Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick



While I attended Northeast Missouri State Teachers College in Kirksville (now Truman University) in the early 1960s, an entertainer on the traveling Lyceum Program circuit was Hal Holbrook, who presented "An Evening With Mark Twain."

Holbrook’s impersonation of Samuel Clemens is so authentic that audiences leave his performances believing that they have actually come to know the famous author for a brief time. Unfortunately for Mr. Clemens, Holbrook was not the first man to impersonate him.

At one time a legend circulated that Mark Twain had once lived in Keosauqua. It is a well known fact that Samuel Clemens was a native of Hannibal, Missouri (1835-1910.) Clemens was an apprentice to two Hannibal printers and became a journeyman printer in Keokuk, Iowa. On occasion he was also a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River making runs between Cape Girardeau, Missouri and Burlington, Iowa.

Writer George G. Wright gave credence to the rumor when he published an account stating that Samuel Clemens had been an employee of Howell and Cowles when they published the "Valley Whig" newspaper in Keosauqua. Wright had been a two-term state senator and a U.S. senator from Iowa, thus would seem to be a reputable writing source.

Several years after the account was published, Lydia Starr Hunter, a reporter who had been corresponding with Mark Twain, asked him to comment on his life in Keosauqua. In an interesting letter written July 28, 1874, Samuel Clemens denied the rumor.

"It was an error," he said. "I was in Keokuk during 1856, and in Muscatine for a month or two in 1854, but have never wrought (fashioned or formed writing) on an Iowa Journal." He went on to suggest that the rumor started because of an impersonator.

Samuel Clemens whose penname was Mark Twain, told Starr that an individual had misrepresented him in Dubuque in 1873 and had unscrupulously swindled people. Although the swindler was captured, authorities in Dubuque (who assumed they had the real Samuel Clemens in custody,) let him go. Clemens himself searched for the individual in vain, and eventually had to pay the sheriff’s office in Dubuque $100 in fees and telegraph bills. Much to the chagrin and embarrassment of Clemens who sought to maintain a clear reputation, the mysterious impersonator had made previous appearances in Iowa communities over a period of about 26 years.

George Wright might have confused Keokuk with Keosauqua, the impersonator of Samuel Clemens possibly lived and worked in Keosauqua for awhile, or another man of the same name worked at the newspaper office. At any rate, Mark Twain himself did not venture into Keosauqua.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick