Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links
IN THE CLUTCH OF CIRCUMSTANCE, My Own Story by a Burglar; D. Appleton & Co., 1922
THE MARK TWAIN BURGLARY
THE idea of settling down and having a home of my own had never appealed to me very strongly until now. A real new interest in life and its future, however, made a great difference. I felt that the time had come to go straight; but to make a home for the girl I wanted to marry called for money, and lots of it. One more big haul, I still thought, was needed to make things even so far as myself and society were concerned, and also to give me my start. Thrusting aside all other thoughts, I started to work out various plans for the next and last "job."
A day or two after our unsuccessful invasion of the oil magnate's house, I picked up a Sunday newspaper and read an account and saw some pictures of the fine villa which the late Mark Twain had built somewhere in the country. He was going to move "all his earthly possessions" up there and "make it his permanent residence." The great author and humorist called his place "Innocents at Home," which he later changed to "Stormfield." Nat rally, my interest and curiosity were aroused, not so much by the description of the beautiful home as by that of the portable "earthly possessions." They appealed to me very strongly.
It was September 16, I908, when I called on my partner and put the Mark Twain house proposition up to him. Like myself, he was "broke." We were in the same boat. The Mark Twain house possibilities lured him as powerfully as they did me. The following afternoon we boarded a train out of New York for Redding, Connecticut, where "Stormfield" stood.
It was quite dark when we arrived at the Redding Station. There was not a sound to be heard or a person to be seen on the roads. Only the sharp bark of a dog broke the stillness of the night as we passed by a farmhouse. Since we had never been in that part of the country before, we were not quite sure of our way. So, in order to make certain, I went back to the farmhouse and inquired about the road to Redding. This was the first mistake which I made that night. The farmer, seeing that we were strangers, came out and directed us on our way, lantern in hand.
After he left us, we kept on walking along the dusty country road until we came to a sharp turn, when the bright lights of a large house situated on the top of a hill arrested our attention. We concluded that this must be the Mark Twain residence, and accordingly walked in its direction. Arriving at "Stormfield," we found the house lights still burning brightly. The family had not yet retired. In order to give the occupants time to go to sleep, we picked out a secluded place behind some bushes and indulged in a quiet smoke during a period of watching and waiting.
It was getting well on toward midnight when one by one the lights were extinguished and the house was enshrouded in complete darkness except for one dim light upstairs. Experience told us that this was nothing unusual. My partner went on a tour of inspection around the house. He returned presently with the word that the coast was clear and that one of the kitchen windows had been left partly open. I helped my partner to climb in through it; and he then went and opened the big French double doors leading out from the dining room on the great veranda. I entered by the front door, like a gentleman.
By the rays of our flashlights, we first made a careful inspection of the dining room. The heavy, old-fashioned, oak sideboard near the door leading into the hall commanded our attention. We knew that it contained the family silver, which it was our object to secure first, as usual. We tried to open the drawers of the sideboard, but found them locked. To break them open would make a noise, of course, and disturb the family if done inside the house. We did not wish to be guilty of such carelessness, so we took hold of the sideboard and carried it out of the house and some five hundred feet down the road. There we broke the locks of the drawers and emptied their contents into a black bag which we had brought for the purpose. Then we went back into the house to see what else we could find.
Before proceeding, it is necessary to mention a brass bowl which had stood as an ornament on top of the sideboard, and which played such an important and fatal part on that night. Since a brass bowl was of no value to us I took it and placed it noiselessly on the dining-room floor - without my partner's knowledge, however. This was my second mistake on that night. When we entered the dining room the second time, my partner, walking rather carelessly, stumbled and fell heavily over that brass bowl.
In the stillness of the night it seemed to me as if an earthquake had suddenly struck the house. Such a noise that rolling brass thing made! With every nerve tense, we silently watched and waited for the result.
Presently a woman, dressed in bathrobe and slippers, appeared at the head of the stairs. Then a soft clear voice called: "Hello!" It was Miss Lyons, Mark Twain's social secretary, as we afterwards learned, who, awakened by the noise, had courageously come to investigate. A moment we hesitated. Then we turned and silently and swiftly left the house.
Running down the road, we picked up our bag with the silver, and continued running till we arrived at the foot of the hill. There we slackened speed and started to walk back in the direction of Bethel, some seven miles from "Stormfield."
Naturally, the discovery of our presence created a sensation in the Mark Twain household. It is said that the butler, who had been aroused, fired several shots after us, "to hasten our departure," as Mr. Albert Bigelow Paine puts it in his biography of Mark Twain. For this, however, I cannot vouch, as we must have been considerably out of pistol shot by the time the gun went off. The shots, however, did awaken the aged author of "Huckleberry Finn" who, says Mr. Paine in his account, imagining that a champagne party was in progress below, rolled over and went to sleep again.
By the time we reached Bethel, the deputy sheriff had been notified and a posse of farmers, hastily organized, had started in pursuit of us. Had we continued our walk some two miles farther to Danbury, however, the probability is that we might never have been caught and that this story would never have been told. We decided to take a chance and to wait at Bethel for the early train to New York. This proved to be the third and the biggest mistake of that night.
We boarded the train at seven o'clock with out interference. After we were comfortably seated in the smoker, a man came up to us and inquired where we had got on the train. We told him Danbury. The interrogator happened to be a neighbor of Mark Twain, who suspected us as the culprits. He notified the sheriff in charge of the posse waiting for this train when it pulled into the Redding station. A dozen men, armed with pitchforks, shot guns, clubs, and other weapons, boarded the train just as it was pulling away from the plat form. After a survey of the other coaches, they entered the smoker by the rear door. My partner, seeing the armed men entering and that we were greatly outnumbered, jumped up from his seat and ran quickly to the front platform, where he succeeded in dropping off from the rapidly moving train. One of the posse fired several shots after him, but without hitting him.
My partner having successfully "flown the coop," the entire posse turned upon me. An automatic pistol was shoved in front of my face and I was commanded to surrender. In stead of obeying the command, I pulled out my own revolver and began to blaze away at the ceiling of the car to cause a panic if possible. I did not want to kill any one; and they did not want to shoot me. The sheriff, from behind me, seized me by the right wrist and tried to twist my gun out of my hand. The others now attacked me, and a free-for-all fight ensued. Showers of blows fell upon me from all sides. Then I was struck several times on the head with a blackjack and, partly conscious, sank to the floor still grappling with the sheriff. In the furious struggle for possession of the revolver, which I still gripped securely, it went off. I became unconscious.
When I came to myself, I was lying hand cuffed out on the tracks, with my captors standing over me. I felt a heavy stream of blood pouring down over my face from wounds in my head. A sickening sense of despair came over me. I was in for it again; and all my dreams of marriage and of happiness in a home of my own were blown to shreds.
When my gun was accidentally discharged in the fight with the sheriff, the bullet had entered the flesh just back of the sheriff's thigh. He was enraged; and now, after I had regained consciousness and attempted to rise, he seized me by the throat and struck me a severe blow savagely in the face. I staggered under the unexpected attack. Then several other members of the crowd jumped at me, raining further blows on my head and body as I stood defenseless. Then I was dragged back to the station, some distance away, where I found that my partner was also being held as a prisoner.
We were handcuffed together and marched to the farm near the station, where the night before I had made inquiries concerning the way to Redding Center. The old farmer came out of the house and, recognizing us as we drew near, greeted us with a sneer and snicker, saying: "Wall, boys, glad t'see yer ag'in!"
As I was weakened by the loss of much blood, they summoned a physician to dress my wounds and to bandage the sheriff's leg. We were then placed in a carriage and taken to the town hall in Redding Center for a preliminary hearing. After we had been seated in the dingy room which served as the court room, a carriage in which were Mark Twain, his daughter, Miss Clara Clemens, and Miss Lyons, his secretary, drew up before the building. The party entered; and passing close by, the humorist, dressed in his famous white clothes, turned upon me and delivered a scathing verbal castigation and lecture on morality, ending by denouncing me as "a disgrace to the human race." Apparently satisfied with the mental punishment which he had inflicted upon me, he took a seat alongside of the justice of the peace.
After being placed under heavy bail, we were remanded to the Fairfield County jail at Bridgeport for safe-keeping.
When Mark Twain returned to "Stormfield," he caused the following notice to be placed over his dining-room door:
To the Next Burglar
There is only plated ware in this house now and henceforth.
You will find it in that brass thing in the dining room over in the corner by the basket of kittens. If you want the basket, put the kittens in the brass thing.
Do not make a noise - it disturbs the family.
You will find rubbers in the front hall by that thing which has the umbrellas in it, - chiffonier, I think they call it, or pergola, or something like that. Please close the door when you go away !
VERY TRULY YOURS,
S. L. CLEMENS.
The three months during which we lay in the county jail awaiting trial seemed a very long time. We were locked in separate corridors and not allowed to talk or even to see each other. Neither were any outside visitors, with the exception of our lawyer, permitted to see us. Twice each week our cells were care fully searched for contraband articles, and while the rest of the prisoners were allowed free exercise in the corridor we had to stay in our cells. Not even the weekly bath was I permitted to take with the rest of the prisoners. I was taken into the bathroom separately and always under a guard of two armed keepers. Since I did not make any attempt to escape, this treatment received at the hands of the county sheriff struck me then as very unjust. However, there was no one to listen to complaint; and I can see now that they regarded me as dangerous.
At last the day arrived for our trial. Securely chained to a number of other offenders, we were taken to Danbury. It was the first time in fifty years that the Supreme Court had sat in that particular Connecticut town. After spending a restless night in the ancient and dingy Danbury jail, we were led, heavily guarded by a large force of deputy sheriffs, across the street and up into the court room. The small room was crowded with spectators and with witnesses for the state. The most noticeable and distinguished person in the room, naturally, was neither the judge nor the sheriff, but the humorist, Mark Twain, wearing a dark suit instead of his customary light-colored clothes for this serious occasion.
After the usual formalities in starting the trial, the witnesses for the state were called to testify against us. The most serious charge against me was not that of burglary, but a far more important, and an unjust charge, conviction for which would have meant a sentence of thirty years in state prison - the charge of assault with intent to murder. I am inclined to think that my story and the realization of the hard years of suffering which I had undergone impressed Mark Twain and that he was responsible or influential in having the charged changed to a less serious one, thus probably saving me from twenty years of imprisonment which I should still be undergoing. As it was, upon conviction under the charge finally brought against me, I was sentenced to serve a term of ten years in the Connecticut State Prison at Wethersfield.
Perhaps it may not be amiss to mention that our visit to his house furnished a new subject to Mark Twain, to which he not infrequently referred in later lectures. Thus, while dedicating the little new library which he had founded for the residents of the town of Redding, Mark Twain took occasion to make characteristic fun of the affair as follows:
"I am going to help build this library with contributions - from my visitors. Every male guest who comes to my house will have to con tribute a dollar or go away without his baggage. If those burglars who broke into my house recently had done that, they would have been happier now; or if they had broken into this library, they might have read a few good books and led a better life. Now they are in jail, and if they keep on they will go to Congress. When a person starts down hill, you can never tell where he is going to stop. I am sorry for those burglars. They got nothing that they wanted, and scared away most of my servants. Now we are putting in a burglar alarm instead of a dog. Some advised the dog, but it costs even more to entertain a dog than a burglar. I am having the ground electrified, so that for a mile around any one who puts foot across the line will set off an alarm that will be heard in Europe."
It was in the latter part of March, 19I7, that I received a reply to a letter which I had addressed to Mr. Thomas Mott Osborne, inviting me to come to New York. I had heard a great deal about "Tom Brown," as the great prison reformer is affectionately known by every man who has done a "bit," or is still doing one, in prison. In my letter, I had told him a few things about conditions as I had found them in Wethersfield; and the case of one naval prisoner interested him especially, as he was at that time taking a deep interest in these convicts. He wanted to get more information concerning conditions at Wethersfield, especially concerning the treatment of the naval prisoners confined there and working under the contract system. Before leaving Wethersfield, I had promised the "boys" there that I would do all that I could to bring about better conditions and more consideration for the inmates of the prison. To me, that promise was sacred; and ever since my release I have continued to endeavor to interest people of influence and public spirit in the lot of the men and women shut in behind the walls of the Connecticut State Prison.
Thus it happened that I left Hartford on the first of April for New York, to meet Mr. Osborne and to look for new work. I had always wanted to get back to the metropolis to live. When I arrived at the big hotel where he was staying, I found the prison reformer in his room. He held out his hand and greeted me with a friendly smile, calling me by my first name and asking me how I was getting along. His frank and democratic manner impressed me very much; I felt that he was sincere, and that prison reform was not simply a "rich man's fad" with "Tom Brown." He had just been "released" from the United States Naval Prison at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he had been undergoing a trial imprisonment to see what it was like for the man really under sentence and compulsory confinement. His hair was still short-clipped, showing that he had gone through regular prison treatment.
The interview with Mr. Osborne was interrupted by the entrance of a middle-sized man of about thirty-five years, like myself, who Mr. Osborne told me had also served fifteen years in state prison. He was then an active worker in the outside Mutual Welfare League. He had been out for a little more than a year; and in that time had secured employment for many other ex-prisoners. Mr. Osborne placed me in his charge; and I left with the feeling that "Tom Brown" was a friend upon whose cooperation an ex-convict could rely.
Through the assistance of this secretary, I obtained employment in New York.
It was when I had been in New York for about three months that, through the kind offices of Mr. Osborne, I had the privilege of meeting Mrs. Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch, the daughter of Mark Twain. An interview was arranged, in which Mrs. Gabrilowitsch convinced herself that I was in earnest, and genuinely taking an honest course. The daughter of the great humorist, whose home I had robbed before my last capture and imprisonment, instead of holding any resentment against me as I expected her to do, offered to defray the expenses of a course of mechanical instruction for me. This course I later took at the West Side Y. M. C. A. Automobile School. Thus it was through the help of this kind-hearted woman, whose father's house I had invaded as a burglar, that I became a first class automobile mechanic. To her generosity I owe the opportunity of acquiring the ability to earn a good living at a well-paid trade. This, indeed, was a shining example of the true spirit of forgiveness and friendliness, which could redeem the world.
To the knowledge of the trade of an automobile mechanic I later added that of oxyacetylene welding. Mechanical work has always appealed to me. After six months of practical experience as a helper, I secured a position as a mechanic with one of the largest automobile manufacturing concerns in the country. The manager of the plant, after a time, placed me at the head of their new ambulance department. There I had charge of the chassis construction work, acting as foreman with a number of men under supervision. By the time the armistice was signed, the department in my charge had turned out some two hundred new ambulances for the American Red Cross and the National League for Women's Service. I tell this to prove that the practical help extended to me by practical people was not only not wasted, but that it also turned a man whom prison routine had made of little use into a worker whose service was of some value during the war.
Return to The New York Times
Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search