Embedded within this post, you will find letters written by two important Elmirans – Susan Crane and John W. Jones – reflecting upon the history of the Underground Railroad. Crane was the sister-in-law of Mark Twain. She commissioned the octagonal study where Twain wrote his most famous works, and hosted the Clemens family’s annual Summer pilgrimage to her dairy farm. Crane was also the eldest daughter of Jervis Langdon, who actively aided fugitive slaves from at least 1844 onward.
Jones was among those Langdon harbored. Together they expanded the Underground Railroad operations in the region and Jones personally assisted more than 800 enslaved persons. He was also the first caretaker of Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery, directly responsible for the work which led to it being designated a National Cemetery.
I’m going to offer some brief contextualization of these documents. If you prefer to merely read them for yourself, simply scroll down.
In 1892, having recently been hired into the Department of European History at Ohio State University, Wilbur H. Siebert began research on what would become The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898). As Siebert acknowledges in his preface, his subject was “in an extraordinary sense a hidden one.” The covert operation of the Underground Railroad was in danger of passing out of living memory. Even the youngest conductors and stationmasters were more than fifty years old. Life expectancy in the U.S. was around 43 years, and was significantly lower for African-Americans, who, of course, participated disproportionately in the Underground Railroad. Siebert’s challenge was to identify and interview surviving participants in remote locations before their stories were lost.
As part of this process, in August of 1896, Siebert contacted Susan Crane. Though her father, Jervis Langdon, was long dead, Siebert hoped Crane, born in 1836, might have some memory of her family’s activities. In her first reply, Crane says, “The work was so silent, and I was so young that my personal knowledge is slight.” But, she promises to consult some of the “older citizens” of Elmira, including John W. Jones.
That Crane volunteered to work on Siebert’s exemplifies the generosity for which she was renowned, particularly given the circumstances. When Siebert’s request arrived, Crane’s sister, Olivia Langdon Clemens, was in residence at Quarry Farm. Unfortunately, it was not as part of her family’s usual Summer visit. On the Sunday before Crane’s first reply they had buried Olvia’s eldest daughter at Woodlawn Cemetery. Susy Clemens, named after her aunt, had succumbed to spinal meningitis. That Crane answered Siebert’s letter at all, while her family was in mourning, suggests how important his project was to her.
A few weeks later, Crane sends her second, more substantive, reply. Unfortunately, Siebert’s side of the correspondence has not survived, so we don’t know exactly what he asked during their ongoing exchange, but readers will be able make educated guesses. The account Crane offers seems to be primarily based upon conversations with Jones, though she acknowledge speaking with others as well.
As far as Twain Studies is concerned, the final page of her September 14, 1896 letter includes a significant revelation, as Crane reports that “about eight years ago” she had introduced Jones to Twain expressly for the purpose of “making some record of Mr. Jones’s story.” To my knowledge, this is the only record we have that Twain and Jones were directly acquainted.
If Crane’s memory is correct, the meeting between Jones and Twain probably took place during the Summer of 1888, when the Clemens family was in Elmira from late June until September 24th. That Twain declines to attempt to tell Jones’s story, despite finding it “so interesting,” represents a change in his philosophy. In 1874 he had transcribed, allegedly “word for word,” the account of Mary Ann Cord, the cook at Quarry Farm, and sold it to The Atlantic Monthly as “A True Story, Repeated Word For Word As I Heard It.” Twain’s experiments with black dialect continued with “Sociable Jimmy,” also published in 1874, and, most famously, climaxed with the character of Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). That Twain insists Jones’s story “should only be told in [his] language” represents a conspicuous change of heart.
Crane’s letters also reference an S. O. Gleason as having participated in some fashion during the 1850s, though she reports the Gleason claims not to remember anything. Dr. Silas Oresmus Gleason and his wife, Dr. Rachel Brooks Gleason, ran the Elmira Water Cure, a highly-regarded therapeutic spa located up the road from Quarry Farm, which they opened in 1852.
These documents corroborate and supplement our developing account of the operation of the Underground Railroad in Elmira and, particularly, the Langdon family’s involvement. Crane claims that when she asked Jones how involved her father had been, he replied, “He was all of it, giving me at one his last dollar, when he did not know where another would come from.”
Crane also refers to a William Still. Still was another conductor on the Underground Railroad, as well a prominent antislavery activist. Still also produced a history of the Underground Railroad, published in 1872 and expanded in 1878. Siebert draws liberally from Still’s account. Following the letters, I have included links to both Siebert and Still’s history, which are now in the public domain.
Throughout his life, Mark Twain had what his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine called a “natural leaning toward ministers of the Gospel.” While acknowledging that Twain was “hopelessly unorthodox” and “rankly rebellious as to creeds,” Paine noted that “something in his heart always warmed toward any laborer in the vineyard.”
From his days roughing it out West to his final years in Connecticut, Twain would befriend many ministers. However, it might be something of a stretch to say that he “warmed toward any” member of the clergy. Most of his clerical friends labored on the religiously liberal side of the theological vineyard. In fact, Twain had little patience for ponderously dogmatic men of the cloth preaching from what he dismissed as the “drowsy pulpit.”
This would account for his long friendship with the Reverend Thomas Kinnicut Beecher, born today (February 10) in 1824. Far from dogmatic in his theology, Beecher occupied a pulpit that was anything but “drowsy”.
During his tenure as The Park Church’s minister in Elmira, Beecher was considered “one of the most radical preachers of the time,” according to Max Eastman, who literally grew up in Park Church. Eastman’s parents were both ordained ministers who served as Beecher’s assistants there (his mother Annis, in fact, was one of the first women to be ordained in America). (For more on the Eastmans, Beecher, and the Park Church culture of Elmira, check out the recent “Gospel of Revolt” podcast episode produced by the Center for Mark Twain Studies.)
Although he would grow up to be an atheist, Eastman would still praise the independent-minded Beecher for having “no doctrine but the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man.” (Quoted from “Mark Twain’s Elmira” by Max Eastman [Harper’s Magazine, 1938]; also available in Mark Twain in Elmira)
A protégé of the controversial Hartford divine Horace Bushnell, Beecher possessed the same “rich fertility and bold novelties of thought and in the subtle penetration of his aesthetic imagination” as his mentor. (Quote from Thomas K. Beecher: Teacher of the Park Church at Elmira, New York, 1854-1900) Eastman would credit these enlightened qualities with making the progressive Park Church a hub for “the most interesting clusters of people and ideas that American churchdom ever produced…they happened, moreover, to be the same people and ideas that Mark Twain had absorbed into himself by marriage.”
Years before Twain would meet Beecher, however, his reputation as a complex and paradoxical minister extended back to before the Civil War. According to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center,
From a young age, Thomas Beecher had shown a disinterest in the ministry and an aptitude for natural sciences and education…Up to the beginning of the Civil War he opposed abolition as too radical. He disagreed with the woman’s rights movement that his sister Isabella and brother Henry supported. These views led to his dismissal (from New England Church in Williamsburg, NY), and he accepted a call from the Independent Congregational Church in Elmira, NY in 1853…Despite Thomas’ anti-abolition stance there is evidence he participated in the Underground Railroad.
After the Civil War broke out, Beecher would remain conflicted about his ministerial purpose and the relevance of organized religion on the battlefield while serving as a chaplain in the Union army. He reflected in a letter from December 1862:
Even while enjoying the most advantageous social position in my regiment of any chaplain whom I have ever heard of, I am clearly persuaded that, as a chaplain, I am quite useless. Were it not that there has been a world of other work, I should long since have relieved the regiment of my presence—and the treasury of my support.
And now as to religious reading and other literature furnished by the million pages for distribution, I have a word or two. The paper, pictures, type and plentifulness are beyond praise. But the contents are often times ridiculously unapt and worthless among soldiers.
Beecher would recover a sense of pastoral purpose upon returning to Elmira and volunteering to minister to captured confederates held in the prisoner of war camp there. Not only was he the first minister among local clergy to lead a worship service for the POWs—his sermon was apparently considered “practical, sensible, and liberal”—but his subsequent sermons would also become the most popular among the prisoners. (Quoted from “History of the Park Church”)
After the war, as Twain was courting Olivia, Beecher provoked controversy among members of Elmira’s Ministerial Association by holding popular Sunday evening worship services in the town’s opera house. Twain drew from scripture to pen a biting defense of the unorthodox minister (who, like Jesus, had run afoul of the religious establishment). Writing under the pseudonym S’Cat in the Elmira Weekly Advertiser, Twain noted that Beecher “finds himself in the novel position of being responsible to God for his acts, instead of to the Ministerial Union of Elmira.” Twain continued with a sharp, sarcastic edge,
[Rev. Beecher] felt warranted in this course by a passage of Scripture which says: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel unto every creature.” Opera Houses were not ruled out specifically in this passage, and so he considered it proper to regard Opera Houses as a part of “all the world.” He looked upon the people who assembled there as coming under the head of “every creature.” … His great mistake was in supposing that when he had the Savior’s endorsement of his conduct, he had all that was necessary.
A few years later, as plans for constructing the new Park Church were underway, Twain would equate Beecher’s “peculiar” ministerial style with the very essence of the church’s “fresh and original” design. In an article published in the New York Times from 1871, Twain observed:
If Rev. Mr. Smith, or Rev. Mr. Jones, or Rev. Mr. Brown, were about to build a new church edifice, it would be projected on the same old pattern, and be like pretty much all the other churches in the country, and so I would naturally mention it as a new Presbyterian Church, or a new Methodist Church, or a new Baptist Church, and never think of calling it by the pastor’s name; but when a Beecher projects a church, that edifice is necessarily going to be something fresh and original. It is not going to be like any other church in the world; it is going to be as variegated, eccentric and marked with as peculiar and striking an individuality as a Beecher himself; it is going to have a deal more Beecher in it than any one narrow creed can fit in it…
From such sentiments, it’s apparent that Twain, who once had an ambition to be a preacher of the Gospel, felt a religious kinship with what Paine called Beecher’s “doubtful theology.” However, where Beecher would ultimately find solace in his unconventional Christian faith, Twain would continue his quest for, as Ron Powers put it, “a new faith system to fill the void.”
In an autobiographical dictation from 1907, Mark Twain reflected on this difference while still fondly recalling his good friend Thomas Beecher as “one of the best men I have ever known”:
I knew Reverend Thomas K. Beecher intimately for a good many years…He was deeply versed in the sciences, and his pulpit eloquence fell but little short of that of his great brother, Henry Ward. His was a keen intellect, and he was brilliant in conversation, and always interesting—except when his topic was theology. He had no theology of his own, any more than any other person; he had an abundance of it, but he got it all at second-hand. He would have been afraid to examine his subject with his own fine mind lest doubts should result, and unsettle him. He was a very frank, straightforward man, and he told me once, in the plainest terms, that when he came on from Connecticut to assume the pastorship of that Elmira church he was a strenuous and decided unbeliever. It astonished me. But he followed it with a statement which astonished me more; he said that with his bringing up he was aware that he could never be happy, or at peace, and free from terrors, until he should become a believer, and that he had accepted that pastorate without any pangs of conscience for the reason that he had made up his mind to compel himself to become a believer, let the cost be what it might. It seemed a strange thing to say, but he said it. He also said that within a twelvemonth or two he perfectly succeeded in his extraordinary enterprise, and that thenceforth he was as complete and as thorough a believer as any Christian that had ever lived. He was one of the best men I have ever known.
Samuel Clemens (a.k.a Mark Twain) and Olivia (“Livy”) Langdon were married on February 2, 1870, in the Langdon family parlor in Elmira, New York. Officiating were the family’s friend and minister, the Rev. Thomas K. Beecher, minister of Elmira’s Congregational Church (and brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher), and the Rev Joseph Twichell, pastor of the Asylum Hill Congregationalist Church in Hartford, Connecticut and soon to become one of Clemens’ most intimate friends. Among the hundred or so people present were Clemens’ friends Abel and Mary Mason Fairbanks (Mary Fairbanks wrote up the wedding for the Cleveland Herald), and his Buffalo Express colleague J.N. Larned. Clemens’ sister Pamela, and Pamela’s daughter Annie were his only relatives to attend. Not surprisingly, Langdon friends and family members were the most numerous—Livy’s parents, Olivia Lewis and Jervis Langdon; her foster sister Susan Crane and Susan’s husband Theodore; first cousins Edward L. Marsh and Anna Marsh Brown. Charlie, her brother, did not attend, having already left for a round-the-world tour. Additional guests included many Elmira friends, such as Fidelia E. Stanley, matron of Elmira College and mother of Livy’s friend Lottie Stanley; and Jervis Langdon’s business associates, such as General Alexander S. Diven, a former congressman. [i] The next morning the couple, with about twenty of the guests, boarded a train for Sam and Livy’s new home in Buffalo, New York (Scharnhorst, I:529).
It had been an unusual courtship. Clemens had met Livy through her brother, Charles (“Charlie”) Langdon, with whom he had become acquainted on the trip he had taken on the steamship Quaker City—the tour through Europe and the Holy Land that eventuated in Twain’s first travelogue, The Innocents Abroad (1869). Charlie had joined Clemens’s inner circle on the Quaker City, a group of young men notable for their parties, pranks, and other adventures. Once the trip was over, Sam and Charlie stayed in touch. In December of 1867 they met up in New York City, where both were visiting—Clemens on business, Charlie with his family. Charlie invited Sam to his family’s rooms at the St. Nicholas Hotel, where Clemens met not only the Langdon parents, but their daughter Olivia and her friend Alice Hooker. The group was heading to a literary evening—Charles Dickens was on a tour through the U.S., and he was performing in the city that night—and they invited Clemens to accompany them. In retrospect, that was his and Livy’s first “date.”
Some earlier Twain scholars have contended that Sam fell in love with Livy’s money long before he met her. Documentary evidence suggests that that isn’t entirely true. In the beginning at least, Sam admired Livy’s friend Alice as much as he admired Livy. Alice Hooker was the daughter of John and Isabella Beecher Hooker (the latter yet another of the Beecher clan). Isabella had known Livy since the girl was 14, when they found themselves roommates at the Gleason Water Cure in Elmira. Isabella introduced her daughter Alice to Livy, and a warm friendship ensued, with both girls making protracted visits to the others’ homes over their adolescence and early adulthood. That included inviting Alice to accompany them for their annual Christmas sojourn in New York City in 1867. When Charlie introduced Clemens to the family, then, the budding writer met two attractive girls. He encountered them at least twice more during his holiday sojourn in the city. A January 8, 1868 letter to his mother suggests that he treated them equally—including wangling invitations to both their homes.
I started to make calls, New Year’s Day, but I anchored ‸for the day‸ at the first house I came to—Charlie Langdon’s sister was there (beautiful girl,) & Miss Alice Hooker, another beautiful girl, a niece of Henry Ward Beecher’s. We sent the old folks home early, with instructions not to send the carriage till midnight, & then I just staid there & deviled the life out of those girls. I am going to spend a few days with the Langdon’s, in Elmira, New York, as soon as I get time, & a few days at Mrs. Hooker’s, in Hartford, Conn., shortly.
Clemens did visit Hartford soon after his New York sojourn, but he didn’t make it to Elmira until the following August (Scharnhorst I:448). When he did, he came with very different intentions than he had had when he flirted with both girls in New York City. Despite not having written to Livy during the 8-month interval between their meetings, by the time he arrived in Elmira he seems to have decided that she was his destined one—or that he was hers. The length of his stay suggests that he arrived prepared for a siege. The Langdons were accustomed to the coming and going of many guests. Their commodious house, located in downtown Elmira, was not far from the railroad station, which served the numerous railroad lines that passed through the town on their east/west or north/south routes. Old family friends like Alice made protracted visits (Alice stayed for five months in 1867); those who were using the house as a way station generally tarried a day or two, then went on their way. Clemens stayed two weeks, perhaps using his friendship with Charlie as his entrée. At the end of the sojourn he asked Livy to marry him. She refused.
Undaunted, Clemens managed to wrest permission to write to Livy, promising to obey her stricture that he not woo her via the mail. An onslaught of letters followed, and Clemens pressed his suit at least two more times over the next few months. Livy finally capitulated on November 26, after having rejected him three times. They agreed to a long engagement, both to allow Clemens to settle down financially and to allow plenty of time for the couple to get to know each other. And their relationship did develop, but not conventionally. Because Clemens was on the road for most of their engagement, he and Livy learned each other’s characters long-distance, through multiple, lengthy, letters.
In 1996 I published The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain. One of my scholarly interests is in reading–what, and how, people process the written word. Reading through the Clemens’s courtship letters, I was struck by the number of references to—and discussions of—books. It’s often difficult to know what courting couples say to each other because there generally isn’t anyone recording their conversation. Clemens and Langdon’s courtship was epistolary—conducted by way of letters. And epistolary relationships are gold mines for scholars because they leave records of what people are thinking and, in some cases, what the people around them are saying. We are lucky enough to have most of the letters Clemens wrote to Livy during this time because she diligently dated and filed them. Unfortunately, he did not pay her the same courtesy; most of hers are lost. Still, because the letters were a substitute for conversation, we can determine much of what Livy wrote from Sam’s responses to her. And one thing is abundantly clear—that books were their way of teaching each other who they were. Livy and Sam used other peoples’ writings to convey their ideas about model marriage, including portraits of ideal husbands and wives and the relationship between the sexes.
Reading through both the letters and the books and articles to which they refer has often made me wonder why these two thought they were suited for each other. Their ideas of a perfect marriage, for instance, were radically different. Most striking, it seemed to me, was their choice of favorite book-length narrative poems: for Livy, it was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh; for Clemens it was Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House. The two poems could not present more divergent viewpoints on men, women, and marriage. Aurora Leigh, a best-seller among Victorian women, suggests that women could enter companionate marriages as self-sufficient, independent people equal in spirit and accomplishments to the men they choose. The Angel in the House, on the other hand, celebrates women who subordinate themselves to their men, seeing their primary role as comforting and supporting their husbands as the men face the hard world of 19th-century capitalist culture. Clemens tried hard to flatter Livy into his viewpoint: “Honoria [the heroine of Patmore’s poem] is a great-souled, self-sacrificing, noble woman like you (I can see you in everything she does)”, he told Livy (MTL 2:343). When, in return, Livy tried to expound Aurora Leigh‘s feminist view to him, he used humor to side-step her points: “It always makes me proud of you when you assault one of her [Browning’s] impenetrable sentences and tear off its shell and bring its sense to light,” he commented, deftly critiquing Browning’s style rather than her content (MTL 3:95).
With this, Clemens’s love letters also make it clear that above all else he valued a woman’s “purity”—body, mind, and soul. To that end, he censored the books Livy read, crossing out passages and even tearing out pages of the books he gave her. “You are as pure as snow, & I would have you always so—untainted, untouched even by the impure thoughts of others,” he lectured. And he prepared Gulliver’s Travels for her perusal: “If you would like to read it … I will mark it & tear it until it is fit for your eyes—for portions of it are very coarse and indelicate” (MTL 3:132-3).
While he was guiding Livy’s reading through the mails, Clemens was also negotiating with her parents for her hand. Jervis Langdon was well disposed toward his prospective son-in-law, but he was also a very protective father, and he wanted to know more about Clemens’s past. A suitor from Elmira or its environs would have been easy to vet; Clemens presented a challenge. By the age of 33 he had not only traveled up and down the Mississippi River, lived in boarding houses in New York and Philadelphia and in shanties with rough miners in sketchy western towns, he had also caroused in San Francisco, eyed naked women swimming in Hawaii, and pranked his way through Europe and the Holy Land. Jervis asked for letters of recommendation, especially from people who had known Clemens when he lived in San Francisco and Nevada Territory. Clemens gave him a list of names, then waited while the letters dribbled in. The process made him excessively nervous, especially since the letters came to the Langdons in Elmira, and Livy’s reports on their contents had to catch up with him as he constantly shifted locations on his lecture tour. Some of the correspondents, such as his good friend and supporter Mary Fairbanks, assured Livy’s parents that whatever his past mistakes, Sam was now on the road to responsible Christian adulthood. Others were dubious that he would ever truly reform. It wasn’t the worst response possible, but it wasn’t an encouraging profile, especially for a settled, teetotalling, Christian family. Disappointed in his erstwhile friends, Clemens realized that he had to get control over the narrative.
And controlling narratives was Mark Twain’s forté. Sam Clemens brought to his role as suitor the extraordinary rhetorical power that would mark Twain’s entire career. His goal wasn’t to refute his critics, but to convince the family, including Livy, that they should forgive him his past and trust in his future. His framework, as he developed it over a series of letters, did not apologize for his youthful conduct, rather, it insisted that he had reformed—that he was like a prodigal son, returning to the fold after sowing his wild oats—or, more close to home, like Charlie, whose inability to settle into a profession had worried his parents for several years: “I was just what Charlie would have been, similarly circumstanced, & deprived of home influences,” he suggested (MTL 2:357). His future, he claimed, was hopeful–especially with Livy by his side. “Married to you, I would never desire to roam again while I lived,” he told Livy (MTL 3:53). He was determined to settle into a profession with a steady income, so that he would not have to depend entirely on his writing and lecturing. And he forecast their future and old age:
When we are married we shall be as happy, as kings—unpretending, substantial members of society, with no fuss or show or nonsense about us … & so developing all of good & worthy that is in our natures, walk serenely down the grand avenues of Time…drawing nearer & nearer to that home of rest & peace where we shall know & love each other through all the vague tremendous centuries of eternity (MTL, 3:58-9).
So much for past and future. The Samuel Clemens of the present that he presented to the Langdon parents was a man diligently working to become a Christian, to abstain from both tobacco and liquor, and to secure a source of steady income. “Now I never swear,” he reported to Olivia Lewis Langdon, “I never taste wine or spirits upon any occasion whatsoever; I am orderly, & my conduct is above reproach in a worldly sense; & finally, I now claim that I am a Christian. I claim it, & it only remains to be seen if my bearing shall show that I am justly entitled to so name myself” (MTL 3:90). He spoke and wrote to his prospective father-in-law as one businessman to another, and he apologized for “stealing” the family jewel that was Livy. Over time, multiple letters, many visits, and evidence of exemplary behaviors, Clemens finally made himself into the son-in-law that Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon expected their daughter’s husband to be.
And so the wedding was a happy affair. Its immediate aftermath was even happier. Several months before the wedding, Sam had ended his search for steady employment by buying into the Buffalo Express (in part with a loan from Jervis) (Scharnhorst, 497). The purchase gave him an editorial position on the newspaper, a job that would, presumably, keep him in Buffalo for the foreseeable future, and so the young couple decided to make Buffalo their home. Mindful of his limited salary, Sam planned to take his new bride to a respectable Buffalo boarding house, where they would live while searching for suitable housing. He had engaged a friend to find an appropriate lodging, and it was there that he assumed they were heading when he and Livy left the rest of the wedding party at the Buffalo train station and took a cab to their quarters. Instead the couple were taken to a house far above Clemens’s pay grade. Unbeknownst to him, the Langdons had already taken care of the young couple’s first home, a fully staffed and furnished three-story house in a classy neighborhood. Livy, who was in on the joke, had to convince Sam that he was not dreaming. His letters to his in-laws tried to express his pleasure—the house, he averred, “is a constant delight. It is a poem, it is music–& it speaks & it sings, to us, all the day long” (MTL 4:75). If Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon had not proven that they fully accepted their new son-in-law before, they certainly did so with this gift.
Sam and Livy’s fairy-tale did not last long—tragedy beset them only a few months into the marriage, and their first few years saw them struggling with more illnesses and deaths than assail most young couples, even then. But their struggles laid the foundation for a marriage that would last until Livy’s death in 1904—though not as Twain’s courtship letters had forecast it. Sam soon backslid on his vows, smoking, drinking, and cursing his way through life and, if never disavowing Christianity outright, asking very hard questions about its premises. Livy adjusted to the smoking and learned to drink a little bit herself, and though she remained a steadfast Christian, she never showed the same religious fervor she had felt before her marriage. But though they learned that the person they had married was not quite the ideal they had envisioned, both parties to this union valued their partnership. If they never achieved the serenity that Clemens had predicted in his courtship letters, they did learn how to live, work, plan, and overcome sorrow and adversity together. Most of all, they enjoyed each other’s company—raising children, traveling, sharing books and ideas. They also continually returned to Elmira—over time, the Langdon properties became the stable center around which the Clemens family’s peripatetic lives revolved–grounds for their best memories and the location where Twain wrote his most famous books. On death, both returned to the Langdon family plot in the city’s Woodlawn Cemetery. The wedding that took place on February 2, 1870 heralded an enduring relationship, a testimony to strength, patience, mutual respect, and love.
[i] For a more complete listing of attendees, including many Elmira residents, see Mark Twain’s Letters, Volume 4: 1870–1871, ed. Victor Fischer, Michael Frank, and Lin Salamo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, 43-45.
As you can see, the map can be used in a variety of ways. If you are visiting the cemetery, you can use the precise geo-located pins to help you find family plots and even individual headstones, many of which are not clearly demarcated by the maps on the grounds. Each pin also has a short bio associated with it. For both tourists and scholars working remotely, we hope these bios will provide some context for the Elmira which appears in Mark Twain’s writings, as well as encourage further research about early Elmirans and the unusual community they created.
If you have information about one of the people included on our map which you think should be part of their bio, please let us know. In fact, if you are doing research on any aspect of Elmira and the families who resided here during Twain’s lifetime, we’d love to hear about it. Likewise, if there is an gravesite at Woodlawn which you think should be included on our map, let us know. We will continue to update the map in the coming months and years.
In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about Woodlawn, Elmira, and the peculiar social group which included Mark Twain and his extended family, please check out our episode!
Also available on iTunes and other podcast purveyors.
The Center For Mark Twain Studies is proud to announce the release of our first podcast project, a collaboration with C19: The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists for their podcast, C19: America in the Nineteenth Century. The episode provides a tour through the history of Elmira, with stops at the Park Church, Woodlawn Cemetery, and Quarry Farm. Did you know that Mark Twain’s father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, lobbied for the release of a young woman arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law in 1853? That Mark Twain’s grave lies in a cemetery with numerous conductors and stationmasters on the Underground Railroad? That Mark Twain’s eulogy was given by the first woman ordained in the state of New York? Our episode explores the largely forgotten and often surprising political history of this small town.
The episode was written and narrated by Matt Seybold, Assistant Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies, and co-produced by Joe Lemak, Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies. Our C19 producer was Ashley Rattner of Tusculum University. It also features performances from Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actor, Hal Holbrook, who spent 65 years touring Mark Twain Tonight! and is the focus of the new documentary, Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, available now on Amazon Prime Video and Apple iTunes. In our podcast, Holbrook plays a 71-year-old Mark Twain and is joined by his grandson, Will Holbrook, who plays Twain at 33.
Beneath the digital edition of Drinking With Twain, I have provided some commentary about Kelsey and his co-author, Laurel O’Connor. Whether or not you are inclined to read such commentary, I warn you that this pamphlet, though certainly worthy of the curiosity of Twainiacs and local historians, should not be regarded as an especially reliable source of biographical information about Samuel Clemens or his associates. There are a few outright falsities, as well as numerous claims which are difficult, if not impossible, to corroborate. This does not prevent Kelsey’s memoir from being entertaining, or relevant to scholars. But it should be treated with healthy skepticism. It is one resident’s reflection, after a span of nearly forty years, upon the social climate of Elmira in the later stages of Clemen’s residency here.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For best reading, launch full-screen mode from the toolbar at the bottom of the reader. This readeronly allows for documents of up to 30 pages. The final four pages of the manuscript can be found in another reader at the bottom of this post.
Frank Edward Kelsey was, much like Samuel Clemens, endowed with the entrepreneurial energy of the Gilded Age. He moved freely between trades and across territories, seemingly motivated as much by cosmopolitan curiosity as by fortune-seeking. He died not far from where he had been born, in Battle Creek, Michigan, but in the interim he resided for extended periods in at least four other states and periodically worked as a salesman and promotor, exploring the entirety of the U.S. by train and later by car.
Kelsey moved to Elmira from Goshen, Indiana sometime between early 1890 and the middle of 1892. He was still a young man, not yet 30. His furniture factory, The Elmira Table Company, was incorporated on November 15, 1892, but he had clearly been in town for some time prior making preparations and overseeing construction. The Elmira Table Company remained in continuous operation until 1913, when it was purchased by a rival. The factory shuttered soon thereafter. Kelsey had presumably sold his position many years earlier. His family left the Elmira area sometime between 1898 and 1900. During his relatively brief residency, he managed to get himself elected, in 1896, as the first mayor of the village of Elmira Heights, a hard-fought election that was decided by only ten votes. Clearly an active member of the New York Republican Party, that same year he was sent as a delegate to the RNC convention in St. Louis.
Kelsey’s residency in Elmira had only minimal overlap with Clemens’s. In 1890, for the first time since 1873, the Clemenes did not spend the whole summer at Quarry Farm. They did not arrive until mid-August and then only because Olivia Lewis Langdon had fallen ill. They returned in November, and Livy remainder until after her mother’s death, but Sam spent only a few days before returning to Hartford. The Clemenses did not return for another visit to Elmira until the Summer of 1892, and even then, Sam was only in residence at Quarry Farm for a couple weeks before embarking to Europe. The following Summer they planned to resume their usual long residency. Livy and the girls arrived in late March or early April, and Sam followed them at the beginning of May, but business, namely the Panic of 1893, again interfered with his plans. Sam left for New York City after only a week at the Farm and did not return until October, and then for only a weekend. Sam made two more weekend trips to Elmira, mainly on business, in 1894.
For the first time in six years, Sam Clemens and his family did have an extended residency at Quarry Farm from mid-May to mid-July 1895, though this was still nothing like the six or seven month stretches they routinely stayed during the 1870s and 1880s. As Clemens would not return until after Kelsey moved away, this seems to be the last time he could have spent any considerable amount of time “drinking with Twain.”
Given these dates, Kelsey may have met Samuel Clemens on no more than a small handful of occasions. His pamphlet is likely far more dependent upon the second-hand stories he heard from those who frequented places like Klapproth’s tavern when Clemens was really a “regular” during the preceding decades. There are several places in the narrative where Kelsey reveals his ignorance about the man he claims to know well. Perhaps most glaringly, he claims that Clemens brought “colored servants” with him from Missouri. It is a ridiculous claim. Clemens had not lived in Missouri for well over a decade before he set foot in Elmira. The idea that he was followed around by doting African-Americans, presumably former slaves, is part of a broader pattern of casual racist fantasy in Drinking With Twain.
But while I think we should have grave doubts about Kelsey’s personal relationship to Clemens, his contention that aspects of the social culture in Elmira reflected the enduring influence of Clemens and his circle is easier to swallow. Most of the people and places Kelsey describes are part of the historical record. In some cases, like Lew Shilden’s, Kelsey provides a more detailed account which usefully supplements other sources, like the Elmira Star-Gazette, which, in 1902, wrote the following:
Kelsey’s reflections also provide a tentative answer to a minor mystery of Samuel Clemens’s biography. There is strong evidence that well into his thirties, Clemens had a drinking problem. He was arrested for public drunkenness at least once and many of his Western friends and acquaintances testified that he “got drunk oftener than was necessary.” He never succeeded in getting himself fully “on the wagon,” but after his engagement to Livy, there is sparse evidence that his drinking interfered with his domestic or professional life. It seems reasonable to speculate that something changed in Sam Clemens’s relationship to liquor after 1867. Kelsey’s outline of Twain’s supposed “philosophy of drinking,” as well as the expectations for behavior at Klapproth’s and other Elmira establishments, is a substantive and persuasive explanation of this change. The rules Kelsey alleges Clemens and his associates followed are in keeping with many of Twain’s public and private writings on drinking, including humorous aphorisms, like, “Temperate temperance is best. Intemperate temperance injures the cause of temperance.”
The co-author and so-called “raconteuse” (gifted female storyteller) of Drinking With Twain, the pseudonymous Laurel O’Connor, is, according to Barbara Schmidt, an actress and writer from Battle Creek, Laurabell Reed Connor Stones.
Mrs. Stones became familiar with Mr. Kelsey when she was still Mrs. Connor, specifically during her brother, Jimmy Reed’s, prolonged battle with tuberculosis, which he succumbed to in March 1935. O’Connor reports that both she and her brother, each of whom also worked for local newspapers, took “little odd jobs of writing for [Kelsey].” It’s unclear why exactly Kelsey was employing freelance writers, aside from the composition of Drinking With Twain, which did not begin until after Reed’s death. Kelsey was the business manager of both the Battle Creek Journal and Kalamazoo Telegraph-Press from 1911 to 1915, but his direct involvement in the newspaper business seems to have ended long before his friendship with the Reeds began.
It seems possible that some of the awkward Confederate romanticism, including overt racism, which runs through Drinking With Twain could have come from O’Connor/Stones. In her introduction, she alludes with pride to a great-grandfather, who was an “admirable drinker” and “the first Attorney General from the State of Mississippi.” She is referring, presumably, to Thomas Buck Reed, who was actually the third Attorney General from Mississippi, from 1821 to 1826, as well as a U.S. Senator from 1826 to 1829.
O’Connor also mentions another great grandfather, who she describes as “a glorious rogue who rode a white charger with magnificent dignity and doffed his tall black hat to every pretty petticoat.” This is probably Thomas Hurst, the Virginian plantation owner whose daughter, Elizabeth Lee Hurst, married John Hampton Reed. Their son (and Laurabell’s father) James Hall Reed migrated to Battle Creek after serving as a doctor for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. There he met and married Josephine Norton. O’Connor shows much more pride in the Southern side of her family than in the Nortons, who could trace their ancestry back to the original settlement of Battle Creek. At the time of her mother’s death, in 1962, Laurabell Stones was reported living with her second husband, Frank Stones, in Des Plaines, Illinois.
There are two more things worth mentioning about Frank Kelsey’s career, which had many twists and turns. In the early years of the 20th century, Kelsey left the furniture business and became a full-time promoter, first for the Battle Creek Breakfast Food Co., which would produce several of the most popular cereal brands of the era and eventually be acquired by Kellogg’s. Battle Creek Breakfast Food had facilities in Buffalo (NY), Chicago (IL), Dayton (OH), and Quincy (IL), in addition to Battle Creek, and Kelsey was a frequent visitor to these cities.
He claimed to have invented Battle Creek Breakfast Food’s signature product, Egg-o-See, the most popular cereal of the first decade of the 20th century and the brandname which became Kellogg’s Eggo‘s toaster pastries. His foundational role in the company was reported in, among other papers, the Elmira Star-Gazette.
Over the next several decades, Kelsey would work as a promotor for several more companies, both large and small, including the Royal Fireless Cooker Co., Chevrolet, and, as he acknowledges in Drinking With Twain, Paris, Allen, & Co., the distributors of Old Crow Bourbon Whiskey. Kelsey’s professional relationship with Paris, Allen, & Co. throws into question his claim that Old Crow was Mark Twain’s preferred American whiskey, a claim which has not been corroborated elsewhere.
Kelsey clearly went through periods of boom and bust. Like Clemens, his fortunes were once swept away by a financial crisis. In 1929, he declared bankruptcy in Detroit. During the same year, the Star-Gazette wrongly reported that he had died. However, Kelsey recovered, living another 20+ years, and building a successful tax consulting firm in Battle Creek.
If you have more information about Frank E. Kelsey, Laurabell Reed Connor Stones, or Drinking With Twain, the Center for Mark Twain Studies would love to hear from you ([email protected]).
Thanks are due to both Barbara Schmidt of TwainQuotes.com and Nathaniel Ball,Elmira College archivist, for their help in researching and preparing this manuscript.
News outlets reported last week that the current longest-running humor magazine in the U.S. – Mad magazine- will soon stop publishing new material. First issued in 1952, the New York Times describes Mad as an “irreverent baby-boomer humor Bible.” Details of the magazine’s future at this date remain sketchy. Mark Twain scholars John Bird and Judith Yaross Lee have recently edited a forthcoming collection of essays Seeing “Mad”: Essays on “Mad” Magazine’s Humor and Legacy from Cover to Fold-In. Lee describes Mad as having “a literary quality of intellect along with great irreverence in the parodies – and that’s reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Virginia City writing.”
This also seems an appropriate time to revisit at least one appearance of Mark Twain and Elmira in Mad: the October 1959 issue. The story behind this appearance begins in 1936 with a small privately printed memoir titled Drinking with Twain: Recollections of Twain and His Cronies as Told to Me Laurel O’Connor, Raconteuse (1936). The work was copyrighted by Frank Edward Kelsey (b. 1865 – d. 1952). Kelsey, a native of Michigan, was a rugged individualist who resided in Elmira for about four years in the late 1890s, working as a furniture manufacturer. During his brief time in Elmira, he dabbled in politics, helped incorporate the town of Elmira Heights and became that town’s first mayor. He also spent time at Charles Klapproth’s saloon listening to locals tell stories about their favorite hometown celebrity, Mark Twain. Laurel O’Connor (pseudonym of Laurabell Reed Connor Stones (b. 1901 – d. 1999), a journalist and intimate of Kelsey’s, wrote down the stories as Kelsey told them to her – stories about Twain drinking Old Crow whiskey at Klapproth’s in Elmira. However, there is no evidence that Kelsey ever actually met or corresponded with Twain. Klapproth’s name is misspelled throughout the memoir as “Klaproth” along with other historical inaccuracies.
By the early 1950s, Twain’s fondness for Old Crow, as told by Kelsey, gained the attention of that company and they began capitalizing on their connection to Mark Twain in their magazine ads. A number of Old Crow ads appeared featuring Twain, including one with Rudyard Kipling reading to Twain at Quarry Farm. The Twain/Kipling ad featured a small tagline: “$250 Reward is paid for documented information relating prominent 19th-Century Americans and Old Crow.”
Another ad featured Twain asking Klapproth’s bartender, “Lou, which barrel are we using now?” The line is lifted directly from Kelsey’s memoir – further evidence that Kelsey’s stories were the source of the Old Crow ad campaign. Another Old Crow ad featured Mark Twain and Bret Harte in Hartford. Yet another featured Twain grouped with “Famous Americans” Daniel Webster, Gen. John H. Morgan, Gov. Robert Letcher of Kentucky, Henry Clay and James Crow himself. All the whiskey drinkers in those ads were men.
Between 1900 and 1959, no women had appeared in whiskey ads. Then, in 1959 the tide turned. In early 1959 D’Arcy Advertising Company announced a change of policy – they would be bringing women back to whiskey ads in an upcoming ad for House of Lords scotch whiskey. It was a perfect opportunity for Mad to capitalize on the situation with seven panels of mock advertising under the heading “Women Will Appear More and More in Whiskey Ads!” The Mark Twain Old Crow ad originally captioned “Mark Twain holds forth at Klaproth’s Tavern” was re-captioned “Carrie Nation starts her Bar-Wrecking Crusade” as she takes an ax to a bottle of Old Crow.
It is not been determined when Old Crow discontinued their Mark Twain advertising campaign. However, by 1980 the company revised “When Mark Twain held forth at Klapproth’s cafe …” with new artwork and a corrected spelling for Klapproth’s name. The new artwork more accurately reflects the fireplace and bas-relief from Klapproth’s saloon that now is housed at Elmira College.
Barbara Schmidt is an independent scholar who focuses on Mark Twain, American Humor, and American History. She is the webmaster at TwainQuotes.com and the Book Review Editor for the Mark Twain Forum. In 2017, she was named a “Legacy Scholar” by the Mark Twain Journal.
In collaboration with SmallTown 360, the Center for Mark Twain Studies has created an interactive map of 1901 Elmira. The map highlights the important people and places that shaped Mark Twain and the Langdon family during his summers in Elmira. Key points include Quarry Farm, the Langdon Mansion, and the Park Church. The map also points out lesser known places like the home of Darius Ford, friend of Twain and Elmira College professor who was offered to accompany Charley Langdon as a companion and tutor on a round the world tour; the home of John Slee, associate of Twain during his Buffalo days and the eventual manager of J. Langdon & Co.; the Lyceum Theater, where in 1868 Twain first performed in public in Elmira, with a young Olivia Langdon in the audience; and the Elmira Reformatory, a prison in which Twain performed for the “captivated” audience – Twain later wrote that he found the group extremely satisfactory.
The Center for Mark Twain Studies hopes that this map is used by all teachers, students, and Twain enthusiasts with the goal of promoting Mark Twain’s important legacy in Elmira. At the same time, CMTS endeavors to celebrate its own local history as a vibrant, cosmopolitan upstate New York town in the latter half of the19th and early 20th century.
CMTS would like to thank the following people with their help on this project:
From the January 1985 issue of the Mark Twain Society Bulletin:
“When Sam Clemens married Livy Langdon he married into a family that loved books, bought books, gave books, read books and enjoyed discussing books. In addition to discovering a young lady who was beautiful, charming had a sense of humor and was cultured and wealthy, young Mark Twain found a bride who shared his love of reading. The Langdon family library, or the more than 1,000 volumes of it that remain at Quarry Farm, represents the purchases and gifts to each other of four generations of Langdons. It would be surprising if Mark Twain had not read some of these books in the many summers he spent in Elmira. Only recently has an examination shown that he wrote in as well as read some of the volumes belonging to his in-laws.
When Mary Boewe and her husband, Charles
Boewe, the Rafinesque scholar, stayed at Quarry Farm … they examined the
library looking for specific titles of books that they knew Mark Twain and Livy
had read. They found extensive Clemens marginalia in three works by Lecky…”
The link to the entire article is found here. The discovery by the Boewe’s was the first of many. Since the initial Lecky discovery, an additional forty-six volumes from the Quarry Farm library have been identified as containing marginal notes and/or inscriptions by Mark Twain. Given that over three decades have passed, there remains no indication that the scholarly potential has been exhausted. Within the last year, selections from the Quarry Farm library have been featured in the Mark Twain Journal (Fall 2018) and “new” marginal notes have been confirmed in Ida C. Langdon’s copy of Rubaiyat.
In 1993, another set of books,
this time from Mark Twain’s personal library at Stormfield, came to Elmira
College through Robert and Katharine Antenne, descendants of the Clemens’
housekeeper, Katy Leary. The Antenne’s
donated 90 volumes, the majority containing inscriptions and/or marginalia from
As a cornerstone of the Mark Twain collection, these two collections of books are an important resource and curiosity for Twain scholars and enthusiasts alike. Having been exhibited, used in presentations, and studied by many a scholar for many a publication, these volumes have begun to show signs of their extensive use. In an effort to care for the originals and provide greater access for further educational and scholarly research, the pages of marginalia are being made available at the following address: https://nyheritage.org/collections/mark-twain-collection. The complete CMTS Mark Twain Archive can be found here, along with other research opportunities afforded Quarry Farm Fellows.
EDITOR”S NOTE: The following was offered as an introduction to the performance of “Mark Twain’s Music Box” at the Park Church in Elmira on February 8th, 2019.
117 years ago this week, in February of 1902, Mark Twain, age 66, took off running after a train that was leaving from the Elmira depot on what is now 3rd St. (you know, behind the McDonald’s). He fell, badly scraping his hand, but after picking himself up he managed to get the attention of the brakeman, who helped him climb aboard. Upon arriving in New York City the next morning without a coat or hat, having shedded them during the chase, one of the reporters charged with meeting his train asked America’s foremost celebrity about his bandaged hand. Twain replied, “I have just come down from Elmira. It is a great place to keep away from in winter…the express trains passing through never stop long enough to see whether a fellow gets on or not…but I was going to catch that train if I had to lose a leg, or an eye, or an ear. I was determined to lose something.”
Twain mostly stayed away from Elmira during the Winter, but every Summer and Fall, he and his wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens, and their three daughters could be found here. And I mean that quite literally. Livy and the girls were dependable congregants at the Park Church, which her family had financed when Thomas K. Beecher’s congregation became so big it could only be accommodated by an Opera House. Mr. Clemens, though he was not as dependable a presence in the chapel, could frequently be found in the rooms behind it, especially the pool room where Reverend Beecher is rumored to have kept beer on tap.
The Clemenses winter residence in Hartford, CT was across the street from that of Reverend Beecher’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famed author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Mark Twain, somewhat facetiously called Mrs. Stowe the “self-appointed instructor of the public.” On Twain’s 100th Birthday, in 1935, her grandson, Lyman Beecher Stowe, returned the favor. He stood on this very spot and delivered a lecture called “Mark Twain, Self-Appointed Instructor of the Public,” in which he argued that Mr. Clemens, admired though he was, had the unfortunate lot of being a “confirmed pessimist, though he often laughed through the tears.”
Max Eastman, another famous son of Elmira, saw things rather differently. He and his sister, Crystal, two important activists in the suffrage movement, lived in this building while their mother, Annis Ford Eastman, was minister here. Reverend Eastman was the first woman ordained in the state of New York and the person who Mark Twain chose to write his eulogy. Max Eastman, who, I repeat, literally grew up in a church, called Mark Twain the only “saint of a faith to which I adhere.” This, Max said, was “the exact center of one of the most interesting clusters of people and ideas that American churchdom has ever produced.”
This small, upstate town founded the first degree-granting college for women, was a key junction in the Underground Railroad, and was one of the first American communities to embrace abolitionism, the Women’s Rights Movement, prison reform, and radical anti-poverty initiatives. According to Max, Mark Twain was the prophet of a “gospel of revolt” which he did not bring to Elmira, but found here and sought to spread around the world. Max wrote,
“There was a hardier and deeper ‘radicalism’ in the Park Church culture into which Mark Twain married than there was in Mark Twain. To find so much open revolt against empty forms and conventions, so much laughing realism, and downright common sense, and democracy, and science, and reckless truth-telling in these people of Elmira who were, nevertheless, dedicated with moral courage to an ideal, may well have given Mark Twain the possession of his deepest and best self.”
from “Mark Twain’s Elmira” by Max Eastman (Harper’s Magazine, 1938)
The first time Max met Twain was, appropriately, when he stopped by during the installation of a new organ on the stage from which tonight’s music will be played. He requested a specific work by Richard Wagner to test out the grand new instrument, but later whispered to young Max, “That stuff’s all too high up for me. I live right down here!”
Tonight’s show captures, through his musical tastes, many of the resilient paradoxes of Mark Twain. He was simultaneously high and low, vulgar and refined, cynically fatalistic and radically progressive. He could say, without irony, “I am not an American, I am the American,” and also be among the most cosmopolitan men of the 19th century, whose works, as well as his feet, took hold on every continent.
As the poet, Robertus Love, put it upon Twain’s death:
“Mark Twain became before he died the most famous man on earth. He was not merely a man: he was an institution. He was a sort of neighborhood settlement of good cheer, with many branches located in the oases as in the waste places…Millions – how many millions is beyond estimating – came and partook of his optimism and stayed for supper. His fame was and is universal. Though an American born…he belonged to all lands…He had perhaps more permanent homes than any other man of his day. Nearly always he was a wanderer, sometimes from necessity, more frequently from choice. The world was his plaything, and he was not content without remapping for himself the surface of the big ball.”
from “Mark Twain, King of Humor” by Robertus Love (Pittsburgh Gazette, 1910)
This tireless wanderer who became “the most famous man on earth” had, at last, one permanent home and it was by way of this very chapel and the words of Annis Eastman that he was transported to it.
Mark Twain wrote, “As to the past, there is but one good thing about it, and that is, that it is the past – we don’t have to see it again. There is nothing in it worth pickling.” Yet he penned these words from a place, Quarry Farm, which never failed to inspire a flood of memories, upon which his most successful works were based. This is the lasting paradox of Twain’s Quarry Farm novels, that they depend transparently upon remembrance and reflection, yet are also steadfastly resistant to the sentimental and romantic aesthetics one expects to be associated with such nostalgia. The Quarry Farm novels manage to be, like the community in which they were written, somehow simultaneously reverent and radical.
Just as Twain’s Quarry Farm novels look backward, unromantically, to more clearly reflect the unsentimental realities of Gilded Age America, the Center for Mark Twain Studies has inherited a sometimes counterintuitive mission: preserving the legacy of Mark Twain in Elmira, while also subsidizing the future of Mark Twain scholarship everywhere. Among those scholars which we are proud to support is Kerry Driscoll, a former Elmira College professor who wrote the essay upon which tonight’s performance is based. It is my honor to introduce: “Mark Twain’s Music Box.”