Mark Twain Had A Seeming Obsession With Young Girls That Would Land A Modern Figure In Hot Water

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who went by the pen name Mark Twain, was a renowned American writer and humorist. His literary classics include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But Twain had a little-known affection for young women and considered himself a "collector" of preteen and teenage girls. 

Beginning in 1908, Twain established the Aquarium Club, a members-only organization consisting of himself and 13 girls all below the age of 16. He called them his "angelfish," and he enjoyed visiting and exchanging letters with them. Twain even dedicated a room in his Connecticut house to the club. Although Twain defended the club's innocence, his love of young girls raised some red flags among his family and community.

  • Twain Named His 'Collection' Of Girls His Angelfish

    Twain began “collecting” young girls in 1907, at the age of 72. He had recently suffered the loss of his wife and daughters, and he desperately wanted grandchildren. He started calling his surrogate granddaughters “angelfish” in 1908 after becoming enamored with the species on a visit to Bermuda. He went on to nickname his group of girls the “Aquarium Club” and even required members to wear angelfish pins.

    Twain’s secretary Isabel Lyon often chaperoned and arranged visits between Twain and the young women. On one trip to Bermuda with Twain in April 1908, she recorded in her journal, “He has his aquarium of little girls, and they are all angelfish... He wears a flying fish scarf pin, though he says he is a shad. Off he goes with a flash when he sees a new pair of slim little legs appear... If the little girl wears butterfly bows of ribbon on the back of her head, then his delirium is complete.”

  • He Called Himself A Slave To The Girls
    Photo: United States Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

    He Called Himself A Slave To The Girls

    During the last two decades of Twain’s life, he saw the death of his first and favorite daughter Susy, his wife Olivia, and his third daughter Jean. Unsurprisingly, the deaths of three family members sent Twain into a deep depression. The loss encouraged his obsession with innocence, young girls, and being a grandfather. Four years after his wife’s death, Twain wrote:

    I had reached the grandpapa stage of life; and what I lacked and what I needed was grandchildren. My heart... is a treasure-place of little people whom I worship, and whose degraded and willing slave I am. In grandchildren I am the richest man that lives to-day: for I select my grandchildren, whereas all other grandfathers have to take them as they come, good, bad, and indifferent.

    Twain valued the children for their innocence and lack of exposure to the hardships of adult life. He called himself a "collector" of young girls:

    I suppose we are all collectors… As for me, I collect pets: young girls - girls from ten to sixteen years old; girls who are pretty and sweet and naive and innocent - dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears.

  • Twain Wrote A Constitution For His Aquarium Club

    Twain called his group of angelfish the Aquarium Club. He drafted a constitution that laid out rules for his exclusive club called "The Aquarium, Issued By The Admiral Redding." The constitution required the girls to "wear their badge and their head ribbons" and noted that "none above school age is permitted" in the club. He hung photos of the angelfish in the Billiard Room of his Redding, Connecticut, home, and he specified in the constitution that "portraits of non-members are not permitted."

    Twain referred to himself as the "Admiral," and required the girls to write to him once every three months at the very minimum. If the girls didn't write often enough, Twain demoted them from active members to "Honorary Members with reproaches."

  • He Built A Special Room In His House For Visits With The Girls
    Photo: US National Archives And Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

    He Built A Special Room In His House For Visits With The Girls

    The book Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens Angelfish Correspondence records Twain’s plans to build a room in his Redding, Connecticut home specifically for his "angelfish": 

    The billiard-room will have the legend "The Aquarium" over its door... I have good photographs of all my fishes, and these will be framed and hung around the walls. There is an angel-fish bedroom—double-bedded—and I will expect to have a fish and her mother in it as often as Providence will permit. 

    Twain moved into his Connecticut home on June 18, 1908. He chose to call the house “Innocence at Home” because he hoped to host many young girls.

  • Twain's Letters Show Just How Obsessed He Was With His Angelfish

    Twain's autobiography includes descriptions of the members of his Aquarium Club. He describes them as "graciously and enchantingly beautiful as ever any flower was" and the epitome of "the kingdom of Heaven." Twain wrote to angelfish Dorothy Harvey in honor of her 14th birthday. In his letter he said, “I wish I could have those free-gratis-for-nothing-voyages-&-nothing-to-do-but-look-at-you every day.”

    After a visit from 11-year-old Dorothy Quick, he wrote, “I went to bed as soon as you departed, there being nothing left to live for after that, & all the sunshine gone. How do you suppose I am going to get along without you?”

    To Hellen Martin, who Twain described as "a slim and bright and sweet little creature," he said, "'I miss you, dear Hellen. I miss Bermuda too, but not as much as I miss you; for you were rare and occasional and select and limited."

  • The Girls' Parents Were Happy Twain Took Such An Interest In Their Children
    Photo: Underwood & Underwood / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

    The Girls' Parents Were Happy Twain Took Such An Interest In Their Children

    Most of the girls were from prominent, wealthy families. They traveled in the same social circles as the highly regarded author. To the girls' parents, it was an honor that Twain took such an interest in their children. He met many of the girls traveling on ships to England or Bermuda.

    Twain met 12-year-old Helen Allen on one of his trips to Bermuda. The Allen family were old friends of his, and Twain stayed in their home during his visits to the island. Twain said that Helen Allen was “perfect in character, lovely in disposition, and a captivator at sight.”