Before Mark Twain Cave became the tourist attraction and historic site it is today, it was a place for many to wander around and find new discoveries.


In less than two weeks a new movie will be hitting theaters across the country.
It’s typical for fresh features to hit the silver screen every weekend, but this particular film may spark some interests - even if the majority of movie goers don’t care for full moons, mystery and blood-sucking creatures.
The film is called “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” and it’s based on the book by Seth Grahame-Smith which bears the same title. A mixture of some facts and loads of fiction involving the 16th President of the United States and bouts with vampires. The swirl of true events and attention-grabbing tales may make some Lincoln and Civil War buffs cringe, especially in a scene (which may or may not be in the movie but is detailed in a portion of the book) when a vampire by the name of Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell is sought.
Vampires, of course, are part of the fictional thrill, but what is very true is Dr. McDowell himself. He, in fact, was a real man. Very eccentric in his practices, quite frankly, which made him popular for interesting, and sometimes, unorthodox reasons.
McDowell was best known in St. Louis where he taught, but it was in Hannibal where one of his experiments became legendary.

Coffin in the cave
Before Mark Twain Cave became the tourist attraction and historic site it is today, it was a place for many to wander around and find new discoveries.
According to local historian Roberta Hagood, the cave was discovered in 1819 by Jack Sims and was then purchased by McDowell in 1849 and became known as McDowell’s Cave.
Later that year, the doctor’s teenage daughter passed away. But rather than give his pride and joy a proper burial, McDowell decided to do something different. Something unimaginable. Something eerie.
“A rumor began to circulate through the community that somewhere in those remote passages he had placed a coffin made of copper and glass containing the mortal remains of a 14-year-old girl whose hair grew longer every day,” said Jim Waddell, a Hannibal historian and portrayer of Mark Twain.
McDowell went as far as blocking the main entrance to his cave with an iron gate. Surely he thought this would protect his experiment and give his deceased child somewhat of a peaceful rest in death. Even the key made to unlock this mass iron gate weighed one pound.
Yet even back then Hannibal’s culture was just like it is today, a small community with tight-knit families, close friendships and trusting confidants. And when there was mystery surrounding McDowell’s Cave and what exactly the doctor was doing in there, well that’s when curiosity got the best of the townspeople.
“It didn’t take them long before they satisfied their curiosity,” Waddell said. “Within a couple of weeks, someone broke that gate off of its hinges.”
That’s when the rumor began to circulate. That’s when people just had to go into the cave and see for themselves what everyone was talking about.
Was there really a coffin in McDowell’s cave?
Was there really a dead girl inside whose hair got longer every day despite her lifelessness?
One day questions intrigued a group of young Hannibal boys so much, they decided to find out for themselves.

The adventure
In order to see what the cave had to offer, a day of hookey was established.
This wasn’t the first time Sam Clemens, John Briggs, John Meridth, Bob Bodine, B.F.M Farthing, and the Pitts brothers — Tom and Frank — had skipped school. This may have more than likely been one their more excitable skip days though because they just didn’t know what they would discover.
“There is an account written by B.F.M Farthing,” Waddell said. “Farthing said that they remember the time being 1850 because every day — all summer long — the streets were filled with wagon trains driven by a team of oxen heading to California because gold had been discovered there.”
When they crossed Bear Creek, there was Tom Blankenship fishing for catfish. He was good friends with the neighborhood boys despite not being able to go to school, and when he heard of their adventure, fishing didn’t seem all that fun.
They followed the road along the river, passed beneath Lover’s Leap and finally arrived at the cave.
It was a humid, sweltering Midwestern summer. The boys undoubtedly were soaked in the sweat that dripped from their pores, however, in the cave it was always cooler, always pleasant. The pitch-black darkness greeted the Hannibal youths as they cooled off walking the trails, squeezing through tight spaces, and ducking the large rock formations. Their only source of light were dim candles, which was just enough more than 160 years ago.
“Sam knew the cave as good as any of the boys, and he was leading the way,” Waddell said. “Finally, they turned a corner and he turned up his candle. And there suspended from the ceiling by two chains was that coffin; swaying back and forth.”
It’s unknown if the coffin was actually swaying. Some published reports of the boys’ venture have the swaying coffin confused with Clemens’ dancing candle flame.
Yet there it was, the final resting place of McDowell’s daughter hanging from the ceiling in a uniquely designed coffin. The rumors were true and that was enough for the boys. The site of the dead body was almost more than they bargained for.
Bodine suggested the group leave and no one objected. Only problem was they couldn’t find their way out. They had made it all the way to the portion of the cave where the dead girl hung, but the criss-crossing trails of the cave took the boys around corners and to different areas they didn’t know. Even a couple of the boys who were considered expert cave dwellers were lost and didn’t know where to go.
Fear settled in and they eventually cried themselves to sleep.
Would they see the light of day again?
Was investigating a rumor worth all of this?
The boys probably went through loads of questions they were asking themselves in hindsight.
“Bob Bodine remembered the training that he had received all of his life, and he said, fellas lets pray. They prayed every prayer they knew; Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, Our Father Who Art In Heaven, they didn’t miss a single one,” Waddell said. “Their prayers were answered, when they finished they heard the voice of a search party coming. With all those boys gone on a school day, the adults realized there was only one place they could be and not be heard, so they had come to look for them in the cave.”
The 24-hours of mystery, fear and tears in the cave may have served more than just a moment in childhood.
“It’s no doubt the inspiration Mark Twain (Sam Clemens) used to write the section of Tom Sawyer where Tom and Becky get lost in the cave,” Waddell said.
And as for McDowell’s daughter?
“Public outcry caused McDowell to remove the body from the cave,” Waddell said. “Because the boys got lost and because other people were going in there to see it. The community did not want to tolerate that.”