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Flashback: Two Fathoms Deep

Photograph taken in Bellefontaine Cemetery by Paul Piaget, Library of Congress Photographs & Prints Collection, HABS MO, 96-SALU, 84-3.

Acid rain has dripped over the cusp of Capt. Isaiah Sellers’ tombstone and melted him like a Popsicle, erasing his beard and eroding his eyes to sockets. In life, he was 6-foot-2, red-faced, straight-backed, dark-haired, fond of sleeping, and impossible to wake. A young Samuel Clemens, apprenticing under Sellers as a cub pilot, got a boot in the face trying to rouse him for third watch. That boot, according to Capt. “Alligator” Jack Downing, was made of glistening patent leather, part of an ensemble Sellers sported “at all hours”: a fine formal suit, silk derby hat, starched collar, and “one of those old-fashioned high black satin stocks in which he could scarcely turn his head.” Sellers became a celebrity for piloting between St. Louis and New Orleans nearly 500 times without an accident, and began writing for newspapers. In May 7, 1959, he published a short item in New Orleans’ True Delta, predicting flooding on Canal Street.

Ten days later, “Sergeant Fathom,” of “Railroad Line steamer Trombone,” published a 1,102-word response in the Crescent, lampooning Sellers’ style, which was as florid as his complexion. “Fathom” was actually Clemens, still smarting from that kick to the nose.

Sellers was devastated by the satire. “He had never been held up to ridicule before,” Clemens wrote later. “He was sensitive, and he never got over the hurt which I had wantonly and stupidly inflicted upon his dignity.” Sellers, before his death, took revenge by telling reporters that after two years on his riverboat, Clemens still “knew no more of the river than a six-months-old baby.” And Clemens in turn repented for ruining Sellers’ writing career—by usurping his pen name, Mark Twain.

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