The myth regarding Mark Twain’s mother

The famous author Samuel L. Clemens was the son of John M. Clemens and Jane Lampton.

Jane was well-known in Columbia, Kentucky, where she grew up. There are many reports by locals of her charm and beauty.

“She was a belle in the society in which she moved, admired and loved most by those who knew her best.”

Another stated, “She was the prettiest girl ever reared in Columbia, with the exception of my wife.”

Her girlhood home there is commemorated by a Kentucky historical highway marker.

Thus, it was a surprise to find the claim that Jane Lampton was born in Winchester.

Since that claim appeared in print, it was probably inevitable that the same is still being repeated today, especially on the Internet. For example, one of the most widely-used cemetery documentation websites, findagrave.com, which claims to record more than 165 million graves, lists Jane Lampton Clemens, birth: June 18, 1803, Winchester, Kentucky.

I am unaware of where this originated, but A.C. Quisenberry made the claim in a 1922 article published in the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society.

“James Lampton was the father of Jane Lampton, who married John Marshall Clemens, of Lexington, Ky., and became the mother of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who won a worldwide and lasting fame under the pen name of ‘Mark Twain.’ Jane Lampton was born in Winchester in a brick house on the corner of Main and Hickman streets (then called ‘Highland’ street). This house is still standing, and used to be known as ‘the Trowbridge place.’”

The paragraph contains several inaccuracies but most directly to the case at hand: James Lampton was not the father of Jane; that was James’ brother, Benjamin, who is confirmed as Jane’s father by the Lampton family Bible.

Quisenberry may have drawn from an earlier source known as “local tradition.” The following is taken from a letter Lucien Beckner wrote to Kathryn Owen, “At the northwest corner of Hickman and Main Streets, where now stands a filling station, was an old brick mansion in which tradition states that Mark Twain’s mother was born.”

Since no birth record has been found for Jane, we look to other authorities for information.

Jane Lampton’s biographer, Rachel Varble, states that Jane was born in Adair County, Kentucky.

The “Mark Twain Project,” a group operating out of the University of California at Berkeley, has gathered “more than four decades’ worth of archival research” on Mark Twain, and they also place Jane’s birth in Adair County.

Similar conclusions may be found in “The Encyclopedia of Mark Twain,” the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum and the work of Adair County historian Judge H. C. Baker.

All nonsense aside, the Lampton family had a long and honorable history in Clark County.

The progenitor was an immigrant, William Lampton (1734-1790) who married Martha Patsy “Patty” Schooler in Page County, Virginia.

Together they raised eight sons and three daughters. Four of the sons appear on early Clark County tax lists — John, William Jr., Wharton and Joshua. Two of the daughters are found in early county marriage records — Nancy and Sally. William Sr.’s widow gave consent for her daughter Nancy’s marriage in 1796, so she must have come to Clark County after her husband died.

James Lampton (1787-1862), who is also recorded in the family Bible, is the best known of the Clark County family. He married Susan Ryon, a daughter of John B. Ryon, and she is named (“Susan Lampton”) in her father’s will.

James had a topsy-turvy career in Winchester. He purchased land on Fourmile Creek and several lots in town, including one at the northwest corner of Main and Hickman, where the “local tradition” arose.

He served briefly as a deputy sheriff to Thomas Scott and kept a tavern in Winchester at various locations in the late 1810s and early 1820s.

Records show that he borrowed heavily from banks and individuals and repeatedly had to mortgage his personal property and real estate to satisfy creditors. One of the mortgages lists his “tavern house & other buildings thereunto attached, a distillery with two Stills and other articles to carry on the distilling, and one horse mill with one pair of Stones and all other articles necessary to keep the mill in opperation, the Stables and all other out houses attached.”

James eventually moved onto his Fourmile land and lived in a house that still stands today on the west side of Muddy Creek Road, about four miles southeast of Winchester. James later moved to Greenup County where he died in 1862.

James’ son, William Henry Lampton, in later life lived in the Captain John Tramel House on West Hickman Street, now gone.

Beckner’s letter to Miss Owen, cited above, recalled his memories of the family. He wrote that William, “who was Mark Twain’s first cousin, was almost as full of fun as Twain himself. He kept the crowd laughing where ever he stopped to talk. I talked to Mark Twain about him and Twain seemed to know about his remarkable sense of humor. He would walk across the street and talk to Miss Nannie Hickman, a lively old maid of eighty, who lived in the old Hickman house. We could always tell when Mr. Will was around by the shrieks of laughter from Miss Nannie.”

William’s son, William James Lampton, was a New York newspaperman and noted humorist. He was famous for his “Yawps,” droll poems that were popular around the turn of the century. He is buried in Winchester Cemetery. His gravestone is marked “Plain Poet of the People.”

One final tidbit regarding Samuel L. Clemens’ middle name. Mark Twain’s sister Permelia quoted her mother saying, “My son Sam was named Samuel Lampton Clemens after my uncle in Kentucky, one of the best men I ever knew.”

His later adoption of “Langhorne” is unexplained.

Thanks to Ernestine Bennett and others at the Adair County Public Library for their assistance with this article. Harry Enoch, retired biochemist and history enthusiast, has been writing for the Sun since 2005