The Titanic That Sank the Twain Fortune


By Chic DiFrancia

Two years after the death of Mark Twain in 1910, Albert Bigelow Paine published a three-volume biography of the famed humorist. It’s in those tomes – all 296 chapters of them – that we learn about the man who later became known as the “Lincoln of our Literature.”

My favorite chapter is #174, titled “The Machine.” I’m drawn to it because Twain, like myself, was a printer in his youth. The apparatus in the Paine chapter was invented by James Paige and was known in those days as the Paige Typesetting Machine. Twain first laid eyes on it in 1880 when Paige was assembling the 3 1/2 ton monster at the Colt Firearms Company in Hartford, Conn. Twain was captivated – but the love affair, like so many that begin with abject adoration, was one that would sour and turn him angry and bitter in the latter part of his life.

The Machine was a marvel to behold. When in operation, all 18,000 pieces of it worked together to justify each line of type faster than an entire crew of compositors in a large newspaper plant. It was revolutionary, and Twain envisioned the millions that could be made. He was so taken with the idea that he eventually began financing Paige to the tune of $3,000 a month. Twain was flush at the time, having just published “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in 1885, when he and his nephew Charles Webster also established the Webster Publishing Company. Both were cash cows, and Twain happily poured much of his fortune into the perfecting of Paine’s typesetter.

Month after month, Paige kept on tinkering, until Twain had been supporting the perfecting process for nearly four years. At the time, The Machine was the most complicated device ever to be issued a U.S. Patent, and it could be temperamental when all the gears, cams, pulleys, belts and assorted hardware didn’t intermesh precisely. In truth, Paige was in no hurry to complete it. He was basking in the glory of all the attention he was getting before the work was even complete. Time became of the essence, however, because over at another machine shop, German inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler was conceiving a lead typecasting machine known as the “Linotype”, which – as the astute readers of this publication on doubt know – went on to revolutionize newspaper composing rooms around the world.

Clara, Jean, Livy and Susy Twain, 1880s

Clara, Jean, Livy and Susy Twain, 1880s

By 1891, Twain had spent himself into near bankruptcy. He sold his Hartford home and moved to Europe where living was cheaper. After sinking $250,000 into the doomed typesetting enterprise, he bitterly wrote, “Paige, what a talker he is. He could persuade a fish to come out and take a walk with him… he is a most daring and majestic liar.”

But Twain’s financial troubles would pale in comparison to the tragic events about to take place and that would shake him to the very core. Twain, who had a deep and abiding love for his wife and three daughters, would see the deaths of three of them over the course of the next 13 years. Two daughters and his wife died in that time period, and at the time of Twain’s death in 1910, only his daughter Clara was alive to mourn the loss of her father.

James Paige died destitute in Chicago in 1917 and is buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Only two Paige typesetting machines were ever built. One was scrapped during a World War II metal drive, and one was eventually donated to the Twain Museum in Hartford, Ct.

Although Twain did file for bankruptcy, his lectures in Europe proved highly successful and he eventually paid off all his creditors in full.

This piece is one in a continuing series on the life of Mark Twain.