If you’re a Mark Twain enthusiast and up for an adventure, visit Hartford, Connecticut. It may not be the riverside town of Hannibal, Missouri, where he grew up, or the storied California gold country, but it was his home from 1874 to 1891 – and you can say you’ve stepped foot in the place where he penned “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Guests are not allowed into Samuel Clemens’s home alone – he collected many valuable things over the years, as one can imagine – so I picked a tour with living history character Lizzie Wills, Clemens’s maid and “a general busybody.”
Lizzie led us to the porch of his gigantic red brick mansion and opened its grandiose wooden door to let us in.
“‘Picturesque gothic’ is what the architect called it,” she said, once we were standing inside the impressive entrance hall with walls and its tall ceiling painted red with black and silver patterns.
Clemens’s home indeed seemed “part steamboat, part medieval fortress and part cuckoo clock,” as his biographer Justin Kaplan described it.
Lizzie walked us up the winding staircase, with a railing we could touch, to the second floor. Clemens wasn’t home, she said, and offered to take us into the master bedroom.
“I won’t tell if you don’t tell,” she whispered loudly.
For having such a big house with 25 rooms, Clemens’ own bedroom was smaller than I expected. But it was full of character, featuring an elaborate bedstead with carved angels that he purchased from Venice.
Lizzie took us through the other bedrooms, the guest room, the drawing room, the dining room and a lush conservatory that Clemens’s daughters called “The Jungle,” and accurately so.
However, the highlight for many guests, myself included, was the billiard room. The large space on the third floor, above the busy parts of the home, is where Clemens relaxed and entertained friends late into the night, and burned the midnight oil on his literary works.
“Oh the things he’s worked on here … ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ ‘The Prince and the Pauper,’” Lizzie told us. “And he does not like to be interrupted. He can write for hours when he’s inspired. We’re not even allowed to dust!”
Even without Clemens, the room had a special feel to it.
Our visit ended in the basement, which Lizzie said was only accessible to guests touring the home with a living history character like herself. She showed us some household items of the period such as a 19th century iron, and let us touch and take pictures of Clemens’s manuscripts and books.
Lizzie then revealed her real identity as a Mark Twain House tour guide Barbara Gallow and that all her stories “are true, including the fact that Lizzie got caught” with a man in the house she ended up getting hitched with, and had to stop working for the Clemenses because married women were not allowed to work in other men’s houses unless their husbands did too. Lizzie maintained a good relationship with the family, according to Gallow.
I ended my stay in the place Clemens long called home at the accompanying museum, where I heard an audio recording of one of his famous quotes that cemented the trip to Hartford as worthwhile.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” Clemens wrote in the conclusion of “The Innocents Abroad.” “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”