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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XXVI. The Tragedy of the "Pennsylvania"
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Captain Klinefelter obtained his steersman a pass on the A. T. Lacey,
which left two days behind the Pennsylvania. This was pleasant, for Bart
Bowen had become captain of that fine boat. The Lacey touched at
Greenville, Mississippi, and a voice from the landing shouted:
"The Pennsylvania is blown up just below Memphis, at Ship Island! One
hundred and fifty lives lost!"
Nothing further could be learned there, but that evening at Napoleon a
Memphis extra reported some of the particulars. Henry Clemens's name was
mentioned as one of those, who had escaped injury. Still farther up the
river they got a later extra. Henry was again mentioned; this time as
being scalded beyond recovery. By the time they reached Memphis they
knew most of the details: At six o'clock that warm mid-June morning,
while loading wood from a large flat-boat sixty miles below Memphis, four
out of eight of the Pennsylvania's boilers had suddenly exploded with
fearful results. All the forward end of the boat had been blown out.
Many persons had been killed outright; many more had been scalded and
crippled and would die. It was one of those hopeless, wholesale
steamboat slaughters which for more than a generation had made the
Mississippi a river of death and tears.
Samuel Clemens found his brother stretched upon a mattress on the floor
of an improvised hospital--a public hall--surrounded by more than thirty
others more or less desperately injured. He was told that Henry had
inhaled steam and that his body was badly scalded. His case was
Henry was one of those who had been blown into the river by the
explosion. He had started to swim for the shore, only a few hundred
yards away, but presently, feeling no pain and believing himself unhurt,
he had turned back to assist in the rescue of the others. What he did
after that could not be clearly learned. The vessel had taken fire; the
rescued were being carried aboard the big wood-boat still attached to the
wreck. The fire soon raged so that the rescuers and all who could be
saved were driven into the wood-flat, which was then cut adrift and
landed. There the sufferers had to lie in the burning sun many hours
until help could come. Henry was among those who were insensible by that
time. Perhaps he had really been uninjured at first and had been scalded
in his work of rescue; it will never be known.
His brother, hearing these things, was thrown into the deepest agony and
remorse. He held himself to blame for everything; for Henry's presence
on the boat; for his advice concerning safety of others; for his own
absence when he might have been there to help and protect the boy. He
wanted to telegraph at once to his mother and sister to come, but the
doctors persuaded him to wait--just why, he never knew. He sent word of
the disaster to Orion, who by this time had sold out in Keokuk and was in
East Tennessee studying law; then he set himself to the all but hopeless
task of trying to bring Henry back to life. Many Memphis ladies were
acting as nurses, and one, a Miss Wood, attracted by the boy's youth and
striking features, joined in the desperate effort. Some medical students
had come to assist the doctors, and one of these also took special
interest in Henry's case. Dr. Peyton, an old Memphis practitioner,
declared that with such care the boy might pull through.
But on the fourth night he was considered to be dying. Half delirious
with grief and the strain of watching, Samuel Clemens wrote to his mother
and to his sister-in-law in Tennessee. The letter to Orion Clemens's
wife has been preserved.
MEMPHIS, TENN., Friday, June 18, 1858.
DEAR SISTER MOLLIE,--Long before this reaches you my poor Henry--my
darling, my pride, my glory, my all will have finished his blameless
career, and the light of my life will have gone out in utter
darkness. The horrors of three days have swept over me--they have
blasted my youth and left me an old man before my time. Mollie,
there are gray hairs in my head to-night. For forty-eight hours I
labored at the bedside of my poor burned and bruised but
uncomplaining brother, and then the star of my hope went out and
left me in the gloom of despair. Men take me by the hand and
congratulate me, and call me "lucky" because I was not on the
Pennsylvania when she blew up! May God forgive them, for they know
not what they say.
I was on the Pennsylvania five minutes before she left N. Orleans,
and I must tell you the truth, Mollie--three hundred human beings
perished by that fearful disaster. But may God bless Memphis, the
noblest city on the face of the earth. She has done her duty by
these poor afflicted creatures--especially Henry, for he has had
five--aye, ten, fifteen, twenty times the care and attention that
any one else has had. Dr. Peyton, the best physician in Memphis (he
is exactly like the portraits of Webster), sat by him for 36 hours.
There are 32 scalded men in that room, and you would know Dr.
Peyton better than I can describe him if you could follow him around
and hear each man murmur as he passes, "May the God of Heaven bless
you, Doctor!" The ladies have done well, too. Our second mate, a
handsome, noble-hearted young fellow, will die. Yesterday a
beautiful girl of 15 stooped timidly down by his side and handed him
a pretty bouquet. The poor suffering boy's eyes kindled, his lips
quivered out a gentle "God bless you, Miss," and he burst into
tears. He made them write her name on a card for him, that he might
not forget it.
Pray for me, Mollie, and pray for my poor sinless brother.
Your unfortunate brother,
SAML. L. CLEMENS.
P. S.--I got here two days after Henry.
But, alas, this was not all, nor the worst. It would seem that Samuel
Clemens's cup of remorse must be always overfull. The final draft that
would embitter his years was added the sixth night after the accident--
the night that Henry died. He could never bring himself to write it. He
was never known to speak of it but twice.
Henry had rallied soon after the foregoing letter had been mailed, and
improved slowly that day and the next: Dr. Peyton came around about
eleven o'clock on the sixth night and made careful examination. He said:
"I believe he is out of danger and will get well. He is likely to be
restless during the night; the groans and fretting of the others will
disturb him. If he cannot rest without it, tell the physician in charge
to give him one-eighth of a grain of morphine."
The boy did wake during the night, and was disturbed by the complaining
of the other sufferers. His brother told the young medical student in
charge what the doctor had said about the morphine. But morphine was a
new drug then; the student hesitated, saying:
"I have no way of measuring. I don't know how much an eighth of a grain
Henry grew rapidly worse--more and more restless. His brother was half
beside himself with the torture of it. He went to the medical student.
"If you have studied drugs," he said, "you ought to be able to judge an
eighth of a grain of morphine."
The young man's courage was over-swayed. He yielded and ladled out in
the old-fashioned way, on the point of a knife-blade, what he believed to
be the right amount. Henry immediately sank into a heavy sleep. He died
before morning. His chance of life had been infinitesimal, and his death
was not necessarily due to the drug, but Samuel Clemens, unsparing in his
self-blame, all his days carried the burden of it.
He saw the boy taken to the dead room, then the long strain of grief, the
days and nights without sleep, the ghastly realization of the end
overcame him. A citizen of Memphis took him away in a kind of daze and
gave him a bed in his house, where he fell into a stupor of fatigue and
surrender. It was many hours before he woke; when he did, at last, he
dressed and went to where Henry lay. The coffin provided for the dead
were of unpainted wood, but the youth and striking face of Henry Clemens
had aroused a special interest. The ladies of Memphis had made up a fund
of sixty dollars and bought for him a metallic case. Samuel Clemens
entering, saw his brother lying exactly as he had seen him in his dream,
lacking only the bouquet of white flowers with its crimson center--a
detail made complete while he stood there, for at that moment an elderly
lady came in with a large white bouquet, and in the center of it was a
single red rose.
Orion arrived from Tennessee, and the brothers took their sorrowful
burden to St. Louis, subsequently to Hannibal, his old home. The death
of this lovely boy was a heavy sorrow to the community where he was
known, for he had been a favorite with all.--[For a fine
characterization of Henry Clemens the reader is referred to a letter
written by Orion Clemens to Miss Wood. See Appendix A, at the end of the
From Hannibal the family returned to Pamela's home in St. Louis. There
one night Orion heard his brother moaning and grieving and walking the
floor of his room. By and by Sam came in to where Orion was. He could
endure it no longer, he said; he must, "tell somebody."
Then he poured all the story of that last tragic night. It has been set
down here because it accounts for much in his after-life. It magnified
his natural compassion for the weakness and blunders of humanity, while
it increased the poor opinion implanted by the Scotchman Macfarlane of
the human being as a divine invention. Two of Mark Twain's chief
characteristics were--consideration for the human species, and contempt
In many ways he never overcame the tragedy of Henry's death. He never
really looked young again. Gray hairs had come, as he said, and they did
not disappear. His face took on the serious, pathetic look which from
that time it always had in repose. At twenty-three he looked thirty. At
thirty he looked nearer forty. After that the discrepancy in age and
looks became less notable. In vigor, complexion, and temperament he was
regarded in later life as young for his years, but never in looks.