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After 20 years of searching, the former director of the Mark Twain House discovers Samuel Clemens' signature in a Missouri cave

Hartford Courant logo Hartford Courant 9/26/2019 By Amanda Blanco, The Hartford Courant

After nearly 25 years and hundreds of tries, Mark Twain scholar Cindy Lovell discovered the author’s signature in his namesake cave in Hannibal, Missouri. Lovell, a former head of the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, announced her finding with the cave’s owner, fellow “Twainiac” Linda Coleberd on Tuesday.

“It was a shock to my eyes, brain, and heart,” said Lovell, who fell in love with Twain’s stories about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in the fourth grade. "This has been my number one Holy Grail.”

Over the past 200 years, about 250,000 people signed their names in the 3-mile-long-cave that once served as a playground and hideaway for Hannibal children like Twain. Also known by his birth-name, Samuel Clemens, Twain moved to Hannibal at age 3 and lived there until he was 17. His books include detailed descriptions of the cave.

“I figured if anyone ever found it, it would be by dumb luck,” said Lovell, who left the Twain House in 2016. Friends since Lovell first visited the Mark Twain Cave in 1996, she and Coleberd found Clemens’ name in July while hosting a cave tour for visiting scholars.

“We’re a couple of Tom and Hucks really," said Lovell. She and Coleberd left the main tour group to explore on their own. Coleberd waved her flashlight along the walls as they chatted, when Lovell spotted a signature that read “Clemens.”

“To find it during the Clemens Conference, on the 200-year anniversary of Hannibal, the stars just aligned,” said Coleberd, whose in-laws have owned the caves since the 1920s. “We went so gaga over it. We spent another hour and a half more in the cave, just talking in awe.”

Coleberd and Lovell kept their discovery a secret from the public until the signature could be properly authenticated, but shared photos with scholars Dr. Alan Gribben and Kevin Mac Donnell, who attended the Clemens conference.

“Clemens would repeatedly refer to this cave in his mature writings, so we know he was often there and that it was an important landmark to him,” said Gribben, a professor at Auburn University-Montgomery, in a statement. "[He was also] far more egotistically assertive than either of his brothers, Orion and Henry, which makes it more likely that of the three he would be inclined to inscribe his signature on this site.”

“I’m jealous of the owners of the cave,” said Mac Donnell in a statement. “I have signed books, letters, photos, legal documents, checks, autograph albums, and even an opera fan, but no signed cave.”

Now that the signature has been authenticated by U.C. Berkeley’s Mark Twain Project, she and Coleberd are on a hunt for Tom Blankenship, Twain’s childhood friend on whom he based Huckleberry Finn. “Twain is still the Great American Ambassador of literature," said Lovell. "Finding this precious signature freezes you in his moment in time.”

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©2019 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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