New York Ghosts: Mark Twain

Today marks the 181st birthday of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Twain lived in various locales throughout New York City for much of his adult life, from the West Village to Wave Hill in the Bronx. He often claimed his favorite residence was 14 West 10th Street, located between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, on one of the Village’s most picturesque blocks. It is known far and wide as a haunted house, and some even claim he haunts there now.

Twain lived at this address from 1900 – 1901 and if you visit it you will see a small bronze plaque in his honor. The beautiful 1830s townhome already had a reputation for being haunted at the time he moved in. Twain, though, was an inveterate skeptic who mocked the idea of ghosts and refused to believe in the unexplained. He even expressed his disbelief in a short story appropriately called “A Ghost Story” in which a ghost haunted his own fake corpse. Even the sight of a truly unexplained phenomena couldn’t shake Twain’s skepticism. One night he saw a piece of kindling wood moving by itself near the fireplace; he grabbed a pistol and shot at it. The kindling fell to the floor, where Twain saw a few drops of blood. No intruders, human or animal, were ever found to explain the event, though Twain sniffed he was sure it was a rat and still refused to believe that what he had seen sprung from supernatural sources.

These days, Twain’s ghost is said to appear to current residents of 14 West 10th Street on the first floor and at the lower level landing of the staircase. Some say the house is haunted by no fewer than twenty-two spirits, the ghosts of people who formerly lived and died in the house. Perhaps Twain does take his place among this cavalcade of shades, or perhaps it is merely wishful thinking on the part of those who spot the spirit – after all, who doesn’t love a good celebrity ghost?

One former resident who attested to Twain’s presence at the townhouse was Jan Bryant Bartell. Bartell was an actress and writer who discovered she had a touch of the second sight when she moved into the neighborhood. She began to see and experience different psychic phenomena when she moved in to the house next door (16 West 10th Street), hearing noises, seeing visions, and generally feeling oppressed by dread and foreboding. She ended up moving next door (to number 14) but still felt the presence of ghosts, including a very strong feeling that Twain was still there. One day she inquired of the superintendent if he had ever noticed anything strange in the building.

“The super before me, he had some stories to tell,” the super replied.

“What kind of stories?” asked Jan.

“About that fella Clemens.”

“Has he been seen here?”

“Yes ma’am, twice that I know, and by two different folks,” the superintendent continued. “On the ground floor, back in the 1930s. A mother and daughter, a young widow woman, were sharing the apartment. The mother, she comes into the living room one evening before the lamps are lit, and she sees a man with white hair, wild-like. He’s sitting in a chair looking out the window and she says, ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’ and he says, ‘My name is Clemens and I got problems here I gotta settle.'”


To be completely honest, it seems a bit dubious to imagine that Twain himself really haunts this rental house where he lived for only a year, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a great deal to be said on Twain and the topic of the supernatural. Twain was subject to some frighteningly realistic visions when he was alive –, visions which may arguably even have been what paranormal types refer to as “crisis apparitions” — and he also wrote a very bizarre novella called “Mysterious Stranger” in which he argues forcefully (from the persepctive of Satan himself, no less!) that there may be no life after death at all. So forcefully, indeed, that it makes one wonder if perhaps Mark Twain knew something that we don’t know, after all.
For more on Mark Twain and the paranormal, take our “Ultimate Greenwich Village Ghost Tour.”
An earlier version of this blog post appeared on Spinster Aunt in 2011.