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MARK TWAIN'S FIRST SWEETHEART, BECKY THATCHER, TELLS OF THEIR CHILDHOOD COURTSHIP






From: How To Write Special Feature Articles
(Category: PART II)

To Mrs. Laura Frazer of Hannibal, Mo., Mark Twain's immortal "Adventures
of Tom Sawyer" is a rosary, and the book's plot is the cord of fiction
on which beads of truth are strung. In the sunset of her life she tells
them over, and if here and there among the roseate chaplet is a bead
gray in coloring, time has softened the hues of all so they blend
exquisitely. This bead recalls a happy afternoon on the broad
Mississippi with the boys and girls of seventy years ago; the next
brings up a picture of a schoolroom where a score of little heads bob
over their books and slates, and a third visualizes a wonderful picnic
excursion to the woods with a feast of fried chicken and pie and cake.

For Mrs. Frazer is the original of Becky Thatcher, the childhood
sweetheart of Tom Sawyer, and the original of Tom Sawyer, of course, was
Mark Twain himself.

"Yes, I was the Becky Thatcher of Mr. Clemens's book," Mrs. Frazer said
the other day, as she sat in the big second floor front parlor of the
old time mansion in Hannibal, which is now the Home for the Friendless.
Mrs. Frazer is the matron of the home.

"Of course I suspected it when I first read the 'Adventures of Tom
Sawyer,'" she went on. "There were so many incidents which I recalled as
happening to Sam Clemens and myself that I felt he had drawn a picture
of his memory of me in the character of Judge Thatcher's little
daughter. But I never confided my belief to anyone. I felt that it would
be a presumption to take the honor to myself.

"There were other women who had no such scruples--some of them right
here in Hannibal--and they attempted to gain a little reflected
notoriety by asserting that they were the prototypes of the character.
When Albert Bigelow Paine, Mr. Clemens's biographer, gathered the
material for his life of the author, he found no fewer than twenty-five
women, in Missouri and elsewhere, each of whom declared she was Becky
Thatcher, but he settled the controversy for all time on Mr. Clemens's
authority when the biography was published. In it you will find that
Becky Thatcher was Laura Hawkins, which was my maiden name.

"We were boy and girl sweethearts, Sam Clemens and I," Mrs. Frazer said
with a gentle little laugh.

She is elderly, of course, since it was seventy years ago that her
friendship with Mark Twain began, and her hair is gray. But her heart is
young, and she finds in her work of mothering the twenty-five boys and
girls in her charge the secret of defying age. On this particular
afternoon she wore black and white striped silk, the effect of which was
a soft gray to match her hair, and her placid face was lighted with
smiles of reminiscence.

"Children are wholly unartificial, you know," she explained. "They do
not learn to conceal their feelings until they begin to grow up. The
courtship of childhood, therefore, is a matter of preference and of
comradeship. I liked Sam better than the other boys, and he liked me
better than the other girls, and that was all there was to it."

If you had seen this lady of Old Missouri as she told of her childhood
romance you would have recalled instinctively Mark Twain's description:

A lovely little blue eyed creature with yellow hair plaited into two
long tails, white summer frock and embroidered pantalettes. * * * He
worshipped this new angel with furtive eye until he saw that she had
discovered him; then he pretended he did not know she was present,
and began to "show off" in all sorts of absurd boyish ways, in order
to win her admiration.

And you would have found it easy to conceive that this refined, gentle
countenance once was apple cheeked and rosy, that the serene gray eyes
once sparkled as blue as the Father of Waters on a sunny day and that
the frosted hair was as golden as the sunshine.

"I must have been 6 or 7 years old when we moved to Hannibal," Mrs.
Frazer said. "My father had owned a big mill and a store and a
plantation worked by many negro slaves further inland, but he found the
task of managing all too heavy for him, and so he bought a home in
Hannibal and was preparing to move to it when he died. My mother left
the mill and the plantation in the hands of my grown brothers--I was one
of ten children, by the way--and came to Hannibal. Our house stood at
the corner of Hill and Main streets, and just a few doors west, on Hill
Street, lived the Clemens family.

"I think I must have liked Sam Clemens the very first time I saw him. He
was different from the other boys. I didn't know then, of course, what
it was that made him different, but afterward, when my knowledge of the
world and its people grew, I realized that it was his natural
refinement. He played hookey from school, he cared nothing at all for
his books and he was guilty of all sorts of mischievous pranks, just as
Tom Sawyer is in the book, but I never heard a coarse word from him in
all our childhood acquaintance.

"Hannibal was a little town which hugged the steamboat landing in those
days. If you will go down through the old part of the city now you will
find it much as it was when I was a child, for the quaint old
weatherbeaten buildings still stand, proving how thoroughly the pioneers
did their work. We went to school, we had picnics, we explored the big
cave--they call it the Mark Twain Cave now, you know."

"Were you lost in the cave, as Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher were?"
Mrs. Frazer was asked.

"No; that is a part of the fiction of the book," she answered. "As a
matter of fact, some older persons always went with us. Usually my older
sister and Sam Clemens's older sister, who were great friends, were
along to see that we didn't get lost among the winding passages where
our candles lighted up the great stalagmites and stalactites, and where
water was dripping from the stone roof overhead, just as Mr. Clemens has
described it."

And then she proceeded to divorce the memory of Mark Twain from "the
little red schoolhouse" forever.

"In those days we had only private schools," Mrs. Frazer said. "If there
were public schools I never heard of them. The first school I went to
was taught by Mr. Cross, who had canvassed the town and obtained perhaps
twenty-five private pupils at a stated price for the tuition of each. I
do not know how much Mr. Cross charged, but when I was older I remember
that a young woman teacher opened a school after getting twenty-five
pupils at $25 each for the year's tuition. I shall never forget that Mr.
Cross did not belie his name, however, or that Sam Clemens wrote a bit
of doggerel about him."

She quoted it this way:

Cross by name and Cross by nature,
Cross hopped out of an Irish potato.

"The schoolhouse was a 2-story frame building with a gallery across the
entire front," she resumed. "After a year together in that school Sam
and I went to the school taught by Mrs. Horr. It was then he used to
write notes to me and bring apples to school and put them on my desk.
And once, as a punishment for some prank, he had to sit with the girls
and occupied a vacant seat by me. He didn't seem to mind the penalty at
all," Mrs. Frazer added with another laugh, "so I don't know whether it
was effective as a punishment or not.

"We hadn't reached the dancing age then, but we went to many 'play
parties' together and romped through 'Going to Jerusalem,' 'King William
was King George's Son' and 'Green Grow the Rushes--O.'

"Judge Clemens, Sam's father, died and left the family in straitened
circumstances, and Sam's schooling ended there. He began work in the
printing office to help out, and when he was 17 or 18 he left Hannibal
to go to work in St. Louis. He never returned to live, but he visited
here often in the years that followed."

Mrs. Frazer's own story formed the next chapter of her narrative. A
young physician, Doctor Frazer of Madisonville, which was a little
inland village in Ralls County, adjoining, came often to Hannibal and
courted pretty Laura Hawkins. When she was 20 they were married and went
to live in the new house Doctor Frazer had built for his bride at
Madisonville. There they reared two sons until they required better
school facilities, when they went to Rensselaer, also in Ralls County,
but nearer Hannibal. They lived in Rensselaer until Doctor Frazer's
death, when the mother and younger son moved to the General Canby farm.
This son's marriage led to Mrs. Frazer's return to Hannibal twenty-two
years ago. She was offered the position of matron at the Home for the
Friendless, and for twenty-two years she has managed it. The boys and
girls who have gone out from it in nearly every case have become useful
men and women as a result of her guidance at the critical period of
their life, for the girls remain in the home until they are 14 and the
boys until they are 12. The old mansion which houses the score or more
of children always there is to be abandoned in the spring for a new and
modern building, a gift from a wealthy citizen to the private charity
which has conducted the institution so long without aid from city,
county or state.

It was given to Mrs. Frazer and Mark Twain to renew their youthful
friendship after a lapse of half a century. In 1908 Mrs. Frazer made a
trip East, accepting an invitation to visit Albert Bigelow Paine at
Redding, Conn. Mr. Paine had visited Hannibal two years before in a
search for material for his biography of Mark Twain and had made Mrs.
Frazer's acquaintance then. He mentioned the approaching visit to the
great humorist and Mark Twain promptly sat down and wrote Mrs. Frazer
that she must be a guest also at Stormfield, his Redding estate. So it
came about that the one-time little Laura Hawkins found herself lifting
the knocker at the beautiful country home of Mark Twain in the
Connecticut hills.

"The door was opened by Clara Clemens, Mr. Clemens's daughter," Mrs.
Frazer said, "and she threw her arms about me and cried:

'I know you, for I've seen your picture, and father has told me
about you. You are Becky Thatcher, and I'm happy to see you.'

"And that," Mrs. Frazer said, "was the first time I really knew I was
the original of the character, although I had suspected it for thirty
years. Clara Clemens, you know, even then was a famous contralto, and
Ossip Gabrilowitsch, whose wife she is now, was 'waiting' on her at the
time.

"It was a wonderful visit," she went on. "Mr. Clemens took me over
Stormfield. It must have been a tract of three hundred acres. We went
through the fields, which were not fields at all, since they were not
cultivated, and across a rustic bridge over a little rushing brook which
boiled and bubbled among the rocks in the bed of a great ravine, and we
sat down under a rustic arbor and talked of the old days in Hannibal
when he was a little boy and I a little girl, before he went out into
the world to win fame and before I lived my own happy married life. Mr.
Clemens had that rare faculty of loyalty to his friends which made the
lapse of fifty years merely an interim. It was as if the half century
had rolled away and we were there looking on the boy and girl we had
been.

"Mr. Clemens had won worldwide fame; he had been a welcome guest in the
palaces of Old World rulers and lionized in the great cities of his own
country. He had been made a Doctor of Literature by the University of
Oxford, the highest honor of the greatest university in the world, and
yet there at Stormfield to me he seemed to be Sam Clemens of old
Hannibal, rather than the foremost man in the American world of letters.

"That, I believe, is my most treasured memory of Sam Clemens," Mrs.
Frazer ended. "I love to think of him as the curly-headed, rollicking,
clean minded little boy I played with as a child, but I like better
still to think of him as he was in his last days, when all that fame and
fortune had showered on him did not, even momentarily, make him waver in
his loyalty to the friends of his youth."

In Hannibal stands the quaint little 2-story house flush with the
sidewalk which Samuel Langhorne Clemens's father built in 1844, after he
had moved to the old river town from Florida, Mo., where the great story
teller was born. Restored, it houses many reminders of the author and is
maintained as a memorial to Mark Twain. There, November 30, the
eighty-second anniversary of the birth of Clemens, the people of
Hannibal and persons from many cities widely scattered over America will
go to pay tribute to his memory.

And there they will see Becky Thatcher in the flesh, silkengowned,
gray-haired and grown old, but Becky Thatcher just the same, seated in a
chair which once was Mark Twain's and pouring tea at a table on which
the author once wrote. And if the aroma of the cup she hands out to each
visitor doesn't waft before his mind a vision of a curly-headed boy and
a little girl with golden long-tails at play on the wharf of old
Hannibal while the ancient packets ply up and down the rolling blue
Mississippi, there is nothing whatever in the white magic of
association.

* * * * *

(_Milwaukee Journal_)





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