Hannibal MO: The Town Mark Twain Has Kept On the Map

I’m standing across from the Mark Twain Museum Gallery in Hannibal, Missouri, waiting for a “Mark Twain” taxi to let me cross the street. To my right, I can see the Mark Twain Hotel, opened in 1905 and now a home for seniors, and the Mark Twain Print Shop. To the left, is the Mark Twain Dinette, a theater featuring a Mark Twain impersonator, the Twain Town souvenir shop, the Twain boyhood home, the Mrs. Clemens Antique Mall, the Mark Twain Book & Gift Shop, the Huckleberry Finn House and the Tom and Huck statue.

Straight ahead are the Mississippi River and the Mark Twain Riverboat. The main drag is called Main Street, but it should be called Twain Street. Did you know that Samuel Clemens, the boy who became Mark Twain, grew up in Hannibal, Missouri? You sure would if you visited this old Mississippi River town, which capitalizes on the association more than any town plays on a link to a famous person anywhere.Our first stop on Hannibal’s Twain circuit during a visit last week was the Mark Twain Museum Gallery, which, at first, was a bitter disappointment. Ever since watching Ken Burns’ masterful Twain documentary, I’ve wanted to know more about the man who wrote several classics and practically invented the travel writing genre. But the first floor of the museum was a hokey mess, more geared towards children rather than people looking for a serious exploration of this fascinating, wandering soul.

There’s a stagecoach car with a cheesy film, a barrel with phones featuring recorded animal stories and an insipid Huck Finn cinema complete with fake trees. But hidden up on the second floor of the museum, in the laminated flip board section, we found some interesting nuggets, including Twain’s obituary from the April 23, 1910 edition of “The Hannibal Morning Journal.”

The front page, above the fold obit reflected the community’s deep sorrow and admiration for its most famous son and offered a theory on the real cause of his death.

“Those who know the sorrow and shock which had come into Mr. Clemens’ life since the death of his daughter say his death was the trauma of a broken heart,” it read.

The death of his daughter was Twain’s final loss, but not his first: his father passed away when he was 11, four of his six siblings died prematurely, his wife, Olivia died before he did, at age 59, and so did three of their four children.

After an absolutely wretched, overpriced lunch at Breadeaux Pizza across the street from the museum, we gravitated down to Twain’s Boyhood Home Museum, and found some of the historical context and Twain dirt we were looking for at the museum’s interpretive center. If you’re visiting Twain sites in Hannibal, this should be your first stop because it provides a timeline of Twain’s life and some rich details and historical context about Hannibal and the Clemens family’s ties to the region.

Twain was the sixth of seven children. His parents, Jane and John Clemens moved west from Virginia, first to Tennessee and then to Missouri with six slaves they inherited. By the time, Samuel was born, in the small town of Florida, Missouri, 40 miles from Hannibal, they had sold all but one of the slaves and were scraping to get by. The family moved to Hannibal when Twain was 4, and after two years living in their own house, they had to move to a rented apartment above Grant’s Drug Store, which is around the corner from the interpretive center on Main Street.

Twain left school at 11, after his father died and shortly thereafter he became a printer’s apprentice, after his older brother, Orion, bought the local newspaper. His job allowed him the opportunity to read the news, which fed his curiosity about the outside world. Clemens was a restless soul; he left Hannibal at 17 and after brief stints writing articles for various newspapers, he tried his hand as a Mississippi riverboat pilot and a silver miner in the Nevada Territory before becoming a newspaper correspondent in Virginia City, Nevada at age 27.

Twain was a prolific writer for the remainder of his life but had to travel the world on the lecture circuit in order to maintain Stormfield, his opulent home in Hartford. He still managed to go bankrupt in 1894 after a series of investments went south on him, but recovered after an around-the-world lecture tour in 1895 put him back in the black. Nonetheless, Twain’s financial situation remained muddled late in his life as his anti-government sentiments and focus on human greed and cruelty made it difficult for him to get published, as critics labeled him a traitor.

He only returned to Hannibal a handful of times before dying of a heart attack at age 74, but if you visit, you can stay at The Garth Woodside Mansion in the room he supposedly stayed in during his last visit to the town in 1902. Twain may have beaten an early retreat from Hannibal but he used the town as the inspiration for many of his most famous works, and many of the places he wrote about are part of the circuit of Twain sites you can visit today.

Hannibal was the inspiration for the idyllic river town of St. Petersburg in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Visitors can check out some of the places incorporated into the stories like Tom Sawyer’s house (the Clemens family home), the homes of childhood friends who inspired the Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher characters, and “Mark Twain’s Cave,” a mile outside town, among other sites.

Aside from the Twain sites, Hannibal’s main drag is filled with lovely 19th Century buildings and is just a block from the mighty Mississippi River. Some of the tourist kitsch will make you laugh – I saw a man in a straw hat strumming a banjo while leading tourists around on a horse drawn carriage and a woman in a white feathered hat and period costume (see photo) – but it’s all in good fun.

“Twainiacs” from all over the world flock to the place to walk the streets their hero wrote about, and some, like Dr. Cindy Lovell, the executive director of The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, take their Twain obsession a step further by moving to Hannibal. Lovell told USA Today she gave up a job as a tenured professor in Florida to live and work in her favorite author’s hometown.

“People who love Twain and come here don’t see the cars and the power lines,” Lovell told USA Today. “They see St. Petersburg. It’s a town that can’t tell fact from fiction, and we like it that way.”

(Photos by Dave Seminara)