Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Mark Twain's First Love: The Girl Who Became Becky Thatcher

Mark Twain in front of his boyhood home in Hannibal (1902); public domain image

Mark Twain’s wry wit and quick humor made him a celebrity in his time. His deep understanding of the human condition infused the books he wrote, earning them a place among the classics. Although Twain departed from this Earth on March 21, 1910, his quotes resound today. Who doesn’t smile at: “Man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to.” This quip provides food for thought: “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” Here’s my personal favorite: “Books are the liberated spirits of men.”

A figure like Mark Twain can seem larger than life, much like the characters he created. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn remain with us long after we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Who can forget Huck fishing by the river or Tom tricking his friends into whitewashing his aunt’s fence? We may grow up, but in true Peter-Pan fashion, those two never will.

The appeal of Twain’s characters might be due to the fact that he based them on people he actually knew. Twain drew Huck Finn from a childhood friend, the son of an sawmill worker with a drinking problem. In his autobiography, Mark Twain (or Samuel Langhorne Clemens—his birth name) admitted: “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was.” 

The origins of Tom Sawyer are a subject of debate, but Smithsonian Magazine claims to have solved the riddle. Tom Sawyer, Samuel Clemen’s firefighter friend, was a hero credited with saving 90 lives during the sinking of the steamship “Independence.” However, some believe that Samuel drew from his own childhood to create his fictional Tom Sawyer. He must have liked to honor people he admired by naming characters after them, as he later named one of his characters after the girl who inspired Becky Thatcher.

(Anna) Laura Hawkins was only a couple of years old when she moved with her family from Georgetown, Kentucky to Hannibal, Missouri. Laura lived in a two-story frame house on Hill Street, across from the Clemens home. She and Samuel became childhood sweethearts. Here's Laura's account of her early romance (with a few typo corrections) which appeared in the
Norfolk Post, Number 223, 27 February 1922“Mark and 1 started going to school the same year,” Mrs. Frazier says. "He was seven and I was six. Our houses were across the street from each other right here in Hannibal. Mark had long, golden curls hanging over his shoulders. He used to carry my books to school every morning and carry them home in the afternoon. And he’d treat me to apples and oranges and divide his candy with me. In the winter Mark spent most of his time on the ice. I couldn’t skate, he always arranged for mo to go along. He used to push me along the ice on a split-bottom chair. He was a fine skater, too; in fact, he was good at anything he undertook. The first time I ever saw Mark was on a hot summer day. He came out of his house and started showing off, turning handsprings and cutting capers. His heel hit me and I was thrown to the ground and knocked unconscious. I recall hearing the children talking about how scared Mark was.”

Laura Hawkin's Hannibal home, the "Becky Thatcher House), photograph by Andrew Balet, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Tragedy struck the Clemens household in 1847. John Marshall Clemens, Samuel’s father, died of pneumonia. To help his family, Samuel left school at age 11 and took a job as a printer’s apprentice for a newspaper. He went to work as a typesetter for his older brother, Orion, who owned a local paper. He wrote short, satirical pieces for his brother’s paper. Samuel left Hannibal in 1853 at age 17 and shifted about working as a printer. In 1857, he apprenticed as a Mississippi steamboat pilot.

Samuel took his pen name during his steamboat employment. “Mark twain” meant “two fathoms, or 12 feet, which was a safe depth for a steamboat.

Laura went on to higher studies at Van Rensselaer Presbyterial Academy in Rensselaer, Missouri. She married James W. Frazer, a physician, in 1858. They had two children, both sons.

Samuel lost his younger brother, Henry, following a boiler explosion on the steamboat “Pennsylvania.” Although heartbroken, Samuel got his pilot’s license in 1859. He worked along the Mississippi until the Civil War ended commercial steamboat traffic in 1861. 

Samuel joined his brother, Orion on a westward journey that he detailed in his semi-autobiographic book, “Roughing It.” Life in the West brought many adventures his way. He gained prominence in 1865 after an author friend invited him to contribute to a book. Samuel sent a lively account of the Calaveras County Jumping Frog Contest that essentially launched his own writing career.

Mark Twain at age 31 in 1867; public domain image

In 1870, the evening before he married Olivia “Livy” Langdon, Samuel scribbled something on a note card, which he then sealed and mailed it to Laura Hawkin’s brother in Hannibal with instructions to deliver it to her. Whatever that note contained went to the grave with them both.

Olivia Langdon (1845-1904) at about 24 years old, taken on October 29, 1869; public domain image 

We don't know much about the adult life of Laura Hawkins Frazer. Her husband died in 1875. Later, in 1895, Laura hired on as matron of a Hannibal home for orphans and indigent.  

Samuel and Olivia seemed to have a happy marriage, although tragedy did touch them. The first of their children, a boy they named Langdon, suffered from fragile health. He died of diphtheria at 19 months, leaving his distraught parents. They consoled themselves by doting on his younger sister, Olivia Susan “Susy.” Two more girls joined the family. Clara acquired the nickname “Bay” for her older sister’s pronunciation of "baby." Jane, the youngest, suffered from epilepsy. Both Susy and Jane died in their twenties. Clara lived a long life and died at 88. Her daughter, Nina Gabrilowitsch had no children. Samuel Clemens’s line died out with her passing in 1966.

Olivia, always frail, died in 1904. She may have suffered a heart attack. As her health took a turn for the worse, doctors recommended she keep away from her husband to avoid becoming overexcited. She and Samuel went months without seeing one another, but he broke the rule to exchange love letters and kisses.

Samuel visited Laura Hawkins Frazer in Hannibal in 1902. Life had carried them apart, and this was the first they’d seen of one another in 50 years.

Photograph taken in 1902 of Mark Twain with Anna Laura (Elizabeth) Hawkins Frazer; public domain image

Laura and Samuel got together again in 1908 in Redding Connecticut, four years after Olivia's death. Although Samuel and Laura never revived their romance, they remained friends. In the end, he imparted to her something of his own fame by immortalizing her in his writing.

About Janalyn Voigt

Escape into creative worlds of fiction with Janalyn Voigt. Her unique blend of adventure, romance, suspense, and fantasy creates worlds of beauty and danger for readers. The Montana Gold series explores the faith, courage, and loves of an Irish-immigrant family making a way for themselves in the Wild West. Tales of Faeraven, her medieval epic fantasy series, carries the reader into a land only imagined in dreams. When she's not writing, Janalyn loves spending time discovering the great outdoors.

Learn more about Janalyn Voigt and her books.


  1. Thank you for posting today. I enjoyed getting to know more about Mark Twain. What prompted you to dig deeper into his life?

  2. Hi, Connie. Mark Twain and Charles Dickens are my two favorite classical authors, for similar reasons. They each created vivid characters that live beyond the page. Who can forget Huck Finn or the Artful Dodger? Both authors had an exquisite knack for turning a phrase. I've long felt a connection to Mark Twain, in particular, because my Missourian mother took me as a child to the Mark Twain Caves in Hannibal. Over time, I've ridden on a steamboat, stood on a stairway landing in the spot where Mark Twain once gave a speech, slept in a palatial home where he sometimes spent the night, and visited his boyhood home museum. I guess I researched this article over a lifetime. :) I'm glad you enjoyed it.