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Twain's boyhood home in Hannibal would benefit from new coin

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 19, 2012 - WASHINGTON – “There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress,” Mark Twain once wrote, in one of his verbal fusillades aimed at Capitol Hill, where he said “fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.”

Despite the satirist’s persistent lampooning of Congress, members of that august body have quoted him more than any other author during their speeches. And on Wednesday, the House voted to authorize commemorative coins in his honor to benefit the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal and three other Twain sites.


“Mark Twain has been an important part of our country’s history,” said the House bill’s chief sponsor, U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, whose district includes Hannibal. He said the $5 gold and $1 silver coins “will help preserve Twain’s literary legacy and historic sites.”

Earlier efforts to gain congressional approval of the coin failed in 2008 and 2009, but the latest bill gained 298 cosponsors and the House voted overwhelmingly, 408-4, to pass it. The House action may spur action on the parallel Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and cosponsored by all the senators from Missouri, Connecticut, New York and California.

“We’re tickled to death” about the House vote, said Cindy Lovell, executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, which celebrates its 100th anniversary as a museum this year. “It’s long overdue, and we hope the coin revenue will help us preserve the historic Twain sites in Hannibal.”

To promote the coin concept and build support for a Senate vote, the Hannibal museum has teamed with the other three nonprofit institutions that would benefit from the planned coin surcharge – the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Conn.; the Mark Twain Papers and Project at the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley; and the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, in New York – to sponsor a new website.

But, even if the Senate approves and the president signs the bill into law, the coins would not be produced until about 2016, supporters say. Both the gold and silver coins would feature designs “emblematic of the life and legacy of Mark Twain” that – after a review by the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee– would be chosen by the Treasury secretary after consultation with the Commission of Fine Arts and the board of the Mark Twain House and Museum.

Luetkemeyer, a fiscal conservative, said the coins would be struck at the U.S. Mint “at no cost to hard-working taxpayers,” because the sale price of each coin will be calculated at the combined total of each coin’s respective face value, production and design cost. The revenue from the $35 surcharge on the sale of each of the planned 100,000 gold coins and the $10 surcharge for each of the 350,000 silver coins would be split equally among the four Twain-related institutions.

“We are hoping to use the funds for our endowment,” said Lovell, a Twain educator and scholar. “We maintain nine historical sites here in Hannibal, which is costly. But we try hard to maintain Twain’s legacy for the visitors from around the globe who come here.”

The Hannibal museum receives no state or federal money, she said, with its annual budget of about $1 million coming from admissions, gift shop sales, grants and contributions. “Grants have become tougher to get in recent years, and attendance was down last year,” after an uptick in 2010, the 100th anniversary of Twain’s death.

While the Hannibal sites commemorate the childhood of Samuel L. Clemens – whose pen name was Mark Twain – the house in Hartford is where he spent most of his adult life. Twain also did much of his writing at his wife’s home town of Elmira, N.Y., and Elmira College hosts a Mark Twain conference and provides tours of Twain’s study there. The Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library houses Twain’s papers.

“These coins will help a new generation of Americans learn about Twain’s contributions to Connecticut and our country by providing support for the institutions that work every day to honor his legacy,” said U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., who worked with Luetkemeyer to get votes for the coin bill.

And, of course, that new generation of readers will also be exposed to Twain’s many attacks on the Congress of his day. “Congress was fair game for him,” laughed Lovell. “In fact, I’d say that Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, as satirists, descended from Twain.”