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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A crowd including California governor Frederick Low and Nevada governor Henry Blasdel gathered in front of Congress Hall on Bush Street to hear Twain’s talk. He intended to add final remarks summing up San Francisco, what it had been and would be. He would speak of its destiny. Now there were 20 blocks, 1,500 new homes and offices, fireproof buildings.

As he waited for the lecture to begin, Tom Sawyer wriggled in his seat next to Mary Bridget, his mind occupied by the $183 he owed in delinquent property taxes. At 8 p.m. the gaslights dimmed. Twain stepped to the podium. Solemn-faced, he shuffled a stack of ragged pages, dropping them in feigned confusion until he had the crowd laughing. “And whenever a joke did fall,” he recalled in Roughing It in 1872, “and their faces did split from ear to ear, Sawyer, whose hearty countenance was seen looming redly in the center of the second row, took it up, and the house was carried handsomely. The explosion that followed was the triumph of the evening. I thought that honest man Sawyer would choke himself.”

He seemed to be speaking directly to Sawyer when he said that the time was drawing near when prosperity lay upon the land. “I am bidding the old city and my old friends a kind, but not a sad farewell, for I know that when I see this home again, the changes that will have been wrought upon it will suggest no sentiment of sadness; its estate will be brighter, happier and prouder a hundred fold than it is this day. This is its destiny!”

Twain, who had just turned 31, was taking his leave of San Francisco. Sawyer pumped his hand and hugged him goodbye. They would never meet again.

Twain departed aboard the steamer America on December 15, leaving behind more friends than any newspaperman who had ever sailed out of the Golden Gate.


Sawyer presided over his saloon, and for 21 years, until 1884, held his civil-service job with the San Francisco Customs House. He also continued to serve as a part-time firefighter for many years, after volunteer units were disbanded and a paid fire department was created in 1866. In 1869, Sawyer had been seriously injured in the line of duty when an engine and hose cart overturned. Two fire horses excited by the frenzied clanging of the fire bell had snapped a harness as they dashed from the station. He convalesced at home with Mary Bridget and their three boys—Joseph, Thomas Jr., and Wil­liam—and soon returned to battling blazes. Only around 1896, after turning 65, did he retire from the force.

In 1876, Twain published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Thirty-seven when he began writing it, he completed 100 pages in 1873, but composed the rest in 1874 and 1875, when a friend, the author and Atlantic Monthly editor William Dean Howells, read a draft. For the character of Sawyer, Twain would say only that he had drawn upon three boys. In 1923, Albert Bigelow Paine, who had published Twain’s approved biography in 1912, named them as John B. Briggs (who died in 1907), William Bowen (who died in 1893) and Twain. In a note to a young girl in 1907, Twain himself wrote, “I have always concealed it, but now I am compelled to confess that I am Tom Sawyer!” He also contradicted Roughing It, writing that “‘Sawyer’ was not the real name...of any person I ever knew, so far as I can remember….”

The great appropriator liked to pretend his characters sprang fully grown from his fertile mind. Yet the fireman had no doubts that he was the inspiration for the name of Tom Sawyer.

Viola Rodgers, a reporter at Twain’s old paper, the Call, interviewed Tom Sawyer on October 23, 1898. She was intrigued by what Twain had written in a postscript to the book: “Most of the characters that perform in this book still live and are prosperous and happy. Some day it may seem worthwhile to take up the story of the younger ones again and see what sort of men and women they turned out to be; therefore it will be wisest not to reveal any of that part of their lives at present.”


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