HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Mark Twain Cave officials say a signature found on a limestone wall inside the cave may have been scrawled by a young Samuel L. Clemens decades before he became a world-renowned author.
The discovery of the name "Clemens," written in cursive with a pencil, was announced Tuesday at a press conference at the Mark Twain Cave complex at the south end of Hannibal.
Mark Twain lived in Hannibal from age 4 to 17.
The signature was found on a wall in a dark, narrow passageway not normally open for tours.
Cave officials say they contacted several Mark Twain scholars and signature experts in a quest to verify that the signature belonged to Twain. They came away convinced the signature is his.
"We found Sam Clemens' name inside the cave," Linda Coleberd, the cave's owner, told a crowd at the press conference.
Coleberd said the signature was found July 26 while the three-day Clemens Conference was taking place in downtown Hannibal. The conference is held every four years and attracts Mark Twain scholars from across the country for a wide range of Twain-related topics.
Coleberd said she and Cindy Lovell, the former director of the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal and former director of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Conn., were taking two other conference-goers on a tour of the cave. As always, the women were keeping their eyes open for the possibility of seeing Twain's signature among the thousands of names that have been written, carved or etched onto three miles of interior passageways ever since the cave was discovered 200 years ago this coming winter.
"We have looked and looked and looked and looked" for Twain's name on the cave's walls, Lovell said. "I just wanted somebody to find it -- anybody to find it -- because I knew it was in there. I just wanted to see it myself before I died."
Coleberd said: "I had the flashlight. Cindy had the eyeballs." Then suddenly, she said, "There was that name (Clemens). Cindy's eyes got bigger than saucers."
Lovell said: "All of a sudden I just started yelling 'Clemens! Clemens! I see Clemens!' "
The discovery of the Clemens signature prompted a search for verification that the signature may have been written by Mark Twain himself while he was a boy growing up in Hannibal.
"He and all his buddies came down here and played in the cave," Coleberd said. Twain would later make detailed references to the cave in several of his books and his autobiography. For example, the cave played a central role in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" when fictional characters Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher got lost in the cave for a time.
Since only the last name, Clemens, was written on the wall, that left open the possibility that the signature could have been written by one of Sam Clemens' brothers -- Orion or Henry; his sister, Pamela; a cousin with the same last name; or someone else.
Coleberd said cave officials conferred with several Mark Twain scholars and signature experts who compared photos of the signature with some of Twain's known signatures from his boyhood and adult years. Similarities were found.
Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University-Montgomery who has spent 50 years studying Twain, said in a press release issued by the cave: "I am going to go on record as believing this to be Sam Clemens's handwriting."
Coleberd even asked some Twain experts at the University of California-Berkeley, which houses many of Twain's papers, to look at photos of the signature for comparison with Twain's known signatures. She said their response was: "We cannot say that it's not his."
Henry Sweets, executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, said the discovery of the Clemens signature is a big boost for the cave and for Hannibal's links to one of America's most beloved authors.
"I think it's a wonderful tie to the past and something that you knew would be there. You just didn't know when it would be discovered, but it's wonderful that it has been found," he said.
Sweets acknowledged there's always the possibility the signature might not be Twain's, but it's hard to prove with certainty one way or the other.
"How do you know any signature is authentic?" he said. "You find the best sources and verify the particular handwriting and handwriting style. They (cave officials) certainly seem to have done that with the people they talked to. That's about all the authentication we can do."
Gail Bryant, director of the Hannibal Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she is thrilled that "at long last Sam Clemens's signature has been found in the cave that was named for him."
Bryant said Mark Twain Cave for years has been one of Hannibal's top tourist destinations.
"People from all around the world come out to experience the cave and everything else that Hannibal has to offer," she said. The discovery of the Clemens signature will only increase the draw.
"This is great for tourism. It's great for the city of Hannibal. It's great for Northeast Missouri," Bryant said.
Mayor James Hark said Tuesday's announcement was yet another highlight of Hannibal's yearlong bicentennial celebration in 2019.
"This is quite a momentous occasion," he said.