Laura's Top Matches
About Laura Hawkins
To Mrs. Laura Frazer of Hannibal, Mo., Mark Twain’s immortal “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is a rosary, and the book’s plot is the cord of fiction on which beads of truth are strung. In the sunset of her life she tells them over, and if here and there among the roseate chaplet is a bead gray in coloring, time has softened the hues of all so they blend exquisitely. This bead recalls a happy afternoon on the broad Mississippi with the boys and girls of seventy years ago; the next brings up a picture of a schoolroom where a score of little heads bob over their books and slates, and a third visualizes a wonderful picnic excursion to the woods with a feast of fried chicken and pie and cake.
For Mrs. Frazer is the original of Becky Thatcher, the childhood sweetheart of Tom Sawyer, and the original of Tom Sawyer, of course, was Mark Twain himself.
“Yes, I was the Becky Thatcher of Mr. Clemens’s book,” Mrs. Frazer said the other day, as she sat in the big second floor front parlor of the old time mansion in Hannibal, which is now the Home for the Friendless. Mrs. Frazer is the matron of the home.
“Of course I suspected it when I first read the ‘Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’” she went on. “There were so many incidents which I recalled as happening to Sam Clemens and myself that I felt he had drawn a picture of his memory of me in the character of Judge Thatcher’s little daughter. But I never confided my belief to anyone. I felt that it would be a presumption to take the honor to myself.
“There were other women who had no such scruples—some of them right here in Hannibal—and they attempted to gain a little reflected notoriety by asserting that they were the prototypes of the character. When Albert Bigelow Paine, Mr. Clemens’s biographer, gathered the material for his life of the author, he found no fewer than twenty-five women, in Missouri and elsewhere, each of whom declared she was Becky Thatcher, but he settled the controversy for all time on Mr. Clemens’s authority when the biography was published. In it you will find that Becky Thatcher was Laura Hawkins, which was my maiden name. “We were boy and girl sweethearts, Sam Clemens and I,” Mrs. Frazer said with a gentle little laugh. She is elderly, of course, since it was seventy years ago that her friendship with Mark Twain began, and her hair is gray. But her heart is young, and she finds in her work of mothering the twenty-five boys and girls in her charge the secret of defying age. On this particular afternoon she wore black and white striped silk, the effect of which was a soft gray to match her hair, and her placid face was lighted with smiles of reminiscence.
“Children are wholly unartificial, you know,” she explained. “They do not learn to conceal their feelings until they begin to grow up. The courtship of childhood, therefore, is a matter of preference and of comradeship. I liked Sam better than the other boys, and he liked me better than the other girls, and that was all there was to it.”
If you had seen this lady of Old Missouri as she told of her childhood romance you would have recalled instinctively Mark Twain’s description: A lovely little blue eyed creature with yellow hair plaited into two long tails, white summer frock and embroidered pantalettes. * * * He worshipped this new angel with furtive eye until he saw that she had discovered him; then he pretended he did not know she was present, and began to “show off” in all sorts of absurd boyish ways, in order to win her admiration. And you would have found it easy to conceive that this refined, gentle countenance once was apple cheeked and rosy, that the serene gray eyes once sparkled as blue as the Father of Waters on a sunny day and that the frosted hair was as golden as the sunshine.
“I must have been 6 or 7 years old when we moved to Hannibal,” Mrs. Frazer said. “My father had owned a big mill and a store and a plantation worked by many negro slaves further inland, but he found the task of managing all too heavy for him, and so he bought a home in Hannibal and was preparing to move to it when he died. My mother left the mill and the plantation in the hands of my grown brothers—I was one of ten children, by the way—and came to Hannibal. Our house stood at the corner of Hill and Main streets, and just a few doors west, on Hill Street, lived the Clemens family.
“I think I must have liked Sam Clemens the very first time I saw him. He was different from the other boys. I didn’t know then, of course, what it was that made him different, but afterward, when my knowledge of the world and its people grew, I realized that it was his natural refinement. He played hookey from school, he cared nothing at all for his books and he was guilty of all sorts of mischievous pranks, just as Tom Sawyer is in the book, but I never heard a coarse word from him in all our childhood acquaintance. “Hannibal was a little town which hugged the steamboat landing in those days. If you will go down through the old part of the city now you will find it much as it was when I was a child, for the quaint old weatherbeaten buildings still stand, proving how thoroughly the pioneers did their work. We went to school, we had picnics, we explored the big cave—they call it the Mark Twain Cave now, you know.” “Were you lost in the cave, as Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher were?” Mrs. Frazer was asked. “No; that is a part of the fiction of the book,” she answered. “As a matter of fact, some older persons always went with us. Usually my older sister and Sam Clemens’s older sister, who were great friends, were along to see that we didn’t get lost among the winding passages where our candles lighted up the great stalagmites and stalactites, and where water was dripping from the stone roof overhead, just as Mr. Clemens has described it.”
And then she proceeded to divorce the memory of Mark Twain from “the little red schoolhouse” forever. “In those days we had only private schools,” Mrs. Frazer said. “If there were public schools I never heard of them. The first school I went to was taught by Mr. Cross, who had canvassed the town and obtained perhaps twenty-five private pupils at a stated price for the tuition of each. I do not know how much Mr. Cross charged, but when I was older I remember that a young woman teacher opened a school after getting twenty-five pupils at $25 each for the year’s tuition. I shall never forget that Mr. Cross did not belie his name, however, or that Sam Clemens wrote a bit of doggerel about him.”
She quoted it this way: Cross by name and Cross by nature, Cross hopped out of an Irish potato.
“The schoolhouse was a 2-story frame building with a gallery across the entire front,” she resumed. “After a year together in that school Sam and I went to the school taught by Mrs. Horr. It was then he used to write notes to me and bring apples to school and put them on my desk. And once, as a punishment for some prank, he had to sit with the girls and occupied a vacant seat by me. He didn’t seem to mind the penalty at all,” Mrs. Frazer added with another laugh, “so I don’t know whether it was effective as a punishment or not.
“We hadn’t reached the dancing age then, but we went to many ‘play parties’ together and romped through ‘Going to Jerusalem,’ ‘King William was King George’s Son’ and ‘Green Grow the Rushes—O.’ “Judge Clemens, Sam’s father, died and left the family in straitened circumstances, and Sam’s schooling ended there. He began work in the printing office to help out, and when he was 17 or 18 he left Hannibal to go to work in St. Louis. He never returned to live, but he visited here often in the years that followed.” Mrs. Frazer’s own story formed the next chapter of her narrative. A young physician, Doctor Frazer of Madisonville, which was a little inland village in Ralls County, adjoining, came often to Hannibal and courted pretty Laura Hawkins. When she was 20 they were married and went to live in the new house Doctor Frazer had built for his bride at Madisonville. There they reared two sons until they required better school facilities, when they went to Rensselaer, also in Ralls County, but nearer Hannibal. They lived in Rensselaer until Doctor Frazer’s death, when the mother and younger son moved to the General Canby farm. This son’s marriage led to Mrs. Frazer’s return to Hannibal twenty-two years ago. She was offered the position of matron at the Home for the Friendless, and for twenty-two years she has managed it. The boys and girls who have gone out from it in nearly every case have become useful men and women as a result of her guidance at the critical period of their life, for the girls remain in the home until they are 14 and the boys until they are 12. The old mansion which houses the score or more of children always there is to be abandoned in the spring for a new and modern building, a gift from a wealthy citizen to the private charity which has conducted the institution so long without aid from city, county or state.
It was given to Mrs. Frazer and Mark Twain to renew their youthful friendship after a lapse of half a century. In 1908 Mrs. Frazer made a trip East, accepting an invitation to visit Albert Bigelow Paine at Redding, Conn. Mr. Paine had visited Hannibal two years before in a search for material for his biography of Mark Twain and had made Mrs. Frazer’s acquaintance then. He mentioned the approaching visit to the great humorist and Mark Twain promptly sat down and wrote Mrs. Frazer that she must be a guest also at Stormfield, his Redding estate. So it came about that the one-time little Laura Hawkins found herself lifting the knocker at the beautiful country home of Mark Twain in the Connecticut hills.
“The door was opened by Clara Clemens, Mr. Clemens’s daughter,” Mrs. Frazer said, “and she threw her arms about me and cried: ‘I know you, for I’ve seen your picture, and father has told me about you. You are Becky Thatcher, and I’m happy to see you.’
“And that,” Mrs. Frazer said, “was the first time I really knew I was the original of the character, although I had suspected it for thirty years. Clara Clemens, you know, even then was a famous contralto, and Ossip Gabrilowitsch, whose wife she is now, was ‘waiting’ on her at the time.
“It was a wonderful visit,” she went on. “Mr. Clemens took me over Stormfield. It must have been a tract of three hundred acres. We went through the fields, which were not fields at all, since they were not cultivated, and across a rustic bridge over a little rushing brook which boiled and bubbled among the rocks in the bed of a great ravine, and we sat down under a rustic arbor and talked of the old days in Hannibal when he was a little boy and I a little girl, before he went out into the world to win fame and before I lived my own happy married life. Mr. Clemens had that rare faculty of loyalty to his friends which made the lapse of fifty years merely an interim. It was as if the half century had rolled away and we were there looking on the boy and girl we had been.
“Mr. Clemens had won worldwide fame; he had been a welcome guest in the palaces of Old World rulers and lionized in the great cities of his own country. He had been made a Doctor of Literature by the University of Oxford, the highest honor of the greatest university in the world, and yet there at Stormfield to me he seemed to be Sam Clemens of old Hannibal, rather than the foremost man in the American world of letters.
“That, I believe, is my most treasured memory of Sam Clemens,” Mrs. Frazer ended. “I love to think of him as the curly-headed, rollicking, clean minded little boy I played with as a child, but I like better still to think of him as he was in his last days, when all that fame and fortune had showered on him did not, even momentarily, make him waver in his loyalty to the friends of his youth.”
In Hannibal stands the quaint little 2-story house flush with the sidewalk which Samuel Langhorne Clemens’s father built in 1844, after he had moved to the old river town from Florida, Mo., where the great story teller was born. Restored, it houses many reminders of the author and is maintained as a memorial to Mark Twain. There, November 30, the eighty-second anniversary of the birth of Clemens, the people of Hannibal and persons from many cities widely scattered over America will go to pay tribute to his memory.
And there they will see Becky Thatcher in the flesh, silkengowned, gray-haired and grown old, but Becky Thatcher just the same, seated in a chair which once was Mark Twain’s and pouring tea at a table on which the author once wrote. And if the aroma of the cup she hands out to each visitor doesn’t waft before his mind a vision of a curly-headed boy and a little girl with golden long-tails at play on the wharf of old Hannibal while the ancient packets ply up and down the rolling blue Mississippi, there is nothing whatever in the white magic of association.