SARASOTA, Fla. (Nov. 13, 2019) – Tens of thousands of signatures fill the Mark Twain Cave in Hannibal, Missouri, but one famous autograph, that of namesake Twain, or Samuel L. Clemens, has seemly gone undiscovered.
Signatures, nicknames and initials – some in pencil, paint, candle smoke, even berry juice – cover the cave’s three miles of passageways, but Clemens’ signature was never to be found.
That is until July 26, when USF Sarasota-Manatee instructor and Mark Twain scholar Cindy Lovell, PhD, recognized the author’s clear penmanship on a corridor about eye level.
“I know his signature. I was just stunned,” said Lovell, a USFSM adjunct education instructor and Twain enthusiast since childhood.
Twain grew up in Hannibal, and the cave was featured prominently in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Hunting for his signature had become routine among the throngs of visitors to the cave, but it eluded detection for more than a century. Twain left Hannibal in 1853 to work as a typesetter in St. Louis and later New York City.
Lovell said she knew “in my heart” the signature was genuine, but the discovery was kept secret until other experts could verify its authenticity. Finally, an announcement was made in late September, prompting a swirl of media inquiries from around the world.
Lovell is the former director of both the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal and the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. Her interest in the author began in childhood after reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which led her to other Twain works and eventually sparked an enduring interest in the author.
Lovell has lectured globally about Twain for more than 20 years and at one point was a tenured professor at Stetson University. She left there to accept a position at Quincy University in Illinois so she could volunteer at the Twain museum in Hannibal. She counts Hal Holbrook, the actor famous for portraying Twain, as one of her closest friends.
While she was accustomed to media inquiries about Twain, nothing compared to the surge of attention around Clemens’ signature, she said.
“I had done a lot of interviews in 2010 at the centennial of [Twain’s] death, but this was really special,” Lovell said. “I think people were enthralled because it connected back to the boy. They could picture him as a boy exploring the cave.”
She also heard from students who spotted her name in articles. Lovell joined USFSM in January 2018. She teaches Applied Linguistics and Foundations of TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language), both online courses in the School of Education.
She lives in Edgewater, south of Daytona Beach, and is director of education at the Epic Flight Academy in New Smyrna Beach. She also teaches an online Twain course at Quincy. She came to USFSM on the recommendation of Jane Govoni, PhD, a School of Education instructor at the campus.
Finding Clemens’ signature happened almost by accident. Lovell was wandering the cave in July as part of the Clemens Conference, a quadrennial literary event in Hannibal that she founded in 2011. As the tour began, Lovell and Linda Coleberd, the cave’s owner, and two other Twain scholars headed down a dark passage with Coleberd shining a flashlight.
“We were the last ones in the group. I’m following Linda and I’m watching the light bounce around and all of a sudden I thought I saw it and yelled, ‘Linda, bring the light back. I think I see Clemens.’”
The two peered closer and observed “Clemens” in pencil. Later, after Lovell took high-resolution photographs of the signature, scholars noticed that “Sam” had been etched into the stone just before “Clemens,” as if he started to scratch his name with a knife, then changed his mind and finished in pencil.
“It might sound strange, but it kind of felt like a holy experience, like we were on sacred ground,” Lovell said, marveling at her good fortune. “Later, we were talking and just pinching ourselves about what had happened.”
Now, the signature is covered in Plexiglas and a regular stop along the cave tour. Lovell still gets interview requests, but the excitement has since settled down.
But when she pauses to reflect on the experience, she doesn’t think about the media attention or initial excitement. She says she tries to imagine Clemens as a boy and wonders why and when he wrote his name. Was he alone or with siblings and friends? What were the circumstances?
“I’m just happy I was finally able to find it,” she said.
To learn more about USF Sarasota-Manatee, visit usfsm.edu.