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.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

iStock.com/NoDerog
iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

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