The Girl in the Portrait: Emma Beach and Mark Twain

The rain came down on wind-blown seas in New York Harbor on June 8, 1867, when about sixty-five passengers boarded the side-wheel steamship Quaker City for a highly publicized five-month “pleasure excursion” and pilgrimage to Europe and the Holy Land. The luxury voyage was led by Captain Charles C. Duncan, a friend of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887), the superstar Congregationalist preacher and charismatic pastor of Brooklyn’s legendary Plymouth Church (whose sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe). Beecher was supposed to go on the trip but had to drop out, as did Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman. However, among the ship’s well-heeled passengers were Moses Sperry Beach (1822–1892), a member of Plymouth Church and publisher of The Sun, a New York newspaper that once had the highest circulation in America, and his seventeen-year-old daughter Emma Beach (1849–1924).

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James Hamilton Shegogue (American, 1806–1872). Charles Yale Beach and His Sister Emma Beach, 1854. Oil on canvas. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. Luther Cleveland, 1966.03

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Emma Beach, ca. 1870. Abbott Handerson Thayer and Thayer Family papers, 1851–1999 (bulk 1881–1950). Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Emma and her brother Charles Yale Beach are shown as children in a portrait by James Hamilton Shegogue (1806–1872) that hangs in the dining room at Bartow-Pell. The portrait is above a sideboard that was made by the children’s grandfather Moses Yale Beach (1800–1868), who was a cabinetmaker as a young man. In 1819, he married Nancy Day, the sister of the founder of the New York Sun, and later became its publisher. Subsequently, his son Moses Sperry Beach took over the paper. Although the Beach family has no known connection to the Bartows, the portrait and sideboard fit our period of interpretation.

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Mark Twain. Carte de visite, Abdullah Frères, Constantinople, 1867. This photograph was taken in Constantinople but inscribed and dated “Saml Clemens, Jaffa, Sept. 30, 1867.” Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-28851

In June 1867, Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain (1835–1910), was thirty-one, and his career as a journalist, humorist, and lecturer was taking off. He too joined the Quaker City tour but as a correspondent for the Alta California, a San Francisco newspaper. A couple of years later, in 1869, Twain published The Innocents Abroad, a best-selling travel book about the cruise based on accounts he wrote for American newspapers. This lively and sometimes satirical narrative chronicles the group’s travels but also pokes fun at Americans abroad, including some of his shipmates. Twain’s irreverent wit, jaunty prose, and occasional slang make for good reading.

Newspaper publisher Moses Beach threw a party for his fellow travelers the night before their departure. Each had paid the enormous sum of $1,250 for the trip, and their applications had been scrutinized by a committee. Twain wrote: “For months the great pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy Land was chatted about in the newspapers everywhere in America and discussed at countless firesides.”  Anticipation and expectations were high. And after the deprivations of the Civil War, people were eager to travel. The ambitious itinerary included Gibraltar, Rome, Athens, Constantinople, Beirut, Jerusalem, Cairo, and other exotic places. The 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris and a visit with Czar Alexander II and his family were highlights of the journey.

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Moses Sperry Beach. Illustration from The Innocents Abroad, 1869

According to a passenger list published in the New York Times, Emma Beach and her father were to be joined by Emma’s older brother Charles (“C. Y. Beach”), her companion in Bartow-Pell’s portrait. But Charles’s plans evidently changed, because he was not listed on the return voyage or in other accounts of the trip. Their mother, Chloe Beach, stayed in Brooklyn with the younger children.

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Henry Ward Beecher, 1855–65. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-cwpbh-03065

Author and scholar Debby Applegate discusses the close relationship between Henry Ward Beecher and the Beach family in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. Moses Sperry Beach and his family joined Beecher’s Plymouth Church when they moved to Brooklyn Heights in 1854, the year that Shegogue painted the portrait of the Beach children. Moses Beach was a generous supporter of the church, and it wasn’t long before the Beach family developed a warm friendship with the Beechers. In fact, Applegate’s research reveals that Beecher probably had an adulterous relationship with Mrs. Beach and may have fathered her youngest child, who was born in 1867, about four months before the Quaker City set sail. Although Beecher was married, he had a reputation as a philanderer, and in 1875, he was accused of adultery with Elizabeth Tilton, another friend’s wife, but he was acquitted after a scandalous trial.

For Moses Beach, the Quaker City cruise must have served as a welcome distraction from his domestic woes. During the journey, Beach was not only a tourist but a working journalist, reporting about the extraordinary trip and writing thirty-seven articles for his newspaper, The Sun. He was one of several reporters on board, including Mark Twain.

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The Start, The Innocents Abroad, 1869

Meanwhile, Emma Beach enjoyed a shipboard flirtation with Twain, and the two were regular evening chess partners who later remained friends. Mark Twain “used to play chess with me and I now think that he purposely let me win—I was only seventeen,” Emma later wrote in a letter to Twain’s biographer Albert B. Paine. The travelers also corresponded after returning home. A letter to Emma from Twain in Washington, D.C., dated January 31, 1868, begins with the salutation “Shipmate, Ahoy!” In this letter he told “Miss Emma” that despite the absence of an invitation from Mrs. Beach: “I shall come without any invitation. I shall come & stay a month! . . . I know I shall be doing wrong—but then I do wrong every day, anyhow.” He also asked for her help in identifying some Old Master paintings that she had seen on the Quaker City trip:

And please tell me the names of the Murillo pictures that delighted you most . . . Remember, I am in a great straight, now, & it is hard to have to write about pictures when I don’t know anything about them. Hang the whole gang of old masters, I say! The idea that I have to go driveling about those dilapidated, antediluvian humbugs at this late day, is exasperating.

On a visit to New York earlier in the month, Mark Twain had stayed with his Quaker City roommate and reunited with some of their traveling companions, including Charlie Langdon, whose sister Olivia became Twain’s wife in 1870. “It was the unholiest gang that ever cavorted through Palestine, but those are the best boys in the world,” Twain wrote to his mother and sister on January 8, 1868. During his New York stay, the author was invited to dine at Henry Ward Beecher’s house in Brooklyn along with his “old Quaker City favorite, Emma Beach.” Twain’s letter continues: “We had a very gay time, if it was Sunday. . . . Henry Ward is a brick.” (For more letters, see the Mark Twain Project Online.)

Emma Beach’s adventures on the Quaker City and her friendship with Mark Twain are only part of her compelling life story. She became an artist known mostly for floral paintings and nature studies. And in 1891, she married American artist and naturalist Abbott Thayer (1849–1921) shortly after the death of his first wife, Kate Bloede, who had died in a sanatorium earlier that year after a long bout with depression. Emma, a close friend of the couple, had helped the family during Kate’s illness. Emma and Abbott Thayer lived in Dublin, New Hampshire. She assisted her husband and helped illustrate Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, a controversial study of camouflage by Thayer and his son Gerald. Emma died in 1924 at the age of seventy-four. She spent her final days with her sisters Ella and Violet at their home in Peekskill, New York.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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