Thursday, February 19, 2015

HGB Podcast 29 - The Life and Afterlife of Mark Twain

Moment in Oddity - Spider-Tailed Horned Viper

A snake that originates in Iran has a unique design for its tail. The tip of the Spider-Tailed Horned Viper's tail resembles exactly what its name indicates: a spider. The end of the tail is shaped like a creme or grey colored bulb and the scales that are near the end of the tail are long and thin and branch out, resembling little legs. A single Spider-Tailed Horned Viper was first discovered in the 60s and biologists thought it was a defect in the snake, until more were found later and it was classified as its own species when it was formally described in 2006. The snake uses the arachnid shaped tail much like a fishing lure. It shakes the end of its tail, so that any creatures that like to feed on insects will be lured close enough that the viper can strike. Victims include rodents and birds. The viper is the master of disguise as well. Its entire body is bumpy and colored like the surrounding terrain in sand and brown colors. This includes the snake's eyes. Snakes and spiders are creepy enough on their own. Combine the two and you have one terrifying oddity.

This Day in History - Huaynaputina Volcano Erupts

In Southern Peru lies a small volcano named Huaynaputina with a big history. On this day, February 19th, in 1600, this volcano exploded in the most violent eruption of any volcano recorded in South America. Huaynaputina is unique in that it does not rise high in elevation like most volcanoes, which resemble mountains. This volcano is located inside a caldera that was formed by a glacier. Because of the way it was formed, no one knew that it was a volcano. It was described as a ridge by those who saw it. That all changed when it erupted in an explosion that is considered one of the largest in the last 2000 years. It has been compared to the 1883 eruption of Krakatau. Within 24 hours, the nearby city of Arequipa was covered in 10 inches of ash. Pumice and ashfall covered areas up to 310 miles away. Lava flows traveled for 8 miles to the east and hot mud flows made it all the way to the Pacific Ocean 75 miles away. The eruptions continued on into March and people compared the sounds of the explosions to cannon fire. The indigenous people of the area blamed the eruption on their lack of sacrifice. They had once sacrificed humans and animals to appease the gods and they believed this eruption was their punishment for converting to Catholicism. When the volcano finally calmed, 1500 people had been killed. It took agriculture 150 years to recover.

The Life and Afterlife of Mark Twain

Mark Twain authored some of the most beloved stories in American literature. Everyone knows the story of
Tom Sawyer, his buddy Huck Finn and about whitewashing wood fences. Not many people know the details of the life of Mark Twain though. Twain's life was one of literary genius, but it was also one of financial ruin and immense pain when it came to his family life. The Twain's owned a home in Hartford, Connecticut and Twain claimed that the years that he and his family lived in the Hartford home were the happiest years of their life. They would eventually move from the home, but did their spirits actually leave the home? Twain was a lifelong skeptic, but is he now a true believer as his spirit continues to roam on this side of the veil?

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri on November 30, 1835. Samuel was number six of seven children born to John and Jane Marshall Clemens. Only four of the Clemens children survived into adulthood. John Clemens himself died from pneumonia when Samuel was twelve years old. John Clemens was a lawyer and a judge and he moved his family to Hannibal, Missouri when Samuel was four. Hannibal was a growing port city in 1839 and the setting would provide inspiration for Samuel's future writing. Childhood was tough for Samuel. Not only did three of his siblings die, but he was a sickly child who was mostly kept inside until he was nine years old. He would visit his uncle's farm in the summers and spend hours at the slave quarters listening to their tales and songs. After his father's death, Samuel decided he was done with school and he dropped out taking a job as a printer's apprentice.

The printing business proved to be a good fit for Samuel and when he was fifteen he joined the paper his brother Orion owned, the Hannibal Journal, and he served as a printer and an editorial assistant there. He started contributing articles and bits of humor to the paper and found that he enjoyed writing. Samuel decided he wanted to see the world and have adventure when he was eighteen. He headed east and found work as a printer at several newspapers in New York and Philadelphia. In the evenings, Samuel would go to the libraries where he would educate himself and study subjects he would have never had an opportunity to study when he was in school.

As a boy, Samuel and his friends had discussed and dreamed about becoming steamship captains and pilots. Steamboat pilots made a lot of money. Following those dreams, Samuel headed back to Missouri in 1857. In St. Louis, Samuel became an apprentice to steamboat pilot Horace E. Bixby and learned how to steer a steamboat on a course that went from St. Louis to New Orleans. Samuel learned the intricacies of the Mississippi River, another skill that would contribute to his future writings. He also acquired his pen name at this time using lingo from the steamboat industry. The term "Mark Twain" meant that the river's depth was two fathoms or twelve feet. Steamboats needed at least two fathoms of depth to keep clear of the river bottom. Samuel liked the term, but he would not use the pseudonym until 1861. Samuel invited his younger brother Henry to join him as he trained and Henry accepted. It would be something Samuel would regret the rest of his life. On June 21, 1858, the steamboat Henry was working aboard exploded and he was killed. Samuel would always feel responsible for the death, but he finished his training and he received his pilot license in 1859. And then the Civil War started.

Traffic along the Mississippi was impeded by the war and Samuel decided to join the fight and enlisted with a Confederate unit called the Marion Rangers. The experience only lasted two weeks. Samuel wrote an article about it called "The Private History of a Campaign that Failed." He went out to Nevada to work for his brother Orion again, who now was Secretary of the Nevada Territory. The trip was an adventure. Samuel traveled by stagecoach, met Native Americans along the way and made a stop in the Mormon community in Salt Lake City.  He wrote a book of short stories named "Roughing It" that detailed the trip. Silver mining was hot in Nevada and Samuel even tried his hand at silver prospecting, but he failed horribly and went back to writing, taking a job at the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. It was at this time that he started using the name Mark Twain.

In 1864, Twain continued west, stopping in San Francisco and wrote for a paper there. By the next year, he had a piece that made it into many of the magazines and the papers in the nation entitled "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog." The short story was a tall tale about a gambler named Jim Smiley. The plot features a bet over a frog jumping contest. Based on that success, the Sacramento Union hired Twain to go to the Sandwich Islands and report on them. His stories were widely followed and when he returned to the Continental US he embarked on a lecture tour where his knack for stage performing was demonstrated.

His travel writing continued to the east and after arriving in New York, Twain set off for Europe and the Holy Land. The stories he wrote as he traveled were later compiled into his book "The Innocents Abroad" that was published in 1869. While he was traveling, he met Charles Langdon. The two men shared stories and Charles showed Twain a picture of his sister Olivia. It was love at first sight for Twain. Twain started writing Olivia and he asked her to marry him. She refused. He asked again a couple months later and she agreed. They married in 1870. They settled in Buffalo, New York where Twain was writing for and editing the Buffalo Express.

While in Buffalo, Langdon Clemens was born. Twain and Livy decided to move to Hartford, Connecticut and they rented a home there. Twain wanted to be closer to his publisher and at the time, Hartford was the city that had the highest per-capita income in America. Twain described Hartford as "Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see, this is the chief...You do not know what beauty is if you have not been here." Tragedy would strike again for Twain as two year old Langdon came down with diphtheria. The disease killed the boy. But there was a light at that time as well when their daughter Susy was born. Twain published his novel "The Gilded Age" in 1873. The book was a social commentary on corruption and greed. In 1874, the Clemenses moved into a beautiful twenty-five room mansion they had built on Farmington Avenue. This home would see Twain's greatest successes and more tragedy.

 The Mark Twain House was designed by architect Edward Tuckerman Potter from New York. Construction began in 1873 while the Clemenses were traveling abroad and the project was plagued by delays and ever rising costs. When the family moved into the house in 1874, the construction was not yet finished. Daughter Clara was born that same year. The style of the home is Victorian Gothic Revival. It truly is a beautifully designed home and Livy played a big role in the design. Some claim that the house was designed to look like a riverboat. The decor reflected the family's world travels with inspiration from Japan, India, Morocco, China and Turkey. The top floor of the home was a billiards room and a private office where Twain did his writing and cursing. The library had embossed wallpaper, hand stenciled paneling, fireplaces from India and a large handcrafted mantel from Scotland. The children had their
own own nursery and playroom and a classroom where Livy taught the children. This was on the second floor along with the master bedroom. The entrance hall is ornate with a large wraparound staircase. The area features carved wood on the ceiling, wall paneling and banisters. In 1880, daughter Jean was born. In 1881, following the success of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," which had been published in1876, Twain decided to renovate and expand the home. The kitchen was rebuilt and doubled in size, a phone was added in the entrance hall and it was enlarged, the driveway was redone and the grounds were re-landscaped.

Twain wrote most of the works he is known for while living in this house. Out of this home came "The Gilded Age," "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "Life on the Mississippi," "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," and "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." He also started investing at this time and many of those investments would bring him to financial ruin. The typesetting machine that was invented by James W. Paige seemed like a great idea, so Twain invested heavily. Unfortunately, the linotype machine was invented at the same time by Whitlaw Reid and it proved to be a superior machine since the typesetter never worked properly. Twain also formed the Charles L. Webster & Company publishing firm. The company went bankrupt. Bank panics like the Panic of 1893 did not help either and by 1891, the Clemenses were looking for a way to get away. They decided to move to Europe.

In 1894, Twain, Livy and Clara set off on a lecture tour to try to get money to throw towards their ever growing debts. Susy and Jean stayed behind at the Hartford home. Susy contracted spinal meningitis and died in the home on August 18, 1896. She was only 24 and her death in the home made it so that Livy could not bear to return to the home. The Clemenses eventually would sell the home in 1903 and it would later serve as a school, then an apartment building and a library. The home was registered as a National Historic Landmark in 1962. The house was extensively renovated and turned into a museum dedicated to the life of Twain. In 2003, the Mark Twain Museum Center was opened and features documentaries, exhibits, a great hall, cafe and research library. Financial hardship almost closed the home in 2008, but it was back in black by 2011 after donations from the state, concerned citizens and businesses. Attendance is now record setting and the home generates millions in tourist dollars.

The years following Susy's death turned very dark for Twain and that darkness was reflected in his writing. Lectures followed suit with Twain even giving a harshly sarcastic introduction for Winston Churchill. Later works were rejected by magazines as they seemed to shed a bad light on Twain. Their were whispers of Twain turning traitor. The Clemenses lived in New York City from 1900 to 1903 when Livy became ill. Twain took her to Italy and she died in 1904. He returned to New York and then moved back to Connecticut in 1908. Twain's youngest daughter Jean died the following year from an epileptic seizure, leaving only Clara who was recently married. Twain died shortly thereafter on April 21, 1910 at the age of 74 from a heart attack. He was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. Twain had paid off all his pre-bankruptcy debt even though he was no longer responsible for the debt before he died. Twain showcased in his writings a changing world whether it was via technology, attitudes about slavery, traveling, culture or observations on history. We are a better world for his gift of the written word.

Is there more still existing on this side of the veil in regards to Mark Twain than just his contributions through writing? Are the rumors of hauntings at the Mark Twain Home true? Before we discuss the paranormal aspects of this tour, we should touch on the spiritual beliefs of Twain.  Earlier we referred to the death of Twain's younger brother Henry aboard a steamboat that exploded. What we did not mention is that Twain dreamed about the event before it happened. This prompted him to explore parapsychology and he became interested in Spiritualism. He became an early member of the Society for Psychical Research. Spiritualism was in its heyday in the late 1800s, particularly in America. Eight million people in America and Europe belonged to the religion at that time. It was not weird for members of upper crust society to host seances in their parlor rooms.

As early as 1866, Twain wrote against Spiritualism calling it a "new and unprospected wildcat religion" in an article for the "Territorial Enterprise." But his interest in this religion grew, particularly after Susy died. He made attempts to contact her using the Ouija board. The Ouija board comes up again in regards to Twain after his death. A 1918 lawsuit was brought by the publishers of Mark Twain's writings, Harper & Brothers, against a publisher named Mitchell Kennerley who published a book named "Jap Herron." The book was written by Emily Grant Hutchings and she claimed that Mark Twain had dictated the novel to her letter by letter via a Ouija board. The case grew from a simple copyright infringement in regards to Mark Twain's name to a trial on the afterlife. Lawyers wanted to put the issue of immortality into the hands of the Supreme Court. The writing seemed to be above the level of what Ms. Hutchings usually put out, but many claimed that Jap Herron was not at Twain's level either. (To read the New York Times articles on this topic, please go here.) The case never went to trial after it was agreed that Jap Herron would not be distributed and most copies were destroyed.

Twain is a conundrum when it comes to the afterlife. Many people, including Twain himself, claim that he did not believe in an afterlife. The Mark Twain Museum currently is exhibiting "Spiritualism, Seances and Sam." The Interim Curator of the museum, Mallory Howard says on the website, "Mark Twain was fascinated with spiritualism, reveling in debunking seances as a young reporter in San Francisco, and maintaining skepticism on the subject all his life -- but sanctioning his wife Livy's attempts to seek solace in seances after their daughter's death. But the exhibition is broader than that -- it covers the gamut of spiritualism, mourning and attitudes toward death in his era and after, and how his attitudes fit into that continuum. We bring the story into the 20th century with an extraordinary collection of objects loaned by artist Calvin von Crush, and finally into the present century."

Would Twain approve? It's hard to say. Twain did write to Reverend JH Twichell, "Susy is gone, George is gone, Libby Hamersley, Ned Bunce, Henry Robinson. The friends are passing, one by one; our house, where such warm blood and such dear blood flowed so freely, is become a cemetery. But not in any repellent sense. Our dead are welcome there; their life made it beautiful, their death has hallowed it, we shall have them with us always, and there will be no parting."

The afterlife is active in the Clemenses beloved home though. Susy had died in the home and her manifestation is the one most reported by visitors and employees of the museum. She has been seen sitting on a round velvet couch in the front entryway. A young woman in a white dress has been seen floating in a hallway. A spirit was witnessed looking out of an upstairs window and even caught on film. Typical cold drafts and flickering lights have been reported as well as female giggling.

Susy is not the only female at the home. Many believe her mother Olivia resides at the home as well. She is seen wearing black with a black veil. A maid that the family had also seems to have returned in the afterlife to continue working in the home. A woman has been seen by an employee wearing a hoop skirt, but no one is sure which of the women this could have been. Clothing has been tugged and the laughter of children is heard as well.

The billiard room where Twain wrote and spent much of his time, reportedly has the smell of cigars in there on occasion and knocking is heard on the walls. Mark Twain's ghost has not been seen in the house, but supposedly has been seen walking the hallways of an apartment building in New York on West 10th Street where he once lived.  A woman claimed in the 1930s that she came into her apartment and saw a man with wild white hair sitting at a chair looking out the window. When she demanded to know who he was he told her, "My name is Clemens and I got problems here I gotta settle."

The basement is altogether another story. Reports of experiences in the basement are far from pleasant. A security guard claims that a silver serving tray was thrown at him when he was down there. Several people have reported hearing a growling sound when they are down there. A psychic exploring the basement was overcome with terror and ran from the house. Has something taken up residence here that is possibly demonic? Keep in mind that something could have been opened up with the use of seances and Ouija boards by Livy Clemens (although these were not used in the home) and paranormal investigators sometimes bring along supernatural hitchhikers with them.

Graveyard Shift tours are offered by the museum that explore spiritualism and haunting experiences. In 2009, Ghost Hunters investigated the site for their cable show and reported evidence. Has Samuel Clemens continued his writing in the afterlife? Is the Mark Twain House haunted? That is for you to decide.

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