Lecture series were a major form of entertainment in the late 1800s. The photo shows Ackley Hall on the south side of West Main Street where Samuel L. Clemens (better known by his pen name, Mark Twain) lectured on 13-Jan-1870 at the age of 34.
Below is a recount of his visit based on the letters he wrote to his fiancé, Olivia (Livy) Langdon. The letters were published by the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. All letters to Livy are signed “Sam’ while letters to others are signed “Mark”.
The following letter was written on 14-Jan1870 from Troy, the next stop on his lecture tour. I have interjected comments from footnotes and from our local history files using the markings “[ed:]”
(click image to enlarge)
When things get to going wrong, they keep it up. Yesterday afternoon I arrived at Cambridge & drove to the hotel through a driving storm of sleet - it was dreary & cold. My spirits began to ebb.
[ed. he likely stayed at the Union Hotel on the north side of West Main Street]
Then the Committee (with customary brilliancy of judgment,) informed me that the Troy Times had published my entire lecture, praising it highly, & using numberless dashes & hyphens to imitate my drawling manner of speaking - & further informed me that the Times had a large circulation in Cambridge.
[ed. A.H. Comstock was the corresponding secretary of Regular Lecture Course. There is no record of the committee chairman]
My spirits fell lower – my anger began to rise. I abused my informant in no minced language, for knowing no better than to tell me I was to talk to an audience to whom my speech would be no news.
In due time the Chairman returned, & at 7 the fire bells rang, & he sprang to his feet & exclaimed, "My God, there is the lecture-hall in flames!"
Mentally I uttered a thanksgiving as the excited chairman halted his mad flight at the door. You can see by the blinding glare from the windows that nothing can save your hall - why need you rush there for nothing?
He cooled a little & sat down - & as the fires glowed through those tall windows my spirits came up till I felt that all I needed to be entirely happy was to see the Troy Times editors & this Chairman locked up in that burning building
But my rising spirits were crushed to earth, & exasperation came again. The house was saved. It was burned a little, & flooded with water. But within the hour they scrubbed the floors, let out the smoke & warmed the place up again - & I lectured.
[ed. The headline in the Washington County Post on 14-Jan-1870 read “Narrow Escape from Conflagration at Ackley Hall”. The article reported that the janitor "had lit the chandelier which lights the hall, it being lowered by means of a rope and pulley to within about three feet of the floor for the purpose, and went into one of the dressing rooms to hoist it up. He took hold of the rope and began to pull when the chandelier fell to the floor. In an instant it was all ablaze"
Of course, after the lecture, a lot of committeemen invited themselves to my room - although they knew I must rise at 7 in the morning - & presently I grew cheerful & kept them there until 12 o'clock.
This morning the porter failed to call me. I woke, surprised to see it so light, looked at my watch - 14 minutes to 8 - train leaves at 8:05 - depot 4 or 5 blocks distant - no vehicle in sight. Inside of 4 minutes I was not only fully dressed, but down stairs making trouble.
The landlord was crazy as a loon in 3 seconds - darting this way & that - yelled for a coach - tore his hair - swore at this porter & was in despair - said the jig was up, & the best he could do was to take a buggy & drive me to Troy - 30 miles - thermometer already below zero & growing steadily colder.
I said “Collect your senses & don't do wild - we have still 6 minutes - show me to the depot - run!” And he did run - ran a tolerably good gate, but I beat him to the depot & jumped on the train - he arrived the next second with my hand-sachel & I was safe for Utica! Hurrah
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[ed: some final comments]
Clemens was born in 1835 during a visit of Halley’s Comet. He died one day following the next return of the comet in 1910. Clemens married Livy in Feb-1870, one month after his visit to Cambridge.
In her letters, Livy repeatedly mentions to Sam the dangers of his smoking. The day in Cambridge, Sam wrote Livy saying “Now there are no arguments that can convince me that moderate smoking is deleterious to me. But . . I will lay down this habit which is so filled with harmless pleasure, just as soon as you write me or say to me that you desire it.”. There is no evidence that Sam ever gave up smoking.
The usual terms of ordinary lecturers was $50 a night. Those of the upper crust got $100 a night. Mark Twain received $250 for lectures in Philadelphia in 1871. There is no record of how much he was paid for his night in Cambridge.
Ackley Hall was destroyed by fire on 23-Dec-1884. The fire spread across the street also destroying the Union Hotel. A new Union Hotel was erected in 1885, losing by 6 weeks its race to complete before the Cambridge Hotel
Next January, early on a sub-zero morning, following a sleet storm, grab a suitcase, start at Jay’s Pizzeria (location of the Union Hotel) and run to the train depot in 5 minutes. That’s what Mark Twain remembers of his visit to Cambridge in 1870.