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Discover Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missouri

by Kathleen Walls

Tom Sawyer Exhibit in the Interpretive Center of Mark Twain’s Boyhood Home

Hannibal, Missouri, is the place to visit if you want to understand Mark Twain. He was one of America’s greatest writers, but his books have been banned for different reasons. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the first book banned in the United States right after it came out by the Concord, Massachusetts, library as they deemed it “trash” and “suitable only for the slums” due to the slang in the dialogue. They had no objection to the later reason it was banned, because of “racist” language, since those words were acceptable then. His books used derogatory terms common in his time, yet Twain appeared at Carnegie Hall with Booker T. Washington at a fundraiser for Tuskegee Institute. In Huckleberry Finn, his character, Huck, helps a runaway slave, Jim, evade capture and and not be sent back into slavery. Twain was one of the first writers to portray African-Americans as real people and tell of the horrors of slavery.

Mark Twain Boyhood Home

The best place to start is The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. The interpretive center tells the history of Samuel Clemens, both before and after he became Mark Twain. You enter just past Tom Sawyer’s famous whitewashed fence. There are many artifacts, including some of his mother’s clothes, original papers and photos, and a timeline of the Clemens family’s life.

Mark Twain Boyhood Home Interior

The boyhood home is arranged so that you look through clear glass into various rooms, furnished as they would have been when he was a boy. A statue of an adult Twain is positioned in each room with a placard related to the room’s function or Twain’s life there. The dining area placard tells how Twain’s views on slavery were formed. He saw his father beat his enslaved workers, and his minister said slavery was “God’s will.” At 10 years old, Twain witnessed a man kill an enslaved worker and not be punished because the law said he had not committed a crime.

As a boy, he spent the summers at his uncle’s farm playing with enslaved children. There he was impressed with the music and storytelling of an enslaved man called “Uncle Dan’I,” who was the inspiration for Jim in Huckleberry Finn and some other stories. At the age of 11, when his father died, childhood ended for young Twain and his writing career began to emerge. He went to work as a printer’s apprentice at The Hannibal Courier.

Other museums in the complex include:

  • The Becky Thatcher House, where the Hawkins Family lived. Laura Hawkins was the model for Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer.
  • John M. Clemens Justice of the Peace Office where Mark Twain’s father worked until his death.
  • Grant’s Drug Store where Dr. Orville Grant lived upstairs. You can visit the first floor outfitted as a drug store would have been in young Sam Clemens’s time.
  • Huckleberry Finn House, a recreation of the home of Tom Blankenship, the model for Huckleberry Finn.

The street is lined with shops and buildings such as Mark Twain Brewing Company, Aunt Polly’s Treasures and others. There is even a Mark Twain diner serving some of Twain’s favorite foods, such as fried chicken.

Head over to the Mark Twain Cave next. As a boy, Twain played in the cave, and it is featured in some of his books. You can take an hour-long guided tour and see his signature on the rock wall. He wrote his name there sometime in his youth, but his signature was finally discovered in 2019. The cave walk is easy, and the passages are well-lit.  

Jim Waddell

While at the cave, go see “The Life and Times of Mark Twain,” a one-man presentation by Jim Waddell at the cave theater. His show is filled with stories taken directly from Twain’s speeches and writings.

Mark Twain Riverboat

Mark Twain’s pen name came out of his steamboat captain career. You can enjoy a trip on the Mark Twain Riverboat. A narrator tells the history of many of the places you see as you cruise down the river. There are choices of a one-hour sightseeing cruise or a dinner cruise.

Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center

Your discover-Mark-Twain trip is not complete until you visit Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center. It’s a small but impressive museum dedicated to the real-life Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

You may have learned a little about Daniel Quarles, a.k.a. Jim, at Twain’s Boyhood Home. Here you learn about the real man who made such an impression on young Sam Clemens that it carried over to one of his most famous books. Faye Dant, the museum’s founder, tells not only Daniel Quarles’s story but much about the African-American community in Hannibal.

Daniel Quarles Exhibit

Daniel was born in 1798 into slavery, the property of Amos Quarles in Caroline County, Virginia. John Quarles, Amos’s son, who inherited Daniel, moved the family to Florida, Missouri, in 1834. John Quarles prospered and owned a store, 30 slaves and a 250-acre farm when the Clemens family moved to Hannibal. Sam Clemens would spend two or three months at his uncle John’s farm every year until he was 11 or 12 years old. He remembered his uncle as a kindly man. Daniel and the other enslaved people may not have thought that as John Quarles worked them from before sunup to after sunset. Daniel was emancipated on November 14, 1855, but continued to work as a fieldhand on the Quarles farm until after the Emancipation Proclamation. Jim’s Journey traces Daniel Quarles’s family to the present day.

Tom Sawyer diorama

Of course, there are other things to see and do in Hannibal, including Titanic survivor Molly Brown’s home and the Haunted Hannibal Tour. The Hannibal History Museum also has some detailed dioramas telling the Tom Sawyer story as well as Hannibal’s history.

But there’s no doubt that when you leave Hannibal, you’ll have a much more detailed picture of Mark Twain, his life and his legacy.

Photos by Kathleen Walls.


Kathleen Walls, a former reporter for Union Sentinel in Blairsville, Georgia, is publisher/writer for American Roads and Global Highways. She is the author of travel books Georgia’s Ghostly GetawaysFinding Florida’s PhantomsHosts With Ghosts and “Wild About Florida” series. Her articles have appeared in Food Wine Travel MagazineFamily Motor Coaching AssociationWeekender ExtendedTravel World InternationalGeorgia Magazine and others. She is a photographer with many of her original photographs appearing in her travel ezine and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @katywallsand read her previous stories in Deep South here.

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