- The Washington Times - Friday, December 16, 2005

HANNIBAL, Mo. — Apart from some killing and grave-robbing in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Mark Twain immortalized his hometown of Hannibal as a sleepy place where life rolls by as slowly as a barge going down the Mississippi. But that’s pure fiction nowadays.

Drugs and a lack of jobs have brought a boom in armed robbery and theft to this community of about 18,000 that calls itself “America’s Hometown.”

Robberies per year nearly quadrupled between 2000 and 2004 to 26, and are running at about the same level this year as they were last year, the police department reports. With a robbery occurring about every other week, store clerks such as Bonnie Robbins have come to accept the danger as one more occupational hazard.

“Around here, jobs are scarce,” said Miss Robbins, who was held up in May while on the night shift at the Mark Twain Amoco on Mark Twain Avenue.

Although Hannibal averages only one murder per year, last year the FBI counted 190 burglaries and 1,227 cases of larceny in Hannibal, for a property-crime rate 56 percent higher than the national average, according to Morgan Quitno Press, which analyzes crime statistics for U.S. cities.

Most of the crime is blamed on people looking for money for drugs, namely methamphetamine, which has become a major scourge across Missouri, and crack, which arrives from big cities such as St. Louis and Kansas City.

Many Midwestern towns have become “outcroppings” of rising crime even as the national crime rate continues to fall, said Joseph F. Donnermeyer, an Ohio State University professor of rural sociology who studies small-town crime. Mr. Donnermeyer said Hannibal’s economy is a key factor.

As the seat of Marion County, Hannibal is the economic hub for a largely agricultural area where per-capita income was about $26,500 on average last year — about 48 percent less than the national average and about 31 percent less than the Missouri average, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.

About 11 percent of families in Hannibal live below the poverty line, compared with 9.2 percent nationwide and 8.6 percent in Missouri, according to the Census Bureau.

Twain once described Hannibal as a “white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer’s morning.” Hannibal was also the inspiration for St. Petersburg, where Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn lived.

Hannibal has done a lot to exploit its Twain connection and create a tourist economy, with such attractions as Twain museums; Twain’s boyhood home, where Samuel Clemens lived during the 1840s and ‘50s; the Becky Thatcher House; statues of Huckleberry and Tom; Mississippi riverboat cruises; a tour of the cave that Tom and Becky visited; and, for the past half-century, National Tom Sawyer Days, a festival held around the Fourth of July every year, during which youngsters in straw hats and rolled-up overalls compete in a fence-painting contest, among other events inspired by the book.

Main Street is lined with antiques stores, restaurants and galleries.

But tourism can provide only so many jobs, said lifelong Hannibal resident John Roberts. There are not many jobs at factories or other businesses in the area to employ the town’s young, he said. As a self-employed house painter, Mr. Roberts often travels more than 90 miles to St. Louis for work.

“This town just ain’t growing. You got no jobs that pay anything,” Mr. Roberts said.

A popular target for armed robbers is a strip of convenience stores and gas stations that runs from Interstate 72 into the heart of the historic riverside downtown.

“Mark Twain Avenue — it’s like the flip of a quarter to see which one they hit next,” said Hannibal Police Department Capt. Lyndell Davis.

Capt. Davis said his 38-member department has increased patrols along Mark Twain Avenue. He also said officers advise businesses on ways to stay safe, such as putting more than one person on the night shift and keeping store windows uncluttered with signs.

After being robbed twice in six months — a clerk was held up last month by a young man wearing a crude mask and wielding a shotgun — the Mark Twain Amoco now locks its doors after midnight. Clerks let in customers as they arrive.

“They’re not getting in if they have a mask on, I’ll tell you that,” Miss Robbins said.

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