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Twain's Brother

Dreamed early May 1858 by Mark Twain

SOURCE: The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, p. 274-276: transcript of 13 January 1906 dictation; [square brackets like these] mark doubtful words the stenographer asked Twain to confirm; I have also indented the dream itself.

This page once had just a bare summary of this famous dream, from Robert van de Castle's Our Dreaming Mind; but now that the Autobiography is out (at last!) I have inserted Twain's full account in context. The devil is in the details, especially when claims of extrasensory perception may rise.


[In 1858 I was a steersman] on board the swift and popular New Orleans and St. Louis packet, [Pennsylvania,] Captain [Klinefelter]. I had been lent to Mr. Brown, one of the pilots of the [Pennsylvania,] by my owner, Mr. Horace E. Bixby, and I had been steering for Brown about eighteen months, I think. Then in the early days of May, 1858, came a [tragic] [trip]--the last trip of that fleet and famous steamboat. I have told all about [it] in one of my books called “Old Times on the Mississippi.” But it is not likely that I told the dream in that book. [I will ask Miss Lyon to see--but I will go on and dictate the dream now, and it can go into the waste-basket if it shall turn out that I have already published it.] It is impossible that I can [ever] have published it, I think, because I never wanted my mother to know about [that] dream, and she lived several years after I published that volume.

I had found a place on the [Pennsylvania] for my brother Henry, who was two years my junior. It was not a place of profit, it was only a place of promise. He was “mud” clerk. Mud clerks received no salary, but they were in the line of promotion. They could become, presently, third clerk and second clerk, then chief clerk--that is to say, purser. The dream begins when Henry had been mud clerk about three months. We were lying in port at St. Louis. Pilots and steersmen had nothing to do during the three days that the boat lay in port in St. Louis and New Orleans, but the mud clerk had to begin his labors at dawn and continue them into the night, by the light of pine-knot torches. Henry and I, moneyless and unsalaried, had [billeted] ourselves upon [our brother-in-law, Mr. Moffett], as night lodgers while in port. We took our meals on board the boat. No, I mean I lodged at the house, not Henry. He spent the evenings at the house, from nine until eleven, then went to the boat to be ready for his early duties.

On the night of the dream he started away at eleven, shaking hands with the family, and said [good-bye] according [to] custom. [I] may mention that [hand-shaking] as a [good-bye] was not merely the custom of that family, but the custom of the region--the custom of Missouri, I may say. In all my life, up to that time, I had never seen one member of the Clemens family kiss another one--except once. When my father lay dying in our home in [Hannibal]--the 24th of [March] 1847--he put his arm around my sister’s neck and drew her down and kissed her, saying “Let me die.” I remember that, and I remember the death rattle which swiftly followed those words, which were his [last]. These [good-byes of Henry’s] were always executed in the family sitting-room on the second floor, and Henry went from that room and [downstairs] without further ceremony. But this time my mother went with him to the head of the stairs and said [good-bye again]. As I remember it she was moved to this by something in Henry’s manner, and she remained at the head of the stairs while he descended. When he reached the door he hesitated, and climbed the stairs and shook hands [good-bye once more.]

[In] the morning, when I awoke I had been dreaming, and the dream was so vivid, so like reality, that it deceived me, and I thought it was real.

In the dream I had seen Henry a corpse. He lay in a metallic [burial case]. He was dressed in a suit of my clothing, and on his breast lay a great bouquet of flowers, mainly white roses, with a red rose in the [centre]. The casket stood upon a couple of chairs. I dressed, and moved toward that door, thinking I would go in there and look at it, but I changed my mind. I thought I could not yet bear to meet my mother. I thought I would wait [a while] and make some preparation for that ordeal. The house was in Locust [street], a little above 13th, and I walked to 14th, and to the middle of the block beyond, before it suddenly flashed upon me that there was nothing real about this--it was only a dream. I can still feel something of the grateful upheaval of joy of that moment, and I can also still feel the remnant of doubt, the suspicion that maybe it [was] real, after all. I returned to the house almost on a run, flew up the stairs two or three steps at a jump, and rushed into that [sitting-room]--and was made glad again, for there was no casket there.
We made the usual eventless trip to New Orleans--no, it was not eventless, for it was on the way down that [I had the fight] with Mr. [Brown?] which resulted in his requiring that I be left ashore at New Orleans. In New Orleans I always had a job. It was my privilege to watch the freight-piles from seven in the evening until seven in the morning, and get three dollars for it. It was a three-night job and occurred every thirty-five days. Henry always joined my watch about nine in the evening, when his own duties were ended, and we often walked my rounds and chatted together until midnight. This time we were to part, and so the night before the boat [sailed] I gave Henry some advice. I [said] “In case of disaster to the boat, don’t lose your head--leave that [unwisdom] to the passengers--they are competent--they’ll attend to [it.] But you rush for the [hurricane-deck,] and [astern] to [one of the life-boats] lashed aft the [wheel-house],] and obey the mate’s orders--thus you will be useful. When the boat is launched, give such help as you can in getting the women and children into it, and be sure you don’t try to get into it yourself. It is summer weather, the river is only a mile wide, as a rule, and you can swim that without any trouble.” Two or three days afterward the boat’s boilers exploded at Ship Island, [below] Memphis, early one morning--and what happened [afterward] [I have already told in [“Old Times on the Mississippi.”]] As related there, I followed the [Pennsylvania] about a day later, on another boat, and we began to get news of the disaster at every port we touched at, and so by the time we reached Memphis we knew all about it.

I found Henry stretched upon a mattress on the floor of a great building, along with thirty or forty other scalded and wounded persons, and was promptly [informed,] by some indiscreet person, that he had inhaled steam; that his body was badly scalded, and that he would live but a little while; also, I was told that the physicians and nurses were giving their whole attention to persons who had a chance of being saved. They were short-handed in the matter of physicians and [nurses;] and [Henry] and such others as were considered to be fatally hurt were receiving only such attention as could be spared, from time to time, from the more urgent cases. But Dr. Peyton, a fine and large-hearted old physician of great reputation in the community, gave me his sympathy and took vigorous hold of the case, and in about a week he had brought Henry around. [Dr. Peyton] never committed himself with prognostications which might not materialize, but at eleven [o’clock] one night he told me that Henry was out of danger, and would get well. Then he [said] “At midnight these poor fellows lying here and [there] all over this place will begin to mourn and mutter and lament and make outcries, and if this commotion should disturb Henry it will be bad for [him;] therefore ask the [physicians] on watch to give him an eighth of a grain of morphine, but this is not to be done unless Henry shall show signs that he is being [disturbed.”]

Oh well, never mind the rest of it. The physicians on watch were young fellows hardly out of the medical college, and they made a mistake--they had no way of measuring the eighth of a grain of morphine, so they guessed at it and gave him a vast quantity heaped on the end of a knife-blade, and the fatal effects were soon apparent. I think he died about dawn, I don’t remember as to that. He was carried to the [dead-room] and I went away for a while to a citizen’s house and slept off some of my accumulated fatigue--and meantime something was happening. The coffins provided for the dead were of unpainted white pine, but in this instance some of the ladies of Memphis had made up a fund of sixty dollars and bought a metallic case, and when I came back and entered the [dead-room] Henry lay in that open case, and he was dressed in a suit of my clothing. He had borrowed it without my knowledge during our last sojourn in St. Louis; and I recognized instantly that my dream of several weeks before was here exactly reproduced, so far as these details went--and I think I missed one [detail;] but that one was immediately supplied, for just then an elderly lady entered the place with a large bouquet consisting mainly of white roses, and in the [centre] of it was a red rose, and she laid it on his breast.

Note: Clemens’s niece, Annie Moffett, said in recollections published by her son in 1946

"...The story as the family used to tell it was not quite like Uncle Sam’s version. They said his dream occurred in the daytime. The family including Henry were in my mother’s room and Sam was asleep in the next room. He came in and told them what he had dreamed. My grandmother said he went back and dreamed the same dream a second and third time, but I think that was her embellishment." (MTBus, 37)

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