In September 1917, The New York Times reviewed a new book by Mark Twain, the legendary author and longtime Connecticut resident whose real name was Samuel Clemens. The uncredited reviewer was mostly critical of the work, called Jap Herron, but admitted “the dialect is true, and the picture has, in general, many features that will seem familiar to those who know their ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ ”
The only problem was Twain had died seven years earlier in the small Fairfield County town of Redding.
The spirit of Twain supposedly dictated the book to Emily Grant Hutchings of St. Louis via a ouija board operated by a medium named Lola V. Hays. Hutchings grew up in Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, and was a journalist and aspiring author who had communicated with Twain in a series of letters in the 1900s, while the author still occupied the world of the living.
If Twain was truly writing from beyond the grave, it appears death dulled his wit, as Jap Herron found few fans. The Times review concluded:
“The humor impresses as a feeble attempt at imitation and, while there is now and then a strong sure touch of pathos or a swift and true revelation of human nature, the ‘sob stuff’ that oozes through many of the scenes, and the overdrawn emotions are too much for credulity. If this is the best that ‘Mark Twain’ can do by reaching across the barrier, the army of admirers that his works have won for him will all hope that he will hereafter respect that boundary.”
Twain’s publisher, Harper & Brothers, and daughter, Clara Clemens, also disliked the book and worried it could tarnish Twain’s reputation. They filed a lawsuit seeking to halt its publication. They argued that Twain had not written the book from beyond the grave and that, even if he had, Harper & Brothers would be entitled to any royalties from it.
The case made national headlines and seemed poised to put the concepts of both spiritualism and the afterlife on trial. As The Times put it: “The riddle of the universe is about to be debated, not by theologians, but by lawyers.”
The ouija board had debuted in 1890, and by the early 1900s, it was a standard at seances across the country. Hutchings was not the first in her city or social circle to use it as an aid to fiction writing. She had used a board with a friend, Pearl Curran, in St. Louis when Curran and Hutchings claimed to have been contacted by a long-deceased spirit named Patience Worth. Curran published several books and works of poetry that received national attention and were supposedly dictated to her by Worth.
As Jap Herron was being written, a psychic researcher named James H. Hyslop who was working with Hutchings contacted Clara Clemens to try and confirm details of their “communications” with her father.
Clara told The Times in 1918: “While Professor Hyslop was engaged in his so-called research work, he sent me many letters in which he asked me to confirm certain things which my father is supposed to have said to him. I answered a few of these letters, telling him that everything he has asked about was false, and finally the whole proceeding became so annoying I asked him not to write me any more. It was so silly and stupid that I decided I could not waste my time talking or writing about it.”
She adds, “Then I placed the matter in the hands of my attorney, because I do not want any such book published. I suppose it would be harmless, but what would be the use of it? It is indescribably wild and foolish. I am sorry that even this preliminary announcement had to be made.”
For a time, the newspapers expected a Supreme Court showdown. Before that happened, the legal pressure got to the book’s publisher, Mitchell Kennerley, who agreed to cease publication of the work and destroy all remaining copies. Few original copies exist today. The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford does not have an original in its collection, though it has a more recently published version, and the text is available in online archives.
Mallory Howard, the assistant curator of The Mark Twain House, says there is no reason to believe Hutchings sincerely thought she was communicating with Twain. “I would think it was a ploy,” she says.
However, Howard does not dismiss all claims of contact between the living and the dead. The Mark Twain House regularly runs ghost tours, which are particularly popular in October and run 6-9 p.m. on select nights. They focus on the history of spiritualism and seances, and examine experiences members of the staff have had. Some claim to have seen Susy Clemens — Twain’s oldest daughter who died in the house at age 24 — or George Griffin, the Clemens’ longtime butler.
When Howard started giving ghost tours she was a skeptic who “didn’t really believe in ghosts.” Then during one tour, she says, she saw a woman walk by with a flowing dress and her hair up. Dumbfounded, Howard paused the tour. “My hands were shaking and my heart was pounding and I was having a physical reaction to this,” she recalls.
Thankfully, perhaps, this apparition was not pitching an unpublished manuscript.