12 Things You Might Not Know 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.

Today, on the 183rd anniversary of Twain’s birth in Florida, Missouri, we’ve compiled a list of things you might not know about the famous humorist, satirist, and storyteller.

1. His pen name 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, he 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 he heard in a bar led to his “big break.”

An old photo of the Angels Hotel
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 him seven years to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

A cover of an old copy of 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. He 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. He also 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. Nikola Tesla helped "cure" Twain’s constipation.

A photograph of Mark Twain holding a vacuum lamp, with Nikola Tesla in the background
Mark Twain holds a vacuum lamp in Nikola Tesla's lab in 1894. Tesla's face can be seen in the background.
Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Iconic scientist/futurist Nikola Tesla and Twain were brought together by their mutual interests. Twain had an affinity for science and technology, while Tesla had read some of Twain’s works while recovering from an illness as a child. The story goes that one time, while the the two men were hanging out and tinkering around in Tesla's lab, Twain stood on a vibrating plate called an electro-mechanical oscillator that Tesla was investigating for rejuvenating powers. It ended up working as a laxative and “[shook] the poop out of Twain,” author and Tesla biographer W. Bernard Carlson told PBS. He only lasted about 90 seconds on the device before having to make a run for the toilet. This would generally be bad news, but not for Twain, who suffered from bouts of constipation for years.

8. Thomas Edison filmed Twain at his 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—the 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.

9. He did wear white suits, but not as often as you might think.

Mark Twain standing near a window while wearing a white suit and smoking a pipe
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.

10. At one point, he 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.

11. He 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, and you can read more about them here and here.

12. He 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.

8 Things You Might Not Know About James A. Garfield

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iStock

Owing to his untimely demise at the hands of assassin Charles Guiteau in 1881, 20th U.S. president James Garfield served only seven months in office, the second-shortest tenure after William Henry Harrison. (The equally unfortunate Harrison famously succumbed to pneumonia—though it might have been typhoid—one month into his term.) Not quite 50 at the time of his passing, Garfield nonetheless managed to pack a lot of experience into his short but eventful life. Read on for some facts about his childhood, his election non-campaign, and why Alexander Graham Bell thought he could help save Garfield's life. (Spoiler: He couldn't.)

1. He originally wanted to sail the open seas.

Garfield was born in Orange, Ohio on November 19, 1831. He never had a chance to know his father, Abram, who died before James turned 2 years old. As a child, Garfield was enamored with adventure novels and imagined a career as a sailor. "Nautical novels did it," he once said. "My mother tried to turn my attention in other directions, but the books were considered bad and from that very fact were fascinating." As a teenager, he got a job towing barges, but that was about as far as his seafaring would get. He attended the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now called Hiram College) in Hiram, Ohio and Williams College in Massachusetts before settling in as a Greek and Latin teacher at Hiram, where he would later become president.

2. He was a Civil War veteran.

James Garfield in his military uniform
Mathew Brady/Hulton Archive, Getty Images

If Garfield longed for adventure, he eventually found it, though perhaps not quite in the way he anticipated as a child. After being elected to the Ohio senate in 1859, Garfield joined the Union army at age 29 during the outbreak of war against the Confederates in 1861. Garfield saw combat in several skirmishes, including the Battle of Shiloh and the Battle of Chickamauga, before then-president Abraham Lincoln convinced him to resign his military post so he could devote his time to advocating for Ohio in the House of Representatives in 1863. He became the leading Republican in the House before being elected to the Senate for the 1881 term.

3. He never pursued presidential office.

Garfield thought he was attending the 1880 Republican National Convention to stump for Treasury Secretary John Sherman as the party's presidential candidate. Instead, the convention came to an impasse over Sherman, James Blaine, and Ulysses S. Grant. To help unclog the stalemate, Wisconsin's delegation threw Garfield's name into the hat as a compromise candidate. Not only did he win the election (opposing Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock), but he became the only sitting House member elected president. The whole process took Garfield by surprise, as he once told friends that "this honor comes to me unsought. I have never had the presidential fever, not even for a day."

4. He got caught up in an immigration scandal.

Just weeks before the general presidential election in November 1880, Garfield's political opponents tried to deal a fatal blow to his campaign by circulating a letter Garfield had written to an associate named H.L. Morey addressing the matter of foreign workers. In it, Garfield supported the idea of Chinese laborers, a controversial point of view at a time the country was nervous about immigration affecting employment. Democrats handed out hundreds of thousands of copies of the letter in an effort to sour voters on his candidacy. In Denver, the prospect of foreign workers prompted a riot. At first, Garfield remained silent, but not because he was ashamed of the letter. He simply couldn't recall writing or signing it—it was dated just after he was elected to the Senate, and he had signed lots of letters that he and his friends wrote in reply to the congratulatory messages he had received. But after consulting with his friends he issued a denial, and after seeing a reproduction in a newspaper, Garfield announced it was a phony. Furthermore, "H.L. Morey" didn't seem to exist. Turns out, the letter was planted by the opposition to discredit Garfield's name. Journalist Kenward Philp, who published the letter, was put on trial for libel and forgery but acquitted. One witness who claimed they met Morey was jailed for eight years for perjury.

5. He defended civil rights.

Several presidents in or near Garfield's era—Andrew Johnson, Woodrow Wilson—had less than flattering views on Reconstruction and civil rights. But Garfield made his opinion abundantly clear. Speaking during his inauguration, Garfield celebrated the dissolution of slavery and called it "the most important political change" since the Constitution. Garfield also appointed four black men to his administration, including activist Frederick Douglass as recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia.

6. He didn't get particularly great medical care after being shot.

Illustration of Garfield's assassination.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

A former Garfield supporter, Charles Guiteau, was erroneously convinced that Garfield owed him a European ambassadorship. After his letters and drop-ins were ignored by the administration for months, he shot Garfield twice at a train station in Washington, D.C. The president was quickly tended to by a number of physicians in the hopes he could survive the bullet stuck in his abdomen, but the doctors didn't bother washing their hands before sticking their fingers in his wound. (At the time, the idea of an antiseptic medical environment was being promoted but not widely used.) For two weeks, Garfield languished in bed as his caregivers attempted to remove the projectile but succeeded only in worsening both the incision in his stomach and the accompanying infection. A heart attack, blood infection, and splenic artery rupture followed. He hung on for roughly 80 days before dying on September 19, 1881. Guiteau was hanged for the crime in 1882.

7. Alexander Graham Bell tried to save his life.

During Garfield's bedridden final days, the public at large tried their best to lend sympathies and possible solutions. One letter writer suggested that doctors simply turn him upside-down so the bullet would fall out. A slightly more reasonable—but no more effective—tactic was offered by Alexander Graham Bell. Inviting a large measure of respect for his invention of the telephone, Bell was allowed to use a makeshift metal detector over Garfield's body to see if the electromagnetic fields would be disrupted by the presence of the bullet, revealing its location in Garfield's abdomen. Bell was unsuccessful, though he reportedly did manage to detect the metal in the president's mattress.

8. A classical statue was erected in his honor soon after his death.

Despite his short and somewhat uneventful tenure, Garfield quickly (as in, within six years) received an honor equal to more renowned American presidents. Sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward, who is probably best known for his oversized bronze of George Washington that stands on the grounds of his inauguration at Federal Hall in New York, unveiled his Garfield monument in 1887 at the foot of the Capitol building. The statue, which depicts Garfield giving a speech, also sports three figures along its granite pedestal base: a student (representing Garfield's stint as a teacher), a warrior (for his military service), and a toga-sporting elder statesman (to signify his political career).

The 20 Best Christmas Movies of All Time

iStock.com/Satyrenko
iStock.com/Satyrenko

There’s a difference between a Christmas movie and a movie that happens to be set at Christmastime. One evokes the spirit of the holiday—the atmosphere, the charity, the awkward family meals—while the other shows snow falling and the occasional Santa hat to set the mood. This key difference is why the debate surrounding Die Hard being “a Christmas movie” is always so heated. Is it solely a matter of the calendar or does a true Christmas movie need to reflect the soul of the season?

It’s also a genre that’s oversaturated with new, harmless movies every year seeking to thaw icy hearts and let them grow three sizes after a tub of popcorn. Which makes the enduring legacies of the very best Christmas movies that much more impressive.

We all have our own lineup of movies, old and more recent, that instantly leaps to mind when you think of Christmas. Movies that you watch on repeat without fail this time of year. Movies that have achieved Christmas immortality.

Here are the 20 best movies that capture the heart of Christmas (in alphabetical order, as we love them all too much to play total favorites).

1. Babes In Toyland (1961)

There were more than a few adaptations of Victor Herbert’s operetta before this one, but the Disneyfication of the fairy tale mash-up created a Technicolor jolt of Christmas adventure. Mouseketeer Annette Funicello shines as the secret heir to a fortune, but the movie’s best weapon is Ed Wynn as the Toymaker, pouring pure delight on everything he touches. 

2. The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

This may be the only romantic comedy where a handsome young man helps a beautiful woman stay with her slightly cranky husband. Of course, Cary Grant is actually a handsome young angel whose mission is to help a Bishop (David Niven) in the midst of raising money for a new cathedral. Sometimes you pray for help and God sends the hottest actor in Hollywood to take your wife ice skating in order to remind you that kindness isn’t about funding a fancy new building.

3. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

The shortest of the movies on this list, Charles M. Schulz’s holiday special left an indelible mark on pop culture in less than half an hour. The animated wonder simultaneously gave us the best Christmas monologue about the crappiest tree and a jazzy Christmas soundtrack courtesy of Vince Guaraldi.

4. A Christmas Story (1983)

There’s a reason TBS plays this on a loop for a full 24 hours heading into the big day. Endlessly quotable, the youthful memoir is stacked with iconic moments involving tongues on flagpoles, risqué leg lamps, a sadistic Santa, and a super safe BB gun. Go ahead and shout out all your favorite lines right now. Just don’t shoot your eye out.

5. The Christmas Toy (1986)

Long before Buzz and Woody, Jim Henson produced a movie about an overconfident toy tiger who puts a playroom full of toys at risk because he can’t handle being supplanted by a new favorite toy. They all come to life when people aren’t around, and flop down when the playroom door opens, but they get frozen forever if a human touches them out of their original place. It’s a funny, imaginative gem, and I wore out the VHS when I was a kid.

6. Christmas Vacation (1989)

The blessing! More outright embarrassing and less sardonic than A Christmas Story, the Griswold family’s suburban misadventures lovingly devolve into the kind of chaos that requires a SWAT team. If you’re hosting your whole family, a flaming, flying set of plastic reindeer may just be the best symbol for the season. Fun fact: Mae Questel (who stole scenes as Aunt Bethany) sounds familiar because she was the voice of Olive Oyl and Betty Boop.

7. Die Hard (1988)

Yup, it’s on the list. Not merely set during Christmastime, John McClane’s harrowing rescue of his wife’s office mates is a bit like an action version of Ebenezer Scrooge. He starts off cranky and hateful of the season but remembers the true value of love and kindness after being visited by multiple people with guns who teach him to share what he has with others and give selflessly to those in need.

8. Elf (2003)

There is no tamping down Buddy the Elf’s enthusiasm. Like a retelling of Big with yellow tights and a green, pointy hat, Will Ferrell navigates the big city world of cynics to help them locate their inner child and believe in Christmas again. The main gag is how ridiculous Ferrell is as a giant elf, but the movie turns to magic because of its refusal to be even slightly mean-spirited. It’s like taking a big bite out of spaghetti topped with M&Ms, marshmallows, sprinkles, and chocolate syrup.

9. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)

It’s “The Gift of the Magi” with singing river otters. That’s an automatic win on the adorability scale, but Jim Henson’s tale of family togetherness glides by on sheer sweetness and joy, revealing that you don’t have to have expensive equipment (or even a good band name) to create beautiful harmonies.

10. Frosty The Snowman (1969)

The tip top of children’s Christmas movies is dominated by Walt Disney, Jim Henson, and Rankin/Bass, who stepped away from stop-motion animation for this story based on the wildly popular holiday tune. It’s wondrous, but it’s also more harrowing than you remember. As soon as Frosty is given life, he’s aware of his own melting mortality, and the entire plot of the story is about figuring out how he can survive. It’s also impressive for having a mediocre children’s party magician as the villain.

11. Home Alone (1990)

John Hughes must have suffered some kind of vacation-based trauma, because this and Christmas Vacation both focus on the hilarious worsts of time away from the office. For the Griswolds it’s living beyond their means and needing more lights. For Kevin McCallister, it’s about neglect that should demand a call to CPS. The lesson of every elementary schooler’s dream of independence is that it’s okay to order your own cheese pizza as long as you also buy more toothpaste and fight off violent robbers. And if you love seeing Home Alone on this list but bristle at Die Hard’s inclusion, think twice, because they’re essentially the same movie.

12. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Why they keep trying to improve on perfection is beyond comprehension. Keep Jim Carrey. Keep Benedict Cumberbatch. Give me Chuck Jones’s animation team featuring Boris Karloff and the legendary voice talent June Foray. It’s a madcap comic masterpiece with a message of kindness served up piping hot next to the roast beast. Sadly, the sequel, Halloween is Grinch Night, never quite caught on.

13. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Like most of you, I often fantasize about what It’s a Wonderful Life would be like starring The Grinch. I mean, who’s The Grinch’s guardian angel? Obviously, Frank Capra’s classic tale of redemption is in the eternal top five of Christmas films thanks to Jimmy Stewart’s mournfully enthusiastic performance and its overall message that one life matters. It, more than just about any other movie, has come to represent Christmastime itself—a ubiquitous presence on TV screens everywhere throughout December.

14. Miracle On 34th Street (1947)

Not just one of the best Christmas movies, but one of the very best films of its release year, Miracle on 34th Street soars with a charismatic performance from Maureen O’Hara and precocious side eye from a young Natalie Wood. Is Santa real? And is he the old gentleman you helped get a job at the department store? Cynicism is incinerated by this infectiously warm movie—one of the only films in history where the US Postal Service acts as Deus Ex Machina.

15. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Undoubtedly controversial, everyone has their personal favorite version of Charles Dickens’s important treatise on humanity and self-inflicted loneliness. The 175-year-old story has been adapted more than 100 times counting movies, TV, radio, and graphic novels. Maybe 1951’s Scrooge is your favorite, maybe you like George C. Scott or Patrick Stewart best. The Muppets and Michael Caine, though, brought a fresh, playful flavor that allowed a rat to co-narrate.

16. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

What’s this? What’s this? It’s Henry Selick’s perfect stop-motion celebration of Christmas cheer through a Gothic lens. With so many Christmas movies, it’s hard to stand out from the crowd, but The Nightmare Before Christmas is defiantly different. Mostly because it has werewolves, a singing sack filled with bugs, and a ghost dog who saves the day. So many movies focus on Christmas getting canceled because Santa gets detained, so it’s nice to see a movie about the ghouls who detain him.

17. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

The epic story of a misfit caribou who finds purpose because of what makes him unique, this Rankin/Bass tale is the longest continuously aired Christmas special of all time. It’s shown up on screens every year since 1964, thrilling young and young-at-heart viewers alike with vibrant animation, fun songs, and, for some awesome reason, an abominable snowman.

18. The Santa Clause (1994)

So many great Christmas movies follow Dickens’s blueprint of transforming someone skeptical into a true believer, and this Tim Allen comedy goes one step further by converting the crank into Kris Kringle. It’s ostensibly an argument against growing up too soon (or at all), and it established the Highlander-esque rule that, if Santa dies from falling off your roof, you become Santa.

19. Scrooged (1988)

Another stellar adaptation of Dickens, Richard Donner’s manic spree recasts Scrooge as a power-hungry television president played by a breathless Bill Murray. Beyond its intrinsic entertainment value and Carol Kane’s national treasure status, it also gives us all a break from a season of sentimental stories. It’s also a reminder that we should petition to make “Robert Goulet’s Cajun Christmas” a real thing.

20. White Christmas (1954)

There’s just nothing better than opening those big stage doors to discover the snow you’ve waited months for has finally arrived on Christmas Eve while Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, and Danny Kaye croon about our days being merry and bright. The songs and dance routines are fantastic, the story is nostalgic and goofy, and the charm is on full blast. Even growing up in a place where it never snowed, this was the ideal.

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