Mark Twain’s raft trip on the Neckar: truth or tall tale?

The Neckar Valley between Heilbronn and Heidelberg. Here's where Twain's raft trip took place.

The Neckar Valley between Heilbronn and Heidelberg.

Germany’s lower Neckar Valley is Mark Twain country.

This stretch of river, the locals will fondly tell you, inspired Huckleberry Finn. The author came to Germany in 1878 with writer’s block and Huck Finn half finished. Twain’s raft trip down the Neckar River changed everything, at least according to the locals. Because afterward, Twain finished his novel.

But did that raft trip ever take place?

Historians come down on both sides of the question.

Jim and Huck on the raft

E.W. Kemble; illustration from an 1884 edition of Huckleberry Finn. Public domain.

Twain’s raft trip in A Tramp Abroad

Twain’s travel memoir, A Tramp Abroad, covers his 1878 trip to Germany. With Heidelberg as a base, the author made side trips to Baden-Baden, the Black Forest, and several towns along the Neckar. From Heilbronn, a river port north of Stuttgart, he claims to have rafted back to Heidelberg. In fact, no less than six chapters are dedicated to Twain’s raft trip.

According to Twain in chapter 14, he’d intended to hide from Heilbronn back to the Heidelberg. But at Heilbronn’s bridge, he watched raft after raft float under the bridge:

The river was full of longs, — long, slender, barkless pine logs, — and we leaned on the rails of the bridge and watched the men put them together into rafts. These rafts were of a shape and construction to suit the crookedness and extreme narrowness of the Neckar. They were from 50 to 100 years long, and they gradually tapered from a 9-long breadth at their bow-ends.

On a sudden compulsion, Twain abandoned the idea of a pedestrian tour and chartered a raft himself. Twain’s two-day trip back to Heidelberg, writes Peter Messent, was a dress rehearsal for Huckleberry Finn.

The Neckar River and Wilhelm Canal in Heilbronn in 1840 with a log raft to the left.

The Neckar River and Wilhelm Canal in Heilbronn in 1840. On the main part of the river, to the left, you can see a log raft. By A. von Keller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The beautiful Neckar

The raft meandered along at about 2 miles an hour and Twain could enjoy being a tourist without doing the work of walking. His description in A Tramp Abroad sounds idyllic:

Germany, in the summer, is the perfection of the beautiful, but nobody has understood, and realized, and enjoyed the utmost possibilities of this soft and peaceful beauty unless he has voyaged down the Neckar on a raft. The motion of a raft is the needful motion; it is gentle and gliding, and smooth, and noiseless; it calms down all feverish activities, it soothes to sleep all nervous hurry and impatience; under its restful influence all the troubles and vexations and sorrows that harass the mind vanish away, and existence because a dream, a charm, a deep and tranquil ecstasy. How it contrasts with hot and perspiring pedestrianism, and dusty and deafening railroad rush, and tedious jolting behind tired horses over blinding white roads!

I’ve boated that stretch of the Neckar and can testify to his statement.

Another 1840 image of the Neckar in Heilbronn, showing one of the bridges. Mark Twain's raft trip might have started here.

Another 1840 image of the Neckar in Heilbronn, showing one of the bridges. Mark Twain’s raft trip might have started here. By Samuel W. Lacey (1786–1859), based on a drawing by Louis Mayer (1791–1843) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Could you even charter a raft in 19th-century Germany?

The 19th century saw plenty of rafts on the Neckar. The timber industry used rafts to transport logs from the Black Forest down steam all the way to the Netherlands. Although the railroad and chain tugs on the rivers reduced the number of rafts by 1878, they were still in use.

But could you charter one?

I asked two German museums dedicated to the regional rafting history and both indicated Twain’s raft trip was theoretically possible. Rafts were still running and they were known to taken on passengers. You can view a photo of a German raft with passengers here.

Could you pilot one?

Twain, however, went a step further in chapter 20.  As the raft approached Heidelberg, Twain decided he could shoot the rapids under the bridge himself. “I went to the forward triplet of logs and relieved the pilot of his pole and his responsibility.” But that was the end of Twain’s raft trip. He stepped off the raft as it reached Heidelberg’s old bridge and the raft crashed and splintered against the pier. The passengers survived; Twain himself fished them out of the water.

That part of the story showcases the author’s humor, not his historical accuracy.

Piloting a raft required a great deal of strength. The untamed Neckar River sliced through the 19th century with rapids and difficult-to-navigate narrow passages. Only the strongest men were allowed to steer. Considering that his livelihood was at stake, it’s inconceivable the pilot would allow an inexperienced tourist to take over. His boss would have held him responsible for the lost logs.

The raft captain from the original edition of A Tramp Abroad (public domain.)

The raft captain from the original edition of A Tramp Abroad (public domain.)

So did Twain really travel the Neckar?

Definitely. In A Tramp Abroad, Twain’s descriptions of Neckar Valley towns like Heilbronn, Bad Wimpfen, and Hirschhorn are detailed and accurate enough he had to have been there. And in Dilsberg, he reported a story about a forgotten tunnel leading from the town well to a place in the woods outside the city walls. An American archaeologist investigating the story discovered the tunnel years later, and it’s now open to the public. How could Twain have known about the tunnel is he hadn’t visited the town?

But on a raft?

Maybe not. The river journey from Heilbronn to Heidelberg in A Tramp Abroad took place on a raft, but in Twain’s diary, Notes and Journals, Twain and his companion boarded a boat in Heilbronn on August 9, 1878. But the diary mentions the boat passing a raft about half a mile below the town of Eberbach. That leaves the truth about Twain’s raft trip a bit of a mystery. I like that. But both sources make it quite clear: The idea of river rafts floated on the surface of Twain’s consciousness during his trip on the Neckar.

Some say that the Neckar inspired one of America’s greatest novels; after he reached Heidelberg, Twain was able to finish chapter 16 of Huckleberry Finn. It’s the chapter in which Huck and Jim, on their raft in the Mississippi, realized they’d already passed Cairo, Illinois and Jim’s one shot for freedom.

But chapter 16 was already completed in 1876, according to Richard Bridgman (pp. 100-101). Twain picked up the manuscript again in 1880. He published Huckleberry Finn in 1885.

Regardless of the plausibility of Twain’s raft trip, it’s clear that river rafts played a prominent role in the author’s imagination. Peter Messent is right. Whether real or not, Twain’s raft trip on the Neckar was a dress rehearsal for Huckleberry Finn. And for that, we can be thankful.

Have you ever rafted a river? What was it like?

Literature on point:

Richard Bridgman, Traveling in Mark Twain  (Berkely: Univ. of California Press, 1987).

Ditmar Hauer, “Auf den Spuren von Mark Twains ‘Bummel durch Europa’ von Heidelberg nach Heilbronn: Mississippi-Lotse auf dem Neckar,Berliner Zeitung (3 August 2002).

Die kräftigsten Flößer steuerten,” Der deutsche Wald kann mehr als rauschen.

Albert Locher, Mark Twain entdeckt Europa (Urtenen, Switzerland: Albert Locher, 2005).

Peter Messent, The Cambridge Introduction to Mark Twain (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

Roy Morris, Jr., American Vandal: Mark Twain Abroad (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2015).

Werner Pieper, Mark Twain’s Guide to Heidelberg: His journey through Germany in 1878 (Löhrbach, Germany: MedienXperimente, 1995).

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (public domain, originally published 1880).

Mark Twain, Notes and Journals vol. 2 (1877-1883) (Berkley: Univ. of California Press, 1975).





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Black Elk as a Ripper Suspect

He was in London, but we can rule out Black Elk as a Ripper suspect.

Black Elk (left) in London. By Elliott & Fry – London, England [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (1887)

Black Elk was a Ripper suspect?

My jaw dropped when I first read about it. How did a Sioux medicine man end up on the suspect list? Native Americans must be among the most exotic – and ridiculous – explanations for the series of murders and mutilations that rocked the Whitechapel district of London in 1888. Nevertheless, Black Elk’s name crops up regularly in discussions about the case.

I’ve said before that I’m opened minded when it comes to Jack the Ripper. I don’t favor one suspect over the other. But with Black Elk, I’ll come out and make an exception. It wasn’t him. No way. He had a great alibi, and historical documents back him up.

Although we can rule out Black Elk as a Ripper suspect with a high degree of certainty, the story of how the popular mind connected him with the world’s most famous serial murders is an interesting piece of history in itself.

Here’s the story.

Black Elk as a world traveler

Outside of the crown prince, Black Elk probably has the most name recognition of any Ripper suspect. North Americans acknowledge him as one of the continent’s greatest religious leaders. The Oglala Lakota participated in the battles of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee and later became a medicine man and holy man. Although he converted to Catholicism in midlife, his biography, Black Elk Speaks, has become a classic of native spiritualism.

But he was more traveled than you might think. Twenty-four-year-old Black Elk participated in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show in New York during the winter of 1886-1887. When Buffalo Bill continued to Europe in March 1887, Black Elk went with him. He embarked along with cowboys, sharpshooters, musicians, 96 other Native Americans, and Annie Oakley. Buffalo Bill also brought 15 buffalo, 10 elk, 5 head of Texas steer, 150 horses, and a stagecoach.

Black Elk in England

Native Americans on the voyage to London.

Native Americans in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show on the voyage from New York to London, ca..1886-1891. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain.

Over the course of the following fourteen months, Buffalo Bill’s troupe performed in London, Birmingham, and Salford (now part of Greater Manchester), playing colorful scenes of the American west. Crowds numbering in the tens of thousands came to watch. Cowboys lassoed steers and rode bucking broncos, Indians danced, erected teepees, and chased buffalo, and Annie Oakley shot a cigar from her husband’s mouth. The tour’s highlight was Queen Victoria. She requested a private performance on May 11, 1887. Black Elk sang and danced for her, and after the show, even shook her hand.

Then personal disaster struck Black Elk. The Wild West show left Manchester by train on May 4, 1888, for one last show in Hull. From there the troupe sailed back to America. But somehow, Black Elk and three other Native Americans got left behind in Manchester.

On to London and France

The four Lakota Sioux left behind spoke only rudimentary English and would have been in a real fix if they hadn’t run into an English-Lakota interpreter. Buffalo Bill’s group had at least two, Bronco Bill and Yellow-Striped Face, but it’s not clear whether this interpreter came from his troupe or a rival’s. One theory is that the interpreter came from a rival troupe and manipulated the Native Americans into missing their train. In a form of human trafficking, he corralled them to the other show group.

The stranded Sioux traveled to London. There the interpreter helped them find reemployment in another, smaller western show, Mexican Joe’s “Western Wilds of America.” Like Buffalo Bill, Mexican Joe performed with cowboys, Indians, and sharpshooters. Black Elk performed at least once with Mexican Joe before the troupe continued to Paris on June 13, 1888.

Black Elk arrested and interrogated

A policeman arrested and interrogated Black Elk and his companions on their third day in London. He wanted an account of their whereabouts and later let the group go. Black Elk assumed the police blamed them for something that had happened but he never specified, any maybe never even learned, what it was. Some people have speculated that interrogation was part of the Ripper investigation, but as you’ll see below, the timing is all wrong.

When Mexican Joe’s troupe opened in Paris around June 15, 1888, Black Elk was with him. Mexican Joe then toured Belgium, returning to England sometime that autumn. Half a year later, around April 1888, Black Elk fell ill and Mexican Joe dropped him from the troupe’s roster. Buffalo Bill, however, returned to Europe for another tour in May 1889. When Black Elk heard about it, he traveled to Paris. There Buffalo Bill brought him a return ticket and sent him home. Black Elk arrived in New York on June 17, 1889, and from traveled back to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, just 18 months later.

Why Black Elk as a Ripper suspect?

Buffalo Bill's troupe performs for Queen Victoria.

Buffalo Bill’s troupe performs for Queen Victoria. A.C. Corbould, The Queen’s Visit to the Wild West Show at West Brompton, The Graphic, May 21, 1887. The William F. Cody Archive, Buffalo Bill Center of the West and University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Published under a Creative Commons License.

Jack the Ripper terrorized London in the late summer and fall of 1888. He killed at least five victims on August 31, September 8, September 30 (two murders), and November 9. All but one victim was mutilated. Englishmen had trouble believing one of their own could commit such an act and their thoughts turned to the mutilations they’d heard about from the American West. Following the second murder, one newspaper drew an analogy to the recent Wild West performances: the murderer was a ghoul who stalked down his victims like a Pawnee Indian.

Apparently, letters to the editor followed, reporting the stranded Indians from Buffalo Bill’s show. Rumor had it that the Indians were still in London’s East End. They might have been angry about getting stranded and started taking it out on the English.

The Native Americans’ dubious connection to the Ripper case anchored itself in the public imagination. Black Elk, Buffalo Bill, and Mexican Joe feature in a cartoon and film about the Ripper, both called From Hell. Fear and prejudice may have played a role the finger pointing, but to be fair, I should point out that the police also investigated two of Mexican Joe’s cowboys.

 An airtight alibi

And so, as the rumor went, Buffalo Bill’s stranding four Native Americans in Manchester put them in the right place at the right time – in England during the Ripper murders. But it’s not as easy as that. If you track down Mexican Joe’s performance schedule, you’ll see that for all but two of the murders, Black Elk has an alibi as waterproof as a birchbark canoe.

Mexican Joe is harder to track than Buffalo Bill because he tended to advertise with posters, not newspaper ads. Nevertheless, Tom F. Cunningham of the English Westerners’ Society has done an excellent job reconstructing Mexican Joe’s performance schedule through newspaper reviews of his shows. Mexican Joe opened in Paris in June 1888 and then traveled to Belgium to open there in August. He remained there until at least September 21. By October 8, he was probably back in England, because a British paper identified two of his cowboys as Ripper suspects. On October 13, he opened a show in Birmingham, and by November 9, was in Sheffield.

The only time for which Cunningham could not account for Mexican Joe’s location was the period between September 21 and October 13. Two Ripper murders occurred on September 30. But if one person was responsible for the canonical five murders, it couldn’t have been Black Elk. He wasn’t even in the country for the first two, and for the last, he was in another city. And he had a troupe of hundreds to attest to that.

Even though more murders than the canonical five might be ascribed to Jack the Ripper, I’m not aware of any that happened in May 1888, when Black Elk was arrested, interrogated, and released in London. Whatever crime that policeman was investigating, it wasn’t the Ripper killings: officially, they hadn’t started yet. Finding the file for that investigation would make an interesting research project — if anyone in London wants to take it up.

I won’t usually say this about any other suspect, but I will for this one. We can rule out Black Elk as a Ripper suspect. The Oglala Lakota holy man didn’t do it.

Who do you think was the craziest Ripper suspect ever?

Literature on point:

Peter Carlson, Encounter: Buffalo Bill at Queen Victoria’s Command, American History Magazine, Sept. 29, 2015.

Tom F. Cunningham, Black Elk, Mexican Joe & Buffalo Bill: The Real Story (London: The English Westerners’ Society, 2015).

Raymond J. DeMallie, ed. The Sixth Grandfather – Black Elk’s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt (Lincoln: Univesity of Nebraska Press, 1985).

John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (William Morrow & Company, 1932).

Souvenir Album of the visit of Her Majesty Queen Victoria to the American Exhibition (1887).

Michael F. Steltenkamp, Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).

The Queen at the Show: Victoria Attends Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Circus,” Washington Post, May 13, 1887.


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Masquerading as Men: Female Soldiers in the Mexican-American War

Mexican-American War recruits.

Were there women among them? Mexican-American War recruits. F & S. Palmer, 1846. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

Did women enlist in the Mexican-American War? Last week I blogged about Eliza Allen Billings. She wrote a bestselling book about fighting in the war disguised as a man. Most historians, however, dismiss her story as fictional.

But that doesn’t mean other women didn’t successfully masquerade as men. There were several female soldiers in the Mexican-American War, and it was often love that drove them to enlist.

Here are their stories.

 Hoosier heroine: What state can beat this?

Although one Indiana newspaper called her a heroine, this unnamed woman lasted only 13 days before the army discovered her secret. Dressed as a man, she enlisted in Company K of the 2nd Indiana Infantry. That a company hailed from Evansville and served under Captain William Walker.

The Hoosier volunteers rendezvoused in Camp Whitcomb in New Albany, Indiana, on June 7, 1846. There, U.S. Army officers received them and mustered them into service. The army had really no excuse for mustering in a female. Its own regulations required a doctor to conduct a physical examination of every recruit and the recruits were required to strip naked. But under pressure to muster troops in quickly, many physicians did shoddy work. History records one volunteer company that was examined fully clothed.

Somehow our Hoosier heroine slipped through. The U.S. Army inspected her and her company and mustered them all in. But before her company left by steamboat for the next rendezvous point in New Orleans, she got caught.

A handkerchief betrays her

At least four newspapers tell the story.* On June 20, one man in Company K lost his handkerchief. When men sat down to mess, he noticed it stuffed in his comrade’s “bosom.” He snatched his handkerchief back and made a shocking discovery. His comrade’s bosom was, er, a little different from his own bosom.

Company K confronted the Hoosier heroine. She broke down and told her story:

[W]ith tears in her eyes, and the deepest and apparently most sincere manner, she stated that she was poor and friendless: that her father was a soldier in General Taylor’s army on the Rio Grande and that she knew of no other way of getting to her father than by joining the army which was to be ordered to the place where he was stationed…. She says she is a resident of Tennessee and gave the names of her parents and many of their neighbors.**       

 Her company sends her home

Our heroine then left for Louisville.  Her company raised a subscription to take her further downstream by steamboat. And with the current of the Ohio River, the rest of her story got lost to history. If anyone wants to track her down, this site has a list of the names of Captain Walker’s company. Her male pseudonym might be among them. And her muster roll card just might list her true name along with the explanation for her discharge.

The Hoosier heroine could consider herself lucky. Captain Walker and many members of her company were killed in February 1847 at the Battle of Buena Vista in Mexico.

Even though this woman’s audacity strained against the boundaries of acceptable behavior for women in the 1840s, Indiana seemed proud of her. The Indiana Democrat called her actions “heroism.” The Indiana State Sentinel dubbed her a “heroine.” It went on to ask with beaming pride, “What state can beat this?”

Camp Whitcomb, where one of the female soldiers in the Mexican-American War was discovered.

Historical Marker for Camp Whitcomb in New Albany, Indiana, where the Hoosier Heroine was discovered. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.

Bill Newcom: Discovered to be a disguised woman

As it turns out, at least two other states can. Their female soldiers in the Mexican-American War managed to stay undiscovered much longer. Missouri was one of them.

Elizabeth Caroline Newcom followed her lover, Lieutenant Amandus V. Schnabel, into the war. She enlisted in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in September 1847. Under the name Bill Newcom, Elizabeth joined Company D of the Missouri Mounted Volunteers. Her battalion protected the Sante Fe Trail. Although she performed the duties of a soldier for at least half a year, her battalion never saw battle. By May 1848, Elizabeth was pregnant. Schnabel urged her to desert by jumping a supply train headed east. But the army caught her and discharged her. Her muster roll card lists the reason for discharge: “Discovered to be a disguised woman.” You can view her muster roll card here.

Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Lt. Schnabel, then had to face court martial charges. The army dismissed him for having deprived the country of a good and competent soldier.

Shelby Harriel, a historian who specializes in female soldiers of the Civil War, tracked Elizabeth’s life after her discharge. Elizabeth married someone else in 1853. She also managed to score a major financial success that eluded other female soldiers in the Mexican-American War: Elizabeth applied for a land grant owing volunteers who had participated in the war. President Franklin Pierce approved both her land grant and back pay.

Battle of Buena Vista.

Battle of Buena Vista. Many of the Hoosier Heroine’s company members died here. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

Alabama: disguised as a brother

Alabama is another state that contributed to the list of female soldiers in the Mexican-American War. One volunteer from Mobile didn’t want to leave his brother at home alone. He asked if he could bring him along, even though he was frail. The captain agreed. The “brother” didn’t enlist, but lived among the soldiers and followed the camp. He stayed to himself and avoided rough physical activity.

After rumors circulated that the relationship between the two was more than fraternal, the captain requested a physical examination by the battalion physician. He discovered the brother was a woman. The army ordered her to leave camp and her company subjected her “older brother” to ridicule.

            These female soldiers in the Mexican-American War had various reasons for joining the army. With which woman’s story do you identify the most?


* Special thanks to Shelby Harriel for discovering the article in the Baltimore Sun. She maintains a fascinating website about female soldiers in the Civil War that’s well worth a visit.

** Indiana Democrat, June 22, 1846, cited in Perry, 65.

Literature on point:

The Civil War – Captain Walker and His Company, Chapter XVII, Military History, Genealogy Trails History Group (website).

A Female Soldier.” Highland messenger (Asheville, N.C.) July 24, 1846.

“A Female Soldier.” Baltimore Sun, June 30, 1846.

Lisa Tendrich Frank, ed., An Encyclopedia of Women at War (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013) s.v. “Newcom, Elizabeth.”

Shelby Harriel, “They fought in the Mexican War, too!” (blog post, July 1, 2015)

A Heroine.Indiana State Sentinel, July 2, 1846

James M. McCaffrey, Army of Manifest Destiny: The American Soldier in the Mexican War: 1846-1848 (New York University Press, 1992)

Oran Perry, ed., Indiana in the Mexican War (Indianapolis: William B. Burford, 1908).

Spence Tucker et al., eds., The Encyclopedia of the Mexican-American War (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013) s.v. “Women, U.S.”




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