sparks that fed the flame (Mazeppa!)

After acquiring a large number of old tintypes, 
it became apparent that Mark Twain and his family
 were the center of this network of well-known people.

The very name Mark Twain was an important clue to the past and the future of Samuel Clemens. And, as this blog began to float,  a clue to my tintype collection. It seems that Clemens was running from duty and the rising waters of the Civil War when he abandoned his Confederate militia and voyaged to California to avoid conscription in either army. He wanted to be a writer, a living one, and so abandoned the Mississippi Valley rather than take a side in the coming bloodbath.

Clemens fled to safer venues, and settled for scratching out scandalous diatribes under his nom de plume, "Mark Twain." Many an editor and writer in the California newspapers had been challenged to duel to the death by those whose honor had been offended by their editorials. Several journalists in California had died in this war of words, which was often punctuated with bullets. Mark Twain was a winsome mask to hide behind, so Clemens could take his cheap shots at anyone and sleep well at night. Fast on his feet, left-handed and slippery as a catfish, his riverboat morality and toxic attacks, salted with Midwestern charm, won great popularity, and he became the most celebrated author in American history. 

Samuel Clemens about 1869
Absolutely sure about this one!
Over a lifetime, the legendary bard became the most famous American in the world, and met almost every other famous person in Western culture. He was a celebrity among celebrities. Few men of any generation have known the pervasive approval and loyalty which became his daily fare. (Due to his sizable debts, and constant relocations all over Europe, he was also followed closely by the Pinkertons!)

You might think, if you are into history or the lifestyles of the rich and famous, what a kick it might have been to sit down with Mark Twain and gawk at the pages of his personal scrapbook. To take in the faces of famous artists, beautiful actresses, politicians and writers that he knew over the years; The family photos, the candid shots of his many distinguished friends. It would have been a “Who's Who” scrapbook if there ever was one. You might wonder where that incredible document might be today... surely in the vault of a proud great-grandchild, or in a drawer at the Smithsonian. And no doubt there are such things in storage somewhere. But some of them, perhaps most of them, are right here in this blog.

 L@L Olivia Langdon Clemens (1845-1904),
 devoted wife of Samuel Clemens.

But great-grandchildren there were not. Two of Clemens's beautiful daughters died without issue, and Clara, the one who finally got married, had only one daughter, who again perished with no children (That was the story for over one hundred years... recently someone has passed DNA testing and is apparently a lost descendant, when Twain's granddaughter, Sophie Gabrilowitsch put her up for adoption in the 1960's). The less-than-ideal conditions around her and her mother's life left lots of possibilities as to where such a family album might end up, but it was nowhere close to safety or posterity. 

In fact there were several women, including Clemens's wife Olivia, his three daughters, his lifelong maid, and his adoring secretary who might easily have made numerous photographic scrapbooks... which might quietly have slipped through the cracks... We can never know how, but I believe one did. As often as the Clemens moved around the turn of the Century, it also quite possible a family album was lost or left behind and fell into the hands of "authorities."

 L@L  Orion Clemens (1825-1897) Sam's older brother 
who was appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory by President Lincoln.

L@L   Close friends of the Clemens, W. D. and Elinor Mead Howells (1837-1920) with passengers 

L@L  Susy (1872-1896) & Clare (1874- 1962) Clemens, approx 1880

 Towards the end of the acquisition of the photos in this blog, I began to turn up a significant number of faces from the Samuel Clemens household... so many I became convinced that the collection originated from that sphere of association. Sam Clemens had met and clowned around with Menken in California and Nevada. His brother Orion was the Secretary of the Nevada Territory at the time. Adah Isaacs Menken had sewn together a loose society of fellow “Bohemians,” a network of artists and intellectuals and writers collaborating for social change. They were thought to be anarchists or worse, and were closely watched by President Lincoln's version of the Secret Service, The Pinkerton Detective Agency.  For Menken, it was a haunting tangle of deception and intrigue, from New York to San Francisco to London and Paris. And Mark Twain followed in her wake. How the tintypes came together and stayed together will probably always be a mystery. But however they did, here is the story they tell...

Chapter 1
sparks that fed the flame


 Ada Bertha Theodore AKA Adah Isaacs Menken (1831-1868), around 1861.
A Renaissance woman, entertainer, (maybe a spy for the Confederacy) and a HUGE liar.

If I have to pick a beginning for this epic journey to the bottom of earthiness, it would have to be in my native state of Texas. When Ada Bertha Theodore ran from her past in Louisiana, to find independence or a man or fame and glory, or whichever came first, she returned to her childhood home in Nacogdoches, Texas. Here she was known variously as Dolores McCord and Ada McCurry. She is believed by many researchers to have been a “quadroon,” and it was thus illegal for her to marry a white man in Louisiana. And this she planned to do...  many times as it turned out.  

A trained dancer and able horsewoman, she had found employment as a circus performer in New Orleans, and had already charmed fans in Cuba and Mexico with her equestrian ballet, when her company migrated into south Texas around 1850.

Texas was a very wild place, just having earned statehood five years before. Adah spoke French and some Spanish, and was well-read. You might say she was  the first American candle in the wind.  She considered herself a poet, traipsing across Texas to islands of meager civilization such as Liberty, Austin and Washington on the Brazos, where she published her poetry and advertisements for suitable suitors. Her poetry readings and performances were merely a way to finance her quest, which was to go far. Very far.  Beautiful and flirtatious, she charmed Texas Rangers, an army colonel and according to one legend, a Comanche chief, before capturing her first man. 

She married one fellow in Galveston, and then dumped him for another, a Jewish musician named Alexander Isaac Menken, who gave her a complete new identity. Married in Livingston, Texas, they were soon in Cincinatti, Ohio and Adah was writing fairly heady stuff for Jewish publications, as a born Jew, and gaining popularity among the highest minds in that community. 

   L@L  John Camel Heenan (1834-1873), world champion
 bare knuckle pugilist. And temporary husband of Adah Menken.
Adah soon conspired to become a great actress, and left Alexander behind, marrying John Camel Heenan, the heavyweight champion bare-knuckle boxer in the Country. She got his attention, and everyone else's, portraying Prince Mazeppa, by mounting a live horse on stage, in fact strapped backwards and carried up a simulated mountain, dangling and legs flying... in a tight body suit which, to Victorian imaginations, made her appear to be totally naked.

 Adah Menken combined everything men love 
to re-invent a bad melodrama into an
 International blockbuster.

Almost overnight she was the most sought after, and the highest paid actress in the world. Heenan became embarrassed and jealous when hubby #2, Alexander Menken raised a stink over some technicalities concerning her first divorce, (or lack thereof). The fearless boxer abandoned her when he found out she carried his child. She was temporarily without a man... but not for long. 

After Heenan's baby died as an infant, Adah calmly mended herself and continued her path to stardom. By now she had a shtick, and she stuck to it. Offers poured in from all over the world.

When the Civil war broke out Adah found herself deep within “enemy” lines. Keen about publicity, she printed glowing, bold and shamelessly ambiguous handouts claiming her patriotism, to quell any suspicions (however accurate!) about her loyalties. There is no documentation of her activities off-stage during these days, but there seems to be a discernible trail. And “my find” of tintypes included a whole group of famous Civil War spies. The presence of them seems to suggest that Menken, and perhaps Sam Clemens, were part of, or at least privy to a vast Confederate conspiracy rarely suspected or spoken of. (there is a whole chapter later about them)

 L@L  Captain Thomas H. Hines, (1838-1898), Confederate spy,
 captured and inspired by Les Miserables, led a successful escape.

One of the photos I purchased, a pasteboard carte de visite (one of very few) of Sir Henry Stanley, (Yes, famous for "Livingston I presume.") is of special significance. Unknown to me and most people, Stanley was a Welshman who enlisted in the Confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War.

L@L Sir Henry Stanley
 In 1862 he was captured during the Battle of Shiloh, and then suddenly decided he would fight for the Union. He became suddenly reformed, took an oath of allegiance, and enlisted in the Union army. Then he fell deathly sick and was discharged. This sounds very fishy, and it gets fishier.  Nobody knows what he did for a couple of years, but then in 1864 he enlisted in the Union Navy. Then in 1865, he jumped his ship, ending his erratic and suspicious wartime activities. I think anyone would agree that a story like that sounds like a spy, or at the very least a British undercover agent, if you refuse to give him the benefit of the doubt. And it seems many of Mark Twain's associates constantly required loads of it... Many years later Stanley and his wife, Dorothy Tenant Stanley, a successful illustrator, were regular house guests in the Clemens home in New York. 

While based in Baltimore for performances in the Washington D.C. area, Adah Menken let her true colors bleed through by decorating her dressing room in Confederate gray, hanging a Confederate flag, and sporting pictures of Confederate heroes. Spies like fellow actor John Wilkes Booth were known to frequent her private room, and she was appropriately interrogated and threatened by Union officers. Adah scoffed at them and played on to packed houses, and drove the authorities crazy. 

When the heat got too hot, in 1863 she and Robert Henry Newell, a journalist and her biggest fan, and more importantly her new husband (#4, but who's counting?), jumped aboard a ship bound for California via Panama. Poor Newell apparently was just a stooge used to change her identity and throw off the authorities. Not coincidentally, the streets of New York were exploding into a war zone as the newlyweds scurried to the harbor, the whole town churning with Irish war protesters. Fresh from Gettysburg, the Union army had to about-face during the midst of war and fight 30,000 citizens in a bloody clash between Irish immigrants and the U. S. Government. 

Mark Twain recognized Menken's love of
 the shock factor... he called "... the splendid new astonisher."

Somebody had helped to organize and incite the New York draft riots which left many buildings burned down and hundreds of bodies in the street. Lincoln's coalition was unraveling. He would fight two fronts for the rest of the war. The one for public opinion was never settled. But his assassination ended the public castigation, as Lincoln became a sort of sacrificial lamb for the nation's conscience.

L@L  Ina Coolbrith (1841-1928),
 California poet, singer, suffragist.
Waiting for Adah in California was a vast network of Southern sympathizers, led by John Fremont, and inspired by Joaquin Miller, Junius Booth, and William Gwin, leader of the “Copperheads.” The underground Confederacy had already planned and executed a daring scheme to arm a Confederate pirate ship to rob gold shipments on the way to the east. That plan had been intercepted, so they went to work planning widespread stagecoach robberies instead, to help finance the struggling Confederacy. On board the ship with Adah was a mysterious character who became her benefactor, Captain Barkley, who seems to have been the ringleader of a Confederate spy ring. The Southern sympathizers in California had reached a critical mass, and help was on the way. 

 L@L  Joaquin & Minnie Miller (1837-1913), 
Western writer, entertainer, and cowboy poet.

Adah Menken brought glamour to their cause, mesmerizing her audiences sans clothing by night, dressing as a man and gambling in casinos with Junius Booth by day, and generally raising hell all of the time. Menken socialized with poet and suffragist Ina Coolbrith, teen actress Lotta Crabtree, and became a lifelong friend of actress Ada Clare who followed her to California. She met a fellow soulmate in Joaquin Miller, "the first cowboy poet." Miller trained her horse, took her for rides on the beach, and became her trusted confidant. She and Samuel Clemens flirted and fought and even managed to like each other before her stay was complete.

L@L  Ada Clare (1834-1874), "Queen of Bohemia,"
singer, actress, and writer, with a friend (Sister?!)

Adah Menken was an aspiring writer and gave other writers royal treatment, during and after her performances. She had wanted Sam Clemens to help her write her autobiography. By the time she hit Nevada, he was sipping her brew. One night when one of Clare's nineteen dogs became a nuisance during an intimate gathering, Clemens tried to shew one away with his foot and accidentally kicked Menken under the table. This instantly destroyed the party as the actress writhed in hilarious pain. He was one of her generous critics from then until late in her career.

During this time Menken discovered that the Judaism "of her birth" did not satisfy her and she and her girlfriend Ada Clare began to dabble in spiritualism, under the tutelage of the legendary mother of it all, Emma Harding Britten. Britten and her followers espoused an amalgamation of Eastern philosophies, dovetailed into a liberal Judaism. Everything, anything but Jesus Christ. Most importantly, they communicated with the dead. This was an especially attractive feature, as Adah's mother had died recently.

Menken in her risque body suit!
[This famous image is not part of the newfound collection]

In one of the first examples of using photography for publicity, Menken's promoter dispersed hundreds, perhaps thousands of risque carte de visite photos of her throughout Virginia City, Nevada, attracting wild men from all points of the golden west. They came in droves and adored her, and threw bags of gold dust and silver bars and expensive gifts on the stage. Her shows were smash hits and she left California a super star... and boarded a ship accompanied by an all-star entourage, including Junius Booth, over fifty thousand dollars, and a new lover named Captain James Paul Barkley. It seems the "Copperhead" delegation was "getting out of Dodge."  Poor Robert Newell had stood from afar, aghast, glaring at the whole sordid tangle of affairs, and parted from her forever when they changed boats at Panama. But the war was still on, and the South was fading fast. Never without a contingency plan, Adah headed straight to England.

Even Captain Barkley fell into Menken's spell and (#5) eventually married her. Meanwhile she had several highly publicized affairs with the most notable wordsmiths (and sexual libertines) in Europe... Swinburne and Dumas, and dalliances with royalty and flamboyant artists like Courbet, Whistler and Rossetti. 

L@L  Belle Boyd (1844-1900), around 1861,
Confederate Spy and (later!) popular European celebrity.

While in Europe, Menken wove a strange, blended social circle of Southern ex-patriots, American Bohemians and European cultural icons. The noted and deadly Confederate spy Belle Boyd, the beloved George Sand, art agent and forger Charles Augustus Howell, who all seemed to have an unwritten dogma in common: a sort of latent anarchy and agnosticism, glossed by free love, multi-culturalism, and an assortment of unhealthy addictions.

George Sand (1804-1876), approx 1855, 
and friend on the left. Sand was a writer, 
humanitarian and women's suffragist.
This was the seed of the social revolution dreamed of by her New York Bohemian cronies like Walt Whitman. One hundred years later it would finally mature in full bloom in America at Woodstock. No person better embodied the Bohemian movement than Menken, and no person better demonstrated its pitfalls. 

 L@L  Walt Whitman (1819-1892),
poet and father of American bohemian philosophy.

Adah's baby Charles Barkley proved to be a final reckoning, with significant clues to the real Menken. She and the baby were sickly and vulnerable, and Adah found refuge in George Sand, a heroic woman who gave her counsel in her loneliest hour. She had been claiming to have been born a Jew. In Europe she had unexpectedly experienced flagrant antisemitism, and the novelty and exotic charm of her Jewish facade had worn way. Captain Barkley, a non-Jew was thousands of miles away. Adah had run from herself until she was at the end of her inner ball and chain.

As with much of her writings, a strongly New Testament world view began to rise through her misery and confusion. I believe Sand told her to be authentic, as the child was depending on her to know who and what he was. No one would have known or cared what she did. In the Jewish world, heredity and genealogy are matrilineal. It was proper for the mother to raise the child as a Jew. But in that dark moment Adah oriented her son and perhaps herself, and had him baptized as a Christian. To me this forever silenced her allusions to Judaism, or other spiritual affectations.

When it came down to the bare bone, Menken was not what she purported to be, on or off stage. The sexed-up super star was insecure, lonely and hungry to fill a spiritual void.

L@L  Adah Menken, jaded and overweight, 
at the peak of her career, around 1867.

After she lost her and Barkley's child, Adah swan-dived down the slippery slope. Overweight and depressed and dejected, in frivolous surroundings, her skin-show now a laughing stock, she died of a cocktail of causes in Paris. It could have been an overdose. It might have been an infection from an old, unhealed injury received during an equestrian debacle on stage. It might have been the lead-based grease she smeared on her face to look whiter. Since she had tried to commit suicide twice before, she might have finally succeeded in her ultimate goal, to end her pain. She was 37.

Before she died she managed to collect and publish her poetry, which had been spread across numerous newspaper files on two continents, today revered among those familiar with her. Her fans like Dickens and Rossetti, world class wordsmiths themselves, made sure her words were preserved for immortality. She called the collection “Infelix.” Unlucky. Strange perspective for a woman who rode an incredible wave of fortune and success. But Adah seemed to never attain the things she lied and deceived for, but died wanting simple contentment, belonging, self-love and true love from others. But she had been unlucky in her quest, buried quietly in a pauper's grave in a foreign country.

Ever faithful and sufficient “Captain” Barkley would see to it that this was rectified. Menken's "adopted brother" Ed James made the voyage and had her body moved secretly from the Jewish plot and a fitting grave was established. And then Capt. Barkley also disappeared from history, suddenly dead, out in California-  according to James, who had a shady past himself. We do not even know his real name or what he looked like. Cryptically, tellingly, “Barkley” honored her request, and on one side of the marker reads, tantalizingly, her final prayer and confession: “Thou Knowest,” a line from one of Swinburne's poems. (Swinburne had probably stolen, or "artistically acquisitioned" it from Ludwig van Beethoven: "O it is not easy, less easy for an artist than anyone else - Divine One thou lookest into my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to good live therein...). Adah had helped Algernon Swinburne launch his ribald legacy, and he and Beethoven had helped her finish hers.

Long since married and domesticated, her old crony Mark Twain had given a measured acknowledgement of her when the photos of her coupled with Alexandre Dumas, famed creator of the Three Musketeers, were publicized, 

" She has a passion for connecting herself with distinguished people, and then discarding them as soon as the world has grown reconciled with the novelty of it and stopped talking about it... ...Menken is mighty shaky. Menken can't resist a splendid new astonisher. Menken is a good-hearted, free-handed, charitable soul - a woman who does white deeds enough, kindly Christian deeds enough, every day of her life to blot out a swarming multitude of sins; but, Heaven help us, what desperate chances she takes with her reputation!"

 Twain was not always the wild-haired
 eccentric he purported to be... 

Not a practicing Christian himself, and a known publicity hound and schmoozer extraordinaire, Samuel Clemens had some experience with Adah and their similarities, and could speak with authority. But he should have known better than to criticize her on those grounds. He was among the few who could describe in detail her "multitude of sins" from firsthand knowledge. Never imagining that she was close to her end, he pulled no punches, safe from across the Pond, and there are no more intolerant people than those dramatically reformed... and rich and famous. 

Still, Sam Clemens could not criticize her without reminding himself and his readers of her "Christian deeds," his cultural term for her innate generosity, which he had benefited from when a struggling nobody in the West. Clemens knew too well that it was because of those chances which she took that she had made it big on two continents. Strange that such jealousy and sanctimony, and begrudging credit would have dripped from his mighty sword.

 Ada Clare, near the end of her life.

Ada Clare, aspiring Bohemian icon and wanna-be actress would fade into obscurity, ironically migrating to Galveston, Texas where Adah Menken had started. Always surrounded by a veritable pack of dogs, one bit her on the face and turned out to be rabid. She died an agonizing death from Hydrophobia, begging near the end for her caregivers to kill her. 

Ina Coolbrith found popularity and became a famous suffragist and librarian. Joaquin Miller enjoyed celebrity into his old age in Oregon, always proud of his fast association with "the Menken." Historians have dismissed his poetry and questioned his stories, and some doubt he ever knew Menken. But his favorite memories of "the Menken" ring true in my estimation.

In spite of all her theatrics and sex-capades, in the end Ada Bertha McCurry Theodore Menken Heenan Newell Barkley believed in the one true God, the author and finisher of life. Her writings revealed a deeply spiritual person, almost the antithesis of her experimentation and public and private life. We have to wonder, why the inconsistencies or the hidden soul behind so much sensationalism. Her every public act was shaking a fist at God. Her final word was childlike trust in him.

This theme will repeat itself so much in this story that it pains me to share. Adah's stubborn flame flicked at the odds and common sense until she was totally empty, willfully challenging all conventions at a terrible cost. She became the prototype and patron saint of what we have come to call “rock stars.” Yet her needless and depressing demise would have, should have quickened our perceptions of fame and glory, and the cost of "stardom." Why does everyone want to be one?  Instead her fans moved on to the next “flash in the pan.”

The lessons of her life were lost in the scramble of idol chasing. And have been ever since.

Why don't we know this?!

NEXT: Go to a model legacy

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