Greengages: Mark Twain and the Sweetest Fruit of Germany

A bowl of greengages.

A bowl of greengages.

He put up a fine luncheon for us and added to it a quantity of great light-green plums, the pleasantest fruit in Germany…. Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad



Anna Pavord, writing for the British newspaper Independent, calls them “most ambrosial of all tree fruit.”

David Karp describes them as “the best fruit in the world” in the New York Times.

Mark Twain traveled to Germany in 1878 and tried them at his hotel in Heilbronn, where he dubbed them the “pleasantest fruit in Germany.”

With respect to sweetness, all three authors have a point. Greengages taste like honey. Long considered one of the sweetest fruits, the green plums enjoy a delectably “noble” reputation in Germany. Germans call them the “queen of the plums.” David Karp measured their sugar content in France with his refractometer and obtained a value, 30.5, that nearly went off the scale.

Greengages on a branch.

Greengages on a branch.

Hard to grow

You’ll have a hard time finding fresh greengages in America. They’re difficult to grow. Rain can make them split open. It’s expensive to pick the fruit. And they don’t produce regularly – greengage trees will sport a bumper crop one year and the next, for no apparent reason, grow only a few plums. And to make it worse, you should really leave them on the tree until they’re ripe. They taste best fresh off the tree.

Popular in Europe, but not America

Greengages originated in the Middle East. France has had them since the 15th century. In both Germany and France, the fruit is named after Queen Claude (d. 1524): Reine-Claudes, Reineclaude, or Reneklode. She must have liked the light green plums as much as Twain did.

The fruit came to England in the 17th century. The man who introduced them, Sir William Gage of Suffolk, also lent them his name.

Greengages were once popular in the United States, but farmers found them too difficult to grow. They have almost vanished from the American orchards and tables. Across the ocean, however, greengages surfed a juicy wave of popularity in the 19th century – at the time Mark Twain tried them in Heilbronn. In fact, German markets of the 18th century often forbade all other plum varieties outside of greengages and mirabelles. The other varieties were thought to be unhealthy.


Greengages. Photo from Pixabay, with permission.

 Pleasantest fruit of the summer?

Summer begins this week, and after that the plum season will soon be upon us. Keep your eyes open for the queen of the plums at the marketplace and offer yourself a treat Mark Twain once enjoyed. One taste might transport you to ambrosial heaven.

Have you ever had the opportunity to try a greengage? If so, what did you think of the taste?


Literature on point:

Karl Günther Barth, “Die Königin der Pflaumen – ein fast vergessene Sorte,” Hamberger Abendblatt (2 August 2014).

Rudolf Habs & L. Rosner, Appetitlexikon (Insel Verlag 1982).

David Karp, “A Finicky Fruit Is Sweet When Coddled,” New York Times (1 Sept. 2004).

Anna Pavord, “Plum job: A juicy guide to greengages and plums,” Independent (12 August 2011).

Reineclaude,” Lebensmittel Warenkunde (2017).

Reneklode aus Oullins, Manufactum

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, ch. 14 (public domain).

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Mark Twain’s “A Dying Man’s Confession”: Truth or Tall Tale?

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain

God! how delicious the memory of it!—I caught him escaping from his grave, and thrust him back into it. – Mark Twain, “A Dying Man’s Confession,” in Life on the Mississippi

 Murder and revenge.

These two themes form the warp and weft in “A Dying Man’s Confession,” the most memorable short story in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. The story spans the globe. It starts a murder in Arkansas during the Civil War and ends in one of the creepiest buildings of Germany history: the Leichenhaus (literally: corpse house) or waiting mortuary. And it contains a forensic method that was very modern for its time.

But are there any kernels of truth in Twain’s story?

 A bit of background: the German Leichenhaus

Waiting halls for the dead sprung up throughout Germany in the 19th century, in part due to societal fears of premature burial, and in part due to the medical profession’s argument that decomposition constituted the only sure sign of death.  Bodies were laid out in the mortuary halls, in their coffins and covered with shrouds, to await that one sure medical sign before burial. Flowers decked the coffins to offset the odor.

To prevent someone from being buried alive, the mortuary attached rings and cables to the hands of the presumptive dead. If a hand moved, a bell would sound and alert a mortuary attendant, trained to give first aid.

Munich's Leichenhaus

The Munich Leichenhaus. Garner’s Magazine, 1833 (public domain).

 Twain in the Munich Leichenhaus

Munich’s Leichenhaus was one of the most famous. Open to the public, it quickly became a tourist attraction. Mark Twain visited on Jan. 4, 1879. His impressions unnerved him:

 Toward the end of last year, I spent a few months in Munich, Bavaria…. One day, during a ramble about the city, I visited one of the two establishments where the Government keeps and watches corpses until the doctors decide that they are permanently dead, and not in a trance state. It was a grisly place, that spacious room. There were thirty-six corpses of adults in sight, stretched on their backs on slightly slanted boards, in three long rows—all of them with wax-white, rigid faces, and all of them wrapped in white shrouds. Along the sides of the room were deep alcoves, like bay windows; and in each of these lay several marble-visaged babes, utterly hidden and buried under banks of fresh flowers, all but their faces and crossed hands. Around a finger of each of these fifty still forms, both great and small, was a ring; and from the ring a wire led to the ceiling, and thence to a bell in a watch-room yonder, where, day and night, a watchman sits always alert and ready to spring to the aid of any of that pallid company who, waking out of death, shall make a movement—for any, even the slightest, movement will twitch the wire and ring that fearful bell. I imagined myself a death-sentinel drowsing there alone, far in the dragging watches of some wailing, gusty night, and having in a twinkling all my body stricken to quivering jelly by the sudden clamor of that awful summons!*

 The experience sparked a short story.

 A Dying Man’s Confession

“A Dying Man’s Confession,” which climaxes in the Munich Leichenhaus, begins in Arkansas during the Civil War.  A German on his deathbed, whom Twain supposedly met during his Munich travels, narrates the story. He lived in Napoleon, Arkansas with his wife and daughter during the war. But one night, during a burglary, the narrator was chloroformed and his family murdered. One burglar was missing his thumb and was the nicer of the two. His accomplice committed the murder; the thumbless man could only protest.

The burglary was interrupted when the burglars’ company arrived and the captain asked for water; the burglars left with their comrades. The poor narrator found his wife and daughter murdered – along with an important clue: a piece of paper with a thumbprint in their blood. When the narrator discovered that a Captain Blakely and Company C had come through that night, he decided to track down the murderers.

In disguise as a fortune teller, the narrator followed Company C and found a German private missing a thumb. He started telling fortunes, but required his clients to provide their thumbprints first as means for interpreting their future. By careful comparison, he discovered one print that matched the print from his house. The print belonged to another German private, Franz Adler. The narrator tried to murder him and thought he was successful.

 In Munich’s Leichenhaus

The narrator returned to Germany and years later began working as a watchman in the Munich Leichenhaus. There the unconceivable happened.

 Two years ago—I had been there a year then—I was sitting all alone in the watch-room, one gusty winter’s night, chilled, numb, comfortless; drowsing gradually into unconsciousness; the sobbing of the wind and the slamming of distant shutters falling fainter and fainter upon my dulling ear each moment, when sharp and suddenly that dead-bell rang out a blood-curdling alarum over my head! The shock of it nearly paralyzed me; for it was the first time I had ever heard it.

 I gathered myself together and flew to the corpse-room. About midway down the outside rank, a shrouded figure was sitting upright, wagging its head slowly from one side to the other—a grisly spectacle! Its side was toward me. I hurried to it and peered into its face. Heavens, it was Adler!

 Adler had survived the narrator’s murder attempt in Arkansas and had also returned to Munich. The narrator refused all first aid and let Adler sink back and die in his coffin.

He ends his “Dying Man’s Confession” with the observation:

 It is believed that in all these eighteen years that have elapsed since the institution of the corpse-watch, no shrouded occupant of the Bavarian dead-houses has ever rung its bell. Well, it is a harmless belief. Let it stand at that.

Interior of the Munich Leichenhaus

Interior of the Munich Leichenhaus. William Tebbs, Premature Burial and How It Can Be Prevented (1905, public domain).

 Truth or Tall Tale?

With Mark Twain, you can’t always tell. Franz Adler and his death in the Leichenhaus are certainly products of Twain’s imagination. But that begs the question of whether any of the bodies in the waiting mortuary ever did come back to life.

Jan Bondeson, a professor at the University of Wales College of Medicine has tracked down stories of premature burial, and in particular, folklore about “resurrections” in the Munich Leichenhaus. He followed the few stories about ringing bells and bodies sitting up in their coffins to their sources, only to find the 19th-century version of fake news.

In the course of the 19th century, how many people did the German waiting mortuaries actually save?

Zero, says Bondeson.

That’s right, none. The 19th-century physician’s diagnosis of death was pretty accurate.

By the 1890s, Germany made the decision to remove the alarm systems from its mortuaries. And we can safely say that Twain’s depiction of Adler ringing his bell crossed the line into the highly improbable.

Scene from "A Dying Man's Confession" by Mark Twain

The narrator waits for Adler to die. Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1833, public domain, via Project Gutenberg).

 Fingerprint identification

But one aspect of “A Dying Man’s Confession” was remarkably accurate and state-of-the-art. Experts had just begun to discuss fingerprinting as a method of identifying suspects. In 1858, Sir William James Herschel, Chief Magistrate in India, began using fingerprints to validate signatures on contracts and noticed you could really use the fingerprints to tell people apart. By 1877, the American Journal of Microscopy published a review of a lecture by Thomas Thompson, who suggested fingerprints could be used to identify murderers. In 1880, Dr. Henry Faulds published an article in Nature claiming fingerprints could be used to identify people.

Twain published Life on the Mississippi in 1883.

The first fingerprint identification in a criminal case was made in 1892 in Argentina.

Hats off to Mark Twain for including such an innovative technique in his short story! In fact, “A Dying Man’s Confession” might be the first murder mystery to use fingerprinting as a forensic tool.

You might also enjoy:

Mark Twain’s Raft Trip on the Neckar: Truth or Tall Tale?

Mark Twain and the Secret of Dilsberg, Germany

 Literature on point:

Jan Bondeson, Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear (New York: Norton, 2001).

The History of Fingerprints.

William Tebbs, Premature Burial and How It Can Be Prevented (London: Swan, Sonnenschein & Co, 1905).

*Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, chapter 31 (public domain).

Mark Twain, Notes and Journals, vol. II (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1975) (mention of the Munich Leichenhaus visit on p. 256).

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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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Mark Twain and Empress Augusta of Germany

Coronation portrait of Augusta of of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach.

Coronation portrait of Augusta of of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Franz Xaver Winterhalter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Did the church usher mistake him for a duke?

And did Mark Twain mistake the empress for someone else?

Mark Twain’s account of an encounter with Empress Augusta of Germany counts among his most hilarious sketches of Baden-Baden. It appears in A Tramp Abroad, where he recorded his 1878 visit to an English-speaking church in the German resort town.

In the church sat a celebrity: As the wife of Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany, Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (1811-1890) held the titles of Queen of Prussia and Empress of Germany. She was well-connected. Empress Augusta of Germany was Catherine the Great’s great-granddaughter, and her grandson Friedrich married Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter.

And that makes Mark Twain’s description of her particularly puzzling.

Mark Twain and the Empress Augusta of Germany in Baden-Baden’s church

 Because his hired coachman was so well dressed, wrote Twain in A Tramp Abroad, “we were probably mistaken for a brace of stray dukes; why else were we honored with a pew all to ourselves, away up among the very elect…. In the pew directly in front of us sat an elderly lady, plainly and cheaply dressed; at her side sat a young lady with a very sweet face, and she also was quite simply dressed; but around us and about us were clothes and jewels which it would do anybody’s heart good to worship in.”

Johanniskirche in Baden-Baden

The Johanniskirche in Baden-Baden, which Mark Twain and the Empress Augusta of Germany attended. Back then it was known as the “All Saints Church.” Queen Victoria financed its construction. (c) Shutterstock; with permission.

Twain began to feel sorry for the old lady:

I thought it was pretty manifest that the elderly lady was embarrassed at finding herself in such a conspicuous place arrayed in such cheap apparel; I began to feel sorry for her and troubled about her. She tried to seem very busy with her prayer-book and her responses, and unconscious that she was out of place, but I said to myself, “She is not succeeding–there is a distressed tremulousness in her voice which betrays increasing embarrassment.” Presently the Savior’s name was mentioned, and in her flurry she lost her head completely, and rose and curtsied, instead of making a slight nod as everybody else did. The sympathetic blood surged to my temples and I turned and gave those fine birds what I intended to be a beseeching look, but my feelings got the better of me and changed it into a look which said, “If any of you pets of fortune laugh at this poor soul, you will deserve to be flayed for it.” Things went from bad to worse, and I shortly found myself mentally taking the unfriended lady under my protection. My mind was wholly upon her. I forgot all about the sermon. Her embarrassment took stronger and stronger hold upon her; she got to snapping the lid of her smelling-bottle–it made a loud, sharp sound, but in her trouble she snapped and snapped away, unconscious of what she was doing. The last extremity was reached when the collection-plate began its rounds; the moderate people threw in pennies, the nobles and the rich contributed silver, but she laid a twenty-mark gold piece upon the book-rest before her with a sounding slap! I said to myself, “She has parted with all her little hoard to buy the consideration of these unpitying people–it is a sorrowful spectacle.” I did not venture to look around this time; but as the service closed, I said to myself, “Let them laugh, it is their opportunity; but at the door of this church they shall see her step into our fine carriage with us, and our gaudy coachman shall drive her home.”

Then she rose–and all the congregation stood while she walked down the aisle. She was the Empress of Germany!

No–she had not been so much embarrassed as I had supposed. My imagination had got started on the wrong scent, and that is always hopeless; one is sure, then, to go straight on misinterpreting everything, clear through to the end. The young lady with her imperial Majesty was a maid of honor–and I had been taking her for one of her boarders, all the time.

This is the only time I have ever had an Empress under my personal protection; and considering my inexperience, I wonder I got through with it so well. I should have been a little embarrassed myself if I had known earlier what sort of a contract I had on my hands.

We found that the Empress had been in Baden-Baden several days. It is said that she never attends any but the English form of church service.

An older Empress Augusta of Germany

An older Empress Augusta of Germany.
By F.Jamrath & Sohn Berlin (Kabinet Photo) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

 Truth or tall tale?

 With Mark Twain’s travel literature, it’s not always easy to tell. Germans love to say that Twain’s 1878 raft trip down the Neckar River, a travel adventure covering several chapters in A Tramp Abroad, inspired Huckleberry Finn, published just a few years later. But that trip never happened – a fact documented in Twain’s travel journal. His German riparian expedition navigated nothing more than the river of his imagnination.*

On the other hand, one of Twain’s most incredible tales – about a secret passage in the town in Dilsberg, Germany, with its entrance in the town well – turned out to be true. Inspired by Twain’s story to search for it, archaeologists discovered the passage years later. It’s now open to the public and one of Dilsberg’s tourist attractions. Some of Twain’s tall tales do have kernels of truth in them. Twain’s interplay between fact and fiction make him so interesting.

So how much of Twain’s story about Empress Augusta of Germany can we trust?

To answer that, I turned to one of her biographers, Karin Feuerstein-Praßer. She joins us today, not only to insert her historical scalpel between Twain’s fact and fiction, but to introduce us to a woman who wasn’t afraid to buck convention and was fascinating in her own right. You can read about Feuerstein-Praßer’s book, Augusta: Kaiserin und Preußin, below.

Interview with biographer Karin Feuerstein-Praßer

Karin Feuerstein-Praßer

Karin Feuerstein-Praßer, biographer of Empress Augusta of Germany; with permission.

 Frau Feuerstein-Praßer, did Empress Augusta of Germany visit Baden-Baden often?

Yes, she came there regularly, especially to meet with her daughter Luise, the Grand Duchess of Baden.

 Did she worship at the English church there?

That hasn’t been precisely documented, but it’s entirely possible. Augusta had – much to the regret of her subjects – a preference for all things English (and French), which one can see in her reading material. Although she grew up to a certain extent under Goethe’s wing, German literature hardly interested Augusta at all.

 Where would she have sat in the church?

Augusta was a very status-conscious lady who always avoided contact with “ordinary” people. She would have never mixed with “normal” visitors in the church, but would have taken a separate place of honor.

 Was Empress Augusta of Germany very religious? Would it be in character for her to curtsey at the name of the Savior instead of inclining her head like everyone else?

 Yes, August was indeed a deeply religious woman who interpreted her Protestant faith in her own fashion. As a child, she often accompanied her mother, Maria Pavlovna, to Russian Orthodox services and loved its mystical atmosphere, redolent with incense. The Protestant faith was much too sterile for her; she missed the sensual experience, the spirituality. For this reason, it’s possible that Augusta curtsied during the service, perhaps as a reflex from her childhood, but perhaps it was also a gesture with which she wanted to express her own conviction. Whenever Augusta took leave of her children, for example, she blessed them with the sign of the cross, which was in no way usual for Protestants.

 Was she a member of the Pietist movement?

 No, definitely not. Like I said, she tended towards Catholicism, and her opponents even accused her of having secretly converted to the Catholic faith. That, of course, is complete nonsense.

Empress Augusta of Germany in church.

“An object of sympathy,” showing Mark Twain and Empress Augusta of Germany in church. From A Tramp Abroad (1880), public domain.

 Twain says she snapped her smelling bottle a lot. Was she known to carry a smelling bottle and use it?

 Smelling bottles like that were actually more for temperamental ladies who wanted to call attention to themselves. Augusta was exactly the opposite. She was a dutiful and disciplined woman through and through who would have never allowed the public to see her human weaknesses. Her use of a smelling bottle is thus extremely unlikely. And if she did use one, then Augusta would have never “played” with it during a church service.

 You describe in your book how Augusta wasn’t feminine enough for the emperor. Was her dress unfeminine or inelegant?

 When Wilhelm married Augusta, he was already a man of ample erotic experience. He had hoped to find a sensual partner in Augusta, but the exact opposite was the case. She was cool and disciplined in bed. Sex didn’t appear to be much fun for her. In his letters, Wilhelm always complained of Augusta’s “lack of femininity.” But that didn’t apply to her clothing, in fact, the opposite was true. Already as a young woman, Augusta was very fashion-conscious, and for the somewhat conservative Prussian royal house, way too fashion-conscious. It annoyed Wilhelm that his wife had to follow every trend, and he hoped that would blow over with time. She was only 17 years old when they got married.

 Do you think it’s at all possible that Mark Twain could mistake Empress Augusta of Germany for a poor woman?

I consider it absolutely inconceivable. The period reports all emphasize that Augusta was invariably attired to perfection and with elegance. She used cosmetics, valued a well-fitting hairstyle, and wore jewelry – and all that into her old age. It is of course possible that she selected more ordinary clothing for her church visit, but nevertheless, representation of “majesty” was important to her, everywhere and at all times. There was absolutely nothing folksy about her.

 Thank you, Frau Feuerstein-Praßer!

  Have you ever encountered a celebrity without knowing who they were? It’s happened to me!

 Literature on point:

 Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, ch. XXIV (public domain)

Mark Twain, Notes and Journals

Karin Feuerstein-Praßer, Augusta: Kaiserin und Preußin (Munich: Piper Verlag, 2015)

*Richard Bridgman, Traveling in Mark Twain ((Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987) 100.

book cover

 About the book, Augusta: Kaiserin und Preußin: When the Princess Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach married the Prussian Prince Wilhelm, she had no idea she would one day become the first empress of Germany. Raised in the cultural atmosphere of Goethe’s era, she was highly educated and had pronounced appreciation for art. Only with the Revolution of 1848 did she step into the spotlight of history: As the liberal wife of the Prussian king and later emperor, she sought to influence her husband’s conservative politics. But she had a powerful enemy in Otto von Bismark, whose military plans to unite Germany were hated by the staunch pacifist.

 Piper Verlag, 320 pages. Unfortunately available only in German.

The author, Karin Feuerstein-Praßer, ist a freelance historian in Germany and author of numerous biographies.


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Mark Twain and the Winged Lion of Venice

The columns in St. Mark's Sqaure support the winged lion of Venice and a dragon slayer.

The columns in St. Mark’s Square sport a winged lion and a dragon slayer.

Real quick now – which saint killed the dragon? What’s the first name that comes to your mind?

St. George. Is that what you thought?

It’s what I thought, too. St. Mark’s Square in Venice sports two monolithic columns with figures on top. One is a winged lion and the other a man killing a dragon. St. George, I assumed, when my husband and I visited the square. I mentioned it to our gondolier.

“No! Not St. George!” he said. “It’s San Marco. San Marco is Venice’s patron saint.”

“St. Mark also killed a dragon?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I dunno. But it is Marco. Not George.”

Our gonoolier.

Our gondolier, who graciously gave me permission to publish his photo.

 St. Mark, the winged lion of Venice

His answer made sense. Venetian merchants, according to legend, stole the relics of St. Mark the Evangelist from a church in Alexandria in 828. They brought the bones back to Venice. (Some scholars claim the merchants made a major blooper and actually made off with the skeleton of Alexander the Great!) St. Mark’s relics now reside in Venice’s Basilica di San Marco. The winged lion is a symbol for St. Mark, so that explains the figure on the other column.

But my quick perusal of St. Mark’s history revealed nothing about dragon mythology.

St. Mark's Sqaure.

St. Mark’s Sqaure. Pixabay.

 St. Theodore of Amasea and the dragon

Are gondoliers really infallible when it comes to Venice’s history? Maybe not.

You can imagine my surprise when I checked our guide book back at the hotel. It said the dragon slayer at St. Mark’s Square was St. Theodore. I’d never heard of the fellow, but the author said Theodore, a simple Greek soldier and minor saint, was Venice’s patron before Mark’s relics made the trans-Mediterranean trip to the floating city. St. Theodore enjoyed more popularity in the Eastern Orthodox Church. But in the west, he was too minor a martyr for Venice. The Venetians felt compelled to search for another patron in 828. They wanted someone who could offer more protection.

The Venetian flag.

The Venetian flag. Pixabay.

The Eastern Orthodox Church holds the clue to the dragon. Theodore’s iconography often shows him spearing the vile serpent. And sometimes Theodore’s even depicted accompanying St. George.

So that’s where the dragon comes in. The two columns, with the dragon slayer and winged lion, represent the floating city’s two patron saints. That makes sense, right?

 Mark Twain in Venice

Venice's lion is often shown holding a book.

Venice’s lion is often shown holding a book. Pixabay.

Enter Mark Twain. He visited Venice in 1878 and came up with a more charming explanation for the winged lion of Venice than any historian ever did. It came to him while he was viewing Tintoretto’s painting Paradise in the in the Doge’s palace. It offers a view of heaven.

There are fifteen or twenty figures scattered here and there, with books, but they cannot keep their attention on their reading – they offer the books to others, but no one wishes to read, now. The Lion of St. Mark is there with his book; St. Mark is there with his pen uplifted; he and the Lion are looking each other earnestly in the face, disputing about the way to spell a word – the Lion looks up in wrapt [sic] admiration while St. Mark spells. This is wonderfully interpreted by the artist. It is the master-stroke of this incomparable painting.

Lions, in the form of statutes, paintings, and even the city flag, are everywhere in Venice. They’re often depicted holding a book. If Mark Twain is right, that book isn’t a Bible. The winged lion of Venice is holding a dictionary and trying to help us with our spelling. And that gave me a whole new way of interpreting Venice’s artwork.

The winged lion of Venice on the bow of the royal barge.

The winged lion of Venice on the bow of the royal barge.

Here the lion is poised on the bow of the royal barge in Venice’s naval museum, announcing to the world that the royalty, of all people, knew how to spell.

The lion of Venice. Pixabay.

The winged lion of Venice. Pixabay.

You can see by his expression in this picture how disgusted the winged lion of Venice is with the chap to the left. He must be a really bad speller.

Hitzig, Venice 102

In St. Mark’s Square, the lion also appears to have given up on St. Theodore. He’s facing in the other direction, looking out on the tourists, hoping to find a writer among them. And if he does, he whispers down letters to them; he breathes long-sought words across the expanse of the piazza.

I like that lion. And thanks to winged lion of Venice, I’ll never see my dictionary the same way again. From now on it will have soft, golden fur and outspread wings, ready to take my writing to greater heights. And should I ever misspell a word, I expect it to roar and bite me in the buttocks.

As it well should.

 Did you notice Twain’s spelling error? Do you think he did it on purpose? Is this another example of Twain’s sly sense of humor?

Literature on point

Jenny John, Venedig (Munich: Gräfe und Unzer, 1997).

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (public domain).

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