Henry Clemens (Mark Twain's Brother) Dies While Working on Steamboat
While training, Samuel convinced his younger brother Henry to work with him.
Henry was killed on June 21, 1858, when the steamboat he was working on, the Pennsylvania, exploded. Twain had foreseen this death in a detailed dream a month earlier, which inspired his interest in parapsychology; he was an early member of the Society for Psychical Research.
Death of Twain's Brother
Twain's youngest brother Henry is killed tragically at the age of 20 in an explosion on the steamboat Pennsylvania. Henry had been training to become a steamboat pilot, at Twain's encouragement. Twain, devastated by his brother's death, feels responsible for it for the rest of his life.
The steamboat Pennsylvania was a side wheeler steamboat which suffered a boiler explosion in the Mississippi River and sank at Ship Island near Memphis, Tennessee, on June 13, 1858.
Her most heralded crew member was Samuel L. Clemens (later known as Mark Twain) who served as a cub pilot from September 27, 1857 until June 5, 1858, with a two month break during the repairs from the Vicksburg collision. The end of Twain's service on the Pennsylvania was brought about by his stormy relationship with its pilot, William Brown, which is described in Life on the Mississippi. Just prior to his departure, he arranged a post for his brother, Henry on the steamship as "Mud Clerk".
Final voyage and sinking
On June 13, 1858, the Pennsylvania was steaming near Ship Island, just below Memphis, Tennessee when its boiler exploded. Estimates at the time put the passenger manifest at 450 with an initial loss of life of 250. The first vessel on site was the Imperial, which picked up several passengers and transported them to New Orleans. The Diana took many others to Memphis. Several of these were seriously injured and the death toll continued to climb. Among this group was Henry Clemens, whose skin and lungs were so badly scalded that he succumbed to his wounds on June 21. Eyewitness testimony was given to the fact that the engineer was not at his post in the engine room just prior to the explosion, instead being in the company of some women.
Henry Clemens, Sam's younger brother, died June 21, 1858 as a result of injuries received in the explosion of the PENNSYLVANIA on June 13, 1858. Sam related the incident in Chapter 20 of Life on the Mississippi. After an altercation with Pilot William Brown, Sam left the PENNSYLVANIA in New Orleans on June 5. Henry continued on in his capacity as a "mud clerk" with the PENNSYLVANIA and was on board when the boat exploded.
Clemens' comments: I had found a place on the PENNSYLVANIA for my brother Henry, who was two years my junior. It was not a place of profit, it was only a place of promise. He was "mud" clerk. Mud clerks received no salary, but they were in the line of promotion. They could become, presently, third clerk and second clerk, then chief clerk - that is to say, purser.
- Mark Twain's Autobiography
Survivors of the PENNSYLVANIA explosion were taken ashore at Memphis, Tennessee. On June 16, 1858 the Memphis Eagle and Enquirer reported on the arrival of Samuel Clemens who had rushed to be at Henry's side after the disaster:
We witnessed one of the most affecting scenes at the Exchange yesterday that has ever been seen. The brother of Mr. Henry Clemens, second clerk of the Pennsylvania, who now lies dangerously ill from the injuries received by the explosion of that boat, arrived in the city yesterday afternoon, on the steamer A. T. LACY. He hurried to the Exchange to see his brother, and on approaching the bedside of the wounded man, his feelings so much overcame him, at the scalded and emaciated form before him, that he sunk to the floor overpowered. There was scarcely a dry eye in the house; the poor sufferers shed tears at the sight. This brother had been pilot on the Pennsylvania, but fortunately for him, had remained in New Orleans when the boat started up.