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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She reached the old-fashioned Mission Street saloon just to the east side of the Mint. “Over the door hangs a sign which reads ‘The Gotham—Tom Sawyer. Proprietor,’” she later wrote. “To a casual observer that name means no more than if it were ‘Jack Brown’ or ‘Tom Jones,’ but to Mark Twain it meant the inspiration for his most famous work. For the jolly old fireman sitting in there in an old fashioned haircloth chair is the original Tom Sawyer....This real, live, up-to-date Tom Sawyer spends his time telling stories of former days while he occasionally mixes a brandy and soda or a cocktail.” The walls were completely covered with helmets, belts, election tickets, badges, hooks, bugles, nozzles, mementos and other firefighting paraphernalia. “Next to his badges of his fire company, Tom Sawyer values his friendship with Mark Twain, and he will sit for hours telling of the pranks they used to play and of the narrow escapes they had from the police. He is fond of reminiscing and recalling the jolly nights and days he used to spend with Sam—as he always calls him.”

“You want to know how I came to figure in his books, do you?” Sawyer asked. “Well, as I said, we both was fond of telling stories and spinning yarns. Sam, he was mighty fond of children’s doings and whenever he’d see any little fellers a-fighting on the street, he’d always stop and watch ’em and then he’d come up to the Blue Wing and describe the whole doings and then I’d try and beat his yarn by telling him of the antics I used to play when I was a kid and say, ‘I don’t believe there ever was such another little devil ever lived as I was.’ Sam, he would listen to these pranks of mine with great interest and he’d occasionally take ’em down in his notebook. One day he says to me: ‘I am going to put you between the covers of a book some of these days, Tom.’ ‘Go ahead, Sam,’ I said, ‘but don’t disgrace my name.’”

“But [Twain’s] coming out here some day,” Sawyer added, “and I am saving up for him. When he does come there’ll be some fun, for if he gives a lecture I intend coming right in on the platform and have a few old time sallies with him.”

The nonfictional character died in the autumn of 1906, three and a half years before Twain. “Tom Sawyer, Whose Name Inspired Twain, Dies at Great Age,” the newspaper headline announced. The obituary said, “A man whose name is to be found in every worthy library in America died in this city on Friday....So highly did the author appreciate Sawyer that he gave the man’s name to his famous boy character. In that way the man who died Friday is godfather, so to speak, of one of the most enjoyable books ever written.”

Sawyer’s saloon was destroyed that same year—by fire.

Twain was more definite about the real-life model for Huckleberry Finn  than Tom Sawyer. And he admitted that he had based Tom Sawyer’s Becky Thatcher on Laura Hawkins, who lived opposite the Clemens family on Hill Street in Hannibal Missouri, and modeled Sid Sawyer, Tom’s well-behaved half brother, on his lamented brother Henry.

Curiously, the claim that Twain was supposed to have named Tom Sawyer after his San Francisco acquaintance was well known in 1900, when the principals were alive, including Twain, Sawyer and probably several hundred San Franciscans who knew them both, and could have authenticated or challenged the claim. No one disputed it in San Francisco—nor did Twain. Sawyer himself never doubted that Twain named his first novel for him.


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