On an empyreal spring evening in 1858, with the oleander in bloom upriver and early jasmine scenting the wind, the steersman for the Mississippi steamboat Pennsylvania, a bookish 22-year-old named Sam Clemens, guided the massive packet into the docks under the winking gaslights of New Orleans. As the Pennsylvania berthed, Clemens glanced to his side and recognized the adjacent craft, the John J. Roe. Perhaps recalling his many happy assignments steering the Roe, the young apprentice pilot leapt spontaneously onto the freighter’s deck. He was amiably shaking the hands of his former mates when he froze, transfixed by the sight of a slight figure in a white frock and braids: a girl not yet on the cusp of womanhood who would forever after haunt his dreams and shape his literature. Mark Twain’s description, written years later, of the girl as she emerged from the jumble of deckhands, leaves no doubt as to the spell she cast on him. “Now, out of their midst, floating upon my enchanted vision, came that slip of a girl of whom I have spoken…a frank and simple and winsome child who had never been away from home in her life before.” She had, the author continued, “brought with her to these distant regions the freshness and the fragrance of her own prairies.”
The winsome child’s name was Laura Wright. She was only 14, perhaps not quite, on that antebellum May evening, enjoying a river excursion in the care of her uncle, William C. Youngblood, who sometimes piloted the Roe. Her family hailed from Warsaw, Missouri, an inland hamlet some 200 miles west of St. Louis. She surely could never have imagined the import of that excursion. In this centenary year of Mark Twain’s death, it may seem that literary detectives have long since ransacked nearly every aspect of his life and works. Yet Laura Wright remains among the final enigmas associated with him. Only one faded photograph of her is known to exist.