18th, 1908: The Burglary at Stormfield
from: IN THE CLUTCH OF CIRCUMSTANCE, My Own Story by a Burglar;
D. Appleton & Co., 1922 pp. 168-182
XIV: THE MARK TWAIN BURGLARY
idea of settling down and having a home of my own had never
appealed to me very strongly until now. A real new interest
in life and its future, however, made a great difference.
I felt that the time had come to go straight; but to make
a home for the girl I wanted to marry called for money, and
lots of it. One more big haul, I still thought, was needed
to make things even so far as myself and society were concerned,
and also to give me my start. Thrusting aside all other thoughts,
I started to work out various plans for the next and last
day or two after our unsuccessful invasion of the oil magnate's
house, I picked up a Sunday newspaper and read an account
and saw some pictures of the fine villa which the late Mark
Twain had built somewhere in the country. He was going to
move "all his earthly possessions" up there and "make it his
permanent residence." The great author and humorist called
his place "Innocents at Home," which he later changed to "Stormfield."
Nat rally, my interest and curiosity were aroused, not so
much by the description of the beautiful home as by that of
the portable "earthly possessions." They appealed to me very
was September 16, 1908, when I called on my partner and put
the Mark Twain house proposition up to him. Like myself, he
was "broke." We were in the same boat. The Mark Twain house
possibilities lured him as powerfully as they did me. The
following afternoon we boarded a train out of New York for
Redding, Connecticut, where "Stormfield" stood.
was quite dark when we arrived at the Redding Station. There
was not a sound to be heard or a person to be seen on the
roads. Only the sharp bark of a dog broke the stillness of
the night as we passed by a farmhouse. Since we had never
been in that part of the country before, we were not quite
sure of our way. So, in order to make certain, I went back
to the farmhouse and inquired about the road to Redding. This
was the first mistake which I made that night. The farmer,
seeing that we were strangers, came out and directed us on
our way, lantern in hand.
he left us, we kept on walking along the dusty country road
until we came to a sharp turn, when the bright lights of a
large house situated on the top of a hill arrested our attention.
We concluded that this must be the Mark Twain residence, and
accordingly walked in its direction. Arriving at "Stormfield,"
we found the house lights still burning brightly. The family
had not yet retired. In order to give the occupants time to
go to sleep, we picked out a secluded place behind some bushes
and indulged in a quiet smoke during a period of watching
was getting well on toward midnight when one by one the lights
were extinguished and the house was enshrouded in complete
darkness except for one dim light upstairs. Experience told
us that this was nothing unusual. My partner went on a tour
of inspection around the house. He returned presently with
the word that the coast was clear and that one of the kitchen
windows had been left partly open. I helped my partner to
climb in through it; and he then went and opened the big French
double doors leading out from the dining room on the great
veranda. I entered by the front door, like a gentleman.
the rays of our flashlights, we first made a careful inspection
of the dining room. The heavy, old-fashioned, oak sideboard
near the door leading into the hall commanded our attention.
We knew that it contained the family silver, which it was
our object to secure first, as usual. We tried to open the
drawers of the sideboard, but found them locked. To break
them open would make a noise, of course, and disturb the family
if done inside the house. We did not wish to be guilty of
such carelessness, so we took hold of the sideboard and carried
it out of the house and some five hundred feet down the road.
There we broke the locks of the drawers and emptied their
contents into a black bag which we had brought for the purpose.
Then we went back into the house to see what else we could
proceeding, it is necessary to mention a brass bowl which
had stood as an ornament on top of the sideboard, and which
played such an important and fatal part on that night. Since
a brass bowl was of no value to us I took it and placed it
noiselessly on the dining-room floor - without my partner's
knowledge, however. This was my second mistake on that night.
When we entered the dining room the second time, my partner,
walking rather carelessly, stumbled and fell heavily over
that brass bowl.
the stillness of the night it seemed to me as if an earthquake
had suddenly struck the house. Such a noise that rolling brass
thing made! With every nerve tense, we silently watched and
waited for the result.
a woman, dressed in bathrobe and slippers, appeared at the
head of the stairs. Then a soft clear voice called: "Hello!"
It was Miss Lyons, Mark Twain's social secretary, as we afterwards
learned, who, awakened by the noise, had courageously come
to investigate. A moment we hesitated. Then we turned and
silently and swiftly left the house.
down the road, we picked up our bag with the silver, and continued
running till we arrived at the foot of the hill. There we
slackened speed and started to walk back in the direction
of Bethel, some seven miles from "Stormfield."
the discovery of our presence created a sensation in the Mark
Twain household. It is said that the butler, who had been
aroused, fired several shots after us, "to hasten our departure,"
as Mr. Albert Bigelow Paine puts it in his biography of Mark
Twain. For this, however, I cannot vouch, as we must have
been considerably out of pistol shot by the time the gun went
off. The shots, however, did awaken the aged author of "Huckleberry
Finn" who, says Mr. Paine in his account, imagining that a
champagne party was in progress below, rolled over and went
to sleep again.
the time we reached Bethel, the deputy sheriff had been notified
and a posse of farmers, hastily organized, had started in
pursuit of us. Had we continued our walk some two miles farther
to Danbury, however, the probability is that we might never
have been caught and that this story would never have been
told. We decided to take a chance and to wait at Bethel for
the early train to New York. This proved to be the third and
the biggest mistake of that night.
boarded the train at seven o'clock with out interference.
After we were comfortably seated in the smoker, a man came
up to us and inquired where we had got on the train. We told
him Danbury. The interrogator happened to be a neighbor of
Mark Twain, who suspected us as the culprits. He notified
the sheriff in charge of the posse waiting for this train
when it pulled into the Redding station. A dozen men, armed
with pitchforks, shot guns, clubs, and other weapons, boarded
the train just as it was pulling away from the plat form.
After a survey of the other coaches, they entered the smoker
by the rear door. My partner, seeing the armed men entering
and that we were greatly outnumbered, jumped up from his seat
and ran quickly to the front platform, where he succeeded
in dropping off from the rapidly moving train. One of the
posse fired several shots after him, but without hitting him.
partner having successfully "flown the coop," the entire posse
turned upon me. An automatic pistol was shoved in front of
my face and I was commanded to surrender. In stead of obeying
the command, I pulled out my own revolver and began to blaze
away at the ceiling of the car to cause a panic if possible.
I did not want to kill any one; and they did not want to shoot
me. The sheriff, from behind me, seized me by the right wrist
and tried to twist my gun out of my hand. The others now attacked
me, and a free-for-all fight ensued. Showers of blows fell
upon me from all sides. Then I was struck several times on
the head with a blackjack and, partly conscious, sank to the
floor still grappling with the sheriff. In the furious struggle
for possession of the revolver, which I still gripped securely,
it went off. I became unconscious.
I came to myself, I was lying hand cuffed out on the tracks,
with my captors standing over me. I felt a heavy stream of
blood pouring down over my face from wounds in my head. A
sickening sense of despair came over me. I was in for it again;
and all my dreams of marriage and of happiness in a home of
my own were blown to shreds.
my gun was accidentally discharged in the fight with the sheriff,
the bullet had entered the flesh just back of the sheriff's
thigh. He was enraged; and now, after I had regained consciousness
and attempted to rise, he seized me by the throat and struck
me a severe blow savagely in the face. I staggered under the
unexpected attack. Then several other members of the crowd
jumped at me, raining further blows on my head and body as
I stood defenseless. Then I was dragged back to the station,
some distance away, where I found that my partner was also
being held as a prisoner.
were handcuffed together and marched to the farm near the
station, where the night before I had made inquiries concerning
the way to Redding Center. The old farmer came out of the
house and, recognizing us as we drew near, greeted us with
a sneer and snicker, saying: "Wall, boys, glad t'see yer ag'in!"
I was weakened by the loss of much blood, they summoned a
physician to dress my wounds and to bandage the sheriff's
leg. We were then placed in a carriage and taken to the town
hall in Redding Center for a preliminary hearing. After we
had been seated in the dingy room which served as the court
room, a carriage in which were Mark Twain, his daughter, Miss
Clara Clemens, and Miss Lyons, his secretary, drew up before
the building. The party entered; and passing close by, the
humorist, dressed in his famous white clothes, turned upon
me and delivered a scathing verbal castigation and lecture
on morality, ending by denouncing me as "a disgrace to the
human race." Apparently satisfied with the mental punishment
which he had inflicted upon me, he took a seat alongside of
the justice of the peace.
being placed under heavy bail, we were remanded to the Fairfield
County jail at Bridgeport for safe-keeping.
Mark Twain returned to "Stormfield," he caused the following
notice to be placed over his dining-room door:
the Next Burglar
There is only plated ware in this house now and henceforth.
You will find it in that brass thing in the dining room over
in the corner by the basket of kittens. If you want the basket,
put the kittens in the brass thing.
Do not make a noise - it disturbs the family.
You will find rubbers in the front hall by that thing which
has the umbrellas in it, - chiffonier, I think they call it,
or pergola, or something like that. Please close the door
when you go away !
S. L. CLEMENS.
three months during which we lay in the county jail awaiting
trial seemed a very long time. We were locked in separate
corridors and not allowed to talk or even to see each other.
Neither were any outside visitors, with the exception of our
lawyer, permitted to see us. Twice each week our cells were
care fully searched for contraband articles, and while the
rest of the prisoners were allowed free exercise in the corridor
we had to stay in our cells. Not even the weekly bath was
I permitted to take with the rest of the prisoners. I was
taken into the bathroom separately and always under a guard
of two armed keepers. Since I did not make any attempt to
escape, this treatment received at the hands of the county
sheriff struck me then as very unjust. However, there was
no one to listen to complaint; and I can see now that they
regarded me as dangerous.
last the day arrived for our trial. Securely chained to a
number of other offenders, we were taken to Danbury. It was
the first time in fifty years that the Supreme Court had sat
in that particular Connecticut town. After spending a restless
night in the ancient and dingy Danbury jail, we were led,
heavily guarded by a large force of deputy sheriffs, across
the street and up into the court room. The small room was
crowded with spectators and with witnesses for the state.
The most noticeable and distinguished person in the room,
naturally, was neither the judge nor the sheriff, but the
humorist, Mark Twain, wearing a dark suit instead of his customary
light-colored clothes for this serious occasion.
the usual formalities in starting the trial, the witnesses
for the state were called to testify against us. The most
serious charge against me was not that of burglary, but a
far more important, and an unjust charge, conviction for which
would have meant a sentence of thirty years in state prison
- the charge of assault with intent to murder. I am inclined
to think that my story and the realization of the hard years
of suffering which I had undergone impressed Mark Twain and
that he was responsible or influential in having the charged
changed to a less serious one, thus probably saving me from
twenty years of imprisonment which I should still be undergoing.
As it was, upon conviction under the charge finally brought
against me, I was sentenced to serve a term of ten years in
the Connecticut State Prison at Wethersfield.
it may not be amiss to mention that our visit to his house
furnished a new subject to Mark Twain, to which he not infrequently
referred in later lectures. Thus, while dedicating the little
new library which he had founded for the residents of the
town of Redding, Mark Twain took occasion to make characteristic
fun of the affair as follows:
am going to help build this library with contributions - from
my visitors. Every male guest who comes to my house will have
to con tribute a dollar or go away without his baggage. If
those burglars who broke into my house recently had done that,
they would have been happier now; or if they had broken into
this library, they might have read a few good books and led
a better life. Now they are in jail, and if they keep on they
will go to Congress. When a person starts down hill, you can
never tell where he is going to stop. I am sorry for those
burglars. They got nothing that they wanted, and scared away
most of my servants. Now we are putting in a burglar alarm
instead of a dog. Some advised the dog, but it costs even
more to entertain a dog than a burglar. I am having the ground
electrified, so that for a mile around any one who puts foot
across the line will set off an alarm that will be heard in
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