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The Mark Twain Burglary Goes Comically Awry

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

The Mark Twain burglary of 1908 is remembered for the witty notice the author tacked onto his dining room door for the next home invader. However, the reminiscences of the burglar – a Mark Twain devotee – had their own entertainment value.

In the fall of 1908, Mark Twain was a widower with two grown, unmarried daughters. He had just built an Italianate mansion in Redding, Conn., where he enjoyed a respite from his labors in New York City.

Henry Williams and his partner Charles Hoffman decided to rob the Twain mansion. On Sept. 17, 1908, they boarded a train from New York for Redding to do just that.

Years later, Williams wrote an account of the botched Mark Twain burglary that was worthy of Twain himself.

Mark Twain Burglary

It was dark, he wrote, and when they got off the train at Redding Station they weren’t sure of the way. So they knocked on a farmhouse door to ask directions. Wrote Williams,

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.

They reached the Twain mansion, where the lights were ablaze, so they waited for it to go dark. Hoffman climbed through an unlocked kitchen window and then opened the door for Williams. “I entered by the front door like a gentleman,” he wrote.

1909 newspaper photo of Isabel Lyon

1909 newspaper photo of Isabel Lyon

They found the heavy, old-fashioned oak sideboard where the family silver was kept. On top of it was a brass bowl. Williams put the bowl on the floor, as it had no value to them and they had plans for the sideboard. That was their second mistake.

The sideboard was locked, and they didn’t want to make a noise breaking it open. So they carried the sideboard out of the house and 500 feet down the road, where they broke it open and emptied the silver into a black bag. Then they returned to the house to see what else they could steal:

When we entered the dining room the second time, my partner, walking rather carelessly, stumbled and fell heavily over that brass bowl.

In 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!

Twain’s secretary, Isabel Lyons, came down the stairs and said, ‘Hello.’

No. 3

The Mark Twain burglary happened here.

The Mark Twain burglary happened here.

Williams and Hoffman turned and ran – and made their third mistake. They walked to Bethel, where the deputy sheriff and a posse of farmers had assembled. Had they walked farther to Danbury, they probably wouldn’t have been caught. Instead, they decided to wait for the early train from Bethel to New York. A passenger who had heard of the Mark Twain burglary spotted them in the smoker and, suspecting they were the culprits, notified the sheriff when the train stopped at the next station.

Wrote Williams,

A dozen men, armed with pitchforks, shot guns, clubs, and other weapons, boarded the train just as it was pulling away from the platform… 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.

The posse turned on Williams, who pulled out his revolver and began to blaze away at the ceiling to cause a panic. In the melee that followed, he shot the sheriff in the leg before he was knocked unconscious with a blackjack.

Hoffman was caught, and the two burglars were handcuffed together and marched to the farm where they had asked directions the night before:

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!"

Close the Door, Please

That day, Twain wrote a note ‘to the next burglar’ and had it permanently attached to his dining room door.


To 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 noise - it disturbs the family.
You will find rubbers in the front hall by that thing that 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.

Very truly yours,
S. L. Clemens

While languishing in prison, Williams at least had the satisfaction of knowing the burglary provided a new subject for the humorist. He wrote in his memoirs,

…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:

"I am going to help build this library with contributions - from my visitors. Every male guest who comes to my house will have to contribute 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…”

The story has a happy ending. Though the burglar served 10 years in the Connecticut State Prison, he rebuilt his life afterward. On Dec. 28, 1924, the New York Times printed an interview with him. He said,

Since my release from prison some nine years ago, I had the privilege and pleasure of meeting the only living member of Mark Twain's family, Mrs. Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch. It is to the generosity and practical assistance of Mark Twain's talented daughter that I owe my real chance to make good and to become a useful and law-abiding citizen and member of the society I hated and fought so long.

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