Inspiring Stories

Mark Twain in 1904

Sam Clemens in 1904, was showing a photograph to a friend, explaining, “the colored man is John T. Lewis, a friend of mine. These many years-thirty-four-in fact. He was my father-in-law’s coachman forty years ago — was many years a farmer of Quarry Farm … I have not known an honester man nor a more respect-worthy one ….”

In June, 1963, Edward L. Updegraff, superintendent of Woodlawn Cemetery, responded to an inquiry from the Church of the Brethren in Frederick, Maryland, about John Lewis’ grave: “I am sorry to state that the grave of Mr. Lewis is not marked and the lot is without care ….”

John T. Lewis was born in 1835 in Carroll County, Maryland. There is some confusion whether or not he was free born. He located to Elmira in 1862 and raised a family.

In addition to being a coachman for Jervis Langdon, he had a few acres of his own in the valley back of Quarry Farm, where he “concentrated on a private enterprise; he raised pigs.” According to Clemens, in a letter to Dean Howells, “Lewis has worked mighty hard and remained poor. At the end of each whole year’s toil he can’t show a gain of fifty dollars. He had borrowed money from the Cranes till he owed them $700.”

Ida Langdon, the niece of Sam Clemens, wrote that John Lewis could read and was an intelligent person.

Ida Langdon, the wife of Charles Langdon and mother of the aforementioned Ida, driving a carriage with her daughter Julia and a nurse, lost control of the horse, seeming to “fly” down the hill from Quarry Farm.

Clemens told Howells, “… Lewis, the prodigious, humped upon his front seat, had been toiling up on his load of manure; he saw the frantic horse plunging down the hill toward him, on a full gallop, throwing his heels as high as a man’s head at every jump. So Lewis turned his team diagonally across the road just at the turn, thus making a V shape with the fence — the running horse could not escape but must enter it — then Lewis sprang to the ground & stood in the V. He gathered his vast strength & seized the gray horse’s bit as he plunged by & and fetched him up standing … how this miracle was ever accomplished at all, by human strength, generalship & accuracy is clear beyond my comprehension.”

The significance of the letter to the superintendent of Woodlawn Cemetery inquiring about John Lewis’ grave lies in his connection to the Antietam Church. Lewis became a Dunkard Baptist, “uniting” with the Brethren in 1853. In 1862, at the time of the Battle of Antietam, the Bible from that church was taken by Sgt. Nathan Dykeman, of Regiment 107 Company H, New York State Volunteers, and taken home as a souvenir to Schuyler County. The leather-bound volume had been placed in the church following the completion of the building in 1853. The church itself was used as a hospital at the time of the great battle.

Eventually, the Bible came into the possession of Dykeman’s widowed sister, who wanted to return it to the church. In 1903, at a regimental reunion in Elmira, contact was made with John Lewis, the only member of the Brethren to be found. Having kept in touch with the Brethren since coming to Elmira, he confirmed the church still existed and identified the pastor. The regiment then designated Lewis “as the agent in restoration of the Bible to the church.”

Sadly, John T. Lewis died July 23, 1906, while being transported in the Arnot Ogden Hospital ambulance from his home on East Hill to the hospital. He had suffered from heart disease for a number of years.

In 1963, the Church of the Brethren, of Frederick, in gratitude for his role in restoring the Bible to the church after an “absence of 41 years, 2 months, 6 days,” placed a marker on the grave of John T. Lewis (Lot No. E ½ 89 Section N). His wife, Mary; daughter Susan; and son John are also on this lot.

John T. Lewis was a quiet “hero.” According to Jocelyn Chadwich-Joshua, in her book “The Jim Dilemma,” “Lewis’s unselfish heroism emerges in ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ first in the construction of Jim’s character and later in Jim’s heroic sacrifice to save Tom Sawyer.”

Mark Twain wrote that “I thought I ought to mark a record of it for future references.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *