Story of Twain-related structure's dedication spread far and wide in 1959


Classic 1950s photo of the Mark Twain properties on Hill Street in Hannibal, Mo. STEVE CHOU COLLECTION

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Kansas City Times on Wednesday, April 29, 1959. It was written by William B. Spaun . Spaun started the campaign to preserve the Hannibal justice of the peace court of John Marshall Clemens in Spaun's capacity as president of the tenth judicial circuit bar association. He enlisted the aid of John Winkler, chairman of the Mark Twain Commission, and of Charles Walker, who authentically restored the old building. Lt. Gov. Edward V. Long of Missouri was the keynote speaker at the dedication. Honored guests were be Jacob M. Lashly of St. Louis, former president of the American Bar association, and Harry Gershenson, also of St. Louis, immediate past vice president of the Missouri Bar association.

HANNIBAL, MO. ­ Attention will be focused tomorrow upon a rather obscure lawyer by the name of John Marshall Clemens, when lawyers, judges and others converge upon the lazy river town of Hannibal to dedicate his law office as a historic site.

John Marshall Clemens reached the peak of his professional career as a county judge, at $2 a day while serving. But fame came to him for he was the father of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain .

The elder Clemens was admitted to the bar as a young man in Kentucky. Later he practiced in Tennessee, and for a while he was acting attorney general.

When the Clemens family migrated to Florida, Mo., in Monroe County, John Clemens had great hopes of using his knowledge of law to gain a reputation and wealth there. During 1837 he became a judge of the Monroe County court. His official duties were mainly concerned with probate jurisdiction. He was ever after known as "Judge."

Moved to Hannibal

Finding that opportunities were sparser in Florida than he had hoped, Judge Clemens in 1839 moved his family to Hannibal. Little Sam was then 4 years old. Some time later, probably in 1842, John Clemens was appointed a justice of the peace.

One day young Sam Clemens played hookey from school. Being afraid to go home that night and face his father's anger, he crept into the justice of the peace office to sleep. It was the time of a full moon, and Sammie dozed as the rays gradually moved across the floor.

Sometime in the night he opened his eyes drowsily. There on the floor, revealed by the moonlight, was the corpse of a man, a man who had been stabbed in the breast. In the moonlight the ghastly features leered at the boy. Sam went out the window.

"I went, and I carried the sash with me," he said afterward, when recalling the incident in "Innocents Abroad," and to lecture audiences. "I did not need the sash, but it was handier to take it than it was to leave it, so l took it."

First Homicide

The dead man had been killed on the street in the evening and carried into the building to await an investigation the following day. He was James McFarland, a Ralls County farmer, and it was Hannibal's first homicide. It occurred September 4, 1843.

"My father was justice of the peace," wrote Mark Twain in "Life on the Mississippi," and, "I supposed he possessed the power of life and death over all men, and could hang anybody that offended him." Beyond question he belonged to that tradition of buckskin jurisprudence which had once impelled Andrew Jackson, as a Tennessee circuit judge, to leave the bench, pistol in hand, and hale into court a desperado armed to the teeth whom the sheriff had feared to arrest. An undated clipping from the St. Louis Republican, in a scrapbook inherited by Mark Twain 's grandnephew Samuel Webster, described John M. Clemens, justice of the peace, as "A stern, unbending man of splendid common sense.... The autocrat of the little dingy room on Bird street where he held his court.... Its furniture consisted of a drygoods box which served the double purpose of a desk for the judge and table for the lawyers, three or four rude stools and a puncheon bench for the jury. And here on court days when the judge climbed upon his three-legged stool, rapped on the box with his knuckles and demanded 'Silence in the court' it was fully expected that silence would reign supreme."

A Disturbance Quelled

The narrator tells how, one day in the late autumn of 1843, Judge Clemens quelled a disturbance in his court -- after a bellicose plaintiff named McDonald had so provoked a witness named Snyder that the latter discharged an old pepper-pot revolver, "filling the room with smoke and consternation" -- and in his confusion, clouted the Scot on the head with a hammer, sending him "senseless and quivering to the floor. The irate court was complete master of the situation." A less explicit version was told by Mark Twain , and his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine took still further liberties. But all agree that Judge Clemens commanded the peace, and obtained it, by wielding a hammer or mallet with summary effect.

McDonald, the turbulent village carpenter, later came near shooting William Elgin in the back of the head ­ mistaking him in a rear view, it was said, for Judge Clemens. It seems quite probable that McDonald served as the original for the carpenter with homicidal fantasies who figures in "Life on the Mississippi."

Varied Talks

From August, 1844, until July, 1845, John M. Clemens served as road districting justice of the peace for this township ­ which meant that he was charged with the surveying of roads, and the allocation of hands among the overseers of road building. In addition, other county records show him at work holding inquests, aiding the court in criminal prosecutions, issuing subpoenas and taking depositions, for the meager fees that were so vital a source of his family's income.

To the Mark Twain board, this all added up to the fact that this building, already owned by the city through the munificence of Warner Brothers Motion Picture company, should be saved for posterity, and restored as well as possible so that future generations could actually see it just as it would have been in those long ago times.

The question was: How? The building was nearly a wreck where it stood. Also, should they leave it at its Bird street location? The drawback to this was twofold; first, high water from the Mississippi had been in the building several times in the past few years, and might come up again. Second, it might be necessary to hire another caretaker because of its distance from the Mark Twain Home and Museum, and without someone to watch over it, the law office would be in danger of vandalism or theft.

At this juncture, Mrs. Dulany Mahan offered a plot of ground on Hill street across from the Mark Twain home. The Mahan family had given the Mark Twain home, the fire protection system, the Tom and Huck statue at the foot of Main street, and the historical marker that appears in the Mark Twain area, to the city. Mrs. Mahan and her children gave the beautiful Memorial Garden that adjoins the home, in memory of Dulany Mahan. Now she was carrying on the tradition of benefactions with the gift of a site for the law office.

Many Articles From Past

The work of moving and storing the Office started in 1955. More than a year later, it has been made into what it might have been in the 1840s. The judge's packing box bench and his 3-legged stool are there; the lawyers' table made of rough boxes; the stools and chairs and benches for witnesses and lookers-on. The benches for the jury are pews of great age received from the Mount Zion church. There are a cot, washstand, shelf for books, work table. The potbellied stove sits in a box of sand that caught sparks and doubled as a "spit box." Old lamps, feather pens, inkwells, spectacles, tall hat, overcoat, Bible, Barlow knife and piece of wood with shavings where a whittler had been at work ­ and, of course, a gavel ­ all of these and many more things go to make up a restoration that has already been seen by thousands of persons.

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