Postcard History: Mark Twain House


By Carla Charter

Many authors have settled in New England using the areas unique landscaping and people in their writing.  Among them was Samuel Clemens also known by his pen name Mark Twain.

Samuel Clemens and Oliva Clemens moved to Hartford in 1871, purchasing land on Farmington Avenue, next to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Another neighbor was writer Charles Dudley Warner co-owner and editor at the Hartford Courant, who co-wrote “The Gilded Age” with Twain. The couple rented in the area, and in 1873 hired architect Edward Tuckerman Potter to design the house.

Samuel Clemens had previously lived in New York state after marrying Olivia Langdon of Elmira, N.Y. in Februrary of 1870.  The couple first lived in Buffalo in a house purchased for them by Jervis Langdon, Olivia’s father. The couple’s first child, Langdon, was born prematurely in November. Olivia had typhoid fever and the couple moved back to Elmira so her family could help. The Clemens’ moved again in 1871 to Hartford.

Along with Twain and his wife, Olivia, his young son Langdon lived at the Hartford home until his death from diphtheria in June, 1872. Other children born while in Hartford included His daughter Olivia Susan

Clemens, called Susy, in March, 1872. His daughter Clara, in Jun, 1874 and Jane L. Clemens, called Jean, in July, 1880. He also had many live-in servants living with the family.

The family moved to Europe in 1891 as Clemens had financial difficulties, primarily after his investment in the Paige compositor and typesetting machine.

The couple live in Hartford until 1891 when Twain had financial difficulties and the family moved to Europe, lecturing there to earn money to pay off his debts. His Hartford house was sold  in 1903.  Twain returned to live in Redding, Connecticut, from 1908 to 1910, and died there.

During the time Clemens lived in Hartford he published, The Gilded Age (1873), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), A Tramp Abroad (1880), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Life on the Mississippi (1883), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court (1889), along with many short pieces and lectures.

Several Connecticut locations appeared in Clemens books. Hank Morgan, who is conked on the head and awakens in King Arthur’s Britain in 513 (A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court) works a gunsmith the Colt Factory in Hartford in 1899 when the story begins.  The Mark Twain House itself appears as the home of the McWilliamses in several pieces about the foibles of a family roughly based on his own, and an odd tale called Wapping Alice about a family servant.  The wooden observation tower that then stood on Talcott Mountain in Avon, CT, near where Heublein Tower stands today, was featured in the aforesaid A Literary Nightmare (also known as Punch, Brothers, Punch).

Clemens also one wrote a funny letter to the editor about road repairs at Farmington Avenue and Forest Street, claiming that they had swallowed up a carriage full of people. There are many references to Hartford people and places in letters by Clemens.

The most prominent local person to appear in Clemens’ writings was butler George Griffin, whose story is told in Clemens’s reminiscence of family and servants in Hartford called A Family Sketch.  Griffin is considered by some critics to be one of the African American figures in Clemens’s life whose shrewdness and forthrightness contributed to the character of Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And his brief introduction to that book — the one that says that anyone finding a moral in the work would be shot — is signed “G.G., Chief of Ordnance,” often interpreted as an inside joke because Griffin had recently challenged a burglar with a pistol.

The Rev. Joseph Twichell, accompanied him on a tour of Europe in 1878 and was represented (and somewhat caricatured) as Clemens’s “agent,” Harris, in the book A Tramp Abroad. Twichell, his close friend, also appears in a short piece called A Literary Nightmare and makes cameos as various reverends in various short works.

In 1927 Katharine Seymour Day bought and moved into the home of her great-aunt, Harriet Beecher Stowe. In 1929 she started a group called the Mark Twain Memorial and Library Commission to preserve Twain’s house. From 1930 to 1956 the organization rented out the first floor as the Mark Twain branch of The Hartford Public Library, while the rest of the house remained private apartments.

In 1963 the house was designated as a National Historic Landmark and formal

restoration began. The house was opened as a museum in 1974 in its 100th anniversary year. In 2003, after a fundraising campaign, a museum center on the property opened.

Restoration of the rooms in the main house has continued. The most recent update is the Mahogany Suite, a guest suite on the first floor, reopened in 2016. Its walls are made of mahogany, as is its four-piece bedroom set.

Among the items on display are ore than 600 objects including 200 pieces of furniture. 80 art works, 69 period kitchen items, toys and books. Many of them belong to Twain and his family. including his elaborately carved bed purchased in Venice in 1878 that he used until his death in 1910, drawing room furniture given by the Langdon’s to the Clemens, souvenirs the family acquired on trips; and china, crystal, and serving pieces. The museum also has books from Twain’s personal library. Currently on display include an exhibit entitled Tails of Twain, celebrating Twain and his family’s love of animals. A Mark Twain also statue stands at the central branch of The Hartford Public Library at 500 Main St.

More information on the Mark Twain House can be found at www.marktwainhouse.org

Send a New England Postcard to Carla Charter, 125 Willis Rd. Phillipston, Ma. 01331. Maybe you will see it featured in this column.

Books by Carla  Charter are available at Amazon.com