Where Mark Twain and Jesse James Intersect

10, September 2013
Mark Twain homeSamuel Clemens's boyhood home and the basis for Tom Sawyer's home.

Last week my family and I visited Hannibal, Missouri, to check out the old stomping grounds of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). We toured his house and the houses that were the models for those of Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher. After browsing in some quaint shops such as Aunt Polly’s Treasures, eating lunch at the Becky Thatcher Diner, and gazing at the Mississippi River, we headed a mile down the road to the Mark Twain Cave.

Missouri’s first “show cave,” it’s been open for tours since 1886. It’s 52 degrees, it’s covered with signatures of folks who visited decades ago, and you’re actually allowed to climb on some of the formations. Our guide showed us what it would be like in the cave with only the light from a candle (the answer: dark). It doesn’t have the showy formations that some other local caves boast, but it makes up for it with its history.

I knew that the cave was the scene of a pivotal plot point in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, when Tom and Becky get lost in the dark, along with their nemesis, Injun Joe. But as our tour guide led us along, I saw a passageway labeled “Jesse James Hideout.” Turns out, James and his gang used the cave to hide themselves and their loot. It’s one of three caves in the state that can verify James’s inhabitance (via his own signature on a wall!) and it was a happy surprise to me. Last summer, I wrote about my visit to Meramec Caverns, which also features a James hideout. I had no idea I’d be hitting upon that era of history when I came in search of Tom, Becky, and Injun Joe. It just shows, again, that you can find history in places you don’t expect it.

Jesse James signatureJesse James's pencil signature in the Mark Twain Cave, dated 1879.

I guess next summer I’ll have to find the third cave with a Jesse James connection and complete my tour! A Google search only mentions Meramec Caverns in relation to James—does anyone know what the third cave is? Leave a comment and I’ll try to check it out!

—Lauren Mitchell, Senior Editor