C19: The Society of Nineteenth Century Americanists has recently released a podcast focusing on John W. Jones, a fugitive slave who settled in Elmira and became an active agent of the Underground Railroad, frequently conspiring with Mark Twain’s father-in-law, Jervis Langdon. Jones eventually took on the role of sexton of Elmira’s First Baptist Church and was responsible for the burial of almost 3,000 Confederate soldiers as the founding sexton of Woodlawn National Cemetery.
According to C19, “This episode uses a monument to unravel the story of John W. Jones, a self-emancipated Black activist, civic leader, and entrepreneur living in nineteenth-century Elmira, New York. Jones is most often remembered for the “caring” way he buried nearly 3,000 bodies of Confederate soldiers who died in a Civil War prison camp in Elmira. Jillian Spivey Caddell describes how her scholarly interest in Elmira and the life of John W. Jones (along with his connections to another famous visitor to the city, Mark Twain) led her to discover that her own ancestor was among the Confederates buried by Jones. To get a full sense of Jones’s character, Caddell interviews Talima Aaron, president of the Board of Trustees of the John W. Jones Museum; Rachel Dworkin, archivist for the Chemung County Historical Society; and Mary Wheeling, who also shares a personal connection with Jones and Elmira. The episode meditates on questions of how personal histories and scholarly interests collide and suggests ways that knowing the story of Jones can influence our teaching of C19 American literature and culture. Finally, it resituates Jones as central to conversations about Civil War memory and forms of nineteenth-century Black citizenship.”
The producer and primary narrator, Dr. Caddell, characterizes the episode as drawing from and building upon a previous episode of the C19 podcast produced by the Center for Mark Twain Studies and our resident scholar, Matt Seybold:
If you’ve listened to the earlier episode of the C19 Podcast on Mark Twain in Elmira, then you already have intimate insight into what Elmira was like in the nineteenth century and how Jones contributed to that radical landscape, both figuratively and literally. I’d like to build upon Matt Seybold’s work in that episode to allow Jones to step out of the shadow of figures like Mark Twain and Thomas K. Beecher.
You can find that earlier episode below. After you listen to these podcasts, you may be inclined to explore some of our related resources. Our interactive map of Woodlawn Cemetery provides virtual entry to the remarkable burial ground which Jones created. You can read Susan Crane’s letters about Jones from the Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection and view pictures of Jones courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society. For more about the unusual culture which Jones helped to create, visit our Mark Twain in Elmira resources page.
The Center for Mark Twain Studies is pleased to see more extended consideration of this fascinating and important figure for both local and national history!