MUSCATINE, Iowa – Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, spent a small part of his life in Muscatine, even working at the Muscatine Journal with his brother, Orion, in the early 1850s. He was apparently very fond of me Mark Twain's Hannibal home had its share of slavesMuscatine’s colorful sunsets.
But he spent most of his formative years in Hannibal, Mo., the place he called his hometown.
A modern-day Hannibal lawyer who also practices across the Mississippi River in Quincy, Ill., Terrell Dempsey, spun some stories Wednesday depicting what life was like for people such as one of Twain’s enduring characters, Jim, the runaway slave, in a talk at Muscatine Community College called “True Stories from Mark Twain’s Hometown.” The hour-long talk was part of the Alexander Clark Cultural Series and occurred as part of MCC’s Diversity Day (see related story, Page 3B).
Dempsey, the author of “Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens’ World,” said that slave ownership in Marion County, for which Hannibal is the county seat, during the years leading up to the Civil War was much more common than most people think. About 44 percent of families owned a slave, even though there was “no real economic use for them,” such as working the tobacco or cotton fields.
As a result, most slaves in Hannibal – and Samuel Clemens’ parents owned three each when they were married – were leased out a year at a time, with the owner obligated only to provide a change of clothes, a pair of shoes and medical care.
“My best estimate,” Dempsey said, “is that a slave in a house was as common as an automatic dishwasher is today.”
Without an income tax, government was dependent on slavery to pay for services. In 1856, 20 percent of Marion County’s revenue came via taxes on slaves.
Sadly, most slave owners preferred to own children, who were “easy to dominate and exploit sexually,” he said. Dempsey found records of a 3-year-old being sold in Hannibal as well as a 4-year-old crippled child who sold for $155.
“It wasn’t kinder and gentler slavery,” like he’d been led to believe it was before doing his research, he said. “It was ubiquitous.”
It’s also true, he said, that some churches justified slavery because of a Biblical story depicting Noah’s son Ham, who some Biblical scholars said was the ancestor of black people, being cursed by God because Ham saw his father naked.
That kind of thinking was reflected in a typical Sunday school lesson called “The Slave’s Catechism,” which was intended for black children in Missouri at the time, Dempsey said: Who gave you a master and a mistress? God did. Who says to obey them? God says. What book tells you? The Bible.
Dempsey called Clemens’ family “poster children for slavery” because “his family purchased, leased and sold slaves in just about every way possible.” Young Samuel once complained to his mother about a house slave named Sandy who annoyed Samuel with his cheerful whistling and unceasing singing. But Samuel’s mother shushed her son, saying that “when (Sandy) sings, it shows he is not remembering, and that comforts me. If he can sing, be thankful for it.”
It was almost as if Clemens’ mother, Jane Lampton Clemens, “was innocent of Sandy being stripped from his mother,” Dempsey said.
Clemens’ father, John Marshall Clemens, was a Hannibal justice of the peace and a juror in a case that sent what Dempsey called “three naïve abolitionists” – George Thompson, James Brill and Alanson Work – to prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
But their conviction brought about unintended consequences, Dempsey noted: slaves who’d set them up in the first place later sent a messenger to visit them in prison to apologize for the treatment they’d received. “We’re sorry,” the slaves’ leader, Anthony, told the three. “We didn’t know people like you existed.”
After that, Underground Railroad activity increased throughout Missouri and there was “amazing positive fallout from the disaster,” including Missouri’s decision not to secede from the Union – if only to keep in force the Fugitive Slave Act that allowed slave owners to reclaim what they still saw as their property.
Lest those in attendance think that all that history is behind us, Dempsey cited the 2010 decision by the Texas State Board of Education to require textbooks in that state to include, among other assertions, that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights and not slavery.
“The past is really important – OK?” Dempsey said.