The Original Tom Sawyer?

Last month I read an interesting book about the early days of San Francisco and a firefighter with an interesting name.

Black Fire: The True Story of the Original Tom Sawyer--and of the Mysterious Fires That Baptized Gold Rush-Era San Francisco - Robert Graysmith

Black Fire: The True Story of the Original Tom Sawyer–and of the Mysterious Fires That Baptized Gold Rush-Era San Francisco by Robert Graysmith was a good read, but to me the title is a bit deceptive. The book was more about the early days of firefighting in San Francisco than an actual biography or story of Tom Sawyer. He was one of the early firefighters, but to me his role in the story was a bit over played.

Tracy California Firefighter statue

The Firefighter

The statue shown above is of a firefighter statue in Tracy, California. I thought of this statue as I read the book, so thought I would add it in here. I also have a picture of an old fire engine from the early 1900’s that I though about including, but decided that it is one that I will share in a future post about fire engines. I am still doing some research toward that post :-).

OK, back to the current subject. The book also reads more like Historical Fiction than History or Biography. The facts and details were there, but they were interspersed among a work of fiction. I am not saying that the fiction was inaccurate, but there was a lot of conjecture in conversations, actions of people and sequence of events.

The author does make a good argument that this Tom Sawyer was who Mark Twain used as a basis for his famous character. However, I am not convinced that he is the only influence. I do believe that he may have got the name from him, but the actual character traits are most likely an amalgam of several other people that he knew.

I did take a quick look at the 1860 census for San Francisco at and sure enough, Tom Sawyer is there.

Tom Sawyer - 1860 Census - San Francisco, California - Firefighter

He is listed with his wife and two sons and also with an occupation of Firefighter.

I had grandiose plans of doing a comprehensive census search and seeing which of the many Tom Sawyers might have come in contact with Samuel Clemens. However, I got sidetracked on other projects :-). There were several Tom Sawyers in Iowa and Missouri that lived close to the Mississippi river so he may have known, or known of, one of them. In any case, wherever he got the name it was a good one.

After I got a ways into the book, I recognized the style of writing and realized that I had read another book by Graysmith. I have also read his book The Bell Tower: The Case of Jack the Ripper Finally Solved… in San Francisco. I remember this book also being one that was more Historical Fiction than History or Non-Fiction. He did put forth an interesting theory on the identity of Jack the Ripper, but to me it was not convincing.

So, if you want an interesting story about the early days of San Francisco, the many destructive fires and the firefighters that fought the fires then this is a good book to pick up. I really did enjoy the story when I looked at it as Historical Fiction.


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6 Responses to The Original Tom Sawyer?

  1. It sounds a great read, Steven! I love your statue.

  2. J. G. Burdette says:

    Glad to see your review and read your thoughts on it. Now I know if I’ll read it or not.

    • vanbraman says:

      Actually, for you I recommend it. I didn’t talk about Sawyer’s ship wreck on the way to San Francisco and his steam boat experience. There is also a lot of information about the ship graveyards of San Francisco.

  3. Boomdeeadda says:

    Interesting that ‘the’ Tom Sawyer’ lived in San Francisco. I didn’t even think about what he went on to do. We’re traveling to San Francisco in May, very exciting.

    • vanbraman says:

      I am not far from San Francisco, let me know if you want any tips on what to see.

      • Boomdeeadda says:

        Well that’s so nice of you Steven, Thank-you. Julia also used to live near Napa and gave me all kinds of helpful tips too. I don’t know if you follow here, but my goodness she’s a wonderful spirit. We’ll have 4 days or so. I hope we do get to see all the hi-lites at least…want me to bring my scissors…LOL

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