Silent Work in Elmira: Letters from the Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection


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.

Susan Crane

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.

The Center for Mark Twain Studies is pleased to reproduced these letters with permission from the Ohio History Connection, where they are part of the Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection. This resource is also made possible by the Chemung County Historical Society, especially archivist Rachel Dworkin, and local historian J. D. Iles, host of Hidden Landmarks on WETM.

I’m going to offer some brief contextualization of these documents. If you prefer to merely read them for yourself, simply scroll down.


Wilbur H. Siebert

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.

Jervis Langdon
Jervis Langdon

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.

Rachel & Silas Gleasons

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.

William Still

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.

Our most comprehensive telling of this story, so far, is the “Gospel of Revolt” episode of the C19: American In The Nineteenth Century podcast, which you can listen to on iTunes or SoundCloud.

Selection from a map of Underground Railroad networks in New York State, created by Wilbur H. Siebert for his book. The full map available here, courtesy of Ohio History Connection.

The following letters are reproduced with the permission of the Ohio History Connection (formerly Ohio Historical Society).

Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (August 27, 1896)

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Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (September 14, 1896)

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Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (September 23, 1896)

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Susan Crane to Wilbur H. Siebert (September 26, 1896)

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See the two photographs of John W. Jones to which Crane refers beneath the letters, courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society.


John W. Jones to Wilbur H. Siebert (December 17, 1896)

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John W. Jones to Wilbur H. Siebert (January 16, 1897)

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John W. Jones, circa 1850 (courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society)
John W. Jones, 1896 (courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society)

The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom by Wilbur H. Siebert (Macmillan Company, 1898)

The Underground Railroad: A Record, Revised Edition by William Still (People’s Publishing Co., 1878)

Thanksgiving at Quarry Farm, 1897

Thanksgiving dinner at Quarry Farm in 1897 was planned by Susan Crane and described on elegant cards featuring the family cats. A surviving copy of these menu cards, located in the Mark Twain Archive at Elmira College, provides insight into how one prominent Elmira family celebrated the holidays near the turn of the century.

thanksgiving-menu1-copy

thanksgiving-menu2-copy

Familiar Thanksgiving staples, like roast turkey and cranberry jelly, shared the table with fashionable preparations from the era and timeless delicacies.

Mrs. Crane was clearly partial to Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion, an 1887 cookbook produced by one of the world’s first celebrity chefs. Maria Parloa began her career as a private chef in New Hampshire before taking over the kitchen at the Appledore Hotel in Maine. Her first cookbook, based on the Appledore menu, was published in 1872. Five years later she founded her own culinary school in Boston. She traveled throughout the United States and Europe, giving cooking demonstrations and studying regional and national cuisines and techniques. She continued to write cookbooks and articles on “domestic science” in magazines like Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal until her death in 1909.

The Kitchen Companion remained consistently in print for several decades, through dozens of editions. As the following image demonstrates, Susan Crane’s menu was loosely based on one of Miss Parloa’s suggestions for Thanksgiving.

thanksgiving-miss-parloa

Recipes for several of the non-traditional courses can be found in the Kitchen Companion.curry-of-lobster-recipe

ravigote-recipe

partridge-recipe

jardiniere-recipe

The legendary Waldorf Salad, named after the Waldorf Hotel in Manhattan where it was invented, became an iconic American dish. It’s inventor, Oscar Tshirky, was a Swiss immigrant who worked in several of the most famous 19th-century restaurants: Delmonico’s, Hoffman House, and the Waldorf-Astoria. The dish which would shape his legacy had been invented only a few years before Mrs. Crane served it. It appeared in The Cook Book by “Oscar” of the Waldorf, published in 1896 and featuring recipes for many of the most popular dishes in New York City’s finest restaurants. The original salad recipe was exceedingly simple. Nothing more than chunks of raw apple, celery, and greens tossed in “a good mayonnaise.” But some of the other, more complicated dishes in the cookbook may have also inspired Mrs. Crane’s menu choices.

matelote-recipe curried-lobster-recipe-2

Bear in mind, while the traditional “matelote sauce” was made with eel, other protein could be substituted. That said, freshwater eels were abundant in the nearby rivers and Finger Lakes. Mrs. Crane was a passionate locavore. Her Quarry Farm Imperial Sandwiches were likely made with cream, cheese, and chicken raised on the premises. No doubt many other ingredients came from the Crane farm and those surrounding it. The kettle-cooked Saratoga Chips she served with her partridge were invented at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, NY.

This is mere speculation, but the White House Soup may have been a recipe from Fanny Gillette and Hugo Ziemann’s White House Cook Book (1887) which recommends the following for holiday meals.

white-house-soup-recipe

The bestselling cookbook, as its title suggests, draws upon the recipes of First Ladies and White House stewards. We invite cooks and foodies to comment or email if they have any additional insight about White House Soup, Imperial Sandwiches, or any of the preparations related to the 1897 Quarry Farm Thanksgiving menu.

Unfortunately, on this particular holiday, Susan was not joined by her sister or her famous brother-in-law. They spent the season in Austria. Nor was the dinner cooked by Mary Ann Cord, Quarry Farm’s longtime live-in chef and the narrator of Twain’s “A True Story Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It.” Cord passed in 1888.

Hopefully you have the good fortune of being home for the holiday. Happy Thanksgiving from the Center for Mark Twain Studies!

Fireplace Tiles at Quarry Farm Inspire Storytelling

The parlor of Quarry Farm has a fireplace decorated with antique ceramic tiles based on Aesop’s Fables. The tile framed fireplace is a striking feature of the house that is often commented on by visitors.

mintontilefireplace

Much as he did with the bric-a-brac atop the mantel at their home in Hartford, Samuel Clemens would weave a tale for his daughters each night, inspired by the scenes on the tiles they chose. The girls would complain when a story was recycled or not up to their father’s usual standard. Although she had no children of her own, Susan Crane is also said to have used the tiles as storytelling prompts for the many visiting families she and her husband entertained.

Select a tile below to find out more about the fable it depicts. [The text for each story was taken from sources in the public domain.]

This series of tiles was produced between 1875 and 1900 by Minton, Hollins, & Company, a Victorian ceramic company based in Stoke-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, England. There were twelve different tile designs in this series; the Quarry Farm fireplace has two of each tile, for a total of twenty-four in all.