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The Town that Created Mark Twain: Hannibal, Missouri

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
December 29, 2023 3:04 am

The Town that Created Mark Twain: Hannibal, Missouri

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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December 29, 2023 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Hannibal spared Mark Twain from nothing—exposing him to poverty, death, racism, and the need to make decisions for himself. Here's Richard Garey, a Mark Twain aficionado, with the story of this all-important town.

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No matter how ludicrous the situation. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. State Farm, Bloomington, Illinois. And we continue with our American stories and we love to bring you stories of places across this great country of ours. And today we bring you the story of a town. Hannibal, Missouri, was in the mid eighteen hundreds a gateway to the vast unknown territory beyond the Mississippi and the town that shaped Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the father of American literature, better known as Mark Twain. Here is Richard Gary, who spent the better part of three decades portraying Twain in a play he's written based on transcripts of Twain's own on stage material. In the early 2000s, Richard bought an old stable in the heart of Hannibal, Missouri, and turned it into a theater where he performs regularly. We just had to sit down and ask him about this wild town and the man it produced.

Here is Richard Gary. Well, what you have to understand is that when you cross the Mississippi River, you're in the West. It also was a river town. And that combination of being a western town and a river town assured that this this was going to be wild. And then people are heading west. And this was a main immigration route because they wanted to get out to St. Joe, where the wagon trains were. So you could take the Oregon Trail, you could take the California Trail or the Santa Fe Trail from St. Joe. Steamboats would hit town.

Every type of character on earth would get off. Sam Clemens, one day he was up here in this area somewhere and he heard yelling. So his curiosity got the better of him, went down. Two men are yelling. Some sort of argument. And one of them said, well, let's just take this argument to arms. And the other one said, well, that's fine with me. I'll just shoot you dead.

It's kind of like the old westerns, you know. So they went out, paced off 15 paces. Turned and fired. And the little one was right. He got the other one right in the chest. They both got shots off. Sam Clemens is standing there.

Can you imagine his mother with all her children growing up and all of that. And so they picked the man up. They took him over to Grant's Drug Store and put him out on the floor. And when shooting like that would happen in a small place, and about a thousand people lived here at that time, they all gather down there. What's going on?

And so the latecomers, and Sam describes this, the latecomers come up and they go, oh, move over. I pay taxes. I have as much a right to see a man die as anybody else.

Move it. And so he said someone ran out and fetched a heavy Bible and brought it back. And he said, I was just a boy, but I thought it was cruel.

Very cruel. Because they opened that heavy Bible up and they put it down on that poor man's chest. He was struggling to breathe. And according to the story, that pretty much did it.

He breathed his last there. But he used that story in Huckleberry Finn. It's the killing of old Boggs by Colonel Sherburn, but it actually happened right down there.

And he said, all writers that I know, they take everything that's ever happened to them, and eventually it goes into the material. But this little alleyway here by the building is Dead Man's Alley. Well-earned, wide open gambling places, saloons, stabbings in this alleyway. The whole town had that atmosphere, and that's why I say a Wild West town.

Not totally lawless, but there's certainly that element. You know, the locals always trying to keep a lid on things. And then people coming from who knows where. And really, they came from all over the world through here. On one occasion, an English lord came through here on safari. And that made sense because just like they went to Africa, they came here for American game.

You know, Grizzlies, Buffalo, Bighorn sheep, whatever. And so he came through with his entourage, got off the steamboat, headed on safari. The steamboats, it's part of the lore here. It's one reason the town existed as a trading center. There were no roads in those days, just none.

Just trails. But the Mississippi was their highway here. A huge commercial and transportation vehicle in the center part of the country here. Like Sam Flemons' family, they came up here on the steamboat. They didn't come covered wagons. He wasn't born here. He was born west of here in a tiny little place called Florida, Monroe County, Missouri.

And I think Florida had about 100 people in it when he was born. They preserved his house. It's over there as a tourist attraction. It's inside a building. And it's a tiny little house. He said, I've always referred to it as a palace, but there are photographs now.

So I shall have to be more guarded. When he was four, they moved here for greater opportunities. And his father built that house over on Hill Street, the White House over there.

And that's where they lived first here. Then after his father died, they were very poor. I can't imagine anyone more poverty-stricken than he was as a boy. And he became our first celebrity worldwide. He could get off a train in India and be instantly recognized.

He's a worldwide phenomenon. But he came from this little place. In those days, people helped each other out. But he says his mother was not too proud to take any job. She took in washing. His sister gave piano lessons over at the house.

They did literally everything. And then she took him out of school at the start of sixth grade. And he was apprentice to Mr. A. Mint, who ran a newspaper. The building was right here in this lot. The hotel was over here in that building over on that side. There was a store down below, and his office was on the second floor. He didn't get paid anything as an apprentice.

But he got room and board, so that's one less mouth to feed. And he's learning a trade. And he says he has no regrets from those days, because right down there is where he learned to write in that newspaper office. And I can throw a stone down there from here. It's just wonderful having that in my backyard. And we've been listening to Richard Gary, who has spent the better part of three decades portraying Twain in a play he's written based on transcripts of Twain's own on-stage material.

More from this story in Hannibal, Missouri, the town that created Mark Twain. This is Our American Stories. Let's face it, most people aren't making massive turkey feasts on the regular.

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Any monthly withdrawals or transfers reduce earnings. And we return to our American stories and to Richard Gary's storytelling about a small town in Missouri called Hannibal. It happens to also be the place that Mark Twain put on the map. Let's return to Richard. He had a, his mother rented a little slave, Sandy. And in all respects, except official, he became his brother living in the house over there. I think it's all those experiences that led, you know, to his amazing movement from the culture of his time to someone who created that tiring, heroic black figure. Don't give him enough credit. He's criticized for using the N-word, but oh, he was so far ahead.

This is Racism Central right here when he grew up. He was willing to examine everything. He believed that you needed to examine everything. He said, you need to look at life, you need to think about it, and then make up your own rules. And he said, that's not as easy as it sounds.

But I think that's what he did. And he grew up thinking that slavery was God-ordained. His father was a slaveholder.

Half the town was slave, half free. But he didn't, as he grew up, he didn't just accept it. He was willing to challenge himself to think about it. And of course, he had some great influences like Sandy and like Uncle Dannell, he was a slave on his uncle's farm. They used to tell them stories every night. He was a master storyteller, not formally educated at all, but he said the most educated man I ever knew. He told them all the Uncle Remus tales. Long before Joel Chandler Harris wrote them down, they were folklore. And so he would hold them spellbound and he said, that good man gave me my love of story and literature. Single-handedly, he said, he just handed it to me every night I heard him.

And so he's the model for Jim, Uncle Dannell. But all those experiences he thought about, he pondered. And then I think the catalyst when he went out to California, he saw how the Chinese were being treated and it outraged him. And he took up their cause in the newspaper.

That was his first foray into defense of a minority. And then Huckleberry Finn is into that whole question of slavery and the rights of black men. What you see in Huckleberry Finn is this boy and this man going down the river, trying to escape from that hole. The boy is escaping a drunk, abusive father and Jim is escaping slavery. And as they go along, though, as you read the book, it slowly dawns on Huckleberry, this is a man.

I've never thought of him as a man. And it's just a little chipping away, chipping away, chipping away. See, they told them in Sunday school that if they didn't tell him to run away, they would go to hell. That's quite a threat and something that would have a lot of influence on a kid. And they see some lines and Huckleberry says, that might be Cairo, better go paddle ashore and see. So he had made up his mind telling him. But he had already written a letter too. So he pushes off and Jim says, there you go, the old true huck.

You're the only white gentleman to ever keep his promise, old Jim. He took the tuck out of him and he got to thinking. So he tore up the letter. And he said, well, I'll just go to hell. See, that's when he goes, this is my friend.

This is a human being. I'm not going to do it. I'll go to hell. That's what it means. It's powerful. Now it hits you right.

It's like it's what I call Hannibal finesse. He takes a two by four and slaps you across the face with it. You know, wake up.

This is what in any time you're denigrating one of these people, you know, what are you doing? But what makes it even more powerful is that he came out of all of that where it was just an everyday thing. He's immersed in that racism. I mean, up to his little neck, you know, in it every day.

Yet he comes out of it. And that's part of what I've been fascinated with, you know, this how that how did that happen and what. And I think part of it is, is that that independence here where nobody forces anyone to their point of view here. You can fly your own flag if you want. And it's still here. And I think it used to be more prevalent in America that that was possible. And I don't disagree with you.

That's fine. You can still be neighbors. I remember my grandfather saying that man came over. I'm from Tennessee originally. My grandfather had a cotton farm that I worked on growing up and my grandfather always voted Republican. Now, if you don't know much about the South in those days, that was the protest party. That was the party of reconstruction. That was anti-racism. And the Democrat Party was a party of Jim Crow and keeping people down.

And the guy came over. See, my great grandfather fought for the union. He was born in Ireland, came here, hated slavery, fought for the union in the war. And so my family had always been Republican there in the South. So this guy comes over and says, Chester, you're going to have to vote Democratic this time. There's just no way you can vote Republican. And my grandfather said, well, there is.

I just go in and mark my ballot. He said, no, you're really. I'd hate to get rough on you. My grandfather said, well, you can get as rough as you want, but we'll still remain friends and you'll vote Democrat and I'll vote Republican. And yes, there was a time when such things happened.

I think they still happen here today, though maybe not as frequently as we would like. And you were listening to Richard Gary. And my goodness, I don't think there's a guy in America who knows more about the subject of Hannibal, Missouri, or Mark Twain. And again, he has spent the better part of three decades portraying Twain based on Twain's own writing. And some of the transcript of Twain's own onstage material. The father of American literature, Mark Twain, the town he spent the formative part of his young life.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-12-29 04:38:46 / 2023-12-29 04:46:59 / 8

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