Hannibal, Mo. The white-haired man squinted from the lectern at the star-struck youngsters and old friends eager to hear his stories. Suddenly, the words that usually came so easily weren't there.
The bittersweet recollection of his boyhood, thoughts of time's passage and lost friends and loved ones, the knowledge that he was home for the final time overcame him.
Mark Twain bowed his head and began to sob.
It was 100 years ago that the author and humorist paid his final visit to Hannibal, his hometown and the inspiration for his most famous works. Twain spent parts of five days in late May and early June 1902 in Hannibal, a visit that gave him a burst of inspiration yet a strong sense of melancholy and an enhanced awareness of his own pending mortality.
"If you look at his age and the fact that he had not been here for 12 years before that visit, he probably knew it would be his last trip back to Hannibal," said Henry Sweets, curator of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, centerpiece of the downtown historic district built largely on Twain's legacy.
Twain was born Samuel Clemens on Nov. 30, 1835, in the tiny northeast Missouri village Florida. His family soon moved to the Mississippi River town Hannibal. The picturesque setting and roughhewn characters were the inspiration for fictional St. Petersburg, Mo., in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Tom and Huck, Becky Thatcher, Injun Joe and others were based on real childhood friends and town characters.
Twain left Hannibal at 18, taking a job on a steamboat (where he took his pen name -- "Mark Twain" was a phrase indicating the water was a safe depth) before becoming one of America's greatest writers. He returned only sporadically, usually for brief visits during lecture tours or to attend a funeral, Sweets said.
In late 1901, the University of Missouri contacted Twain about making the trip to Columbia for an honorary doctorate. "He saw the trip also as a chance to return home quietly to Hannibal," said Paul Sorrentino, professor of English at Virginia Tech and a noted Twain expert.
Instead of a quiet visit home, though, the trip turned into a media circus. More than 100 newspapers chronicled Twain's every move.
The sleepy river town Twain left as a teenager was a far different place in 1902. Ron Powers, author of a book on Hannibal, "White Town Drowsing," wrote that the city at the time boasted 18,000 residents (about the same as today), 56 daily passenger trains, 112 factories, a streetcar system and the world's largest Portland cement plant.
Twain's first two stops -- to his boyhood home and Mount Olivet Cemetery -- symbolized his internal struggle, according to Sorrentino.
"Whereas the home represented his youth and the imaginative world of Huck and Tom, the cemetery -- the burial ground of his parents, his brothers Henry and Orion, and most of 'the boys' from his past -- reminded him of the painful reality of the present," Sorrentino wrote in an issue of the biannual "Mark Twain Journal."
Intertwined with the melancholy was the joy of revisiting his boyhood haunts and relishing his celebrity. Twain met with grade schoolers, handed out diplomas at the high school graduation, quipped with reporters, lectured at churches, attended receptions and dinners in his honor.
One day, he and boyhood pal John Briggs took a long carriage ride. A reporter for the Ralls County Record went along as the men rode the hilly riverside landscape, talking about old friends and old times.
"Let us be boys again today and live over the past, for this is one of the happiest days of my life," Twain said.
As they passed an orchard, Twain and Briggs recalled stealing peaches -- then plotting revenge against the slave who set dogs on the young thieves. At a river overlook, Twain recalled swimming the width of the river -- barely.
"That was the closest call I ever had," Twain said.
The trip to Hannibal was so inspiring that Twain contemplated revisiting Tom and Huck as adults, Sorrentino said. He began putting together a two-part book that would culminate with the old friends returning to St. Petersburg late in life.
But after writing half the manuscript, Twain destroyed it, apparently torn about how the characters should ultimately end up. Were they prosperous, successful, insane? Twain ultimately decided it was best not to know.
Despite the joy of his visit and the burst of creativity, newspaper reports noted several incidents where Twain was overcome with emotion.
He was barely able to make it through a speech at the Presbyterian Church on May 30. As he wrote in a letter to his wife, Livy, "I had to stand silent a long minute till I could speak without my voice breaking." Twain "wept manly tears," the St. Louis Republic wrote, as he spoke of "the cordiality of my reception by the old -- old men and women who knew me here when I was a boy."
Later that day, Twain spoke to the Labinnah (Hannibal spelled backward) Club. St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Robertus Love wrote that the speech began in typical Twain fashion as he charmed the crowd with his characteristic wit.
"Then Mark Twain's whitened head was bowed for a moment and his shoulders shook," Love wrote. As the tears came, Twain "seemed to be groping for words. He mumbled something that was not understood, and at last he looked up into the now tense, sympathetic faces of his auditors."
Those faces, Love wrote, "showed love for the town's foremost citizen, who has proved upon this occasion and many others, that he loved his old home."