December 25th, 1871 found Samuel Clemens – better known as Mark Twain – far from home, lonely for his wife and son, ruminating on Christmas, and deeply concerned about a pandemic.
The 36-year-old author and humorist was in Chicago, in the middle of a grueling four-and-a half-month, 76-performance lecture tour that would prove one of the most difficult of his entire career. He had left his wife “Livy” (Olivia) and one-year-old son Langdon in mid-October, only days after they arrived in their new hometown of Hartford, and he would not see them again until late February.
Twain’s early performances had gone poorly. After the first three lectures, he cancelled the next two stops to compose a new one, a tribute to the late humorist Artemus Ward. When that lecture played to mixed reviews throughout November, Twain created yet a third talk, based on humorous Wild West adventures from his forthcoming book Roughing It. This was the lecture he delivered twice in Chicago, and it received rave reviews.
The people of the Windy City were in need of a laugh. Two months before, the Great Fire of Chicago had destroyed 17,450 buildings – a quarter of the city – killed 300 people, and left more than 100,000 homeless. A city burdened by destruction was ready for distraction, and audiences turned out en mass to hear the country’s most popular living humorist. People filled the aisles and overflowed into adjoining rooms of the city’s largest gathering spaces. And they were not disappointed. The Chicago Evening Post called Twain’s lecture a “curious, disjointed, delightful, talk,” and “the entertainment of the season.” Although Twain was frustrated and furious when the Chicago Tribune published nearly verbatim summaries of his show in two lengthy review articles (thus depriving future Illinois performances of seeming spontaneity), he was at last confident he had a lecture that would please audiences for the rest of his tour.
But early Christmas morning, Twain was not thinking about his lecture. He was thinking about Christmas, lonely for home, and extremely worried that his wife and son might become victims of an emerging smallpox pandemic. The year before, smallpox among soldiers fighting in the Franco-Prussian war had triggered an epidemic that quickly spread to all corners of Europe, ultimately killing half a million people. As Twain performed and composed his way to Chicago, the disease had broken out across America.
“We do not recall a time when the smallpox contagion was so prevalent throughout nearly all the cities of the Union,” the Chicago Tribune reported December 23. “Philadephia, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, and St, Louis are all in a state of panic, and it is decidedly epidemic . . . in New York, Chicago, and many other large cities.”
Livy had nearly died the year before after contracting typhoid fever, and had only barely recovered from that disease when Twain had left her in Hartford. So when a sleepless Sam Clemens wrote his wife at 2 a.m. that Christmas morning, he was thinking as much about smallpox as he was about Christmas.”
He began in the spirit of the season.
“Joy and peace be with you and about you and the benediction of God rest upon you this day! . . ., he wrote Livy. “There is something so beautiful about all that old, hallowed Christmas legend! It mellows a body –– it warms torpid kindnesses and charities into life. And so I hail my darling with a great big whole-hearted Christmas blessing –– God be & abide with her evermore! ––Amen! And God bless the boy, too –– our boy.
But then, and for the rest of the letter, Twain emphatically urged Livy to do something he had already done in Chicago – get vaccinated against smallpox.
“Get vaccinated –– right away –– no matter if you were vaccinated 6 month ago –– the theory is, keep doing it –– for if it takes it shows you needed it –– and if it don’t take it is proof that you did not need it –– but the only safety is to apply the test, once a year. Smallpox is everywhere –– doctors think it will become an epidemic. Here it is $25 fine if you are not vaccinated within the next 10 days. Mine takes splendidly –– arm right sore. Attend to this, my child 2. –– With a whole world of love and kisses. Sam
Twain might not have known it, but the Hartford Courant had already foreshadowed his sentiments. Urging the people of the state to wake up to their liability to the ravages of smallpox, the paper had emphasized on December 21st that “It will not do to deny the utility of vaccination or revaccination in protecting its subject . . . .this is the sure and only method known which will allow a man to walk unharmed through the streets. . . . so simple a means of prevention should surely be adopted by all.”
December 25, 1871. A Christmas that lacked neither love, nor concern, Today in Connecticut History.
Samuel L Clemens, “To Olivia L. Clemens, December 25, 1871,” Mark Twain Project.org
“The Three Speeches Tour of 1871-72,” MarK Twain’s Geography
J. D. Rolleston, M.D. “The Smallpox Pandemic of 1870-1874,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine