A St. Mary’s College of Maryland professor talked all things Twain at the county historical society’s annual fall dinner last Friday night, following a call for new members.
“The center of what we do here is genealogy research. We look at the history of people who settled in St. Mary’s County or came here and contributed. We have a massive database of records, marriage licenses, property deeds and more,” Peter LaPorte, executive director of the historical society, said.
The local historical society, which formed in 1953, has approximately 360 members and works to preserve and promote the history of St. Mary’s County. LaPorte expressed his desire for the society to open its arms to new members, mentioning that as of right now, the group seems more like a club.
“We want to reach out to the community … help newcomers to understand this place and be aware of the history. To extract memberships, we need to be more encouraging and more welcoming,” LaPorte said, adding that he and his wife have lived all over the country, and St. Mary’s was home to some of the friendliest people they have met.
The night’s speaker was Ben Click, an English professor at St. Mary’s College and director of the college’s Twain Lecture Series on American Humor and Culture. He thanked everyone for coming out to support the historical society.
“History is important business. It’s easy to consider the past less relevant considering the light speed for which we move past it, but human nature hasn’t changed since we crawled out of the muck,” Click said.
The professor spoke of Mark Twain’s connections to Maryland.
“One of [Twain’s] earliest public speeches took place in Washington, D.C., in 1868 with many many other speeches and times in Washington … but we won’t dwell on D.C. since it’s not technically Maryland, thank God,” Click said to some applause.
Twain’s first speech in Maryland was in 1872, on Jan. 23, at the Maryland Institute for the Promotion for the Mechanical Arts. He went on to speak about five other times in the state from 1883 to 1909, according to Click.
“His last speech, in fact, took place in Baltimore at St. Timothy’s School in Catonsville, Maryland, on June, 9, 1909,” an all-girls private school, he said.
Two years before that speech, Click told the audience, Twain spoke at the government house in Annapolis where he was arrested for smoking.
Twain was at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1907 and was being shown around the “grounds by Gov. Edmund Warfield and his wife, who asked him to extinguish his cigar twice before arresting him, to which Twain replied, ‘Again? I will fill the world with crime if I don’t smoke,’” according to Click.
“Speaking engagements were not Twain’s only connection to our state. His habit of smoking and love for tobacco connects him even more to Southern Maryland, which was the staple crop all through the 1800s,” Click said.
Twain also had a love for oysters and other Maryland seafood.
“On his list of favorite foods he lists fried oysters, stewed oysters, oyster stew, oyster soup, soft shell crab, Baltimore perch and the canvasback duck from Maryland,” he said.
According to Click, it is safe to say Twain had digested more of Maryland than any other state.
In addition, Twain knew several African Americans from Maryland including Frederick Douglas, who he considered his friend and had even referred to as “Fred” in a letter, Click said.
He asked, “was Mark Twain ever in Southern Maryland or St. Mary’s County? There’s no factual record of it … but it’s easy to surmise that Mark Twain did venture south of Annapolis for a glass of whisky, a fine meal of Maryland oysters, soft shell crabs and an after-dinner cigar rolled with Southern Maryland tobacco, all the while swearing in the most eloquent of ways.”