Huck's home disputed

Of the Courier-Post

Two long-time beliefs regarding a character in books written by Sam Clemens - aka Mark Twain - are being disputed by local author Terrell Dempsey.

One is that Tom Blankenship was the role model for Mark Twain's character, Huckleberry Finn, although Dempsey said this could be partially true.

The second belief is that a home that was located near the restored Mark Twain Boyhood Home on Hill Street was actually the Blankenship family's home. This is the site of a proposed Huck Finn home rebuilding project.

Both beliefs are more than 100 years old, according to Mark Twain Museum Director Henry Sweets.

Sweets provided dates when Sam Clemens had called Blankenship his model for Huck. He also provided quotes that the Blankenship family lived at the location of the proposed home rebuilding. The construction project could begin in 2003 and be completed within two years.

Sweets agreed with Dempsey that there is no proof the Blankenship family lived at this location, but said there is no proof they did not live there, and "since the late 1890s this has been known as Huck Finn's home."

The property was bequeathed to the Mark Twain Home Foundation by the late Chris Coons, who died several years ago. It had been owned by her family for many years, Sweets said, and Coons knew the foundation was interested in rebuilding the home.

He regrets that the Hannibal-Courier Post's building was destroyed by fire many years ago, taking along all its archives of that time period.

"The records are fragmentary at best," he said. "We are continuing to research to see if we can find any clues."

He has the records of ownership of the property, but said this is not relevant because the Blankenship family never owned property. "We can find no records the Blankenships owned any property in Hannibal. They rented or were squatters or lived in property they didn't own.

"We do know the people who owned this particular piece of property did not live there, but we don't have positive proof the Blankenships did live there," Sweets said. "We are conducting research to see if we can find directories."

The MTHF hopes to rebuild only a small portion of the Blankenship home. To do this the foundation needs the approval of the local Historic District Development Commission (HDDC).

Information the foundation provided to the HDDC includes several statements from other people referring to Huck as being modeled after Blankenship. Among these references is one from a Hannibal book dated 1897-1898. It states that "some years ago, Mr. S. Clemens from the lecture platform here stated that the original of Huck Finn was Tom Blankenship, a local product who died in youth." It also gave the location of the Blankenship home as where the home restoration project is located.

Despite these references, this may not have been the case, according to Dempsey. He said the fact that Clemens referred to Huck as Blankenship was an illustration of how Clemens had exaggerated. "In 1885 when Sam Clemens was asked was there one person who was Huck Finn, he said 'No. I can't point you to one person and say that was him.'

"It diminishes the creative genius of Sam Clemens to say he kept a diary and he wrote about one person he knew," Dempsey said. "He was writing fiction." Dempsey believes Huck Finn was a fictitious character that Clemens created.

Whether Huck was or was not based on Blankenship, Dempsey's doubt about the location of Huck's home could have more of an effect on current plans, as the HDDC makes its decision about permitting the home rebuilding project. The HDDC met Monday and later informed Sweets that it wants more information before making a decision. Its questions will be provided to the foundation in writing, Sweets said, so he could not discuss them on Tuesday.

Although Clemens had once displayed a photograph of the home at this location as the Blankenship home, Dempsey said this was another example of Clemens' wit. "You have to be pretty dense to not see that statement for the humorous ironic statement that is it."

Dempsey has been researching local history for several years as he writes a book, "Searching for Jim, Slavery in Sam Clemens' World." This will be published by the University of Missouri Press, with a scheduled release date of September 2003.

Showing the true picture of life in Hannibal in Clemens' time is important to Dempsey, and he also wants to change Clemens' local image, which largely focuses on his "Tom Sawyer" book. "To me it is so important we tell the story of Sam Clemens and get away from telling the second-rate version of Tom Sawyer we have been telling," he said. "The real story of Sam Clemens is so fascinating if they would just start telling it."

Regarding the proposed rebuilding of Huck's home, he said, "we have a historic district and we need to stick to history."

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