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





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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