October 1, 2012

The true adventures of the real life Tom Sawyer


As we sit on our hands and wait for Volume Two of the University of California Press‘ edition of Mark Twain’s autobiography to issue forth, with heft and hilarity, Robert Graysmith over at Smithsonian Magazine has dug up the story of the real Tom Sawyer, who Twain met in a Turkish bath in San Francisco in 1863. Sawyer worked as a customs inspector and was also a volunteer fireman, though he was saving up money to open his own saloon, which he did in 1865, calling it “The Gotham.” The two men had many things in common, especially a past spent on steamboats. It was while Sawyer was serving as a fire engineer on the steamer Independence, ten years before, that he had exhibited extraordinary heroism: the Independence struck a reef off Baja, the fires in the furnaces spread to the rest of ship, and Sawyer saved ninety lives, swimming back and forth from the vessel as it went up in flames, despite the fact that he himself had received burns.

Graysmith identifies this experience of Sawyer’s as one that spoke very deeply to Twain. Just a couple of years earlier, Twain had gotten his younger brother, Henry, a job on a steamboat, the Pennsylvania, traveling up and down the Mississippi. Twain had also been aboard, but he left the ship at New Orleans. On June 13th, four boilers on the Pennsylvania blew up and Henry had been horribly burned — it took him seven days to die and Twain never forgave himself. “My nightmares to this day,” he wrote at the end of his life, “take the form of my dead brother.”

Sawyer and Twain were close friends for just a few years in San Francisco, and Graysmith’s article gives you an excellent sense of what it was like to be Mark Twain’s friend. First, he’d invite you up to a mining town and help you lose all your money. Then, he’d outtalk you on any occasion he could find. Then, he’d promise you that he’d write a book about you and ask you on the spot how many copies you’d like to buy. Sawyer’s account of the book’s origins goes like this:

He walks up to me and puts both hands on my shoulders. “Tom,” he says, “I’m going to write a book about a boy and the kind I have in mind was just about the toughest boy in the world. Tom, he was just such a boy as you must have been….How many copies will you take, Tom, half cash?”

A reporter from the San Francisco Daily Morning Call went out to interview Tom Sawyer at the Gotham in 1898 and found him entirely surrounded by firefighting paraphernalia and with many happy memories of benders he’d gone on with “Sam,” who he said “beat the record for lyin’ — nobody was in the race with him there.”

The Smithsonian has posted the only known video footage of Twain (which  you can also see in our own recent “Think Differently” video), along with a video of “Thomas Edison’s boxing cats” (Edison’s uncanny understanding of just what people would want to watch on the Internet boggles the mind.)

The real Tom lived until 1906, valiantly fighting fires and mixing drinks up to the end. And when he died, his obit called him “godfather, so to speak, to the one of the most enjoyable books ever written.”


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.