Note from the editor: My father, William B. Spaun, was president of the Tenth Judicial Circuit Bar Association in 1959, and arranged a dedication ceremony for the Clemens Justice of the Peace building. When I realized that the 50th anniversary was approaching, I asked Henry Sweets to help mark the occasion. I was 8 years old at the time of the dedication, and remember vividly the excitement surrounding the event within our household. That’s my father’s red Chevrolet Impala convertible parked at the right of the building to be dedicated. Thanks to Steve Chou for finding this photo to share with you today, and to Henry Sweets for telling the story so eloquently. Mary Lou Montgomery
On April 30, 1959, members of the Tenth Judicial Circuit Bar Association and guests met to dedicate the office of John Marshall Clemens as a public shrine. The day’s ceremonies were presided over by William B. Spaun, president of the association.
John Marshall Clemens read law in Columbia, Kentucky and was admitted to the Kentucky Bar. After his marriage to Jane Lampton, the Clemenses moved to Tennessee where Clemens practiced law. In 1838 the family moved to Florida, Missouri. In Florida Clemens was elected a judge of the Monroe County Court and added the title “Judge” to his name.
The Clemens family moved to Hannibal in late 1839. No known records show that John Marshall Clemens actually practiced law in Hannibal, but he did become a justice of the peace and held court sessions for several years before his death in March, 1847. The building labeled “John M. Clemens Justice of the Peace” and often known as the Clemens Law Office, was used during his period as justice of the peace.
Following Clemens’ use, the building at 120 Bird Street had a varied history. Early city directories indicate it was a residence, a boarding house, and a restaurant at various times. In the 1930s it stood vacant and in poor condition. In 1943 the future of the building was changed forever with help from an outside source.
Warner Brothers was filming a biography of Mark Twain titled “The Adventures of Mark Twain,” starring Fredric March as Twain. Representatives from Warner Brothers visited Hannibal during their research phase and received a warm welcome. As a thank you to Hannibal, Warner Brothers purchased the structure and gave it to the City of Hannibal on Nov. 30, 1943.
The building was now saved, but little use was made over the next decade. By 1955 the building itself was deteriorating badly and was threatened by the poor condition of an adjoining building near collapse.
Mrs. Dulany Mahan stepped forward and gave a piece of land on Hill Street across from the Mark Twain Boyhood Home as a new location for the historic building. The structure was moved from 112 Bird Street to 205 Hill Street, strengthened, furnished, and readied to open to the public in 1959.
As a start of Missouri’s Law Day 1959 celebration, the dedication ceremonies were planned for April 30 so participants could return to their respective communities for Law Day activities on May 1, the actual Law Day date.
Local attorney William B. Spaun presided and introduced speakers who included Lieutenant Governor Edward V. Long and Honorable Harry Gershenson, Past President of the Missouri Bar. Following the remarks, Hon. Elgin T. Fuller, Judge of the Tenth Judicial Circuit of Missouri unveiled a bronze plaque memorializing the occasion.
The building as opened in 1959 has two rooms open to the public. The front is presented as a courtroom, following descriptions of John Marshall Clemens’ court. The rear room has mannequins displaying a scene from Mark Twain’s book The Innocents Abroad in which he described sleeping overnight in the rear of his father’s office and awaking to find a dead body that had been placed on the floor.
The building is again in need of structural work which is being planned by the Mark Twain Home Foundation. When this restoration is undertaken the interpretation will focus on the legal system of the 1840s and the role of a justice of the peace.