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)

“The Gospel of Revolt: Mark Twain in Elmira,” An Episode of The C19: America In The Nineteenth-Century Podcast, Featuring Hal Holbrook

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.

We are also grateful to Quarry Farm caretaker, Steve Webb, and Larry Howe, President of the Mark Twain Circle. They provided music for the episode with their ensembles, The Compass Rose Sextet and Steve Webb & The Balance.

We hope you find time to give it a listen this holiday season. Let us know what you think!

The Park Church to Host Play about the Underground Railroad

The Park Church (208 W. Church Street, Elmira, NY) will be the venue for “Yours, for the Oppressed” on Saturday, August 17 at 2pm. Admission is free; donations are appreciated.

“Yours, for the Oppressed” is a historically based play detailing an episode in the lives of an educated, middle class black family living in Albany and the Albany Vigilance Committee. Set in the 1850s, the play explores different perspectives on the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad within the community and among the family members.

The play is a project of the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York, the Siena College Creative Arts Department, and the Underground Railroad History Project. It is touring various historic sites in New York State this summer. The tour is produced by John Ruquet. The Elmira performance is presented by The Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery and The Park Church.

“Yours, for the Oppressed” is written by Siena College students Hunter Frederick, Heather Frederick, Olivia Waldron and Philip Kilian under the supervision of Dr. Krysta Dennis. The director is Jean-Remy Monnay, founder and artistic director of the Black Theatre Troupe. Members of the Troupe comprise the cast.

Past advertisement for “Yours, for the Oppressed.” This play will be performed on Saturday, August 17 at 2pm at The Park Church.

Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York was originally founded as Soul Rebel Performance Troupe in 2009 by veteran actor Jean-Remy Monnay as a not-for-profit organization to foster understanding, appreciation and participation of the performing arts among communities of color. Headquartered in New York State’s Capital Region, Black Theatre Troupe promotes performance and theatrical pieces by, and about, artists of color.

The Siena College Creative Arts Department strives to develop within students an aesthetic appreciation of the world in which they live, enabling students to understand the arts as they reflect the cultural spirit of various epochs in human experience, and encourage the unlocking of students’ creative potential and skill.

The Park Church was incorporated in 1846. The original bylaws state: “That the using , holding, or trading in men as slaves is a sin in the sight of God…inconsistent with Christian profession.” Members of the church were active in both the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. Its first and most notable Minister was The Rev. Thomas K. Beecher, step-brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The current building was designed to be “the first institutional church in America,” and housed a library, a gymnasium, health clinic, kitchen and parlors that were open to all of Elmira, not just church members.

The Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery was founded in 2006 to preserve and conserve the historic cemetery (1856) and educate the larger community about Woodlawn’s rich heritage. Many notable abolitionists and participants in the Underground Railroad are buried there, including John W. Jones, a one-time slave, who shepherded hundreds of escaped slaves to safety: Jervis Langdon, a founder of The Park Church, who aided Jones and helped Frederick Douglas escape from slavery: and Mary Ann Cord, whose experiences as a slave were recorded by Mark Twain. Woodlawn is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is a member of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

Remembering Reverend Conway, Mark Twain’s Second-Favorite Clergyman

While Mark Twain’s close bond with Congregationalist minister Joseph Twichell is well known among Twainians, the friendship he shared with another man of the cloth, the Rev. Moncure Conway, often receives little more than passing reference.

We read mostly of Conway’s role as Twain’s literary representative in England or of his glowing review of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Occasionally there’s a reference to the time he helped Twain arrange a surprise visit for Olivia Clemens to the grave of her beloved Shakespeare, or Conway’s letter to the New York Times defending Twain’s anti-imperialism and pointing out that “Mark Twain’s humor is apt to feather a serious arrow.”

Beyond these and a smattering of other examples, Twain scholarship (and history in general) has little to say about Conway, which is odd considering the wide-ranging influence thismost thoroughgoing white male radical produced by the antebellum South had on Twain’s era.

With a family background rooted in America’s past, Moncure Conway would spend much of his life lighting out for new territories.

As a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Conway was born into an elite, slave-owning family in Virginia. Despite his Southern aristocratic background, he became an outspoken radical abolitionist who not only personally advised Lincoln to make the Civil War about emancipation, but helped 31 of his father’s slaves escape to Ohio. An ardent egalitarian, he also advocated that suffrage be extended to freed slaves and women alike.

Reflecting a lifelong spiritual restlessness, Conway’s ministerial calling was mercurial and evolved throughout his life. Starting off as a circuit-riding Methodist preacher in Maryland, he went on to becoming a Unitarian minister after graduating from Harvard Divinity, where he was a protégé of Emerson, his “spiritual father.” When his abolitionism, coupled with his increasingly pointed critiques of Christianity, ran afoul of many old-line Unitarians, Conway left the Unitarian pulpit to emerge as a leading light in the free religion movement and the comparative study of religions (with an eye toward Eastern religions). In the years leading up to the Civil War, he also participated in the Underground Railroad and edited The Dial, the esteemed Transcendentalist journal that was “free in thought, doubt, utterance, knowledge, and love.”

While arguing the Northern cause in England during the Civil War, Conway was embroiled in controversy after secretly attempting to negotiate peace on his own with the Confederate envoy there (offering the South disunion if it agreed to free its slaves). No longer welcome in his native South and reprimanded by the North, Conway lived out much of his adult life as an expatriate in England, where he served as minister of South Place Chapel, one of the oldest freethought organizations in Britain (still active today as Conway Hall Ethical Society in London).

Conway met Twain in 1872, marking the beginning of a friendship that ended with Conway’s death in 1907. The two refugee Southerners shared much in common, including unorthodox religion, fondness for American revolutionary Thomas Paine (about whom Conway wrote a definitive biography) and humorist Artemus Ward, at whose funeral Conway officiated in 1867. Tragically, both Conway and Twain also suffered the loss of a young son (Emerson Conway in 1864 and Langdon Clemens in 1872).

For a good overview of Conway, I recommend watching The Empty Niche: The Long Lost Bust of Moncure Conway.

Produced by the Conway Hall Ethical Society, this hour-long film is not a biography, and it hardly mentions Twain. However, this video’s interesting story of Conway Hall’s quest to track down a bronze bust of Conway that vanished nearly a century ago sheds light on this radical minister, free-thinking intellectual, and spiritual pilgrim and how his legacy still endures even as memory of the man has faded.