11 Planets You Never Had to Memorize

??"My Very Early Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.” Whatever mnemonic you used, you probably had to learn nine planets.  (Younger readers may be learning just eight!)  But our solar system actually has thousands more planets than that; those are just the biggies.  Here are eleven that you've probably never had to memorize.??

1. 1 Ceres


1 Ceres, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope and enhanced to show details of the surface; this is the best image currently available.?

Discovered in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi and named for the Roman goddess of agriculture, Ceres orbits the Sun between 2.5 and 3.0 Astronomical Units (AU), and with a diameter of 970 km at the equator, is the largest member of the main asteroid belt.  A year on Ceres is 4.6 of our years, and it rotates in about 9 hours.  Ceres seems to have a rocky core, and its icy mantle could contain more water than Earth does. It's been studied by ground instruments and the Hubble Space Telescope, but we'll find out more in 2015, when the Dawn spacecraft arrives in orbit and begins its survey.  Today, Ceres is classed as a dwarf planet.


2. 136199 Eris?

136199 Eris and Dysnomia.

The most massive known dwarf planet, Eris was discovered on January 5, 2005, and immediately created a controversy: it's 27% more massive than Pluto and at 2400 km diameter, a hair wider. So is Eris the 10th planet or is Pluto not a major planet?

Mindful of the controversy, the discoverers named it after the Greek goddess of strife and discord, and indeed, the International Astronomical Union decided to demote Pluto instead of making Eris the tenth planet. Instead, the new category of "dwarf planet" was created, and promptly populated by Eris, Pluto, Ceres, and two other distant ice worlds, Haumea and Makemake. Orbiting from 38 to 98 AU, Eris is a scattered disk object that takes 557 of our years to go around the Sun, and rotates in probably a little more than an Earth day. Like other objects out there, it is mostly made of various ices and hydrocarbons.

On September 5, 2005, it was found to have a moon, eventually named Dysnomia, the daughter of Eris. Eris is near its aphelion, making it currently the most distant known object orbiting the Sun** (although it is known that many comets must lie beyond it, and Sedna's aphelion is vastly further).

3. 4 Vesta?


4 Vesta's south polar region, taken by Dawn on July 24, 2011 at a distance of 5200 km; the peak at lower right is the central uplift of Rheasilva crater.

Dawn is currently orbiting Vesta, and capturing breathtaking images of it. Vesta was discovered in 1807, and was named for the Roman goddess of hearth and home. It orbits between 2.2 and 2.6 AU, and has a diameter of about 525 km.  It is the second largest main-belt asteroid, comprising about 9% of the mass of the main belt. Its year is 3.63 of our years, and it takes a little over 5 hours to rotate. A huge crater named Rheasilvia (after the mother of Romulus and Remus, and a priestess of Vesta) spans 505 km near the south pole; a whole family of asteroids (the Vesta family) probably came from that impact -- and it also produced a lot of meteors which rained down on Earth, making Vesta one of the few heavenly objects of which scientists have samples. Vesta has an iron-nickel core with an olivine mantle and a thin rocky crust, and is probably another protoplanet.

4. 433 Eros?

The northern hemisphere of 433 Eros, and NEAR's final image during descent; altitude is 120 meters, and the picture spans about 6 meters of the surface.?

The first asteroid ever to be orbited, Eros was discovered in 1898 and named for the Greek God of love. It is a stony near-earth asteroid with a Mars-crossing orbit, ranging from 1.1 to 1.8 AU, giving it a year of about 1.76 of our own years.  It's puny compared to Ceres and Vesta, and not at all round -- the peanut-shaped asteroid is 34.4 x 11.2 x 11.2 km.  It is dotted with craters and has a relatively thick dust layer.  The NEAR spacecraft went into orbit around it on Valentine's Day, 2000, and found orbiting to be a major challenge, because the lumpy moon rotates around its short axis once every 5 hours and 16 minutes.  The mission was a total success, and at the end, the NEAR spacecraft was gently set down on the surface of the asteroid, becoming the first man-made object to land on and transmit from the surface of an asteroid.

5. 243 Ida

243 Ida and little Dactyl, taken by Galileo at a distance of 10,500 km.

?Discovered on September 29, 1884, Ida is a stony main-belt asteroid, orbiting between 2.7 and 3.0 AU, and named for a mythical Greek nymph.  It's quite lumpy; the average diameter is about 31.4 km.  On its way to Jupiter, on August 28, 1993, the Galileo spacecraft flew by Ida, producing an interesting surprise: a tiny satellite, the first ever discovered around an asteroid.  The tiny moon, about 1.4 km across, was named Dactyl, for the mythical creatures who were said to inhabit Mount Ida.  There were not enough observations to determine Dactyl's orbit, but it did give enough information to work out the density of Ida.  It was found to be very low in metallic minerals.  Dactyl's spectrum was very similar to Ida's, so it is believed to be either a piece of Ida or a piece of a larger asteroid from which Ida was also cleaved.  Ida's year is about 4.8 of our years, and it completes a rotation in just 4.63 hours.


6. 99942 Apophis?

99942 Apophis, from Osservatorio Astronomica Sormano in Italy, acquired December 30, 2004.

Discovered on June 19, 2004, Apophis made headlines for becoming the first object to reach Level 2 on the Torino Impact Hazard Scale, eventually setting the record at Level 4 ("current calculations give a 1% or greater chance of collision capable of regional devastation") before being downgraded to Level 0 based on additional observations.  Its year is about 324 of our days, ranging from 0.75 to 1.1 AU.  But orbital computations suggested there was a 2.7% chance it could impact the Earth in 2029.  This was later ruled out, but there was still the chance Apophis could pass through a gravitational "keyhole" on that date, deflecting its orbit enough to set up an impact on April 13, 2036.  By August 2006, the possibility of this was deemed extremely small.  Since Apophis is about 270 meters across, it would not be a planet-killer, but an impact with Earth would make for a very bad day.  The discoverers gave it the Greek name of Apep, the serpent enemy of Ra, and also one of the recurring major villains of the TV series "Stargate: SG-1".

7. 4179 Toutatis?

4179 Toutatis, imaged by the Deep Space Network's two largest radio telescopes, the 70-meter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and the 34-meter antenna at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex.
Discovered on January 4, 1989, Toutatis is an asteroid in a 1:4 resonance with Earth and a 3:1 resonance with Jupiter, an arrangement that gives it a chaotic orbit that is difficult to predict. It had actually been sighted in 1934, but said chaotic orbit made it take an unusually long time to recover it, a prerequisite for claiming discovery.  Because of the possibility of becoming an Earth-crosser in the future, and many near passes, it is classed as a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid; there are no currently predicted risky passes, but its orbit cannot be accurately predicted more than 50 years out.  Radar observations suggest that it is more of a rubble pile than a simple object, and it has a chaotic rotation that makes day and night erratic.  It currently ranges from 0.9 to 4.1 AU, and is named for a Celtic god usually interpreted as a tribal protector. The modern spelling was popularized by the "Asterix" series of comic books, in which the plucky Gaulish protagonists would exclaim "By Toutatis!"

8. 5335 Damocles?

2011 Draconid meteor photographed by Gadget_Guru; some astronomers think the Draconids could be debris from 5335 Damocles.

There are worlds out beyond the stony planets of the inner solar system and the main asteroid belt.  One of them is Damocles, discovered on February 18, 1991.  It is named for a real person: a courtier of the 4th Century BC tyrant Dionysus I, who was famously reprimanded for saying how great it would be to be king. His punishment involved having a sword suspended precariously over his head by a thin strand.  The asteroid Damocles has a wildly eccentric orbit, ranging from 22.1 AU (beyond Uranus) to just 1.6 AU (inside the orbit of Mars).  It takes about 40.74 years to go around the Sun, and when it nears perihelion, the fastest point in any orbit, it is going incredibly fast. 

Its size is unknown, but it is suspected to be a dead comet's nucleus, possibly related to Comet Halley; if it is, it is probably very dark, which combined with its known brightness would mean it is fairly large.  Such an object, if it impacted Earth, could cause major devastation.  Since then, more objects like Damocles have been discovered, the Damocloids.  Worryingly, some of them orbit retrograde, making them even harder to spot.

9. 3753 Cruithne?

Simulation of 3753 Cruithne's orbit with respect to Earth, and why it appears to go around the planet, even though it isn't orbiting it.

?Named for a medieval Irish ethnic group possibly related to the Picts and pronounced "KROOY-nyuh," this minor planet is a real peculiarity.  While it was iscovered on October 10, 1986, something odd was observed in 1997: Cruithne was making annual close approaches to the Earth, and from some perspectives, seemed to actually be going around it!  But it's an illusion.  Cruithne is co-orbital with Earth; it orbits the Sun, but with a 1:1 resonance to our own orbit.  Its distance from Earth is never less than 12 million km, so there is no danger of impact.  Its year is slightly shorter than ours, lasting 364 of our days, and ranges from 0.5 to 1.5 AU from the Sun.  Its rotational period is unknown, but it appears to be about 5 km across.  Since the discovery of Cruithne, a few more quasi-satellites have been discovered, along with the first known Earth trojan, a tiny rock with the provisional designation 2010 TK7.

10. 50000 Quaoar?

50000 Quaoar, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in the summer of 2002; composite of 16 stacked images.

Orbiting far out in the Kuiper belt, a belt of small bodies orbiting past Neptune, from 30-50 AU, this object was discovered on June 4, 2002, and was soon realized to be quite large -- the second largest Kuiper Belt Object, after Pluto.  (It has since been beaten by more recent discoveries.)  Orbiting at 42 to 45 AU, its year is long: about 286 of our years.  Its rotational period is 17.7 hours, and it appears to be made of various ices, like other KBOs. Size estimates range from 844 to 1,170 km, and it is believed to be somewhat elongated.  It also may have cryovolcanoes, as observations suggest fresh frost deposits on its surface.  It was named for the creator god of the Tongva people, natives of the Los Angeles region.  When in 2007 a moon was discovered, the Tongva people were given the opportunity to name it; they selected the sky god Weywot, the son of Quaoar.  Weywot is probably about 74 km across, and orbits at 14,500 km from Quaoar.  Quaoar is probably a dwarf planet, but has not been officially recognized as one.

11. 90377 Sedna?

90377 Sedna through the Hubble Space Telescope; the image was taken as part of a search for a presumed satellite, which was not found.

This puzzling object has the most distant aphelion of any known object orbiting our Sun.  Discovered on November 14, 2003, Sedna's orbit lasts a staggering 11,400 years, and ranges from 76 to 937 AU, far beyond the Kuiper Belt.  It is sometimes classed as a scattered disk object, a group of objects ejected from the Kuiper Belt by Neptune, but it doesn't appear to have ever come near Neptune.  It may instead be the first known member of the Oort Cloud, a hypothesized cloud of objects at the most distant edges of the solar system, pushed in by an undiscovered large planet or by an encounter with a star sometime in the distant past. 

It is this strange orbit that makes Sedna so interesting and so important: understanding it will help answer questions about the history of the solar system and the nature of its mysterious outer reaches.  Observations have fixed its rotational period at about 10 hours, and it is estimated to be somewhere between 995 and 1,600 km in diameter.  It is unusually red, almost as red as Mars, suggesting a covering of hydrocarbon sludge over its presumed icy interior.  Since it is so far away from the Sun, it was named for Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the sea, who was said to live beneath the frigid Arctic Ocean, the most remote and inaccessible sea of all.


* 1 Astronomical Unit (AU) = approximately the average distance between the centers of Earth and Sun: about 150,000,000 km or 93,000,000 miles.

??** The twin Voyager spacecraft are further away, but are not orbiting the Sun.  They are on an escape trajectory.  Voyager 1 is 120 AUs from the Sun, and Voyager 2 is 99 AUs from the Sun.  As they are currently traversing the heliosheath, it's reasonable to believe that distant worlds such as Sedna are not always within the protection of the heliosphere.

9 Curses for Book Thieves From the Middle Ages and Beyond

It may seem extreme to threaten the gallows for the theft of a book, but that's just one example in the long, respected tradition of book curses. Before the invention of moveable type in the West, the cost of a single book could be tremendous. As medievalist Eric Kwakkel explains, stealing a book then was more like stealing someone’s car today. Now, we have car alarms; then, they had chains, chests … and curses. And since the heyday of the book curse occurred during the Middle Ages in Europe, it was often spiced with Dante-quality torments of hell.

The earliest such curses go back to the 7th century BCE. They appear in Latin, vernacular European languages, Arabic, Greek, and more. And they continued, in some cases, into the era of print, gradually fading as books became less expensive. Here are nine that capture the flavor of this bizarre custom.


A book curse from the Arnstein Bible, circa 1172
A curse in the Arnstein Bible
British Library // Public Domain

The Arnstein Bible at the British Library, written in Germany circa 1172, has a particularly vivid torture in mind for the book thief: “If anyone steals it: may he die, may he be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness [i.e. epilepsy] and fever attack him, and may he be rotated [on the breaking wheel] and hanged. Amen.”


A 15th-century French curse featured by Marc Drogin in his book Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses has a familiar "House That Jack Built"-type structure:

“Whoever steals this book
Will hang on a gallows in Paris,
And, if he isn’t hung, he’ll drown,
And, if he doesn’t drown, he’ll roast,
And, if he doesn’t roast, a worse end will befall him.”


A book curse excerpted from the 13th-century Historia scholastica
A book curse from the Historia scholastica
Yale Beinecke Library // Public Domain

In The Medieval Book, Barbara A. Shailor records a curse from Northeastern France found in the 12th-century Historia scholastica: “Peter, of all the monks the least significant, gave this book to the most blessed martyr, Saint Quentin. If anyone should steal it, let him know that on the Day of Judgment the most sainted martyr himself will be the accuser against him before the face of our Lord Jesus Christ.”


Drogin also records this 13th-century curse from a manuscript at the Vatican Library, as notes. It escalates rapidly.

"The finished book before you lies;
This humble scribe don’t criticize.
Whoever takes away this book
May he never on Christ look.
Whoever to steal this volume durst
May he be killed as one accursed.
Whoever to steal this volume tries
Out with his eyes, out with his eyes!"


A book curse from an 11th century lectionary
A book curse from an 11th century lectionary
Beinecke Library // Public Domain

An 11th-century book curse from a church in Italy, spotted by Kwakkel, offers potential thieves the chance to make good: “Whoever takes this book or steals it or in some evil way removes it from the Church of St Caecilia, may he be damned and cursed forever, unless he returns it or atones for his act.”


This book curse was written in a combination of Latin and German, as Drogin records:

"To steal this book, if you should try,
It’s by the throat you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ’bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.
And when you’re screaming 'oh, oh, oh!'
Remember, you deserved this woe."


This 18th-century curse from a manuscript found in Saint Mark’s Monastery, Jerusalem, is written in Arabic: “Property of the monastery of the Syrians in honorable Jerusalem. Anyone who steals or removes [it] from its place of donation will be cursed from the mouth of God! God (may he be exalted) will be angry with him! Amen.”


A book curse in a 17th century manuscript cookbook
A book curse in a 17th century cookbook

A 17th-century manuscript cookbook now at the New York Academy of Medicine contains this inscription: "Jean Gembel her book I wish she may be drouned yt steals it from her."


An ownership inscription on a 1632 book printed in London, via the Rochester Institute of Technology, contains a familiar motif:

“Steal not this Book my honest friend
For fear the gallows be yr end
For when you die the Lord will say
Where is the book you stole away.”


One of the most elaborate book curses found on the internet runs as follows: "For him that stealeth a Book from this Library, let it change to a Serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with Palsy, and all his Members blasted. Let him languish in Pain, crying aloud for Mercy and let there be no surcease to his Agony till he sink to Dissolution. Let Book-worms gnaw his Entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final Punishment let the Flames of Hell consume him for ever and aye.”

Alas, this curse—still often bandied about as real—was in fact part of a 1909 hoax by the librarian and mystery writer Edmund Pearson, who published it in his "rediscovered" Old Librarian's Almanack. The Almanack was supposed to be the creation of a notably curmudgeonly 18th-century librarian; in fact, it was a product of Pearson's fevered imagination.

Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
John W. Jones: The Runaway Slave Who Buried Nearly 3000 Confederate Soldiers
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

John W. Jones was as close to a sinless man as you could find—with the exception of the time he lied to his mother.

It was a late June evening in 1844 and the 26-year-old enslaved man, who lived on a plantation near Leesburg, Virginia, told his mother that he was leaving to attend a party. His real plans were much riskier. Jones slipped outside, grabbed a pistol, and rendezvoused with four other enslaved men. With starlight as their guide, they crept through the Virginia woods. Their destination: North.

The men hiked approximately 20 miles every day, dodging slave catchers in Maryland and crossing the Mason-Dixon Line into the free state of Pennsylvania. Following a major route along the Underground Railroad, they needled through Harrisburg and Williamsport and traced a path along what is now State Route 14. When the exhausted men snuck into a barn near the New York border to sleep, Jones kept guard as the others rested: He sat down, laid a shotgun on his lap, and kept his eyes peeled.

“He was serious about getting his freedom,” says Talima Aaron, President of the John W. Jones Museum Board of Trustees. “He understood the danger, and he constantly took responsibility for others. You’ll notice that was a thread for him—responsibility for others.”

Jones never had to use the gun. When the barn’s owner, Nathaniel Smith, discovered the five men on his property, he invited them into his home. His wife Sarah served the group hot biscuits and butter and cared for them until their strength returned. It was the first time many of them had ever been inside a white person’s home. According to an 1885 profile in The Elmira Telegram, the gesture brought the men to tears.

On July 5, 1844, Jones crossed a toll bridge into Elmira, New York, with less than $2 in his pocket. Unlike most runaways bound for Canada, Jones decided to stay in Elmira. It’s here that Jones would become one of the country's most successful Underground Railroad conductors, one of the richest black men in the state of New York, and the last earthly link for nearly 3000 dead Confederate soldiers.


Living in the north did not mean Jones had it easy. He could not vote. He still shared sidewalks with former slave-owners. When he asked to receive an education at the local schools, he was denied.

But Jones had a knack for cracking ceilings. After earning the admiration of a local judge, he was allowed to study at an all-women’s seminary, exchanging janitorial work for reading and writing lessons. He joined a church with abolitionist leanings and become its sexton, maintaining its cemetery. Then he became the sexton of a second cemetery, and then a third. The community quickly grew to respect his work ethic and, eventually, Jones had earned enough money to buy a small house—a house that he transformed into a vital hub for the Underground Railroad.

At the time, the Underground Railroad—an informal network of trails, hiding places, and guides that helped slaves escape northward—was under intense scrutiny. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had created financial incentives to report runaways living in free states. “Slave catchers from the south could come up to a place like Elmira and claim that a person of color was a runaway slave, and they could haul them back into slavery—even if that person had been born free,” says Bruce Whitmarsh, Director of the Chemung County Historical Society. There were steep penalties for aiding a person’s escape.

Jones didn’t care. Not only did he join the Underground Railroad, he was openly vocal about it, loudly pledging his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in a message that was published in abolitionist newspapers across the region: “Resolved, that we, the colored citizens of Elmira, do hereby form ourselves into a society for the purpose of protecting ourselves against those persons, (slave-catchers) prowling through different parts of this and other States.” Jones committed to resisting the law, even at the risk that “everyone of us be assassinated.”

The Underground Railroad in Elmira was unique: Since the town included the only train stop between Philadelphia and Ontario, it actually involved locomotives. Jones communicated regularly with William Still, the chief "conductor" of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, and built a cozy network of abolitionists who worked on trains passing through town. He provided runaways with housing, food, and even part-time jobs. “Runaways usually came in groups of four, six, or 10,” Aaron says. “But he had up to 30 at once in his little house.” Jones arranged hiding space for all of the escapees on the 4 a.m. “Freedom Baggage Car” to Canada, as it was unofficially known.

Over the course of nine years, Jones aided the escape of around 800 runaway slaves. Not one was captured.

During the last years of the Civil War, the same railroad tracks that had delivered hundreds of runaways to freedom began to carry thousands of captive Confederate soldiers to Elmira’s new prisoner of war camp. Once again, Jones would be there.


Of the 620,000 Civil War deaths, approximately 10 percent occurred at prison camps. The most notorious P.O.W. camp—in Andersonville, Georgia—saw 13,000 Union troops, or approximately 29 percent of the prison population, perish. After the war, Andersonville's commander was tried for war crimes. The camp is now a National Historic Site.

Meanwhile, the prison camp in Elmira has been largely forgotten. Today, the riverside site is little more than an unremarkable patch of dandelion-speckled grass; a small, easy-to-miss monument is the only marker. It belies the fact that while Elmira's camp was noticeably smaller than Andersonville's—only one-quarter its size—it was just as deadly: If you were a prisoner at “Hellmira,” there was a one-in-four chance you would die.

Elmira Prison Camp
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

Elmira was never supposed to have a prison camp; it was a training depot for Union soldiers. But when the Confederacy began refusing to exchange African-American soldiers—who it considered captive slaves, not prisoners of war—the Union stopped participating in prisoner exchanges. “Both sides started scrambling for places to expand, and that’s how Elmira got caught up in the web,” says Terri Olszowy, a Board Member for the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp.

The rollout was ill-planned, Olszowy explains. When it opened in July 1864, the camp had no hospital or medical staff. The first prisoners were already in rough shape and deteriorated quickly. Latrines were placed uphill from a small body of water called Foster’s Pond, which quickly became a cesspool. A shelter shortage meant that hundreds of soldiers were still living in tents by Christmas. During spring, the Chemung River flooded the grounds. Rats crawled everywhere. When authorities released a dog to catch them, the prisoners ate the dog.

The camp grew overcrowded. Designed to hold only 5000 prisoners, it saw approximately 7000 to 10,000 men confined there at its peak. Across the street, an observation tower allowed locals the opportunity to gawk at these prisoners through a pair of binoculars. It cost 10 cents.

It must have been a depressing sight, a scene of men stricken with dysentery, scurvy, typhoid, pneumonia, and smallpox. Many prisoners attempted to escape. One group successfully dug a 66-foot tunnel with spoons and knives. One man fled by hiding in a barrel of swill. Another hid inside a coffin, leaping out as he was being hauled to Woodlawn Cemetery.

It’s said that 2973 Confederate prisoners left the Elmira prison camp in coffins for real. The job to bury them belonged to the town’s sexton: John W. Jones.


The P.O.W. cemetery in Elmira is unique. The dead at many prison camps were buried in mass graves; Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery, for example, contains a plot filled with the remains of prisoners detained at Camp Douglas that is believed to be largest mass grave in the western hemisphere. All 2973 of the dead at Elmira, however, received an individual, marked grave in a special section of Woodlawn cemetery. Only seven are unknown. Jones's effort to give each soldier an individual grave, as well as his meticulous record-keeping, were a big part of why the federal government designated the P.O.W. portion of Woodlawn a "National Cemetery" in 1877—a status awarded to veterans' cemeteries deemed to be of national importance, and which has only been awarded to 135 cemeteries nationwide.

Jones treated each dead soldier with superhuman levels of grace. Overseeing a crew of 12, he managed the burial of about six soldiers every day, treating each body as if that person had been a member of his own church. He kept detailed records of each soldier’s identity by creating improvised dog tags: Around each person's neck or under their arm, Jones tucked a jar containing a paper detailing their name, rank, and regiment. That same information was neatly scrawled on each coffin. When the dirt settled, Jones marked each plot with a wooden headstone.

“No one told him how to do that job, he did it in the way that he thought was right—even though the people he buried were fighting a war to keep people like him enslaved,” Aaron says. “He even knew one of the young men who had died, and he reached back to the South and told the parents so they knew where their child was buried. That speaks to his compassion.”

According to Clayton W. Holmes’s 1912 book Elmira Prison Camp, “History does not record anything to challenge the assertion that at no prison, North or South, were the dead so reverently cared for, or a more perfect record kept.” In fact, when representatives of the Daughters of the Confederacy came to Elmira at the turn of the century to consider repatriating the remains, Jones’s handiwork convinced them to touch not a blade of grass. Instead, a monument in the cemetery commemorates the “honorable way in which they were laid to rest by a caring man.”

Aaron sees a second moral in the story. “People always talk about the tension between him being an escaped slave and burying with respect and dignity these Confederate soldiers fighting to keep people like him as slaves,” she says. “But to me there’s a subtext: Here is a grown man who escaped slavery, and the first thing he wanted to do when he reached freedom was get an education. Because of that, he was able to keep these meticulous records that later led to this national designation: It became a historical moment because this man, who was denied an education, got one.”

John W. Jones
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

It also made a mark on Jones’s bank account. Jones earned $2.50 for each soldier he buried. It wasn’t much, but by the time he had finished burying nearly 3000 Confederate dead, he had become one of the 10 richest African-Americans in the state of New York. With that money, he bought a handsome farm of at least 12 acres.

It was a bittersweet purchase. Not only is it believed that parts of his home were built from wooden scraps of the disassembled Elmira prison camp, Jones had purchased the home when New York state law stipulated that black men must own $250 worth of property in order to vote. His home—today listed on the National Register of Historic Places [PDF]—earned Jones that right to vote.

For the remainder of his life, Jones continued working as a sexton and church usher. In 1900, he died and was buried in one of the cemeteries that had become his life’s work.

Incidentally, his death also marked the end of a local mystery: For nearly two decades, fresh flowers kept appearing on the freshly manicured grave of a woman named Sarah Smith. Nobody knew why the flowers appeared there or where they originated—until the decorations stopped appearing immediately after Jones’s death. Residents later realized that the grave belonged to the same Sarah Smith who, 56 years earlier, had invited John W. Jones and his friends into her home for butter, biscuits, and a good night’s rest.


More from mental floss studios