< Back to the lodge

Samuel Langhorne Clemens: AKA “Mark Twain” a Freemason in the burgeoning West.

Brother Samuel Langhorne Clemens:
A Missouri Freemason

An Original Research Paper
by Right Worshipful Brother Gerald W. Burnworth,
1992 Truman Medal Recipient
1999 Fellow, Missouri Lodge of Research
Greatest of all Missouri literary figures unquestionably is Samuel Langhorne Clemens, whose fame as a novelist and humorist under the name of “Mark Twain” has spread around the world. Critics in the east at first were inclined to keep him “under watch as a strange and wild western animal on the carefully clipped lawn of the New England letters.” Yet, the years have proven Mark Twain’s genius and he is loved by the world as the greatest of American humorists. Samuel L. Clemens who, along with James B. Eads and Daniel Boone, now represent Missouri in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at New York University.Mark Twain was born on November 30, 1835, in the little northeast Missouri town of Florida, Monroe County. His parents, of good Virginia-Kentucky stock, had migrated to the west from Tennessee. The Clemens family did not live in Florida long, however. When Sam Clemens was about four years old they moved to Hannibal, a thriving Mississippi River town that was to have much influence on Mark Twain’s later writings, and where he received his schooling.

The father, a lawyer and justice of the peace, died in March 1847, when his son Samuel was eleven years old, and to help support the family, the children went to work. Young Sam was apprenticed to a printer named Joseph Ament, who bought out the “Hannibal Gazette,” and combined it with his own paper, the Courier, brought from Palmyra.

A favorite story told about Mark Twain is; that not long after he had been begun to work as a printer’s apprentice, he was walking through Hannibal one day when a leaf from a biography of Joan of Arc flew in front of him. He picked it up, became interested, and embarked on a career of reading that was to furnish him inspiration for many years afterward. John Clemens, the boy’s father, however, held an important position in Hannibal Library Institute, and other members of the family seemed to be interested in reading, so it is possible that they, as well as the favorable cultural environment of the Hannibal-Palmyra area, may have influenced young Sam Clemens.

Mark Twain’s older brother, Orion Clemens, had been apprenticed in the office of a Hannibal newspaper, and it had seemingly been a long-time ambition to own a newspaper himself. He worked in St. Louis for a time, and shortly after his return, started his weekly, “The Western Union.” A few months later, in the spring of 1851, he purchased the “Hannibal Weekly Dollar Journal” combining the papers as the “Hannibal Journal and Western Union.” Later, it became simply the “Journal.” Sam Clemens possibly worked on the earliest paper, and he certainly worked on the “Journal” with his brother where he received the dignified title of “Assistant Editor” in May 1853. After the paper had begun to put out daily issues, the boy had a column of his own.

Mark Twain gained his first experience in editing a newspaper here, for, during a two-year period when his brother Orion was out of town, the ambitious young boy put out the paper himself. He did a good deal of writing.

Designed to “pep up” these editions and, in so doing, he practically brought on a newspaper feud in Hannibal. His brother, on his return, did his best to straighten things out, and immediately put young Sam back to setting type. The paper then made a return toward Orion’s more conservative style. The earliest printed piece of work known to be Mark Twain’s, besides the newspaper columns, was a brief story, “The Dandy Frightening The Squatter.” Published in 1852 in the Boston Carpet Bag over the initials “S.L.C.”

At eighteen Mark Twain left Hannibal to work as a journeyman printer, stopping at St. Louis for a time, then New York, Philadelphia, and finally back to Keokuk, Iowa, where Orion had bought another paper. He could not stay in one place very long, however, and one day, while on his way to New Orleans, he met Horace Bixby, a river pilot, and persuaded Bixby to teach him the tricks of river piloting. In a year and a half Mark Twain became a licensed pilot, and stayed on the river for two years. Many of his experiences were narrated later in his book, “Life On The Mississippi.”

When the Civil War destroyed the river trade, Mark Twain and some of his friends decided to enlist on the pro-southern side. A series of disheartening, experiences discouraged them, however, and Mark Twain went back to Keokuk to join his brother, who had, in the meantime, been appointed Secretary to the Territorial Govenor of Nevada. Taking Mark Twain with him as his personal secretary, Orion went west.

Mark Twain worked at mining for a time, then worked on a newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada. He became a friend of Artemus Ward, who encouraged him in his writing, and later, when he went to California, he met another great writer of the period, Bret Harte.

In Nevada, he used the name “Mark Twain” for the first time. Sam Clemens says in his “Life On The Mississippi” that it had been previously used by an old steamboat captain, Isaiah Sellers, and when he heard of Sellers’ death, he took over the name. It was a river term which the leadsman called, signifying two fathoms or twelve feet of water. But recent investigations show that Sellers died on March 6, 1864, and Clemens was using the name of Mark Twain on December 13, 1863 – a full three months before the death of Captain Sellers. How much earlier he used this name is not yet known.

In California Mark Twain wrote his first successful short story, the celebrated, “Jumping Frog Of Calaveras County.” and gave his first lecture. He was also sent the Sandwich Islands as sort of roving correspondent. Later, his experiences in the west were gathered into the book, “Roughing It.”

He went to New York in 1867, and gave a lecture in that city, making a great success. He soon left on an excursion boat for a trip that was to furnish material for “Innocents Abroad.” While on this excursion he met Charlie Langdon, brother of Olivia Langdon, who became Mark Twain’s wife, and it was through this acquaintance that he first met her. Mrs. Clemens played an important but inconspicuous part in her husband’s work, editing his manuscripts and offering her own criticism of his work.

After working at writing for a Buffalo newspaper and for a New York magazine for a time, Mark Twain went back to lecturing, both in America and abroad. His first books soon appeared: “Innocents Abroad,” which made him nationally famous, and then “Roughing It” and “The Gilded Age.” The latter was written in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner.

In 1876, he published “The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer,” which portrays his boyhood in Hannibal, Missouri. This book, and “Huckleberry Finn”, which appeared in 1884, are not considered strictly autobiographical, but in them are featured many of the events and scenes of early Hannibal, and counterparts of some of the characters are thought to be Mark Twain’s boyhood playmates. Indeed, Tom Sawyer has many of the characteristics of the author himself.

In l878, Mark Twain went on to Europe and wrote of his experiences while on a walking tour in “The Tramp Abroad,” which appeared in 1890. “The Prince and The Pauper” was published two years later, followed by “Life On The Mississippi,” and “A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court.”

Mark Twain had, in the meantime, become involved in several bad business investments, including a partnership in a publishing company which went bankrupt, and also in a typesetting machine. In 1894, he was forced to settle his debts at fifty cents on the dollar. Later, he paid them back in full.

The family moved abroad where they could live more cheaply, and Mark Twain lectured on a trip around the world. Before his return from this trip, his oldest daughter, Suzy Clemens, died. He was grief-stricken, and never fully recovered from that tragic loss.

The books “Tom Sawyer Abroad” and “Pudd’n Head Wilson” also appeared about this period. After Suzy’s death, the family lived in England, where Clemens began his “Personal Recollections Of Joan of Arc,” his favorite of all books the books he had written, and what he considered to be his best. In l898, he paid off all of his creditors completely with the profits from these books and his lecture tours.

Mrs. Clemens died in Florence, Italy, in 1903, and five years later his youngest daughter, Jean, also died. For some time after her death, Mark Twain lived in Bermuda with friends. He returned to Connecticut, however, and he there died on April 21, 1910. He was buried in Elmira, New York.

Besides those books already mentioned, Mark Twain wrote: “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” “The Mysterious Stranger,” “What Is Man?”, his autobiography, and many other short stories. He gained his greatest fame as a humorist, although he was a true literary artist who wrote books showing profound thought and emotion as well. He excelled in a sort of humorous autobiography, however, and thoughtout both his speeches and books are found the spirit and adventurous nature of Mark Twain himself. He is loved by all the world as the greatest of America’s humorists.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens became a member of Polar Star Lodge No. 79, A.F.&A.M.; in St. Louis. He was initiated an Entered Apprentice on May 22nd, 1861; passed to the degree of Fellow Craft on June 12th, 1861; and raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason on July 10, 1861. It appears he was suspended for non-payment of dues for a period of time, but was reinstated on April 24th, 1867. He dimitted the following October. Presumably, he never again affiliated with any Lodge, but he is recorded as having visited Carson City Lodge U.D. in February and March of 1868.

During his trip to Palestine, he sent his Lodge a gavel with this note: “This mallet is cedar, cut in the forests of Lebanon, where Solomon obtained the famous timbers for his Temple.” Brother Clemens cut the handle himself from the cedar just outside the walls of Jerusalem and had the gavel made in Alexandria, Egypt. It was presented to Polar Star Lodge on April 8, 1868.

One of the outstanding attributes of Mark Twain’s work is its lasting popularity, for his books still rank among the best-selling books of the day. Investigations have shown that they are read with great enjoyment by old and young, rich and poor, for Mark Twain’s works cut across all class lines, and provide pleasure for all. Scholars are increasingly recognizing the greatness of his extensive written works. Many studies of the great humorist have been written, and his works are favorite subjects for Master’s Theses, and even an extensive study of his vocabulary was made as a Doctoral Dissertation. Groups of individuals have formed Mark Twain societies. Special collections of his books have been made by individuals and libraries, and these have, through their completeness and comprehensiveness become increasingly valuable. One of the most complete is owned by the State Historical Society of Missouri.

In 1925, the State of Missouri took over a 100-acre tract of land near Florida, Missouri as a state park, and named it in honor of Mark Twain. The house in Florida, purchased and given by M. A. Violette as the birthplace of the great writer, was placed in the park. Also, in tribute to his birthplace, the State of Missouri, in 1913, erected a granite shaft surmounted by a bust of Mark Twain in the center of the town square.

Hannibal Missouri, where he spent his youth and of which he wrote extensively in his books, has become practically the Mark Twain Center of the world. His boyhood home was purchased and restored by Mr. and Mrs. George A. Mahan and presented to the city of Hannibal. It is open to the public. Adjoining the home, a museum has been built, where mementos of Mark Twain are preserved. A large bronze statue of the author has been erected by the State in Hannibal’s Riverview Park, on a high cliff which overlooks the Mississippi river that he loved so much. A bronze statue of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, also donated by Mr. and Mrs. Mahan and their son, Dulany Mahan, has been erected at the foot of Cardiff Hill, which Mark Twain made famous. Throughout the City of Hannibal are markers which direct the traveler points of interest in the city of Mark Twain’s boyhood.

On the Centennial Anniversary of his birth, a great beacon light on Cardill Hill was dedicated in his honor during the celebration – which was also observed not only in Hannibal, but throughout the State of Missouri and the nation. The cave made famous in Tom Sawyer is now known as “Mark Twain’s Cave,” and it is visited annually by tens of thousands who have read and loved the author’s works.

No paper or biography about this Missouri Freemason would be complete without one of Mark Twain’s famous stories. Here is one — truth or fiction — you be the judge.

William Swinton was one of the loveliest human beings I have ever known, and we led a charmed existence together. He was highly educated, he was of a beautiful spirit; he was pure in heart and speech. He was a Scotchman and a Presbyterian. He hadn’t a vice, unless a large sympathy with Scotch Whiskey may be called a vice, because he was a Scotchman, Scotch Whiskey to a Scotchman is as innocent as milk is to the rest of the human race.I remember a time when a shortage occurred, we had to have three dollars and have it before the close of the day. Swinton told me to go out and find it, and he said he would also go see what he could do. He told me to give myself no uneasiness, and said in simple, confident way, “The Lord will provide.” Before he was done with me, his strong faith had had its influence, and I went forth almost convinced that the Lord would provide.

I wandered around the streets for an hour, trying to think up some way to get the money. At last I lounged into the big lobby of the Ebbitt House and sat down. Presently a dog came loafing along. He glanced at me and said with his eyes, “Are you friendly?” I answered with my eyes that I was. He gave his tail a grateful wag, and came forward and rested his jaw on my knee and lifted his brown eyes to my face in a winningly affectionate way. He was a lively creature, beautiful as a girl, and all of silk and velvet. I stroked his smooth brown head, fondled his drooping ears, and we were a pair of lovers right away.

Soon Brigadier General Miles, the hero of the land, came strolling by in his blue-and-gold splendors. He saw the dog and stopped, and there was a light in his eye which showed that he had a warm place in his heart for dogs like this gracious creature; then he came forward and patted the dog and said, “He is very fine, would you sell him?”

I was greatly moved, it seemed a marvelous thing to me, the way Swinton’s prediction had come true. I said, “Yes.”

The General said, “What do you ask for him?”

“Three dollars,” was my immediate reply.

The General was surprised. He said, “only three dollars? Why that dog can’t possibly be worth less than fifty. Reconsider your price if you like, I don’t wish to wrong you.”

I responded with the same quiet decision as before. “No, three dollars. That is his price.”

“Very well,” said the General, and he gave me three dollars and led the dog away upstairs.

In about ten minutes a gentle-faced, middle-aged gentleman came along and began to look here and there, and I said to him, “Is it a dog you are looking for?”

His face lit up and he answered, “Yes, have you seen him?”

“Yes,” I said, “he was here a minute ago and I saw him follow a gentleman away. I think I could find him for you if you would like me to try.”

I have seldom seen a person look so grateful, and he conceded that he would like me to try. I said I would do it with great pleasure, but that as it might take a little time and I hoped he would not mind paying me something for my trouble. He said, “Most gladly,” and ask me how much.

I said, “Three dollars.”

He looked surprised, and said, “Dear me, it is nothing! I will pay you ten, quite willingly.”

But I said, “No, three is the price,” and I started for the stairs without waiting for further argument for Swinton had said that that was the amount that the Lord would provide and it seemed to me that it would be sacrilegious to take a penny more than was promised.

I got the number of the General’s room, and when I reached the room, I found the General there caressing his dog. I said, “I am sorry, but I have to take the dog again.”

He seemed surprised, and said, “Take him again? Why, you sold him to me.”

“Yes,” I said, “it is true, but I have to have him because the man who owns him wants him again.”

For a moment the General couldn’t seem to find his voice. Then he said, “Do you mean to tell me that you were selling another man’s dog — and you knew it?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Then why did you sell him? Asked the General.

I said, “Well, that is a curious question to ask. I sold him because you wanted him. You offered to buy the dog; you can’t deny that. I was not anxious to sell him. I had not even thought of selling him, but it seemed to me that if it could be any accommodation to you . . .”

He broke me off, and said, “Accommodation to me? It is the most extraordinary spirit of accommodation I have ever heard of. The idea of your selling a dog that didn’t belong to you . . .”

I broke him off there and said, “There is no relevancy about this kind of argument; you said yourself that the dog was probably worth fifty dollars. I only asked you three; was there anything unfair about that?”

“Oh, what in the world has that to do with it! The crux of the matter is that you didn’t own the dog — can’t you see that?” replied the General.

I said, “Please don’t argue about it anymore. You can’t get around the fact that the price was perfectly fair – considering that I didn’t own the dog, so arguing about it is only a waste of words. I have to have him back again because the man wants him; don’t you see that? Put yourself in my place. Suppose you had sold a dog that didn’t belong to you; suppose you . . .”

“Oh,” he said, “don’t muddle my brains anymore with your idiotic reasonings! Take him along and give me a rest.”

So I paid back the three dollars and led the dog downstairs and passed him over to his owner and collected three dollars for my trouble. I went away then with a good conscience because I had acted honorably. I never could have used the three that I sold the dog for, because it was not rightly my own, but the three I earned for returning him to his rightful owner was righteously and properly mine because I had earned it. Why, that poor man might never have gotten his dog back at all, if it hadn’t been for me.

Then, that is the tale. Some of it is true.~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Researched and written by:
Right Worshipful Brother Gerald W. Burnworth
P.M., Freedom Lodge No. 636, A.F.&A.M.; (now Algabil-Freedom Lodge),
Mehlville, Missouri.