Prosperity came laggingly enough to the Clemens household. The year 1840 brought hard times: the business venture paid little or no return; law practice was not much more remunerative. Judge Clemens ran for the office of justice of the peace and was elected, but fees were neither large nor frequent. By the end of the year it became necessary to part with Jennie, the slave-girl — a grief to all of them, for they were fond of her in spite of her wilfulness, and she regarded them as “her family.” She was tall, well formed, nearly black, and brought a good price. A Methodist minister in Hannibal sold a negro child at the same time to another minister who took it to his home farther South. As the steamboat moved away from the landing the child’s mother stood at the water’s edge, shrieking her anguish. We are prone to consider these things harshly now, when slavery has been dead for nearly half a century, but it was a sacred institution then, and to sell a child from its mother was little more than to sell to-day a calf from its lowing dam. One could be sorry, of course, in both instances, but necessity or convenience are matters usually considered before sentiment. Mark Twain once said of his mother:
“Kind-hearted and compassionate as she was, I think she was not conscious that slavery was a bald, grotesque, and unwarranted ursurpation. She had never heard it assailed in any pulpit, but had heard it defended and sanctified in a thousand. As far as her experience went, the wise, the good, and the holy were unanimous in the belief that slavery was right, righteous, sacred, the peculiar pet of the Deity, and a condition which the slave himself ought to be daily and nightly thankful for.”
Yet Jane Clemens must have had qualms at times — vague, unassembled doubts that troubled her spirit. After Jennie was gone a little black chore-boy was hired from his owner, who had bought him on the east shore of Maryland and brought him to that remote Western village, far from family and friends.
He was a cheery spirit in spite of that, and gentle, but very noisy. All day he went about singing, whistling, and whooping until his noise became monotonous, maddening. One day Little Sam said:
“Ma [that was the Southern term], make Sandy stop singing all the time. It’s awful.”
Tears suddenly came into his mother’s eyes.
“Poor thing! He is sold away from his home. When he sings it shows maybe he is not remembering. When he’s still I am afraid he is thinking, and I can’t bear it.”
Yet any one in that day who advanced the idea of freeing the slaves was held in abhorrence. An abolitionist was something to despise, to stone out of the community. The children held the name in horror, as belonging to something less than human; something with claws, perhaps, and a tail.
The money received for the sale of Jennie made judge Clemens easier for a time. Business appears to have improved, too, and he was tided through another year during which he seems to have made payments on an expensive piece of real estate on Hill and Main streets. This property, acquired in November, 1839, meant the payment of some seven thousand dollars, and was a credit purchase, beyond doubt. It was well rented, but the tenants did not always pay; and presently a crisis came — a descent of creditors — and John: Clemens at forty-four found himself without business and without means. He offered everything — his cow, his household furniture, even his forks and spoons — to his creditors, who protested that he must not strip himself. They assured him that they admired his integrity so much they would aid him to resume business; but when he went to St. Louis to lay in a stock of goods he was coldly met, and the venture came to nothing.
He now made a trip to Tennessee in the hope of collecting some old debts and to raise money on the Tennessee land. He took along a negro man named Charlie, whom he probably picked up for a small sum, hoping to make something through his disposal in a better market. The trip was another failure. The man who owed him a considerable sum of money was solvent, but pleaded hard times:
It seems so very hard upon him [John Clemens wrote home] to pay such a sum that I could not have the conscience to hold him to it . . . I still have Charlie. The highest price I had offered for him in New Orleans was $50, in Vicksburg $40. After performing the journey to Tennessee, I expect to sell him for whatever he will bring.
I do not know what I can commence for a business in the spring. My brain is constantly on the rack with the study, and I can’t relieve myself of it. The future, taking its completion from the state of my health or mind, is alternately beaming in sunshine or over-shadowed with clouds; but mostly cloudy, as you may suppose. I want bodily exercise — some constant and active employment, in the first place; and, in the next place, I want to be paid for it, if possible.
This letter is dated January 7, 1842. He returned without any financial success, and obtained employment for a time in a commission-house on the levee. The proprietor found some fault one day, and Judge Clemens walked out of the premises. On his way home he stopped in a general store, kept by a man named Sehns, to make some purchases. When he asked that these be placed on account, Selms hesitated. Judge Clemens laid down a five-dollar gold piece, the last money he possessed in the world, took the goods, and never entered the place again.
When Jane Clemens reproached him for having made the trip to Tennessee, at a cost of two hundred dollars, so badly needed at this time, he only replied gently that he had gone for what he believed to be the best.
“I am not able to dig in the streets,” he added, and Orion, who records this, adds:
“I can see yet the hopeless expression of his face.”
During a former period of depression, such as this, death had come into the Clemens home. It came again now. Little Benjamin, a sensitive, amiable boy of ten, one day sickened, and died within a week, May 12, 1842. He was a favorite child and his death was a terrible blow. Little Sam long remembered the picture of his parents’ grief; and Orion recalls that they kissed each other, something hitherto unknown.
Judge Clemens went back to his law and judicial practice. Mrs. Clemens decided to take a few boarders. Orion, by this time seventeen and a very good journeyman printer, obtained a place in St. Louis to aid in the family support.
The tide of fortune having touched low-water mark, the usual gentle stage of improvement set in. Times grew better in Hannibal after those first two or three years; legal fees became larger and more frequent. Within another two years judge Clemens appears to have been in fairly hopeful circumstances again — able at least to invest some money in silkworm culture and lose it, also to buy a piano for Pamela, and to build a modest house on the Hill Street property, which a rich St. Louis cousin, James Clemens, had preserved for him. It was the house which is known today as the “Mark Twain Home.”7
7 [‘This house, in 1911, was bought by Mr. and Mrs. George A. Mahan, and presented to Hannibal for a memorial museum.]
Near it, toward the corner of Main Street, was his office, and here he dispensed law and justice in a manner which, if it did not bring him affluence, at least won for him the respect of the entire community. One example will serve:
Next to his office was a stone-cutter’s shop. One day the proprietor, Dave Atkinson, got into a muss with one “Fighting” MacDonald, and there was a tremendous racket. Judge Clemens ran out and found the men down, punishing each other on the pavement.
“I command the peace!” he shouted, as he came up to them.
No one paid the least attention.
“I command the peace!” he shouted again, still louder, but with no result.
A stone-cutter’s mallet lay there, handy. Judge Clemens seized it and, leaning over the combatants, gave the upper one, MacDonald, a smart blow on the head.
“I command the peace!” he said, for the third time, and struck a considerably smarter blow.
That settled it. The second blow was of the sort that made MacDonald roll over, and peace ensued. Judge Clemens haled both men into his court, fined them, and collected his fee. Such enterprise in the cause of justice deserved prompt reward.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00