Samuel Clemens had idolized the boy, and regarded himself responsible for his death. The letter that follows shows that he was overwrought by the scenes about him and the strain of watching, yet the anguish of it is none the less real.
To Mrs. Onion Clemens:
MEMPHIS, TENN., Friday, June 18th, 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. (O, God! this is hard to bear.) Hardened, hopeless,--aye, lost--lost-- lost and ruined sinner as I am--I, even I, have humbled myself to the ground and prayed as never man prayed before, that the great God might let this cup pass from me--that he would strike me to the earth, but spare my brother--that he would pour out the fulness of his just wrath upon my wicked head, but have mercy, mercy, mercy upon that unoffending boy. 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 tonight. 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.
Mollie you do not understand why I was not on that boat--I will tell you. I left Saint Louis on her, but on the way down, Mr. Brown, the pilot that was killed by the explosion (poor fellow,) quarreled with Henry without cause, while I was steering. Henry started out of the pilot-house--Brown jumped up and collared him--turned him half way around and struck him in the face!--and him nearly six feet high--struck my little brother. I was wild from that moment. I left the boat to steer herself, and avenged the insult--and the Captain said I was right--that he would discharge Brown in N. Orleans if he could get another pilot, and would do it in St. Louis, anyhow. Of course both of us could not return to St. Louis on the same boat--no pilot could be found, and the Captain sent me to the A. T. Lacey, with orders to her Captain to bring me to Saint Louis. Had another pilot been found, poor Brown would have been the "lucky" man.
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. Henry was asleep--was blown up--then fell back on the hot boilers, and I suppose that rubbish fell on him, for he is injured internally. He got into the water and swam to shore, and got into the flatboat with the other survivors.--[Henry had returned once to the Pennsylvania to render assistance to the passengers. Later he had somehow made his way to the flatboat.]--He had nothing on but his wet shirt, and he lay there burning up with a southern sun and freezing in the wind till the Kate Frisbee carne along. His wounds were not dressed till he got to Memphis, 15 hours after the explosion. He was senseless and motionless for 12 hours after that. But may God bless Memphis, the noblest city on the face of the earth. She has done her duty by these poor afflicted creatures--especially Henry, for he has had five--aye, ten, fifteen, twenty times the care and attention that any one else has had. Dr. Peyton, the best physician in Memphis (he is exactly like the portraits of Webster) sat by him for 36 hours. There are 32 scalded men in that room, and you would know Dr. Peyton better than I can describe him, if you could follow him around and hear each man murmur as he passes, "May the God of Heaven bless you, Doctor!" The ladies have done well, too. Our second Mate, a handsome, noble hearted young fellow, will die. Yesterday a beautiful girl of 15 stooped timidly down by his side and handed him a pretty bouquet.