Is He Dead?

Mark Twain seemingly meets his end in the Old Dominion.

We’ve heard, many times, how reports of Mark Twain’s death in 1897 were “greatly exaggerated.” The events in question occurred when the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was alive and well in London. But this was not the only time the public was led to believe that America’s greatest humorist (whose real name, of course, was Samuel Langhorne Clemens) had breathed his last. The other time such an exaggeration took place was much closer to home, off the coast from Jamestown.

It was 1907, three years before Twain’s actual death, during his final visit to Virginia. The trip was a homecoming of sorts, as Twain was a proud member of the First Families of Virginia, or claimed to be. Though he was born in 1835 in Missouri, his father, John Marshall Clemens —named, so the family said, for John Marshall, fourth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court—was born in 1798 in Campbell County, Virginia. 

Now claims to be an F.F.V. can be contentious, and whether the Clemenses make the cut is not obvious. The first to assert a distinguished lineage for the family, at least in print, seems to have been Olivia Susan Clemens, Twain’s youngest daughter, born in 1872. 

At the age of 13, Susy wrote a short but charming biography of her father titled Papa, published in 1985, nearly a century after her death at 24. It is in that book that she said her paternal grandfather descended from one of “the First Families of Virginie.” Clemens family lore offers a few more tantalizing details about its Virginia origins, though nothing solid. 

But if a person cannot be born in Virginia, the next best thing is to die here, and for a time people thought Twain had. 

He had sailed from New York on the Kanawha, a yacht that belonged to his friend H.H. Rogers, a Standard Oil executive who financed the Virginia Railroad Company. They came for the opening of the Jamestown Exposition, a kind of World’s Fair celebrating the 300th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. The Jamestown Exposition showcased steam engines, electric motors and early automobiles. A venture capitalist himself, Twain took an active interest in these technological marvels and admired the investors who made their fortunes in the Gilded Age, as he and Charles Dudley Warner dubbed that period of industrial expansion in their novel by that name.

When the Kanawha appeared, crowds on the dock and in other boats called for Twain. He appeared on deck, white suit and all, and doffed his yachting cap. Once he was ashore, reporters followed him everywhere. When it came time to return to New York, Rogers took the train; Twain instead boarded the yacht and waited days for an ominous fog to lift. By one account, servants on the yacht rushed about “working their arms off cracking ice and plucking tender leaves off fragrant herbs in the preparation of a certain famous concoction guaranteed to dispel sorrow and lighten hearts that are heavy.” This, as all good Virginians know, was a mint julep.

Eventually, the fog lifted. The ship sailed, and Twain woke up back in New York. But newspapers seemed not to know this. Even the New York Times got it wrong, reporting that the Kanawha had sunk—and Twain had drowned. The report apparently resulted from a rumor printed by the Hampton Ledger Dispatch.

Twain’s response was characteristically amused. He told the Times that he planned to conduct “an exhaustive investigation of this report that I have been lost at sea. If there is any foundation for this report, I will at once apprise the anxious public.” A few days later, under the headline “Joke on Mark Twain,” the Washington Post revealed that Rogers himself had pranked Twain by sending out a call to Virginia to search for his supposedly missing yacht. 

For all of Twain’s ancestral pride, he seems to have considered himself fortunate to get out of Virginia alive. How often Twain visited its capital is uncertain, but he seems to have been familiar with the city.

Some years before his trip to Jamestown, he visited Richmond and was struck with a splitting headache. “It can’t be the food you ate in Richmond,” a proud local resident told him. “There is no healthier city. Our death rate is down to one person a day.” 

“Then run down to the newspaper office,” Twain said. “And find out if today’s victim has died yet.”


This article originally appeared in our June 2018 issue.

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