The REAL Tom Sawyer!

The real Tom Sawyer has been revealed, with new research detailing his life as a hard-drinking and heroic firefighter who once saved 90 people from a steamship fire.

Samuel L. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain

Known to generations as one of the most beloved characters in American literature, an extensive feature in Smithsonian Magazine details the life of the man who inspired the fictional child and title character of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

Twain and Sawyer first met in San Francisco in 1863, quickly becoming firm friends who seemingly drank in every saloon the city had to offer, according to the article.

Firefighter Tom Sawyer

On a rainy afternoon in June 1863, Mark Twain was nursing a bad hangover inside Ed Stahle’s fashionable Montgomery Street steam rooms, halfway through a two-month visit to San Francisco that would ultimately stretch to three years. At the baths he played penny ante with Stahle, the proprietor, and Tom Sawyer, the recently appointed customs inspector, volunteer fireman, special policeman and bona fide local hero.

Montgomery Street in the 1860’s

In contrast to the lanky Twain, Sawyer, three years older, was stocky and round-faced. Just returned from firefighting duties, he was covered in soot. Twain slumped as he played poker, studying his cards, hefting a bottle of dark beer and chain-smoking cigars, to which he had become addicted during his stint as a pilot for steamboats on the Mississippi River from 1859 until the Civil War disrupted river traffic in April 1861. It was his career on the Mississippi, of course, that led Samuel Clemens to his pen name, “mark twain” being the minimum river depth of two fathoms, or roughly 12 feet, that a steamboat needed under its keel.

Mid-1800’s Steamboat

After Twain’s first usage of the “character” in a book three years later, Sawyer is said to have told a reporter at the time, “He (Twain) 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.'”

Smithsonian magazine details how Sawyer was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. where he was a torch boy for Columbia Hook and Ladder Company Number 14. In San Francisco, he worked for Broderick 1, the city’s first volunteer fire company.

1850’s Hook & Ladder Company

Sawyer had proved his heroism February 16, 1853, while serving as the fire engineer aboard the steamer Independence. Heading to San Francisco via San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua and Acapulco, with 359 passengers aboard, the ship struck a reef off Baja, shuddered like a leaf and caught against jagged rocks.

Sawyer raced below deck and dropped into two feet of water. Through a huge rent, the sea was filling up overheated boilers below the waterline, cooling them rapidly. Chief Engineer Jason Collins and his men were fighting to keep steam up to reach shore. After the coal bunkers flooded, the men began tossing slats from stateroom berths into the furnaces. Sawyer heard Collins cry, “The blowers are useless!”

From Smithsonian Magazine

Loss of the blowers drove the flames out the furnace doors and ignited woodwork in the fire room and around the smokestack. Steam and flames blasted up from the hatch and ventilators. “The scene was perfectly horrible,” Sampson recalled later. “Men, women and children, screeching, crying and drowning.”

Collins and James L. Freeborn, the purser, jumped overboard, lost consciousness and sank. Sawyer, a powerful swimmer, dove into the water, caught both men by their hair and pulled them to the surface. As they clung to his back, he swam for the shore a hundred yards away, a feat of amazing strength and stamina.

Depositing Collins and Freeborn on the beach, Sawyer swam back to the burning steamer. He made a number of round trips, swimming to shore with a passenger or two on his back each time. Finally, a lifeboat was lowered, and women, children and many men, including the ship’s surgeon, who would be needed on land, packed in and were rowed to shore. Two broken lifeboats were repaired and launched. Sawyer returned to the flaming vessel in a long boat, rowing hard despite burned forearms to reach more passengers. He got a group into life preservers, then towed them ashore and went back for more. An hour later, the ship was a perfect sheet of flame.

The Smithsonian article quotes a 1898 newspaper article in which Sawyer told a reporter about the influence he had had on Twain’s most famous novel. “You want to know how I came to figure in his books, do you?” Sawyer asked in the interview, cited by the article. “Well, as I said, we both was fond of telling stories and spinning yarns.”

“Sam (Clemens, Twain’s real name), 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 [saloon] 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.”

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