Shakespeare In Shackles

Text by Jeremy Berlin
On a windy April day in central Indiana, six men enter a room.Three are white, three are black. Two are over 50, the rest under 40. All of them wear khaki jumpsuits and carry books under their tattooed arms.They are six of the 1,840 inmates at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, a Level 4 maximum-security prison. Built in 1923, its Spanish Colonial Revival buildings and grassy courtyards once housed John Dillinger.

The men sit in a semicircle, facing a chalkboard and two visitors. One is the instructor, a gray-bearded man with glasses. The other is a guest speaker: a tall woman in her mid-50s with keen blue eyes and flaxen hair streaked silver. This is her first time in Pendleton. But she knows one of the inmates, kept in another part of the prison, very well.

“Remember,” she tells the men in the room, speaking cheerfully with a Midwestern cadence, “make what you read today relevant.”

One of the youngest men, wearing a green knit cap issued by the prison, stands up. “Me and John have been practicing,” says Chris Lewis, smiling proudly. “We’ll be Coriolanus and Menenius.”

He and John Gray, a short, goateed young man, face each other. The other four move to the side and open their books.

“O sir,” says Gray, reciting the adviser Menenius’s lines from memory, “you are not right: Have you not known the worthiest man have done’t?”

“What must I say?” says Lewis, playing the proud general Coriolanus. “‘I pray, sir’—plague upon’t! I cannot bring my tongue to such a pace:—’Look, sir, my wounds!’ I got them in my country’s service, when some certain of my brethren roar’d and ran from the noise of our own drums.'”

“O me, the gods!” says Gray. “You must speak of that: You must desire them to think upon you.”

“Think upon me!” says Lewis. “Hang ’em! I would they would forget me, like the virtues which our divines lose by ’em.”

“You’ll mar all,” says Gray. “I leave you. Pray you, speak to ’em, I pray you, in wholesome manner.”

Gray steps to the side. Three of the other men move in, playing Roman plebeians. They read their parts. Lewis continues from memory.

When Act 2, Scene 3 ends they stop and talk about what they’ve just read, picking apart each line for meaning and context. Then they run through the scene several more times before sitting down and discussing Coriolanus‘s titular character.

“He’s like General Patton,” says Tim Woods, burly and bearded with a shaved head. “He was great on the battlefield, but said inflammatory things in public.”

“I agree,” says Michael Shannon, his long brown hair pulled straight back. “He’s totally out of place—a military man forced into the political arena. He’s acting out of conscience, but he’s struggling with his ego.”

“His contempt for the citizenry—he reminds me of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men,” says Woods.

“Yeah?” says Zach Truax, a thin young man with a fresh buzz cut. “I picture the dude who played the English king in Braveheart.”

They go on, respectfully discussing the character and his motivations, tying it to their own lives, to pop culture and the modern world. The middle-aged woman sitting in their midst listens closely—and smiles.

Laura Bates sits with inmate Walter Travis while other inmates act out a Shakespeare scene during class at the Pendleton (Ind.) Correctional Facility on Friday, April 11, 2014.
At the Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana, Bates reads along with inmate Walter Travis as Chris Lewis (right), John Gray (left), and Michael Shannon (top left) perform a scene from Coriolanus. Prison official Neil Potter looks on. Jack Heller (not pictured), an English professor at Huntington University, started the Pendleton program after being inspired by Bates’s work. PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE FENDER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Supermax Students

Laura Bates teaches Shakespeare to maximum-security prisoners. For most of the past 15 years she has focused on those in “Supermax”—the violent, erratic, “worst of the worst” stowed in long-term solitary confinement. She is the first and only person ever to do so.

“They’re the ones who need education the most,” says Bates, 56, an English professor at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. “And they’re the ones with the least opportunity. Shakespeare has the power to educate convicted killers and help them examine the choices they made that landed them here—and how to avoid making those choices again.

Reading and performing plays—the crux of most Shakespeare-in-prison programs found in 11 other states and half a dozen other countries—isn’t enough for Bates. Her work, uniquely, centers on critical thinking, interpretive analysis, and creative rewriting.

In one project, men from the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility collaborated with women from the Rockville Correctional Center (where Bates also volunteered) to rewrite The Taming of the Shrew in plain language, turning the play into a commentary on domestic violence. Other adaptations of Shakespeare plays, which were performed by prisoners in Wabash’s general population, spoke out against violence, revenge, and gangs.

“It’s the only way to bring Shakespeare back to their lives,” she says, “to make it matter in a way that’s personal.”

Picture of an inmate reading Coriolanus
Inmate Tim Woods reads Act 2, Scene 3 from Coriolanus during class at Pendleton. PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE FENDER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Despite the gravity of her work, Bates is good-natured and quick to laugh. She speaks briskly, conversationally—more like an attentive neighbor than an ivory tower academic. That may have something to do with her salt-of-the-earth upbringing. Her parents were World War II refugees from Latvia who took factory jobs after they settled in Chicago. Bates and her sister grew up on the city’s west side, in the notorious Austin neighborhood.

“It was a ghetto,” she says with characteristic frankness. “A lot of crime and criminals. Having grown up with that population, I’m still more comfortable in a prison than in a university setting. The first time I volunteered as a literacy tutor in Cook County Jail, I wasn’t scared—or surprised to see some old friends from the neighborhood behind those bars.”

That was in 1984, when Bates believed “that first-time offenders would be the most rehabilitate-able. In fact, I remember arguing vehemently with a friend of my husband’s who was doing theater work with inmates at Joliet. I told him that the hard-core prisoners he was working with were beyond rehabilitation.”

She soon learned, however, that people in jail awaiting trial can be unstable, unsettled by drug withdrawal or by the adjustment to incarceration.

“Ironically,” she says, “it’s the lifers—the ones who have been in prison for 20 years and are resigned to it—who are the safest population to work with. And the ones we really need to reach. So it only took me 25 years to admit I was wrong in that initial argument!”

Solitary Confinement

For a dozen years after her first tutoring session at Cook County Jail, as she completed her doctorate under noted Shakespeare scholar David Bevington at the University of Chicago, Bates taught English courses at the medium-security Putnamville Correctional Facility. In the late 1990s, when she began as an adjunct professor at Indiana State, she volunteered at Wabash—one of two prisons in Indiana with a Security Housing Unit (SHU), aka solitary confinement.

Shakespeare has the power to educate convicted killers and help them examine the choices they made that landed them here—and how to avoid making those choices again.

The practice of keeping prisoners in solitary has become a hot-button issue in recent years. Conditions vary from prison to prison, but it’s essentially the same everywhere: An inmate spends 23 hours a day locked in a small windowless cell—on a concrete floor, behind a steel door—for weeks, months, even years at a time.

Since the early 1970s solitary confinement has been an increasingly popular sanction in state and federal prisons. But as public opinion shifts and budget cuts mount, states have begun rethinking its merits and viability. Is it an expensive but necessary means of segregating the most dangerous prisoners? Or an inhumane form of psychological, and perhaps unconstitutional, torture?

At Wabash, Bates knew she’d need something different to reach the SHU residents. So she turned to the Bard.

“I figured if I did the ‘criminal tragedies’—Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet—they’d see that the content isn’t all lovey-dovey, but things they can really relate to: complicated characters, moral decisions, action-packed adventure. And I thought, ‘If I can just get just one guy to buy in, he’ll spread the word.'”

Picture of Laura Bates talking with inmates in her Shakespeare class
Bates talks about Shakespeare with inmates Gray (left) and Zach Truax at Pendleton. She emphasizes critical thinking and discussion, asking inmates to relate the plays to their own lives and experiences. PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE FENDER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Gold-Star Student

That one guy was Larry Newton. A fifth-grade dropout from Muncie, Newton had been in and out of juvenile facilities since he was ten years old. At 17 he was convicted of kidnapping and murder, along with two peers, and given a life sentence with no chance of parole. In prison he was violent again and again. He tried to escape several times. When Bates arrived at Wabash, he’d been in solitary confinement for a decade.

“I had never met an inmate who scared me—until Newton,” Bates writes in her book Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary With the Bard, a chronicle of her work with Newton and others in the Wabash SHU. “I had never rejected one—until Newton.”

But something made her think again. While screening prospective participants for her nascent “Shakespeare in Shackles” program, Newton’s sophisticated analysis of a soliloquy in Richard II—”It seems to me that he has gone from king to prisoner,” Newton wrote, “and in his thoughts goes back and forth, but seems to conclude with saying that until you have been at peace, or content, with nothing … you cannot be pleased with anything”—persuaded her to take a chance.

The United States is the biggest jailer in the world—1,570,400 inmates in state and federal prisons as of 2012.

For the next ten years Bates guided Newton and 200 other SHU inmates through careful considerations of Shakespeare’s plays. Each week guards would lead as many as eight prisoners, chained and leashed, from their windowless rooms into adjacent holding cells. As they knelt on the concrete floor, legs still shackled, they spoke through cuff ports (also called food-pass doors).

Bates sat on a plastic chair in the narrow hallway between their cells. Wearing jeans and a sweater, with a workbook on her lap and a pen in her hand, she guided them patiently through the thicket of Elizabethan English, encouraging them to articulate their ideas and refusing to let them settle for pat responses. Again and again, she reminded them to bring the discussion back to their own experiences.

Those close readings and thoughtful analyses led to appreciable changes. Prior to the program, says Bates, the 20 inmates who spent the most time with Shakespeare had had more than 600 write-ups for violent behavior. During and after the program, they totaled just two—for cell-phone possession.

In the SHU group Newton’s critiques were the most trenchant—”Some of his interpretations are being cited in scholarly papers and at conferences,” Bates says proudly—and his change the most profound. He was eventually released from solitary confinement at Wabash, and went on to write a manual to help other inmates read Shakespeare.

“He’s written workbooks for 13 separate plays,” says Bates, “and a synopsis page for 37 plays. I’ve used them with dozens of prisoners—and some of my college classes. Now I just need to find a publisher for Larry’s work.”

Newton is currently housed in Pendleton. Though he and Bates have kept in touch by mail, they have not seen each other for three years, and Bates was unable to secure a meeting with him when she visited the Coriolanus group on April 11. But she was hoping to reunite with her gold-star student when she was to return later in the month.


Rex Hammond doesn’t look like a career criminal. With his neat sandy hair, thoughtful expression, and blue oxford tucked into black slacks, the 49-year-old looks like a faculty member enjoying his lunch at an Indiana State University eatery.

But from the age of 12, when he stole a neighbor’s coin collection, until August 2009, when he was released from prison after serving time for armed robbery and taking a deputy hostage, he was a recidivist through and through.

“Classic case of differential association theory,” he says. “I was influenced by my peers and older brother—crime as a learned behavior. It happens in Shakespeare, where good people can become bad, like in Macbeth. And they can get played, like in Othello. But that’s life. And sometimes circumstances make a life-course criminal, from an early age well into adulthood.”

Hammond knows all this because he’s studying criminology at the graduate level. He’s been working on a master’s degree since completing his bachelor’s at ISU in 2012. He is also a graduate assistant for three professors.

Hammond says his turnaround began with education in prison—especially Shakespeare.

“When I met Dr. Bates in Wabash, I was 34 years old,” he says, “and I’d read ten books in my life, if I’m lucky. I took my first Shakespeare course with her, and I went, ‘Wow!’ It started opening my mind, getting me to think outside myself. The world became more than the 15 or 20 miles around me. And I saw right away how relevant it was. Our modes of technology have changed, but the human mind—wants, needs, desires—is the same as it was in Shakespeare’s time.”

Including our darker impulses. “Some criminologists ask, ‘Why do people commit crimes?’ says Hammond. “But Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist, turned that around and asked, ‘Why don’t people commit crimes?’ You see that a lot in Shakespeare’s plays. We all have within us the ability to become serial killers.”

Picture of an inmate in Laura Bates' class reading Coriolanus
Cast in the role of a Roman plebeian in Coriolanus, inmate Woods reads his lines during class at Pendleton. PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE FENDER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Sitting in on Bates’s English 460 class at ISU, in a third-row chair by the window, Hammond offers a dose of stark reality in counterpoint to the other students, who are all in their early 20s and look like traditional undergrads. Bates walks the class—18 juniors and seniors, half of them paying attention, all bound for grad school or a teaching job—through six points in Macbeth, using one of Newton’s workbooks to frame the discussion.

“In Act 2, Scene 1,” she says, “Macbeth sees a floating dagger. What is he really seeing?”

“Well, he’s definitely not seeing an actual dagger,” says a student named Emily. “Maybe he’s seeing … opportunity?

“I think that’s right,” says Hammond. “When I went on a two-week armed-robbery spree, every night I’d see myself committing a robbery I hadn’t yet. The more it consumes you, the more it overtakes your mind.”

“OK,” says Bates. “What about accomplices? Let’s talk about the relationship between Macbeth and his wife.”

“Like Bonnie and Clyde,” says Sam, a male student, “this is a couple that’s extremely loyal to each other. They’ve got an interdependent sociopathic relationship.”

“She becomes a direct participant when she drugs the guards,” says a female student named Alex. “When she gets her hands dirty.”

“Actually,” says Hammond, “just talking about it makes her an accomplice in the eyes of the law. I can tell you that in prison, if you talk about doing a crime you don’t want anyone there. One person knowing is too many.”

Bates ends the class by showing a grainy five-minute video of her Wabash SHU group considering some of the same questions.

“Let’s look at influence,” says Newton on screen, leading the discussion through the cuff port of his cell door. “Do you think I could hypothetically convince you to conduct yourself in the way you’re most opposed to?”

“If you could push me to do it, then there was something in me already,” says inmate Leon Benson, another star SHU student who wrote a foreword to Newton’s workbooks. “We have to look at Macbeth as a human being. He might not be aware of influence. When I was on the streets, I was hustling. But who was I hustling for? I was being influenced unconsciously.”

“When I first read the play, I saw huge mitigating circumstances,” says Newton. “Blame the witches. Blame Lady Macbeth. But now I want to remove the influence argument and leave Macbeth to stand on his own for his behavior. As I’ve tried to do myself. I’m still finding reasons for why I behaved the way I did.”

Hammond watches the video and smiles. So does Bates.

Grassroots Volunteers

The United States is the biggest jailer in the world—1,570,400 inmates in state and federal prisons as of 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Should they be educated? And who should pay for it? These are fraught questions.

Data shows that higher education leads to less recidivism. Yet many legislators and voters balk at criminals receiving free college classes. In 1994 the U.S. Congress passed legislation to deny federal Pell Grants to prisoners. Over the past two decades many states have followed suit, phasing out prison education programs.

“I agree that lawbreakers shouldn’t get free education when law-abiding people have to pay for it,” says Bates. “But the old ‘it’s cheaper to educate than incarcerate’ line is true: Men and women in prison need education. We just need to figure out a way they can pay for it themselves, by working for it.”

In 2011, the Indiana General Assembly and budget-pressed Department of Corrections abolished college degree-granting programs. That included ISU’s distance-learning program, which had reached inmates like Hammond.

“That’s why it’s so important that my work is completely voluntary,” says Bates. “The fact that it doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime is one reason I don’t get shut down when other programming does. Now I want to get a new generation out there on a volunteer basis. Because really, at this point, that’s all we can do.”

You’re introducing critical thinking to people who have never had that opportunity.

Her grassroots seeding is starting to sprout disciples, like Micki Morahn.

Morahn, 59, works with Bates each week at the United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute. She uses her master’s degree in history to help prisoners contextualize what they’re reading, like explaining the Black Death pandemic of the 14th century.

“This is the place where you can make a difference,” she says. “Here you really see the brain starting to engage. You’re introducing critical thinking to people who have never had that opportunity.”

Keaton Bernier, a 23-year-old undergrad at ISU, and Joshua Akens, a 34-year-old graduate assistant, also help Bates at USP Terre Haute.

“Prisoners are people, and people make mistakes,” says Akens. “That’s how I see them, even though I admit I’m nervous around them. Hopefully, Shakespeare will help them start to see there are different perspectives out there, and that’ll create tolerance of other people and other cultures.”

Scott Bonham, chaplain at USP Terre Haute, says it’s already happening.

“Dr. Bates’s program has drawn inmates of different ages, races, and religions into a group—a big step toward civility and citizenship. Shakespeare’s plays still speak to deep and true ideas, thoughts, and emotions. The more inmates grapple with these profound ideas, the more they grasp human complexity and community.

“[Her program] expands interests, improves attitudes, and tempers negative behavior. It may only be a small group of inmates she and her volunteers work with at any one time, but the ripple effect is very powerful in prison. A dozen positive men can change the tenor of an entire unit—and ultimately an institution.”

Alan Kemp is one of those positive men. Tall and tanned with buzz-cut hair and a calm mien, he’s hoping to become the first inmate to start his own Shakespeare program. On a bright spring day Bates and her husband, Allan—a white-haired playwright and retired professor who is a constant companion to his wife—drop off a workbook for him at USP Terre Haute. As Bates wishes him luck, Kemp clutches the book to his chest, smiles, and walks back inside.

Picture of Laura Bates sitting with her Shakespeare class
Bates and inmates at Pendleton listen closely to a class member’s interpretation of a scene from Coriolanus. PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE FENDER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Professors Play Their Part

Bates is also inspiring her peers. Cynthia Rutz, an English professor at Valparaiso University, has asked her advice on how to set up a Bard-behind-bars program. So has Jonathan Shailor, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. And the Maine State Prison, after consulting with Bates last year, might begin its own Shakespeare program this summer.

Jack Heller, an English professor at Huntington University, founded the Pendleton program last fall after reading Bates’s book. He’d also previously spent six years volunteering in Kentucky prisons. Shakespeare, he says, is good for what ails any inmate.

“With Laura’s group, many of whom will never get out, it helps them see their own humanity,” he says, “and the humanity of people they’ve associated with, including their victims. For the men who eventually do get out, we can see that Shakespeare [greatly reduces] the recidivism rate. It’s time for people in the social sciences to start studying this and why it works.”

For Bates, it comes back to something Newton told her.

“He said he’d been through all sorts of programs in prison, and nothing worked. But Shakespeare did. Why? Because all those other programs start with the premise that you’re broken and need to be fixed—need to become another person. Shakespeare starts with the premise that you’re not broken if you can handle the language and grapple with the issues. Once you do, you can start to get past whatever personas you’ve been hiding behind and examine who you really are.

“And isn’t that,” she says with a smile, “what we all want to know?”

Saving Lives

Laura Bates and Larry Newton were reunited this April 23—Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. They spoke through a glass panel in the Pendleton SHU, where Newton is confined.

Newton was enthusiastic about the new Shakespeare program at Pendleton, modeled on the one Bates created in Supermax ten years ago. He said he’s come to believe that human nature is essentially good—and that Shakespeare has the power to change anyone, just as it did him.

“Some of the guys signed up because of what I told them about Shakespeare, how he saved my life,” he said. “And that made them want to do it too. That’s so cool, man!”

“You’re an innovator, Larry,” said Bates. “And you are saving lives.”

8 Things You May Not Know About Mark Twain

By Elizabeth Nix

Ernest Hemingway once declared “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’… It’s the best book we’ve had.” First published (in the United Kingdom) in December 1884, the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is considered by many to be one of the great American novels, and was Twain’s masterpiece. Check out eight fascinating facts about the world-famous author, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

1. As a baby, he wasn’t expected to live.

Twain's boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born two months prematurely on November 30, 1835, in tiny Florida, Missouri, and remained sickly and frail until he was 7 years old. Clemens was the sixth of seven children, only three of whom survived to adulthood. In 1839, Clemens’ father, John Marshall, a self-educated lawyer who ran a general store, moved his family to the town of Hannibal, Missouri, in search of better business opportunities. (Decades later, his son would set his popular novels “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in a fictionalized version of Hannibal.) John Marshall Clemens became a justice of the peace in Hannibal but struggled financially. When Samuel Clemens was 11, his 49-year-old father died of pneumonia.

2. Twain’s formal education was limited.

Twain at age 15

In 1848, the year after his father’s death, Clemens went to work full-time as an apprentice printer at a newspaper in Hannibal. In 1851, he moved over to a typesetting job at a local paper owned by his older brother, Orion, and eventually penned a handful of short, satirical items for the publication. In 1853, 17-year-old Clemens left Hannibal and spent the next several years living in places such as New York City, Philadelphia and Keokuk, Iowa, and working as a printer.

3. His career as a riverboat pilot was marred by tragedy.

twain riverboat

In 1857, Clemens became an apprentice steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River. The following year, while employed on a boat called the Pennsylvania, he got his younger brother, Henry, a job aboard the vessel. Samuel Clemens worked on the Pennsylvania until early June. Then, on June 13, disaster struck when the Pennsylvania, traveling near Memphis, experienced a deadly boiler explosion; among those who perished as a result was 19-year-old Henry. Samuel Clemens was devastated by the incident but got his pilot’s license in 1859. He worked on steamboats until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, when commercial traffic along the Mississippi was halted. Clemens’ pen name, Mark Twain, comes from a term signifying two fathoms (12 feet), a safe depth of water for steamboats.

4. Twain briefly served with a Confederate militia.

Twain in 1870

In June 1861, shortly after the Civil War began, 25-year-old Clemens joined the Marion Rangers, a pro-Confederate militia. Although his family had owned a slave when he was a boy, Clemens didn’t have strong ideological convictions about the war and probably enlisted with the militia primarily out of loyalty to his Southern roots. His time with the group turned out to be brief: After two weeks of conducting drills, the poorly supplied Marion Rangers disbanded upon hearing a rumor that a Union force—led by Ulysses Grant, as Clemens eventually learned—was headed their way. The following month, Clemens left Missouri and the war behind and journeyed west with his brother Orion, who had been named the territorial secretary of Nevada. Once there, Clemens tried his hand at silver mining and then, after failing to strike it rich, took a job as a reporter with a Virginia City, Nevada, newspaper in the fall of 1862. The following February, he used the pen name Mark Twain for the first time. Prior to that, he had tried out other pseudonyms, including W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab and Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass.

As it happened, later in life Clemens became friends with Ulysses Grant, and in 1885 published the former president’s memoir, which became a best-seller and rescued Grant’s widow from poverty after her husband lost most of their money to bad investments.

5. He struck literary gold in California.


In May 1864, Twain challenged a rival Nevada newspaperman with whom he was feuding to a duel but fled before an actual fight took place, supposedly to avoid being arrested for violating the territory’s anti-dueling law. Twain headed to San Francisco, where he got a job as a reporter but soon grew disenchanted with the work and eventually was fired. Later that year, Twain posted bail for a friend who’d been arrested in a barroom brawl. When the friend skipped town, Twain, who didn’t have the funds to cover the bond, decided he too should get out of San Francisco for a while and traveled to the mining cabin of friends at Jackass Hill in Tuolumne County, California (the Jackass Hill area was booming during the 1849 gold rush, but when Twain visited just a small number of miners remained). While at a bar in the nearby town of Angels Camp in Calaveras County, California, Twain heard a man tell a tale about a jumping frog contest. When Twain returned to San Francisco in February 1865, he received a letter from a writer friend in New York asking him to contribute a story to a book he was putting together. Twain decided to send a story based on the jumping frog tale he’d heard; however, by the time he got around to finalizing it the book had already been published. As it happened, though, the book’s publisher sent Twain’s piece, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” to the Saturday Press in New York, which ran it on November 18, 1865. The humorous story turned out to be a big hit with readers and was reprinted across the country, eventually retitled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

6. He based Huckleberry Finn on a real person.


Set in the antebellum South, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is the story of the title character, a young misfit who floats down the Mississippi River on a raft with Jim, a runaway slave. Huck Finn made his literary debut in Twain’s 1876 novel “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” appearing as Sawyer’s sidekick. The model for Huck Finn was Tom Blankenship, a boy four years older than Twain who he knew growing up in Hannibal. Blankenship’s family was poor and his father, a laborer, had a reputation as a town drunk. As Twain noted in his autobiography: “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had.” It’s unknown what happened to Blankenship later in life. Twain indicated he’d heard a rumor Blankenship became a justice of the peace in Montana, but other reports suggest he was jailed for theft or died of cholera.

What is certain is that from the time of its publication, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has been controversial. Just a month after its American release in 1885, it was banned by the public library in Concord, Massachusetts, for its supposedly coarse language and low moral tone. In the mid-20th century, critics began condemning the book as racist and in the ensuing decades it was removed from some school reading lists. Many scholars, however, contend the book is a criticism of racism.

7. He was a bad businessman.

Cartoon depicting Twain on the lecture circuit (Credit: Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

After becoming a successful writer, Twain sunk money into a number of bad investments and eventually went bankrupt. One investing debacle, involving an automatic typesetting machine, cost him nearly $200,000 by some estimates, an enormous sum considering that in 1890 the majority of American families earned less than $1,200 per year. Conversely, when offered the chance to invest in a new invention, the telephone, Twain reportedly turned down its creator, Alexander Graham Bell. Twain himself invented a variety of products, including a self-pasting scrapbook, which sold well, and an elastic strap for pants, which didn’t.

In 1891, Twain closed up his 25-room Hartford home, where he had lived since 1874, and relocated with his family to Europe in order to live more cheaply (he also hoped the change of scenery would help his wife, who was in poor health). Nevertheless, in 1894, following the failure of the publishing company he had founded a decade earlier, Twain declared bankruptcy. The next year, he embarked on an around-the-world speaking tour in order to earn money to pay off his debts, which he was able to do within several years.

8. He has no living direct descendants.


In 1870, Clemens married Olivia Langdon, who was raised in an abolitionist family in Elmira, New York. The couple was introduced by Olivia’s younger brother, who had met Clemens during a voyage to Europe and the Holy Land aboard the steamship Quaker City in 1867. (Clemens wrote about this excursion in his best-selling 1869 travel book, “The Innocents Abroad.”) The Clemenses had four children, including a son who died as a toddler and two daughters who passed away in their 20s. Olivia Clemens died in 1904 at age 58, while on April 21, 1910, her renowned husband, whose health had been in decline for a number of months, died at age 74 at his home in Redding, Connecticut. Their surviving child, Clara, died in 1962 at age 88. Clara Clemens had one child, Nina Gabrilowitsch, who passed away in 1966. Gabrilowitsch was childless, so there are no direct descendants of Samuel Clemens alive today.