Two long-time beliefs regarding a character in books written by Sam
Clemens - aka Mark Twain - are being disputed by local author Terrell
One is that Tom Blankenship was the role model for Mark Twain's
character, Huckleberry Finn, although Dempsey said this could be
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
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
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
"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
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
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."