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1850s: Rackliffe brothers provided an inspiration for Twain’s writings

Dr. John Rackliffe lived with his family on the northeast corner of Fourth and Hill Street, Hannibal, at the time of the 1860 census. He was father to five sons. Dr. Rackliffe died circa 1862, and his wife, Matilda, died about a year later. It is not known where Dr. and Mrs. Rackliffe are buried. This house also served as the birthplace of noted portrait artist J. Carroll Beckwith (1852-1917). Photo contributed by Meryl Martin Dexheimer.


Undisputedly, Sam Clemens had an uncanny ability to turn the ordinary into extraordinary. As the writer known as Mark Twain, he transformed the citizens of early Hannibal into memorable characters.

Such was the case of two Rackliffe brothers, presumably Edwin A., and Washington F., sons of prominent Hannibal physician, James Rackliffe M.D. (circa 1794-1862).

In “American Gothic,” by Charles L. Crow, accessed online via Google Books, Twain’s account of the Rackliffe brothers is quoted:

Charles Crow wrote: “A manuscript (Mark Twain) composed in the 1890s, known as ‘Villagers 1840-43’, lists a series of people and families from Hannibal, each followed with a brief note. The memories are bits of hidden village life, the stuff of the Gothic. For example, the family named Ratcliffe (sic) that was cursed with a strain of recurring insanity.”

Mark Twain wrote: “One son lived in a bark hut up at the still house branch and at intervals came home at night and emptied the larder. Back door left open purposely; if notice was taken of him he would not come.

“Another son had to be locked into a small house in the corner of the yard - and chained. Fed through a hole. Would not wear clothes, winter or summer. Could not have fire. Religious mania. Believed his left hand had committed a mortal sin and must be sacrificed. Got hold of a hatchet, nobody knows how, and chopped it off.”


It wasn’t just Clemens who thought the two boys odd; their father apparently shared the same concerns.

In his will, written in 1860 prior to his death circa 1862, Dr. Rackliffe appointed his first born son, Charles James Rackliff to serve as executor over his younger sons’ inheritance.

Edwin A., (born circa 1826) and Washington F. Rackliffe (born circa 1832) were to receive a sum of $2,000 each, “provided that they shall so reform their habits, so that Charles J. Rackliffe shall think it safe and property to pay said legacies to them.”

Otherwise, they were to receive monthly stipends.

It is unclear what the ultimate fate was of these young men, but a hint was printed in The Sacramento Bee, dated Jan. 27, 1859: “Washington F. Rackcliffe, (sic) a victim of spiritualism, attempted to commit suicide at St. Louis, on the 30th December, by cutting his throat with a razor. Rackcliffe is a druggist.”

Rackliffe family

From all outward appearances, the Rackliffe family, natives of Worcester County, Maryland, lived a comfortable existence in Hannibal. The house where they lived in 1859, at 400 N. Fourth St., is best remembered as the birthplace of noted portrait artist J. Carroll Beckwith (1852-1917). The structure was in place on Block 20, Lot 8, at the time Sam Clemens, who had been working at his brother’s newspaper on Main Street, left Hannibal in 1853. The house remains in place today.

By 1859, Dr. James Rackliffe - a resident and land owner in Hannibal and its surrounding environment since pre-1840 - had settled into the former Beckwith house with his wife, the former Matilda Fassett.

The father of five sons born to his first wife (Matilda’s sister) Margaret, Dr. Rackliffe joined other Hannibal physicians in the treatment of the town’s population. Two other noteworthy physicians at the time were Dr. Hugh Meredith and Dr. David T. Morton, mentioned by Tilden S. Selmes, an early Hannibal merchant, banker and mayor, in a letter written to his in-laws in Vermont on

April 11, 1855.

Dr. Rackliffe’s oldest son, Charles James Rackcliffe (1819-1899) became a respected attorney in Hannibal. He and his wife, Mary, are buried at Sunrise Cemetery, located near Taylor, Mo.

Other sons are:

• Sidney Alexander Rackliffe (1823-1899). He was 75 when he died, and was buried in Oakland, California, Mountain View Cemetery. He had worked as a printer in San Francisco. Survivors included his brothers, John Radcliffe, who lived on Oakland Avenue, Piedmont Heights, Oakland, and Charles J. Rackliffe of Missouri (who died later that same year.) Sidney inherited a gold watch and chain upon his father’s death.

• Edwin August Rackcliffe, born circa 1826.

• John Rackcliffe, born circa 1828. His obituary in the San Francisco Examiner on April 18, 1901, notes: “He was born in Maryland in 1828 and came to California in 1849. With his brother, (Sidney) Mr. Rackliffe first settled in Marysville, where they engaged in mining. Thirty years ago the family came to this city and have lived here ever since.” He was survived by his widow, Mrs. Ellen M. Rackliffe, and two children, Frank Rackliffe and Mrs. A.W. Duck.”

• Washington F. Rackcliffe, born circa 1832. In 1850-59, he worked as a druggist in St. Louis.

In 1860, Dr. Rackcliffe and his second wife, Matilda, had two slaves, Mary and her daughter Ellen.

Mrs. Rackcliffe

Matilda Rackcliffe penned her will in December 1862, and following her death soon thereafter, she stipulated that the Rev. John Leighton, her executor, could occupy her house and lot for a period of five years, rent free, as long as he pay the taxes and keep up necessary repairs. At the end of that period, the house was to become the property of the two children of her step-son, Charles J. Rackliffe: Clair Rackliffe (1863-1938) and Mary Rackliffe (born circa 1861).

Mrs. Rackcliffe left her cow to Mrs. Leighton. Rev. Leighton was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, corner of Sixth and Center.

She gave her china, silverware and knives to Mrs. Edward Driffield.

She asked Mrs. Ann E. McMaster “to take my negro girl Ellen and raise her until she is twenty years old, then she is to be free. In consideration of her complying with my request I give and bequeath to the said Mrs. Ann E. McMaster my watch and chain.”

To John and Sidney A. Rackliffe (now living in California) she gave the balance of the money she had on hand.


Thanks to Hallie Yundt Silver, director of the Hannibal Free Public Library, for her assistance in finding the Twain quote previously mentioned.

Dr. Rackliffe owned vast land holdings in Township 57, Range 4 West, Section 30, (to the east of what is now St. Mary’s avenue,) as early as 1840. Thus the street name “Rackliffe.” But that’s a story for another day.

Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on by this author include but are not limited to: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870,” “Hannibal’s ‘West End,’ and the newest book, “Oakwood: West of Hannibal.” Montgomery can be reached at Her collective works can be found at


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