - entitled New Worlds - using various locations to photoshop futuristic structures and space worlds
Andrew Brooks / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Along with his wife’s healing, Twain had witnessed some unexplained phenomena in his early life. Years before getting his steamboat license, Twain had a dream in which his brother Henry lay dead in a coffin. Sadly, his premonition came true years later when a Pennsylvania boiler exploded.

Twain remained intrigued by the paranormal for the rest of his life. When the Society for Psychical Research formed in 1882, he was one of their first members. That society still exists today.

Learn who inspired Twain’s most famous character of all.

He Loved Cats More Than People

British longhair kittens during the 'Valencia Cup' international cat exhibition in Moscow on November

Mark Twain always wanted a cat around him. He wrote cats into his fiction and even owned nineteen of them at one point. “If a man could be crossed with a cat, it would improve the man, but it would deteriorate the cat,” he once wrote.

His cats all had fantastical names, such as Beelzebub, Buffalo Bil, Satan, Sin, Sour Mash, Tammany, Soapy Sal, Blatherskite and Bambino. When he left home to travel, he would rent cats to stay with him.

Huckleberry Finn Was Inspired By A Childhood Friend

Cover of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Bancroft Library
Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In his home town of Hannibal, Mark Twain befriended an older boy named Tom Blankenship. Blankenship later became his inspiration for Huck Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Blankenship grew up in a poor family with a notoriously drunk father.

In his biography, Twain wrote, “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; be he had as good a heart as ever any boy had.” No one knows what happened to Blankenship later in life, though some reports suggest he died of cholera.

Can you guess how Twain’s own inventions performed on the market?

He Was Great Friends With Nikola Tesla

Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla in Tesla's Laboratory

In the 1890s, Nikola Tesla met up with Twain in New York. Even though Twain lived in Europe at the time, he frequently visited New York. After Tesla told Twain about his lifelong illness, and how Twain’s books helped him in recovery, Twain was moved to tears.

Since then, Twain often visited Tesla in his lab. Tesla experimented with electricity, which fascinated Twain. Reportedly, Tesla even shot an x-ray gun at Twain’s head at one point. The two remained friends until Twain’s death in 1910.

He Sold His Own Inventions

Mark Twain 1895
Reddit / u/BentWHISKAZ

Mark Twain patented many of his own inventions. One was a garment fastener with a removable band that he envisioned on vests and pantaloons. The fastener never caught on with vests or pantaloons, but it did evolve into our modern bra strap.

His other successful patent was a self-pasting scrapbook, which, according to The St. Louis Post Dispatch, made him $50,000 . But his other investments, including a history trivia game and Paige typesetting machine, flopped. Even his own publishing house eventually spiraled into bankruptcy.

He Was A Terrible Businessman

Mark Twain, America's best humorist by Joseph Ferdinand Keppler, 1838-1894, artist. 1885 Dec
Photo12 / UIG via Getty Images

After achieving wealth from his writing, Mark Twain poured his money into several terrible investments. In one case, Twain invested $200,000 in an automatic typesetting machine. That’s a lot of money, considering that in 1890, the average American family earned less than $1,200 per year.

In 1891, Twain moved to Europe to live more frugally and aid his wife’s poor health. Even so, in 1894, his self-established publishing company sank, forcing Twain to declare bankruptcy. Fortunately, he made back that money within the next several years when he embarked on an around-the-world speaking tour.

Coming up, the last living remnants we have of Mark Twain.

He Didn’t Wear His Famous White Suit Until Later In Life

Mark Twain with his kitten 1907
Reddit / u/et37

In December 1906, Twain wore a white suit to the House of Representatives. The New York Tribune recorded his wardrobe as “The most remarkable suit seen in New York this season.” Up until his death in 1910, he would continue to display the white suit that most Americans imagine him in today.

In his autobiography, Twain listed hygiene as his reason for wearing all white. He also mentioned that it caught the eye of reporters and expressed his unconventionality.

He Was Filmed Only Once

Mark Twain Edison Film Digitally Restored
Youtube / TFGFilmedandTape

Another inventor by the name of Thomas Edison was also good friends with Twain. One year before Twain’s death, in 1909, Edison would arrive in Connecticut to film Twain and his family. The silent film he captured is the only existing footage of Mark Twain.

The footage first appeared at the production of Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper.” In 2014, TFG Film & Tape restored the film so that modern audiences can watch it online.

He Has No Living Descendants

Mark Twain With Family circa 1865
Fotosearch / Getty Images

In 1870, Twain married Olivia Langdon, an abolitionist from New York. The two had four children. Their only son tragically passed away as a toddler, and two of their daughters died in their 20s. Sam Clemens himself died at age 88 in Connecticut in 1910, and Olivia Clemens died in 1904 at age 58.

Their surviving child, Clara Clemens, had one child herself, Nina Gabrilowitsch. Nina had no children and died in 1966. With that, the Samuel Clemens line disappeared. No direct descendants of Mark Twain are alive today.