The Adventures of the Real Tom Sawyer

Mark Twain prowled the rough-and-tumble streets of 1860s San Francisco with a hard-drinking, larger-than-life fireman

The fireman Tom Sawyer was lionized by local reporters for battling the “flames which destroyed the . . . landmarks of a boom town.” (Guardians of the City, San Francisco Fire Museum; Isador Laurent Deroy, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
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Twain, floating in clouds of steam at Stahle’s baths, was riveted by Sawyer’s story. He himself had a deathly fear of exploding steamers, and for good reason. In 1858, Twain had gotten his brother Henry, then 20, an unpaid post as a junior purser on the New Orleans steamer Pennsylvania. On June 13, the Pennsylvania exploded 60 miles below Memphis. Four of the eight boilers blew up the forward third of the vessel. “Henry was asleep,” Twain later recalled, “blown up—then fell back on the hot boilers.” A reporter wrote that Twain, who had been nearly two days’ travel downriver from Memphis, was “almost crazed with grief” at the sight of Henry’s burned form on a mattress surrounded by 31 parboiled and mangled victims on pallets. “[Henry] lingered in fearful agony seven days and a half,” Twain later wrote. Henry died close to dawn on June 21. “Then the star of my hope went out and left me in the gloom of despair....O, God! This is hard to bear.”

Twain blamed himself and, at the time he and Sawyer met, was still reliving the tragedy in his memory by day and in vivid dreams by night.“My nightmares to this day,” he would write toward the end of his life, “take the form of my dead brother.”


Only weeks after meeting Sawyer in San Francisco, Twain, in July 1863, went back to Virginia City, Nevada, where he’d previously worked as a correspondent for the Territorial Enterprise. He’d gotten free mining stocks as kickbacks for favorable mentions in the paper, and the value of his shares in the Gould and Curry mines had been soaring. “What a gambling carnival it was!” Twain later recalled. Now covering the rough-and-tumble silver-mining town as a freelancer for San Francisco’s Daily Morning Call, he sent for his new friend, Sawyer. “[Sam] wrote,” Sawyer recalled, “asking me to make him a visit. Well, I was pretty well-heeled—had eight hundred dollars in my inside pocket—and as there was nothing much doing in Frisco, I went.” Sawyer jolted 200 miles over mountain roads by stagecoach.

Sawyer had an exciting few nights with Sam and his friends, drinking and gambling. “In four days I found myself busted, without a cent,” Sawyer said later. “Where under the sun he got it has always been a mystery, but that morning Sam walked in with two hundred dollars in his pocket, gave me fifty, and put me on the stage for California, saying that he guessed his Virginia City friends was too speedy for me.”

After Sawyer left, Twain’s luck went bad. He moved into rooms in the new White House Hotel, and when it caught fire on July 26, most of his possessions and all his mining stocks were burned to ash. In Roughing It, he fictionalized the reason for his sudden poverty. “All of a sudden,” he lamented, “out went the bottom and everything and everybody went to ruin and destruction! The bubble scarcely left a microscopic moisture behind it. I was an early beggar and a thorough one. My hoarded stocks were not worth the paper they were printed on. I threw them all away.”

Twain returned to San Francisco in September 1863, a time of writing feverishly and much carousing. “Sam was a dandy, he was,” Sawyer said later. “He could drink more and talk more than any feller I ever seen. He’d set down and take a drink and then he’d begin to tell us some joke or another. And then when somebody’d buy him another drink, he’d keep her up all day. Once he got started he’d set there till morning telling yarns.”

Sawyer was nearly his equal in talking but often had to throw in the towel. “He beat the record for lyin’—nobody was in the race with him there,” Sawyer recalled. “He never had a cent. His clothes were always ragged and he never had his hair cut or a shave in them days. I should say he hasn’t had his hair cut since ’60. I used to give him half my wages and then he’d borrow from the other half, but a jollier companion and a better mate I would never want. He was a prince among men, you can bet, though I’ll allow he was the darndest homeliest man I ever set eyes on, Sam was.”

Stahle’s Turkish baths were housed in the Montgomery Block—at four stories the tallest building in the West when it was opened in 1853—at the intersection of Montgomery and Washington streets. The ground floor on the northwest corner housed the Bank Exchange saloon, where Twain and Sawyer had met. The Montgomery Block was perhaps the most important literary site of the 19th- and early 20th-century American West. Bret Harte, a frequent visitor to the bar, wrote “The Luck of Roaring Camp” in Montgomery Block quarters. Writers including Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and the artist Ralph Stackpole, who would paint murals within Coit Tower, kept offices in the building. Sun Yat-sen wrote the first Chinese constitution there. Twain and fellow reporter Clement T. Rice were living in the Occidental, a prestigious new four-story hotel on Montgomery Street. Sawyer lived frugally while saving to buy a saloon on Mission Street.

Throughout 1863 and into 1864, Twain published unsigned stories in the Call. “They’d send him out down at the paper to write something up,” Sawyer remembered, “and he’d go up to the Blue Wing [saloon] and sit around telling stories and drinking all day.” He also frequented the bar at the Occidental. “Then he’d go back to the office and write up something. Most times it was all wrong, but it was mighty entertaining,” Sawyer allowed.


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