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    Follow the Stories | Baltimore, Maryland (2008)

    Mark Twain's "Aquarium"


    Posted: 1.7.08

    Angelfish brooch

    The angel-fish pin that Mark Twain gave to Susan's grandmother, Dorothy Sturgis, signifying membership in Twain's "Aquarium" club.

    photo of Mark Twain with Sturgis

    A photo of Twain with a girl thought to be Dorothy Sturgis. Twain suffered from depression in his later years and seemed to derive some relief from encouraging his "angel-fish" friends in their literary and artistic interests.

    photo of Dorothy Sturgis

    A photograph Susan treasures of her grandmother, Dorothy Sturgis, as a young woman.

    "next burglar" text image

    Prior to one of Dorothy's first visits, Twain's home had been burglarized. Under his direction, Dorothy made this humorous sign to ward off any future intruders.

    At the Baltimore ANTIQUES ROADSHOW in June 2007, a guest named Susan arrived with a beautiful enamel lapel pin, a black-and-white photo of her grandmother as a young girl, and a family story that connected her grandmother to one of America's greatest writers, Samuel Clemens.

    "My understanding has been that she was given this pin by Mark Twain," Susan said. "Samuel Clemens in his older years had a group of young ladies that he corresponded with, and who visited him at his home."

    The story is true, and the woman's grandmother was Dorothy Sturgis, one of the dozen or so young girls between the ages of 11 and 16 that Clemens, whose pen name was Mark Twain, befriended in his later years, a connection he would describe at the time as his "chief occupation and delight." The group served as a girls literary and arts club, with Twain as its focal point. In April 1908, Clemens met the first of the girls in this group, a 14-year old named Dorothy Butes, whose mother insisted on meeting Clemens when they traveled to America. Afterwards, the author described the girl as "simple, sincere, frank and straightforward" and called the meeting a "fortunate day, a golden day, and my heart has never been empty of grandchildren since."

    A closer look at Twain's intriguing "angel-fish" club — a group he formed to raise his spirits while encouraging young women in their artistic interests

    In the winter of 1908, on a trip to Bermuda, Clemens met about a half-dozen more girls, including Sturgis, and after he got home, he came up with the idea of creating a group of young girls who he would visit and correspond with. "The Bermudian angelfish," Clemens wrote in an autobiographical dictation in April 1908, "with its splendid blue decorations, is easily the most beautiful fish that swims, I think. So I thought I would call my ten pets angel-fishes, and their club, the Aquarium." Many of the letters from the group, such as the copied one that turned up at the ROADSHOW, reside in Columbia University's Rare Books and Manuscripts Library.

    Befriending these girls was an antidote to the dark times that plagued Clemens during his last years. His most famous works — including Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer — were about children, and he had loved the youth of his daughters Susy, Clara, and Jean Clemens, often inventing games, stories, and plays for their entertainment. But as his daughters grew older, his relations with them grew more complicated. After his beloved wife Olivia died in 1904, the family fell apart. A few weeks later, his daughter Clara suffered a nervous breakdown and entered a sanitarium. Clemens' relations with her and Jean, his surviving daughters, became strained (his daughter Susy died from spinal meningitis in 1896). During this period, he described himself as "washing about in a forlorn sea of banquets & speechmaking." It was in this period that he started wearing his white suits, because light-colored clothing, he said, "enlivens the spirit."

    So too did the girls of his "Aquarium" club, and in all he would exchange about 300 letters with them during the five years before his death in 1910. Hamlin Hill, author of God's Fool, a biography of Twain's last ten years, described them as "long, chatty, childlike letters." One of the letters collected in Mark Twain's Aquarium, by John Cooley, is from Clemens to a Dorothy Quick: "I tried to get some elephants for your birthday." In one to Sturgis, dated August 3, 1908, he writes, "You will be very welcome in September, & your journey from Boston will not be a heavy one ... I enclose a photo made a few days ago. ... The cat is Tammany, the pride of the place. You will notice that I have become extraordinarily hump-shouldered. The doctors say it will never diminish, but will increase. They say it is due to bad circulation, lack of exercise, & excessive smoking. I do not care. It is good enough shape, & I like it."

    One hundred correspondences he sent out in 1908 were to the angelfish, and in practically every letter he pleaded for a visit. He encouraged many of the girls in writing and the arts, and after Sturgis visited in September of 1908, Clemens encouraged her to compose a sign to burglars, who had robbed Clemens' home shortly before the visit.

    "There is nothing but plated ware in this house, now and henceforth," Sturgis wrote in the sign. "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. ... Please close the door when you go away."

    By the end of 1908, though, Clemens' enthusiasm for the club began to wane, his letters grew fewer, and he no longer pleaded for visits. Only 25 letters from 1909 survive. The tone of the letters changed, and Clemens griped about his health more, often pleaded with them to stop growing up (he cut off contact with one girl when she turned 16), and also complained about their boyfriends.

    In part, the change of mood had to do with trouble at home, as his daughter Clara accused Clemens' secretary and business manager of stealing money, and he fired them, an episode that sullied the summer and was publicized in the newspapers. By fall, the angelfish girls were back in school. Another blow to Clemens was the sudden death of his daughter Jean, who drowned during an epileptic fit in the bathtub on Christmas Eve. He was so devastated that he didn't make the trip to Elmira to bury her next to her sister and mother.

    Clemens' last reference to one of the angelfish was made on a ship returning from a visit to Bermuda in 1910, in which he wrote that one girl, Helen Allen, should protect the "diamond" of her innocence and be "cautious, watchful, wary." A week later, on April 21, he died at the Clemens family home, Stormfield, a name Clara had given the house his, thinking it more appropriate than Innocence at Home.

    See the Baltimore, Maryland (2008) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.

    The research for this article came primarily from Mark Twain's Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens Angelfish Correspondence, 1905-1910, edited by John Cooley.

    More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Jewelry category:
    Seed Pearl Jewelry (Tampa, 2006)

    Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a contributor to Antiques Roadshow Online since 1998.