Exploring Mark Twain’s Boyhood Haunts


I’m back! It’s been a while and I apologize. Now that family visits, medical issues and whatnot are out of the way, we are back on the road enjoying new adventures. So here goes . . .

Hannibal, Missouri . . . just the name evokes visions of lazy riverboats puffing down a wide river, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer atop a wooden raft, and the man who gave them

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Historic Hannibal

life – Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain. I’m not exaggerating when I say I almost piddled myself in excitement when the day finally arrived to explore this quaint, historical town. After all, Hannibal’s rolling hills and riverfront access provided the inspiration for Mark Twain’s most famous works. It flavored his writing as it flavored his wit. And I was about to see all the places I’d read about in my youth! How cool is that?

Reality seldom matches expectations. The more we dream and visualize about what lies ahead, the more we risk disappointment. Hannibal is a perfect example. The town itself should be renamed “Mark Twain City” because everywhere you go is reference to the famous author and humorist . . . understandable. One might never venture to Hannibal were it not for Mark Twain’s legacy. And everything tagged with his name comes with a price.

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Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse

Yes, Hannibal is a tourist trap. But if all I came to see were paid attractions, I’d miss out on the true ambiance of a historical town.

Driving into the outskirts from Highway 36, it was as if we entered a time warp. Hannibal is firmly rooted in the past and the period architecture reinforces that aura, beckoning with untold stories of days gone by. Had I never heard of Samuel Clemens, I would still be lured to this incredibly picturesque albeit decaying community. A great many of the clapboard houses and brick storefronts remain unrestored which supports the character of an aging 1800’s riverfront town.
I enjoyed a short walking tour along the river and railroad tracks, meandered along scenic Cardiff Drive to where it meets the lighthouse replica erected in Mark Twain’s honor, absorbed majestic views from Lover’s Leap, explored Mark Twain’s childhood home and the wooden fence still fresh with whitewash. What I wanted to do and didn’t was visit McDougal’s Cave, popularized in Twain’s 1876 novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The property is part of an adjoining campground and gift shop and is only viewable on special

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Mark Twain Sightseeing Riverboat

tours. Adult tickets ran about $20 and I just couldn’t bring myself to pay for what I felt should have been free. Perhaps if I’d visited the nearby winery and tasted a few glasses, I might not have been so put-off by the entrance fee. Bottom line is I’m a cheapskate.

I suppose the real reason I wanted to see the cave, aside from a trip down Tom Sawyer memory lane, is the wickedly strange events that took place there. During Twain’s childhood, the property where the cave is located was owned by a St. Louis surgeon, Dr. Joseph McDowell. The man was brilliant by all accounts, and genius sometimes borders on the edges of insanity. When Dr. McDowell’s fourteen-year-old daughter died of pneumonia, he decided to “petrify” her body. After constructing a copper tube lined with glass, he filled it with alcohol and placed the corpse inside, suspending it from the ceiling of the cave.

According to Twain, the local youth discovered the contraption and began to gather there, telling ghost stories to frighten each other in the flickering light of their torches. Even more macabre, the top of the cylinder could be unscrewed so the girl’s face was visible. After two

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View from Lover’s Leap

years, the adults in the community got wind of the girl’s unofficial interment. They complained, forcing the doctor to relocate his daughter’s body to the family mausoleum in St. Louis. However, some people believe the girl’s spirit is still there, following tourists as they navigate the dark cavern.

The cave is not the only place where hauntings occur in Hannibal. A year-round ghost tour features many allegedly active sites for adventurous souls. If we had planned a longer stay (and might have if the weather were not so damnably hot and humid), this cheapskate would have coughed up the bucks for the tour since I’m fascinated by the paranormal.  Perhaps another time.

Would I return to Hannibal for an encore visit? That’s hard to say. I love the ambiance and historical significance of the area. Unfortunately, this area of the Midwest doesn’t generate the same fascination as other places we’ve visited. We like less populated areas like mountains, remote coastlines, and high desert.

That being said, we’re enjoying our slow loop around the Great Lakes through Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. We may not venture this way again so if you know of any unusual, oddball or off-the-beaten track destinations, please let me know. I’m always up for an adventure!

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About Debra S. Sanders

Debra is an RV nomad, traveling full time with her husband, dog and cat. She writes, hikes, star gazes and explores myth, lore and curiosities from America's back roads. She also indulges in colorful sunsets and good wine.