Sam Clemens and the Central Express Library STL

Libraries throughout the U. S. are commemorating this year, the centennial of the death of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, famed throughout the world as Mark Twain. But the Central Express Branch of the St. Louis Public Library’s Mark Twain Slept Here Exhibit, inside the U.S. Custom House and Post Office (the building familiar to St. Louisans as The Old Post Office) has particular significance – located as it is, in a space frequented by Sam Clemens between 1857 and 1861.

Years before he was signing his name as Mark Twain, Sam Clemens climbed Market and the other steep streets of St. Louis leading up from the levee and made his way to his sister Pamela’s home at 168 Locust Street where he lived in between steamboat runs between New Orleans and St. Louis. The row house in which Pamela and her husband, commission merchant William A. Moffitt resided, would later be replaced by a fortress – completed in 1884 and still standing – between 8th and 9th, and Olive and Locust Streets, downtown. In a city as hotly divided as any in the nation in the years leading up to and during the Civil War, the U.S. Custom House and Post Office at St. Louis, was designed as an architectural statement that the United States of America would never again be divided by civil war.

The Moffitt home was located near the southeast corner of 8th and Locust, where the Central Express Branch can be found today. Several marvelous editions of books written by Mark Twain are on display there through the month of July along with references to his having lived for brief periods of time in that place. And it was here in June of 1858 that Sam Clemens had a psychic experience from which he would never fully recover. It would take almost half a century for him to be able to write about it and he made certain that the story would not be published while his mother was still alive for it would surely, he feared, have broken her heart.

I’ve been reading The Autobiography of Mark Twain over the past couple of weeks (inspired to do so by the exhibit at Central Express) and Sam Clemens is very straightforward about the numerous pranks he played as a boy, on a younger brother who virtually idolized him. (Henry would grow up to follow in Sam’s footsteps venturing upon the Mississippi River to make his living.) On the rare occasion that Henry got back at him, Sam would hurry to their very canny mother for sympathy only to find that she had none. She would instead suggest that whatever Henry did, Sam no doubt deserved. Whether she would have blamed him for what happened to Henry in the summer of 1858 we can only imagine.

In the strange and inexplicable way that dreams sometimes foretell the future, Sam Clemens dreamed one night that a youthful Henry, lay dead in a metal coffin, dressed in a suit of Sam’s own clothing, shortly after an emotional parting with the family in St. Louis. The dream was so vivid, and Sam was so shaken by it, that after getting up in the morning and starting for the boat he was to steer to New Orleans that day, he walked a short distance and then returned home to make certain that everything was alright, that Henry was alive, that what he’d experienced had only been a dream.

Finding it so, Sam made his way to the levee and sailed south without sharing his nightmare with anyone. But the dream remained with him to such an extent that in a conversation with Henry late the night before they returned to St. Louis from New Orleans on separate steamers, Sam advised him what he must do if a disaster should occur on board ship. But the warning was to no avail and Sam would be haunted for the rest of his life by the possibility that he might have saved Henry’s life, had he only prevented him from sailing.

Two or three days north of New Orleans, the boiler on the Pennsylvania (Henry’s steamboat) exploded – and Henry, having inhaled steam and suffered scalding, lay close to death when Sam arrived in Memphis. Had it not been for a tragic mistake in the dosage of morphine given to Henry for pain, he would have recovered. But in a series of events that was horrifying to the last detail in respect to Sam’s premonition, even to the colors of the roses in a bouquet that would be placed in Henry’s hands, Sam found himself  beside his brother’s metal coffin,  Henry laid out in a suit of Sam’s clothes. Although he wrote about Henry’s death in Life On the Mississippi Sam Clemens would not recount the story of his premonition until he dictated Chapter 20 of The Autobiography of Mark Twain nearly fifty years later.

The Old Post Office ( ) is one of the great architectural landmarks of downtown St. Louis. Designed by Alfred B. Mullett with a steep mansard roof and housing Daniel Chester French’s powerful marble sculpture grouping, “Peace and Vigilance” it’s worthy of a visit any time. But for admirers of the great Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the towering and beloved literary figure known to the world as Mark Twain, it is a must-see-destination through the end of July 2010.

Anyone who has not yet discovered one of the most innovative public library outreaches in the country, catering to busy office workers and downtown loft-dwellers, will find in the Central Express Branch of the St. Louis Public Library*, a delectable, pastry-shop of a bookery. And Mark Twain slept there!

* Central Express at 815 Olive Street has been open week-days: Monday thru Friday from 9 am – 6 pm. Now, while the Central Building of the St. Louis Public Library is closed two years for renovation, Central Express has the following extended hours: Mon., Tues., Wed., Fri. and Saturday: 9 am – 6 pm & Thursday:  9am – 9 pm.

© 2010 Maureen Kavanaugh

The copy & photographs on this blogspace are the work of Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh and may not be used without the express permission of the author. Permission to reprint may be obtained by contacting


About stltourguide

I am a walking tour and narrated coach tour guide in St. Louis, Missouri specializing in the history of the area.
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