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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At the steam baths on July 8, 1864, Twain was miserable with a cold, sneezing and snuffling. Sawyer entered, smoked-black and fire-scorched, returning from the engine house of the Liberty Hose Number 2 company he had helped organize and for which he served as foreman. As they played cards, Twain admitted how much he loathed his job at the Call and detested its editor, George Barnes. He wanted to quit, but because of considerable debt, had vowed to drag himself into work and be pleasant to Barnes. “It was awful drudgery for a lazy man,” Twain explained, “and I was born lazy. I raked the town from end to end and if there were no fires to report, I started some.”

There was, he said, one perquisite. “Reporting is the best school in the world to get a knowledge of human beings, human nature, and human ways. No other occupation brings a man into such familiar sociable relations with all grades and classes of people.”

On September 28, Sawyer and Twain went on a momentous bender. “Mark was as much sprung as I was,” Sawyer recalled, “and in a short time we owned the City, cobblestones and all.” They made the rounds of the Montgomery Street saloons, growing more expansive as they spent most of the night drinking brandy at the Blue Wing and the Capitol Saloon. “Toward mornin’ Mark sobered up a bit and we all got to tellin’ yarns,” Sawyer said. The sun was up by the time the two called it a night.

“The next day I met Mark down by the old Call office,” Sawyer continued. “He walks up to me and puts both hands on my shoulders. ‘Tom,’ he says, ‘I’m going to write a book about a boy and the kind I have in mind was just about the toughest boy in the world. Tom, he was just such a boy as you must have been....How many copies will you take, Tom, half cash?’”

Sawyer did not take him seriously. He got to the firehouse on Fourth Street and tried to sleep off his hangover in a back room. Twain went home, slept and then wrote his sister. “I would commence on my book,” he wrote. He had already spoken of his ambitious literary plan to write a novel to his brother Orion, cautioning him to say nothing of it.

Throughout the following year, 1865, Twain lived freelance assignment to freelance assignment. He had moved to Minna Street, an alley paralleling Market Street. Sawyer lived three blocks away. He had fallen in love with young Mary Bridget (records do not document her maiden name), and after they were married, the couple moved into 935 Mission Street. Sawyer set up housekeeping on the second floor and converted the ground floor into a saloon.

On Sunday, October 8, 1865, Twain was walking down Third Street when he was shaken off his feet. “The entire front of a tall four-story brick building in Third Street sprung outward like a door,” he wrote, “and fell sprawling across the street....” At Sawyer’s cottage, his antique firefighting memorabilia collection was smashed. Eleven days later, Twain, unable to pay off his debts, reached a decision. “I have a call to literature of a low order—i.e. humorous,” he wrote Orion and his wife, Mollie. “It is nothing to be proud of but it is my strongest suit.”


On March 5, 1866, Twain wrote his mother and sister that he was to depart in two days for a reporting excursion to the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii). “We shall arrive there in about twelve days. I am to remain there a month and ransack the islands, the great cataracts and the volcanoes completely and write twenty or thirty letters to the Sacramento Union for which they pay me as much money as I would get if I stayed at home.”

After he steamed back to California, reaching San Francisco in August, he visited the Turkish baths to see Sawyer. As he sweated his worries away, Twain studied the round-faced young firefighter. Sawyer had found happiness, and with a prosperous, popular bar, was helping to build a great city. Meanwhile, Twain was preparing for a lecture tour on the Sandwich Islands, to be delivered at stops in Nevada and California, concluding in San Francisco on December 10.


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