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Frank Fuller, The American, Revisited

by Barbara Schmidt
a briefer version of this article first appeared in The Twainian, Vol. 58, Issue 1, March 2002

Controversy among Twain scholars erupted in November 2001 after it was revealed that documentary film maker Ken Burns' production of Mark Twain which was slated for broadcast in January 2002 prominently featured a quote attributed to Mark Twain -- a quote that more accurately should have been attributed to his friend Frank Fuller.

"I am not an American. I am the American." Burns used the quote prominently on the cover of video packaging, audio CDs, advertising material for the production, and throughout his documentary. One entire section of the film was headed with that subtitle. In an attempt by researchers to properly reference the source and context of the quote, it was discovered the quote itself could not properly be attributed to Mark Twain as something he said about himself or wrote about himself.

In an interview with Jim Zwick, co-producer Dayton Duncan revealed the quote had been obtained from Shelley Fisher Fishkin's book Lighting Out for the Territory (1996). Backtracking the error was akin to watching a row of dominos fall. Fishkin obtained the quote from Louis J. Budd who used the quote in an essay titled "Mark Twain as an American Icon," which appeared in The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain (1995). Budd referenced John Lauber who first published it in The Inventions of Mark Twain (1990) quoting from an unpublished notebook located in the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California in Berkeley. Without properly citing it or obtaining permission to quote previously unpublished material, Lauber used the quote as something Clemens had written about himself. In a November interview with newspaper reporter Ron Brown of the Quincy Herald-Whig, Professor Budd -- after examining photocopies of the actual notebook pages -- acknowledged the error.

The notebook containing the quote in question is one that Clemens kept while he was living and traveling in Europe in the summer of 1897. Throughout the notebook, there are several descriptions of incidents and scraps of dialogue attributed to Frank Fuller immediately preceding the "I am the American" quote. The controversy begs the question to be answered as to who was Frank Fuller and what was his connection to Samuel Clemens.

The Mark Twain Birthplace in Florida, Missouri is fortunate to hold nine original letters written by Frank Fuller to Albert Bigelow Paine at the time that Paine was working on Mark Twain, A Biography. Eight of the letters were published in the July-August 1956 issue of The Twainian at which time the editor noted, "We do not have the life history of Frank Fuller."

Frank Fuller was born in Boston September 25, 1827, the son of a Biblical scholar John Smith Fuller who was a deacon in Dr. Lyman Beecher's congregation. Fuller's education included the study of medicine and dentistry. For a brief period of time he also assisted his brother Edward in publishing and writing for The Dover Gazette in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 1860 he became active in politics supporting the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln and during the Civil War he organized the Second New Hampshire Regiment. When the Governor of the Utah territory Alfred Cumming was reported missing, Lincoln first appointed Fuller as Secretary of Utah with the salary of governor and later acting Governor.

Fuller wrote in his memoirs that his first acquaintance with the brothers Sam and Orion Clemens came in Nevada in 1862. The words enclosed in brackets had been struck through and replaced by other words and Fuller's misspellings have been retained:

Mark was active around the Executive quarters when the stage bearing James Gamble, Supt. of the telegraph Co. and me drove up. I never saw Mark when he [was] had not a keen scent for news and it was a great day for that comodity when [the] high and mighty potentates of the passenger and freight and express and mail and telegraph systems met the representatives of the United States Government in more or less solemn conclave on Indian affairs. That was a gala time for Mark and he made the most of it. The wire was kept hot with his reports of the great meeting and the Territorial Enterprise printed his columns. A few days later he volunteered to take me on a horseback excursion to the Esmaralda mining camp. Great silver mines were all around us but every foot of ground was worth a fortune. Esmaralda's mines were "locations" and cheap. So off we went, each with a blanket on the back of the saddle, in case of need and a bag of crackers. We crossed the Carson River on a toll bridge kept by a man named Sise*, who proved to be from Portsmouth N.H. and the son of one of [the] its most prominent citizens. [of that wealthy town.] He refused to collect the usual "2 bits" - 25 cents - from us and we jogged along. We met a rattlesnake in our path & Mark shot his head off with his Colt's revolver (Fuller).

*According to Robert Stewart who is a researcher into Frank Fuller and his life, the man Fuller identified as "Sise" was Richard Sides, the toll-taker on the Cradlebaugh Bridge over the Carson River, who also maintained a nearby ranch. There is still a bridge in that location.

The meeting between Fuller and Clemens in Nevada was the start of a friendship that would last throughout Clemens' lifetime. Fuller would later recall visiting Clemens after he had moved to San Francisco and was employed on the Daily Morning Call.

Research conducted by G. Ross Riggans in the records of the Storey County Nevada Recorder's Office shows Fuller may have been involved in mining speculation during his time spent in Nevada.. Records for Frank Silver Mining Company in Storey County Nevada are recorded in Virginia Mining Records book L at 575 and show the Notice of Location of a lode designated the Frank Lode in Flowery Mining District. The lode was located May 29, 1863 and recorded June 11, 1863. Locators were listed as Frank Fuller, James McConnel, William Brackett, Jeramiah Nelson, A. B. Harvey.

By 1865 Fuller returned to New York and took a position as Vice President of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company. When Clemens returned to the East Coast after his trip to the Sandwich Islands and a lecture tour throughout the west, he sought out his old friend Frank Fuller to help manage his first appearance in New York at Cooper Institute. Clemens' first lecture that night in May 1867 lost money but was a smashing success if one gauges success by attendance. Fuller's ingenuity of passing out free tickets to bankers, teachers and college professors paid off in a full house. Fuller assured Clemens that fame and fortune would follow. In his autobiography Clemens recalled, "I made it and that opportunity to make it was created by that wild Frank Fuller and his insane and immortal project."(AMT, Neider, p. 173).

A few weeks later when Clemens departed on the Quaker City tour, he left his business affairs in Fuller's hands.

Clemens returned from his Quaker City excursion in November 1867 and shortly thereafter took a position in Washington, D. C. as secretary to Nevada Senator William M. Stewart. He continued to correspond with Fuller and plot lecture tours and strategies. In the meantime, Clemens continued to contribute letters to the San Francisco Alta California newspaper. In his letter published November 15, 1868, Clemens told his California readers:

Frank Fuller, ex-Acting Governor of Utah, is located at 19 Park place, New York, and is making money hand over fist in the manufacture and sale of a patent odorless India rubber cloth, which is coming greatly into fashion for buggy-tops and such things. He has a great many friends on the coast, and this news will not grieve them.

The other "such things" were condoms and in several letters Clemens joked with Fuller to send him samples. Fuller's business ventures continued to prosper. After a brief period of time working in Philadelphia as an insurance representative, he relocated to New York once again and established a health food company in 1874 which he held until the time of his death. With his prosperity, Fuller developed a model farm named Chemmiwink near Madison, New Jersey. He equipped it with electricity, a library, bowling alley, and a private theater. In September 1893, Clemens visited the Fullers at the farm and in a letter to his wife Livy he wrote:

The Fullers look as they always did, except that he has laid off his glasses after wearing them 30 years. They are as cordial & breezy as ever, & have no gray hairs. This is a charming place of theirs, with dense groves & wide levels of grass; & the house is large, & furnished rather expensively & in barbarous taste.

On the table at dinner there was roast beef, potatoe soup, green corn, sliced tomatoes, succotash, Lima beans, cucumbers, boiled potatoes with the jackets on, radishes, applie pie, cake, ice cream, home-made cheese, milk, beer, cider, & oceans of thick rich cream -- with grapes, peaches, apples, pears, & so on, -- & I believe there was nothing on the table except the sugar, salt, &c., that the farm didn't furnish. (Love Letters of Mark Twain, p. 271.)

Through the following decades Clemens and Fuller maintained a friendly correspondence. After lecturing his way around the globe to pull his company out of bankruptcy, Clemens who was still living in Europe in the summer of 1897, again plotted with Fuller to arrange another lecture tour in the United States. Clemens visualized a multimedia presentation consisting of lantern slides with pictures of such notables as Ulysses Grant, Horace Greeley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John G. Whittier, William Dean Howells. The subject of the lecture would be why these famous personalities were unable to attend his premiere New York appearance at Cooper Institute in 1867. The lecture tour never materialized. (In 2009 HarperStudio published the text of this lecture titled "Frank Fuller and My First New York Lecture" in the collection Who Is Mark Twain?) It was within this time frame that Clemens jotted the notation in his journal adjacent to an entry on Frank Fuller, "I am not an American. I am the American."

In his autobiography, Twain described Fuller as "an alert and energetic man; a pushing man; a man who was able to take an interest in anything that was going -- and not only that, but take five times as much interest in it as it was worth, and ten times as much as anybody else could take in it -- a very live man" (AMT, Neider, p. 170). And in a subsequent poignant passage Clemens, tells of being with Fuller in 1906 near the bedside of his dying wife Mary a few days before her death.

Last fall his wife's brother was murdered in a horrible way. Apparently a robber had concealed himself in Mr. Thompson's room and in the night had beaten him to death with a club. A couple of months ago I ran across Fuller on the street and he was looking so very, very old, so withered, so moldy, that I could hardly recognize him. He said his wife was dying of the shock caused by the murder of her brother; that nervous prostration was carrying her off and she could not live more than a few days -- so I went with him to see her. (AMT, Neider, p. 174).

[Mary Fuller's brother Jacob H. Thompson was sixty-eight years old at the time of his murder on September 8, 1905, in his appartment at the Hotel St. James. He was the oldest member of the staff of The New York Times having served for forty years as its exchange editor. The murder suspect was a black employee of the hotel who escaped being brought to trial when he later committed suicide. For several months throughout the fall of 1905, The New York Times had provided extensive coverage of the murder case.]

At least sixty-four letters that Clemens wrote to Fuller survive. There are many apparent gaps in this written record which indicate many other letters from Clemens to Fuller may yet be found in private collections. The Mark Twain Papers at the University of California at Berkeley holds thirty-eight letters written by Fuller to Clemens.

In 1907 Fuller, who was in his eightieth year, began a correspondence with Albert Bigelow Paine who was writing Mark Twain's biography. In the nine existing letters held by the Mark Twain Birthplace, Fuller never offered to share with Paine any of the personal correspondence from Clemens that he may have held. Instead, his letters to Paine are filled with personal impressions and reminiscences. The letter of April 4, 1912, which was not selected for inclusion in The Twainian in the July-August 1956 issue, is typical of the correspondence and is reprinted here. Fuller's misspellings have been retained.

April 4, 1912

My Dear Mr. Paine,

I believe you have no idea of the frequent visits of our dear Mark to our place in Madison N. J. Really it was one of the spots to which he was always welcomed and our large library, well stocked was made entirely free to him regardless of our anti-smoking rules. I could tell you many things done and said and quite worthy of publicity such as your gifted pen and your powerful Harper connection could liberate to the world. Mark was absolutely free to come and go and the dear little mother was delighted to drive to the Station her own gentle "Jennie" and the 2-seated carriage if more than Mark was expected, or her pretty top-buggy when but one could come. I recall the time when a gentleman accosted me on the DL&W train to NY saying, "I notice Mark Twain with you frequently and I thought I would tell you that I wrote to his New York address asking him to favor me with his signature and in reply I received an 8 x 11 sheet of manuscript evidently a leaf of some abandoned work and on the back the words "perhaps this will do as well as anything" & signed.

He further said "I am the Editor of the American Grocer and I will bring that sheet with me tomorrow if you will be on this train." Of course I was there & lo & behold the 8 x 11 sheet was a numbered page of Mark's first lecture, that on the Sandwich Islands, the very lecture that you say I begged Mark to deliver for fame, in the Cooper Union. I tried to borrow the sheet in order to copy it, but the grocer man prized it too highly to let it pass out of his sight even for one day. He promised to make a copy of it for me. Perhaps he did but I think he lost my address, as I never got it.

I had a billiard table and bowling alleys in my big barn and Mark amused himself on both. I was not skilful enough to warrant him in playing with him at billiards but I could do very well at bowling. So I got him to try it. He didn't succeed at first. Then he walked about 15 feet down the alley and made a big chalk mark and rolled at that with genuine success. After that he became a bowler. Now, if you care to follow up the Jersey trail, get a photographer and I will go out with you and you can get plenty of views for your Mark Twain work.

Faithfully and cordially yours. Frank Fuller

The Madison place is the one to which dear little Susie was invited when the rest were abroad. She declined to come as she was in charge of a X Science lady.

Throughout his final years, Frank Fuller continued to enjoy the adulation of the New York press. The New York Times ran special news features about him including his reminiscences about Mark Twain and interviews on the occasion of both his eighty-fourth and eighty-sixth birthdays. The Times also ran his obituary on February 15, 1915. Fuller was survived by one son Louis Rindge Fuller.


Autobiography of Mark Twain, edited by Charles Neider. Harper Perennial, 1990.

Brown, Ron. Personal correspondence, 28 November 2001.

Burns, Ken. Mark Twain, A Film Directed by Ken Burns. PBS Home Video, 2002.

The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain, edited by Forrest G. Robinson. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Duncan, Dayton. "Mark Twain's 'The American' Quote." Formerly available http://www.boondocksnet.com/twainwww/essays/duncan_american011211.html (As of April 2007, this webpage is no longer available.)

"Dr. Frank Fuller Now 86," The New York Times, 26 September 1913.

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Lighting Out for the Territory. Oxford University Press, 1997.

"Frank Fuller Dead," The New York Times, 20 February 1915.

"Fuller and My First New York Lecture," unpublished manuscript in Mark Twain Papers, University of California, Berkeley, CA.

Fuller, Frank. "Reminiscences of Mark Twain." Manuscript dated c. 1911 December. From the manuscript collection of The James S. Copley Library, La Jolla, CA.

Dempsey, Terrell. "I am THE American. No, not really." Mark Twain Forum, 21 November 2001.

"J. H. Thompson Found Dying in His Room," The New York Times, 9 September 1905, p. 5.

Lauber, John. The Inventions of Mark Twain. Hill and Wang, 1990.

"Letter from Mark Twain," Alta California, 15 November 1868.

"Letters from Frank Fuller," The Twainian, July-August, 1956.

Love Letters of Mark Twain, edited by Dixon Wecter. Harper & Brothers, 1949.

Mark Twain's Letters, Volume 2, 1867-1868, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and Richard Bucci. University of California Press, 1990.

Rasmussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain A to Z. Oxford University Press, 1995.

Riggans, G. Ross. Personal correspondence. December 31, 2003.

Stewart, Robert. Personal correspondence. January 7, 2005.

"Utah's War Governor Talks of Many Famous Men," The New York Times, 1 October 1911.

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