Henry Clemens's name was mentioned as one of those, who had escaped injury. Still farther up the river they got a later extra. Henry was again mentioned; this time as being scalded beyond recovery. By the time they reached Memphis they knew most of the details: At six o'clock that warm mid-June morning, while loading wood from a large flat-boat sixty miles below Memphis, four out of eight of the Pennsylvania's boilers had suddenly exploded with fearful results. All the forward end of the boat had been blown out. Many persons had been killed outright; many more had been scalded and crippled and would die. It was one of those hopeless, wholesale steamboat slaughters which for more than a generation had made the Mississippi a river of death and tears.
Samuel Clemens found his brother stretched upon a mattress on the floor of an improvised hospital--a public hall--surrounded by more than thirty others more or less desperately injured. He was told that Henry had inhaled steam and that his body was badly scalded. His case was considered hopeless.
Henry was one of those who had been blown into the river by the explosion. He had started to swim for the shore, only a few hundred yards away, but presently, feeling no pain and believing himself unhurt, he had turned back to assist in the rescue of the others. What he did after that could not be clearly learned. The vessel had taken fire; the rescued were being carried aboard the big wood-boat still attached to the wreck. The fire soon raged so that the rescuers and all who could be saved were driven into the wood-flat, which was then cut adrift and landed. There the sufferers had to lie in the burning sun many hours until help could come. Henry was among those who were insensible by that time. Perhaps he had really been uninjured at first and had been scalded in his work of rescue; it will never be known.
His brother, hearing these things, was thrown into the deepest agony and remorse. He held himself to blame for everything; for Henry's presence on the boat; for his advice concerning safety of others; for his own absence when he might have been there to help and protect the boy. He wanted to telegraph at once to his mother and sister to come, but the doctors persuaded him to wait--just why, he never knew. He sent word of the disaster to Orion, who by this time had sold out in Keokuk and was in East Tennessee studying law; then he set himself to the all but hopeless task of trying to bring Henry back to life. Many Memphis ladies were acting as nurses, and one, a Miss Wood, attracted by the boy's youth and striking features, joined in the desperate effort. Some medical students had come to assist the doctors, and one of these also took special interest in Henry's case. Dr. Peyton, an old Memphis practitioner, declared that with such care the boy might pull through.
But on the fourth night he was considered to be dying. Half delirious with grief and the strain of watching, Samuel Clemens wrote to his mother and to his sister-in-law in Tennessee. The letter to Orion Clemens's wife has been preserved.
MEMPHIS, TENN., Friday, June 18, 1858.
DEAR SISTER MOLLIE,--Long before this reaches you my poor Henry--my darling, my pride, my glory, my all will have finished his blameless career, and the light of my life will have gone out in utter darkness. The horrors of three days have swept over me--they have blasted my youth and left me an old man before my time. Mollie, there are gray hairs in my head to-night. For forty-eight hours I labored at the bedside of my poor burned and bruised but uncomplaining brother, and then the star of my hope went out and left me in the gloom of despair. Men take me by the hand and congratulate me, and call me "lucky" because I was not on the Pennsylvania when she blew up! May God forgive them, for they know not what they say.
I was on the Pennsylvania five minutes before she left N. Orleans, and I must tell you the truth, Mollie--three hundred human beings perished by that fearful disaster.