Joseph Hopkins Twichell: The Life and Times of Mark Twain's Closest Friend
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An Excerpt from Joseph Hopkins Twichell: The Life and Times of Mark Twain's Closest Friend

Chapter 1

The Crocodiles
Joseph Twichell as an old man
Joseph Hopkins Twichell. (Photo courtesy of Asylum Hill Congregational Church)

In the spring of 1914, seventy-five years old and two years into retirement, the Reverend Joseph Hopkins Twichell lived quietly on Woodland Street in Hartford, enjoying his fame by association with Mark Twain, now dead for four years, and his own satisfying fame as pastor emeritus of Asylum Hill Congregational Church. He was a man who loved anniversaries, and it was only incurable deafness and exhaustion from unaccustomed grief and loss that had prevented him from reaching the fifty-year mark at the brownstone church on Asylum Avenue. His beloved wife, Harmony, had died four years before in the same month that he lost Samuel L. Clemens. His shock of hair and prominent mustache were a vivid white; sometimes the newspapers said he resembled Mark Twain, but combed.

Joseph Twichell's house, 125 Woodland Street in Hartford
The Twichell home at 125 Woodland Street in Hartford, where the minister and his family lived for more than forty years. At the time of Twichell's fiftieth birthday in 1888 a group of subscribers, including Clemens, paid off the mortgage and gave the family funds for improvements. This work was still under way when Clemens took refuge here to finish A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. (Photo courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut)

His life was now largely circumscribed by his Italianate white-clapboard house, his upstairs study with the mounted oar from Yale days and the saddle from war days, and his back lawn with its copse of silver birch trees. An unmarried daughter, Susan Twichell, took care of him, and he basked in the visits of his other eight children, some of whom brought husbands, wives, and grandchildren to vary his days. The closing in of his life had also brought Twichell's retirement from the Corporation of Yale University. He had been elected in 1874 and eventually became its senior member. When he retired, Twichell put aside his aversion to honorary degrees at his fellow corporators' insistence and became a doctor of divinity. Newspaper reporters often sought him out, and he trotted out much-exercised Mark Twain stories: how Clemens had visited Harriet Beecher Stowe with his collar absent-mindedly open, then sent a butler with the tie to make the visit complete; how the two men chatted with the Prince of Wales in Bad Nauheim, Clemens flourishing his ragged black umbrella in the royal visage for emphasis; and how Clemens complained, one Sunday morning at Asylum Hill Church, that Twichell's sermon had been too interesting and kept him from his own thoughts. "I know what you want of me," Twichell told a New York Sun reporter,"—that is, to tell you about Mark Twain." So he was uncomfortable on this April day in 1914 to hear J. Olin Howe, a reporter from the Boston Evening Transcript, add a question about a violent and disturbing incident from Twichell's student days.

A decade before he met Clemens, Twichell had been involved in a Yale town-gown riot in which a fireman was killed, and the reporter asked if the incident had affected him enough to lead to his entering the ministry. "No," Twichell told the reporter, "I'm not aware that that incident had any important bearing on my future. I had intended to go into the ministry. Oh yes, the story is true enough. And the fireman died. I didn't fire the shot, though."

"That was a long time ago," he added. "I've never talked about it."

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Engraving of Yale College in the 1850s
Yale College in the 1850s was still housed for the most part in eighteenth-century brick buildings facing the New Haven Green; On High Street, running behind the college, Twichell and his friends were embroiled in a tragic brawl with New Haven firemen. (Photo courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut)

It was a long time ago, fifty-six years. On a winter evening in February 1858, about a dozen Yale College students stood on High Street, on the edge of the college campus, where the spires and castellations of modern Gothic contrasted with the utilitarian brick of the eighteenth century.

The students faced five or six town boys, themselves young enough to be college students if they had only had the means and schooling. But these were workmen of New Haven, volunteer firemen guarding the wide door of Fountain Company Number Two, blacksmiths and joiners, gilders and marble cutters, laborers and mechanics in the city's carriage manufacturing trade. In the previous months, they had been prodded to anger by the students marching New Haven's elm-shadowed streets singing college songs—solemn university hymns like Gaudeamus Igitur and rowdier ditties like "We Don't Care a Darn While We're at Yale." The students were members of an eating club, the Crocodiles, and took their meals at Mrs. Maria Bishop's house just around the corner, which meant they had to pass the engine house six times a day. Habit bred anger. The firemen believed the singing was meant to annoy them as they tended and washed their new pump engine, and that the students had tried to disrupt a fire company banquet celebrating the new engine by blowing a horn. This Tuesday evening they were sure the students had rattled a club along the firehouse's picket fence as a taunt.

Yale Classbook engraving of Joseph Hopkins Twichell
Joe Twichell in the engraving made for his Yale Classbook, when he was known to classmates as "Injun Joe" for his dark hair and easily tanned skin. (Photo courtesy of Asylum Hill Congregational Church)

The night before, as the students passed the engine house, the youngest and most bellicose of the volunteers, William Miles, had doused student Eugene Smith with water from a bucket. Smith's fashionable shawl was soaked, along with his low-crowned, wide-brimmed hat. (It was a style popular among Yale students for its associations with the popular Protestant rebel Louis Kossuth of Hungary. Yale students, then as now, had a taste for combining the revolutionary with the stylish.) Miles, the fire company's steward, had wryly claimed the soaking was a mistake—he was only tossing out water after cleaning the engine, he said. In one version of the story, Smith vowed he would come back the next day for a fight.

Edward Carrington
Twichell's closest friend at college, the man who may have saved his life in the High Street fight, was Edward Carrington. During the Civil War, when Twichell was a regimental chaplain and Carrington a staff officer, they developed a near-romantic friendship that ended when Carrington was killed a month before Appomattox. (Photo courtesy of Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Now it was the next evening, and Smith was back. He stood with his friend Joseph Twichell, known to classmates for his jet-black hair, gray eyes, and easily tanned skin as "Injun Joe," in the group facing the firemen. Twichell, like Miles, was nineteen years old. He was the son of a small-town Connecticut deacon who had attended school only briefly as a boy, but had become wealthy enough from his tannery and carriage hardware business to send his son to train at Yale with the sons of judges, college presidents, and bankers in the class of 1859. The students may well have rattled a club along the firemen's fence: they had prepared for a fight. At least three of the group—Twichell, Smith, and their friend Edward Carrington—had armed themselves with pistols. Carrington, one of the top intellects of the class of 1859, had distributed the pistols during the noon meal. Miles, for his part, had also grabbed up weapons: a battered brass speaking horn in one hand, and a heavy iron hose wrench in the other.

The confrontation began when Miles emerged from the station to challenge the students, but now things were calming down. It seemed that it all might end in a truce. Twichell tried to be a conciliator, walking straight up to Miles in the gathering evening and trying to get him to agree that the students had the right to sing in the street. Miles may have conveyed a grudging agreement. Twichell felt superior to the young fireman in front of him. He later wrote his father that he and his friends had always treated the firemen with respect, "passing by with contempt many indignities which we could not have brooked from equals." Twichell, one witness later said, put his hand on Miles's shoulder in a gesture of friendship.

At that moment fireman reinforcements arrived down High Street, evening up the odds. "Now damn them, let them have it," Miles shouted, and he raised the brass horn and struck Twichell a blow on the shoulder. Twichell ducked and warded it off with his arm, the horn clattering to the pavement. Miles raised the iron wrench, but a shot was fired among the milling boys, and then more shots. Dim forms collided in the night. A knife came out and slashed shreds in a fireman's shirt.

Newspaper article about the Crocodiles and the New Haven Fireman
An article about the confrontation appeared in the February 13th, 1858 edition of the Hartford Courant.

The fire crew turned and ran to the engine house. Inside, Miles staggered against the company's assistant foreman, Jerome W. Hayward, and said, "I am shot." Hayward settled Miles in a chair and looked for a wound. "I guess you ain't shot," he said, but Miles said, "It's down a little lower." Hayward later testified, "I looked further and sure enough there was a hole there. It was on the right side near his back bone, in the small of the back." Doctors called to the engine house could not extract the bullet, which was believed to have entered Miles's stomach. Miles spent the next day and a half dying in unbearable pain.

Over the next two months a coroner's jury called witnesses in the case, and the Yale administration, led by President Theodore Dwight Woolsey and the faculty, found itself both protecting the students from the town's fury and trying to see that justice was done. Advised by two top-flight attorneys, the students pleaded the Fifth Amendment and pledged among themselves that they would never reveal who killed Miles. The coroner's jury could not gather enough evidence to bring charges. But one professor, Thomas Thacher, played detective, and learned that Twichell, Smith, and Carrington had all been armed; the three were suspended for much of the spring. Indignant at being made an example, they enjoyed the savor of shared persecution.

"I did not fire a shot," Twichell reported to his father in a letter written the day Miles died. "I was the person who was first struck and narrowly escaped a second blow." The letter to his father was full of injured innocence and deep religious feeling. The shooting of Miles had been an act of self-defense, he told Edward Twichell, the same thing he told the Boston reporter fifty-six years later. When Twichell recalled this period later in life, he did not speak of Miles's death but of the intense spiritual revival that was its backdrop. It was as though the death of a man was an incidental event in a great drama of salvation that was occupying the country. Even late in life, he remembered this as a time of comradeship, study, athletics, and piety. There were "evidences that the goodness of God has touched the hearts of many," he wrote his father.

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...It is true the fireman died, as the old minister told the reporter. The reporter had good instincts when he suggested the killing might have had something to do with Twichell's entering the ministry, despite Twichell's insistence that he had already planned on the course. Correspondence of the time makes it clear that he did not make that decision until after he graduated from Yale. It was there in the college riot in the dark that the man Twichell was born, far from the landscape of his childhood, a place of light and truth by comparison.