Joseph Hopkins Twichell: The Life and Times of Mark Twain's Closest Friend
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The birthplace of Joseph Hopkins Twichell
The house in which Joseph Hopkins Twichell was born to Edward Twichell and Selina Delight Carter Twichell on May 27, 1838. (Photo courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut)

A Brief Biography of Joseph Hopkins Twichell

By Steve Courtney

Joseph Hopkins Twichell was born in 1838 in Plantsville, Connecticut, and entered Yale in 1855. There he made lifelong friends, was a mediocre student won honors on the college crew.

Joseph Hopkins Twichell as a chaplain during the Civil War
Twichell in the full regalia of his chaplain's uniform, including a purely decorative sword. He was entitled to the sword because of his position, equal in rank to that of a cavalry captain. (Photo courtesy of Asylum Hill Congregational Church)

On Feb. 9, 1858, Twichell was among a group of students who brawled with New Haven firemen, and during the melee a fireman was shot and killed. Twichell and two friends were found to have been armed and were suspended from college, but none of the students would say who fired the shot. The three students were allowed to return to college, and Twichell graduated in 1859.

From 1859-61 Twichell attended Union Theological Seminary in New York. When the Civil War broke out, Twichell joined a New York regiment with a large proportion of immigrant Irish Catholics.

The Civil War was a defining moment of Twichell's life. He took part in McClellan's Peninsula Campaign; the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg; and Grant's Wilderness Campaign. Much of his time was spent in helping surgeons in field hospitals as well as conducting services and tending to the spiritual needs of soldiers.

Julia Harmony Cushman
In the summer of 1865, as he considered Asylum Hill's call to the ministry, Twichell met and rapidly courted Julia Harmony Cushman, the cousin of a college friend. They were married in November, the month before Twichell was installed at the church. The marriage was to last 45 years; the pastorate, 47. (Photo courtesy of Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

After leaving the army he finished seminary in Andover, Massachusetts. In 1865 he married Harmony Cushman and was installed as pastor of Asylum Hill Congregational Church.

Hartford was one of the richest cities in America then, and Asylum Hill was the church of choice for many of its wealthiest citizens. When in 1868 Samuel L. Clemens — Mark Twain — came to town to see his publisher, one of Twichell's parishioners, he called Asylum Hill "The Church of the Holy Speculators." But he quickly befriended its minister.

When Clemens married Livy Langdon in 1870, Twichell officiated, and soon afterward the Clemenses moved to Hartford. There the writer ultimately built a large, elaborate brick mansions a few blocks from the Twichell home. The two men walked the hills near Hartford and carried on conversations that were lively and languid, intense and playful.

Joseph Hopkins Twichell and Yung Wing
After the Chinese Educational Mission was ended in 1882, Yung Wing departed for China. A few days before he left, Twichell wrote in his journal, the two men sat for their photograph "as a memorial of these never-to-be-forgotten years in which we have been so united in sympathy." (Photo courtesy of Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Twichell's lively interests also took him further afield. In the 1870s a reform-minded Chinese government founded an educational effort in Hartford under the supervision of a Chinese Yale graduate, Yung Wing. Twichell befriended Yung, and became a strong supporter of the effort. In 1874 he accompanied Yung to Peru in 1874 to investigate the conditions of Chinese workers there. In 1880, when conservatives in China government tried to end the Chinese Educational Mission, Twain and Twichell appealed to ex-President Grant, who convinced the Chinese to extend the school's life, but only for a brief time.

The 1870s also saw two significant journeys that Twain and Twichell took together: a visit to Bermuda in 1877 and a journey in Germany and Switzerland in the summer of 1878. The six weeks Twain and Twichell spent traveling through the Black Forest and the Swiss Alps on this trip became the basis for Twain's A Tramp Abroad.

Sketch by Mark Twain from 'A Tramp Abroad'
A sketch by Mark Twain from A Tramp Abroad of he and "Harris" (a pseudonym for Twichell), among others, leaving Heilbronn by carriage. "It is not a Work, it is only what artists call a study", wrote Twain, "...This sketch has several blemishes in it; for instance, the wagon is not traveling as fast as the horse is. This is wrong. Again, the person trying to get out of the way is too small; he is out of perspective, as we say. The two upper lines are not the horse's back, they are the reigns; there seems to be a wheel missing—this would be corrected in a finished Work, of course. This thing flying out behind is not a flag, it is a curtain. That other thing up there is the sun, but I didn't get enough distance on it. I do not remember, now, what that thing is that is in front of the man who is running, but I think it is a haystack or a woman. This study was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1879, but did not take any medal; they do not give medals for studies." (Image from Project Gutenberg)
Joseph Hopkins Twichell and family, 1892
The large family, photographed in 1892. From left, seated: Harmony Twichell Jr.; Joseph Hopkins Twichell; Joseph Hooker Twichell; Burton Parker Twichell; Julia Harmony Twichell; Louise Hopkins Twichell; and Edward Twichell Ware, the son of Twichell's sister Sarah Jane. Behind them, Susan Lee Twichell, David Cushman Twichell, Julia Curtis Twichell, Sarah Dunham Twichell (peering over her mother's head) and Edward Carrington Twichell. (Photo courtesy of Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

In Hartford, it was a difficult time for the Civil War generation. By the 1870s, the corruption, ostentatious wealth and poverty produced by unbridled "progress" was becoming apparent. The Grant administration's scandals became a national embarrassment and a personal embarrassment to the Republicans of Hartford. By 1884 Clemens and Twain supported the Democrat Grover Cleveland over the corrupt James G. Blaine, joining that group of Republican bolters known as the Mugwumps.

As Twichell's family grew (he and Harmony had nine children in all) he became a stolid and respected figure in Hartford. His wrote articles on religious matters, reminiscences of famous friends, a pilgrimage in the footsteps of Charles Lamb, the Civil War and New England history. In the 1890s he wrote a biography of John Winthrop, a Puritan figure.

It was at this point that family tragedy led the Clemenses to leave the Hartford house, living for years in Europe and New York. On Livy's death in 1904, Clemens moved to New York semi-permanently, but after a fall in his financial fortunes was recouped, he built a large home in Redding, Connecticut.

Joseph Hopkins Twichell and Mark Twain
Jean Clemens, Samuel Clemens' daughter, photographed the two old friends in Clemens' New York house in 1905. Joe and Harmony Twichell were on their way from Hartford to a seaside respite in Atlantic City. (Photo courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Twichell's relationship with Clemens during his last years was not always easy. The bitter, nearly pathologically deterministic view Clemens took of life in his last years clashed with Twichell's piety, which had lost some of the vitality of its early years. They clashed politically over Clemens' opposition to the Philippine-American War.

But mutual affection between Twain and Twichell persisted. Twichell was crushed in 1910 when Clemens died; the tragedy was increased geometrically when Harmony Twichell died soon afterward. Twichell retired in 1912 and died just after the Armistice in 1918.