11 Fascinating Facts About Mark Twain

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mark Twain is widely considered the author of the first great American novel—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but his rollicking tales aren’t the only legacy he left behind. His poignant quotes and witticisms have been told and retold (sometimes erroneously) over the last century and a half, and his volume of work speaks for itself. Over the course of his legendary career, Twain—real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens—wrote more than a dozen novels plus countless short stories and essays and still found time to invent new products, hang out with famous scientists, and look after a house full of cats.

1. Mark Twain is a nautical reference.

Like many of history’s literary greats, Mark Twain (né Samuel Langhorne Clemens) decided to assume an alias early on in his writing career. He tried out a few different names—Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, and, more plainly, Josh—before settling on Mark Twain, which means two fathoms (12 feet) deep in boating jargon. He got the idea while working as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River—a job he held for four years until the Civil War broke out in 1861, putting a halt to commerce. (However, another popular theory holds that he earned the nickname in a bar. According to reports in a couple of 19th-century newspapers, he’d walk into a pub and call out “mark twain!,” prompting the bartender to take a piece of chalk and make two marks on a wall for twain—two—drinks. Twain denied this version of events, though.)

2. In addition to being a steamboat pilot, Mark Twain also worked as a miner.

Shortly after his stint on The Big Muddy, Twain headed west with his brother to avoid having to fight in the war. He took up work as a miner in Virginia City, Nevada, but the job wasn't for him. (He described it as "hard and long and dismal.") Fortunately for Twain, he didn’t have to work there long. In 1862, he was offered his first writing job for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he covered crime, politics, mining, and culture.

3. A story Mark Twain heard in a bar led to his “big break.”

Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1864, Twain headed to Calaveras County, California in hopes of striking gold as a prospector (he didn’t). However, it was during his time here that he heard the bartender of the Angels Hotel in Angels Camp share an incredulous story about a frog-jumping contest. Twain recounted the tale in his own words in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was published in 1865 in The New York Saturday Press and went on to receive national acclaim.

4. It took Mark Twain seven years to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Twain started writing the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, but he wasn’t too pleased with his progress. After writing about 400 pages, he told a friend he liked it "only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn" the manuscript. He put the project on the back burner for several years and finally finished it in 1883 following a burst of inspiration.

5. Mark Twain invented a board game.

While Twain was putting off writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he was busy working on a game he dubbed Memory Builder. It was originally supposed to be an outdoor game to help his children learn about England’s monarchs, but he ended up turning it into a board game to improve its chances of selling. However, after two years of work, it was still too convoluted to be marketable and required a vast knowledge of historical facts and dates. That didn’t stop him from patenting the game, though.

6. Mark Twain created "improved" scrapbooks and suspenders.

Memory Builder wasn't Twain's only invention; he also patented two other products. One was inspired by his love of scrapbooking, while the other came about from his hatred of suspenders. He designed a self-adhesive scrapbook that works like an envelope, which netted him about $50,000 in profits. His “improvement in adjustable and detachable straps for garments” also ended up being useful, but for an entirely different purpose than Twain originally intended. According to The Atlantic, “This clever invention only caught on for one snug garment: the bra. For those with little brassiere experience, not a button, nor a snap, but a clasp is all that secures that elastic band, which holds up women's breasts. So not-so-dexterous ladies and gents, you can thank Mark Twain for that."

7. Thomas Edison filmed Twain at home.

Only one video of Twain exists, and it was shot by none other than his close friend Thomas Edison. The footage was captured in 1909—one year before the author died—at Twain’s estate in Redding, Connecticut. He’s seen sporting a light-colored suit and his usual walrus mustache, and one scene shows him with his daughters, Clara and Jean. On a separate occasion that same year, Edison recorded Twain as he read stories into a phonograph, but those audio clips were destroyed in a fire. No other recording of Twain’s voice exists.

8. Mark Twain did wear white suits, but not as often as you might think.

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

When you think of Mark Twain, you probably picture him in an all-white suit with a cigar or pipe hanging from his lips. It’s true that he was photographed in a white suit on several occasions, but he didn’t start this habit until later in life. According to The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, “In December 1906, he wore a white suit while appearing before a congressional committee regarding copyright. He did this for dramatic emphasis. Several times after that he wore white out of season for effect.” He also refused to trade his white clothes for “shapeless and degrading black ones” in the winter, no matter how cold it got. So take that, people who subscribe to the “no white after Labor Day” rule.

9. At one point, Mark Twain had 19 cats.

Twain really, really liked cats—so much so that he had 19 of them at one time. And if he was traveling, he would “rent” cats to keep him company. In fact, he had a much higher opinion of felines than humans, remarking, “If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” He also had a talent for coming up with some great cat names; Beelzebub, Blatherskite, Buffalo Bill, Sour Mash, Zoroaster, Soapy Sal, Pestilence, Bambino, and Satan were just a few of the kitties in his brood.

10. Mark Twain probably didn’t say that thing you think he said.

Twain is one of the most misquoted authors in history. According to one quote wrongfully attributed to him, “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” What Twain actually said was, “[He] was endowed with a stupidity which by the least little stretch would go around the globe four times and tie.” There are many, many examples of these.

11. Mark Twain accurately predicted when he would die.

When he was born on November 30, 1835, Halley’s Comet was visible from Earth. It appears roughly every 75 years, and Twain predicted he would die the next time it graced the sky. As he put it in 1909, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh, I am looking forward to that.” He ended up passing away at his Connecticut home on April 21, 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky once again.

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The 12 Best Stephen King Movies and TV Shows You Can Stream Right Now

Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone (1983).
Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone (1983).
Paramount Home Entertainment

In 2017 Andy Muschietti's It—an adaptation of horror legend Stephen King’s 1986 novel—became the highest-grossing horror film of all time. It was a fitting badge of honor for King, the prolific horror novelist who has seen many of his books and stories transferred to film, often with only mixed success.

Fortunately, there's still plenty of King-inspired material that lives up to his name. Take a look at 12 movies and television shows currently streaming that capture the essence of King’s work.

1. Carrie (1976)

The first Hollywood adaptation of King’s work—from his very first novel published in 1974—is drenched in dread. As high school wallflower Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) struggles with an overbearing mother and vindictive mean-girl classmates, her latent telekinetic powers begin bubbling to the surface. When she's pushed too far, Carrie delivers a prom night no one will soon forget.

Where to stream it: $3.99 on Amazon Prime

2. Creepshow 2 (1987)

A macabre King vibe inspired this anthology, a sequel to 1982's Creepshow that the writer collaborated on with horror master George A. Romero. The standout: "The Raft," about a group of college kids who find a sentient sludge at a lake that makes their weekend getaway anything but relaxing.

Where to stream it: Amazon Prime

3. 11.22.63 (2016)

King’s revisionist take on the Kennedy assassination comes to life in this Hulu original series. James Franco stars as a professor who discovers he can travel back in time to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting at the motorcade in Dallas. Unfortunately, those heroics have consequences in the future.

Where to stream it: Hulu

4. Gerald’s Game (2017)

Carla Gugino’s weekend getaway with her husband turns into an endurance test when she finds herself alone and handcuffed to a bed. Slowly, creeping horrors both real and imagined begin to materialize. To keep her sanity—and her life—she’ll need to escape by any means necessary.

Where to stream it: Netflix

5. In the Tall Grass (2019)

King's 2012 novella—co-written with his son, Joe Hill—is a classic King conceit of taking the mundane and making it terrifying. After chasing a boy into a thick patch of farm land grass, two siblings realize that it harbors dangerous and mystifying entities. Patrick Wilson co-stars.

Where to stream it: Netflix

6. Christine (1983)

In what may be some kind of record, this 1983 adaptation of the King novel was released the same year as its source material. Teenage outcast Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) buys a 1958 Plymouth Fury, a car that appears to have its own plans for Arnie and the high school bullies taunting him.

Where to stream it: $3.99 on Amazon Prime

7. The Shining (1980)

Widely regarded as the best King adaptation of all time, this Stanley Kubrick film is actually not all that well-liked by King himself: He felt it failed to capture key elements of his 1977 novel (in 1997, King remade it as a miniseries starring Steven Weber). But it’s an undeniably rich and evocative horror show, with writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) slowly becoming unwound as he and his family settle in for an isolated winter at the Overlook Hotel.

Where to stream it: $3.99 on Amazon Prime

8. The Mist (2007)

King's 1980 novella casts a group of strangers who are trapped in a grocery store, a malevolent mist outside seemingly obscuring monstrous predators. As their peril increases, the danger inside becomes just as threatening. The ending, changed from King's own, remains one of the biggest gut-punch twists in film.

Where to watch it: $3.99 on Amazon Prime

9. The Dark Half (1993)

King's 1989 novel about a writer who has to fend off a physical manifestation of his pseudonym is brought to eerie life by Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

10. The Dead Zone (1983)

Christopher Walken has the weight of the world on his shoulders as Johnny Smith, a teacher who emerges from a coma with psychic powers. When he encounters a power-mad politician (Martin Sheen) with destructive tendencies, Johnny must decide whether to take drastic action. King's 1979 novel also inspired a USA Network television series starring Anthony Michael Hall, which is available on Amazon Prime.

Where to stream it: Amazon Prime

11. Children of the Corn (1984)

King's short story from 1978's Night Shift collection imagines a small town in which children are free to explore their most violent impulses without any parental supervision. Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton are a couple who stumble upon their community and quickly come to regret it.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

12. Stephen King's A Good Marriage (2014)

When Joan Allen finds some incriminating evidence pointing to her perfect husband (played by Anthony LaPaglia) being a serial killer, she must decide between the love of her life and a monster who takes lives. The film is based on the novella of the same name in King's 2010 collection Full Dark, No Stars.

Where to stream it: Amazon Prime

This story has been updated for 2020.