The Adventures of (the real) Tom Sawyer

October 11th, 2012

The latest issue of Smithsonian magazine has an article about Tom Sawyer, a fireman and saloon owner in San Francisco who Mark Twain befriended during his time in the city working as a reporter. According to Sawyer, Twain named his novel’s character after him. Speaking with a reporter in 1898–22 years after The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published–Sawyer explained:

“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 [short for Samuel Langhorne 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 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.’”

Sawyer himself lived a full and exciting life after his childhood, as Robert Graysmith shows in the article:

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.

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.

Sawyer, 32, who was born in Brooklyn, had been a torch boy in New York for Columbia Hook and Ladder Company Number 14, and in San Francisco he had battled fire for Broderick 1, the city’s first volunteer fire company, under Chief David Broderick, the first fire chief. Twain perked up when Sawyer mentioned that he had also toiled as a steamboat engineer plying the Mexican sea trade. Twain well knew that an engineer typically stood between two rows of furnaces that “glare like the fires of hell” and “shovels coal for four hours at a stretch in an unvarying temperature of 148 degrees Fahrenheit!”

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. “Don’t be afraid,” Captain F. L. Sampson told the passengers on deck. “You’ll all get to shore safely.” He pointed the ship head-on toward the sand, intending to beach it. In the raging surf the vessel swung around broadside.

The steam blowers on the ship failed and the captain was unable to beach it. Instead, Sawyer had to swim back and forth between the shore and the blazing steamer–about a hundred yards each way–to rescue passengers from the sinking ship. After many trips like this, he found a long boat that he used to row passengers to safety, towing them to shore. “Ultimately,” Graysmith notes, “Sawyer was credited with saving 90 lives at sea, among them 26 people he had rescued singlehandedly.”

Twain and Sawyer became fast friends during their time in San Francisco, as Sawyer recounts:

“Sam was a dandy, he was,” Sawyer said later. “He could drink more and talk more than any feller I ever seen. He’d set down and take a drink and then he’d begin to tell us some joke or another. And then when somebody’d buy him another drink, he’d keep her up all day. Once he got started he’d set there till morning telling yarns.”

Sawyer was nearly his equal in talking but often had to throw in the towel. “He beat the record for lyin’—nobody was in the race with him there,” Sawyer recalled. “He never had a cent. His clothes were always ragged and he never had his hair cut or a shave in them days. I should say he hasn’t had his hair cut since ’60. I used to give him half my wages and then he’d borrow from the other half, but a jollier companion and a better mate I would never want. He was a prince among men, you can bet, though I’ll allow he was the darndest homeliest man I ever set eyes on, Sam was.”

Read the rest of the adventures of the real Tom Sawyer at Smithsonian magazine, here.

Related: Check out this excerpt from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, in which Tom is punished by his Aunt Polly to whitewash a fence.

Click here to sign up for our newsletter.