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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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