January 8, 2015

I did not rob Mark Twain’s grave


Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 7.27.55 PMSometime over the holidays—likely between Christmas and New Years Day—someone removed a bronze plaque featuring Mark Twain‘s profile from the author’s gravesite in Elmira, NY. Twain wrote many of his most important works in Elmira, including Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which were written at his family’s summer home, Quarry Farm. Twain was buried in Woodlawn National Cemetery beside his wife, Elmira native Olivia Langdon, and their children in April, 1910; the plaque was added to his gravesite in 1937. The group Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery has since been given a grant of $10,000 to replace it.

Although Twain is buried under both his birth name, Samuel Clemens, and his pen name, his gravesite also slyly references his nom de plume: the site’s most notable feature is a 12-foot-tall marker—12 feet is two fathoms, a measure riverboat captains would call out as “mark twain.” Of course, the size of the marker also should have served as an impediment to vandals. As local historian (and former politician/all around good guy) Jim Hare told the Star Gazette, “Somebody had to bring in a ladder… There has been vandalism in the cemetery over the years, but there has never been any at the Twain site, which is a revered site. Desecration of any grave is a horrible thing for people to do.”

Elmira City Historian Diane Janowski told the newspaper that she had “been watching eBay, and it hasn’t been on there.” Of course, given the sophistication of the heist itself—a ladder was involved, after all—it would be remarkable if the thief were stupid enough to try to auction off the plaque to the highest bidder. But then again, there’s no indication as to why the plaque was stolen: it could have been a simple act of vandalism, a rash move by a rabid fan, a bold Oceans 11-style operation involving the world’s most talented criminals, or an even bolder Oceans 12-style operation involving the world’s most talented criminals plus the world’s most talented criminal, Julia Roberts, who committed the greatest heist of all: stealing America’s heart. 

The theft of this plaque is undoubtedly a tragedy worthy of the attention of MobyLives’s readers. But I’d also like to briefly digress to address another potential audience: the Elmira Police Department.

I did not rob Mark Twain’s grave.

You see, I’m a proud native of Elmira, NY. I was born in Arnot Ogden Medical Center. I attended Booth Elementary (now closed), Ernie Davis Middle School (now closed), and Elmira Free Academy (now closed, though it does house the city’s middle school). I lived in Elmira from 1987 to 2005, when I left to attend college in Ohio. My parents still call Elmira home and I visit them regularly, though perhaps not as often as they’d like. And I was in Elmira from December 22nd-26th to celebrate Christmas.

But I did not rob Mark Twain’s grave.

I have a number of alibis, all of which are air tight. The only time I left the house over that period was to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of the Smaug 2: The Battle of the Five Armies with my father at The Palace Theater in Corning. The movie was a pleasant surprise, though, admittedly, I came in with pretty low expectations. Neither of us brought a ladder or a crowbar to the film because we were not planning to rob Mark Twain’s grave following the screening. We were there to watch a dragon get shot with a giant iron arrow and a dwarf fall in love with an elf and Bilbo act like he had never even encountered the concept of jewelry while not so subtly using the ring of power to save Thorin Oakenshield’s hide before getting a career-ending concussion.

But even if I had the one ring to rule them all, the one ring to find them, the one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them, I would not have used it to rob Mark Twain’s grave. Like Hare, Janowski, and nearly all of Elmira’s residents I revere Twain and am proud of Twain’s connection to Elmira—his gravesite, his former home, and, above all else, his work. (Or at least most of it: George Saunders is absolutely right about Tom Sawyer, who is “likable enough” for a “stinker” whose very presence drained Twain’s writing of both its biting irony and its humanity.) Of course, I don’t mean to make light of an act of vandalism. I just got accused of doing a lot of things I didn’t do by the police when I was in middle school and high school and want to make sure I have my bases covered.

* * *

Elmira’s motto, “Honoring the Past, Building the Future,” is definitely mostly half right: the city of Elmira is deeply proud of its most famous residents—perhaps inordinately so (see below). That motto is (at best) maybe mostly half right—and even then it’s only maybe mostly half right some of the time. A more appropriate motto would be “Nodding to the Past, While Desperately Trying Anything That Might Work.” The desecration of Twain’s grave is a reminder of Elmira’s complicated relationship with the Twain legacy—and with its own history.

Welcome to Elmira! (The author with his friend Zehara Levin with (left to right) Brian Williams, Hal Roach, Ernie Davis, Mark Twain, Eileen Collins, John Jones, and Tommy Hilfiger)

Welcome to Elmira! (The author and his friend Zehara Levin with (left to right) Brian Williams, Hal Roach, Ernie Davis, Mark Twain, Eileen Collins, John Jones, and Tommy Hilfiger)

For most people, Mark Twain conjures the riverboat captain navigating the murky waters of the Mississippi, the young journalist swapping stories and roughing it in the saloons of post-gold rush Nevada, and the wit and bon vivant captivating an elegant audience in a mansion in Hartford. Twain’s greatest works were written on a hill just east of Elmira, but Twain the writer—Twain the Elmiran—pales before Twain the myth. Admittedly, laboring over pages may not be as sexy as steamboats, saloons, or society parties, but the fact that Twain’s connection to Elmira is not widely known is a shame. It’s an even bigger shame that what may be the biggest story of my lifetime about that connection is this one (and it’s not even that big!), which makes the city appear ungrateful for and unworthy of its own legacy.

Unfortunately, the city hasn’t always been worthy of that legacy over the past century. Although Twain’s face is plastered on signs and banners throughout the town, there’s an argument to be made that Elmira has taken more from Twain than they’ve given him by exploiting its connection to the writer instead of nurturing his legacy. The city has had a number of opportunities to preserve and broadcast the writer’s Elmira connection, but it’s capitalized on none of them. Instead, the city has been defined by a kind of passivity towards its own past: content to merely broadcast the fact that some people were born in Elmira and some things happened there, and unwilling to make a bold move to integrate its history into its identity.

* * *

After two years of correspondence (and at least one failed marriage proposal), Mark Twain married Olivia Langdon in 1870 in her father’s parlor in what is now downtown Elmira. Although they would never permanently reside there, they would spend the summer at Olivia’s sister’s house, Quarry Farm, for the next 33 years. There, Langdon would visit her family and Twain would work in peace in an octagonal study overlooking the Chemung River. Far from Hartford’s demanding social scene, Twain would work on or complete a number of his most important works, including Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, A Tramp Abroad, Life on the Mississippi, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Mark Twain the celebrity and public intellectual lived in Hartford but, to a large degree, Mark Twain the writer lived in Elmira.

The couple continued to travel to Quarry Farm until 1903, when they made their last visit to the house. The following year, Olivia Langdon died in Venice; six years later, Twain passed away in Connecticut. Financial difficulties led the couple to sell their Hartford home in 1903, but Quarry Farm remained in the Langdon family for several decades.

In 1938, nearly thirty years after Twain’s death, the Langdon family approached the city of Elmira with an offer. The Langdons had decided they could no longer maintain the Langdon mansion, a beautiful Victorian home that had been built by Olivia Langdon’s father, the abolitionist and merchant Jervis Langdon, and which sat at what is still the center of town. The family offered to sell the house to the city of Elmira for its assessed value: just under $50,000. Their hope was that the city would turn the home into a museum.

The Langdon Mansion as it was.

The Langdon mansion didn’t have as strong a Twain connection as Quarry Farm, but it was still substantial—aside from Quarry Farm, it was undoubtedly the place where Twain spent the most time (even if you believe the local rumors about him regularly sneaking off down the hill to hang out in a popular tavern).  Twain courted his future wife here, and the couple regularly visited when they were in town for the summer.

The city of Elmira considered, debated, and voted on the offer, but it ultimately declined, fearing that its maintenance would be too financially burdensome. The home was sold to a private developer who quickly demolished it and built a shopping center in its place. That shopping center is still there: today it’s a strip mall that houses one of Elmira’s better pizza places, a decent shoe store that—shockingly—delivers on its promise of “famous” brands, and a 2-year, for-profit career college with a shaky reputation. There may also be a Subway. To add insult to injury, the shopping center is called “Langdon Plaza.”

Langdon Plaza

Langdon Plaza

Elmira’s decision not to buy the Langdon mansion was a colossal mistake. Not only was the building one of only two major structures in town with a strong connection to Twain, but it was  worth preserving for what took place within its walls before Samuel Clemons even arrived on the scene: a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Jervis Langdon was a close friend of Frederick Douglass, whom he helped escape from slavery.

In 1952, the octagonal study at Quarry Farm was moved to the center of the Elmira College campus, a short distance from downtown. This was surely better than nothing, but it couldn’t make up for the absence of a real museum, nor could it compete with Hartford, where the Mark Twain House and Museum opened  in 1974. Once again, Connecticut was the center of Mark Twain’s life. Hartford owned the tourist trade; Elmira couldn’t even compete. Elmira’s connection to Twain should rival Hartford’s—he met his wife in Elmira, he spent his summers in Elmira, he wrote his best works in Elmira, and he’s buried in Elmira—but the city has little to show for it. (Except an unusual commitment to Twain-related vandalism: I’ve been told that about 15 years ago, a group of Elmira College students painted the study orange in the middle of the night. The college quickly caught on, however, and slapped a fresh coat of paint on before anyone got wind. I sadly haven’t been able to verify this story, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it were true.)

* * *

It’s not just Mark Twain. Elmira’s attitude toward its own history seems—to this once-resident—unusually fraught. On occasions when the city has been unable to afford upkeep or find tenants for its most iconic, architecturally significant buildings, it has let them fall into disrepair and then demolished them. In the mid-90s, the city evicted a number of tenants and destroyed an entire downtown block in order to build an arena for a minor league hockey team it thought would “revitalize” downtown. The arena and the hockey team are still there, but it’s hardly been a success. The arena entered foreclosure procedures in 2012 before being purchased by a local businessman, who has since donated the hockey team to the city. Downtown hasn’t been revitalized.

Elmira housed the largest Confederate prisoner of war camp in the North during the Civil War, but you’d hardly know if you were there: aside from oblique references made at an annual reenactment, the camp is only marked by a few historical markers, many of which are often obscured by overgrowth. Overseen by General William Hoffman, the camp was an abomination in every respect and a blight on the Union cause. Hoffman himself was largely responsible—he was at best unforgivably cheap and at worst a war criminal—for the camp’s poor conditions: favoring a policy of retaliation, he regularly reduced rations and refused to provide proper accommodations, despite the area’s harsh winter. Over the course of only one year, 25% of the camp’s 12,000 inmates would die of disease, malnutrition, and frostbite.

Many of these soldiers were buried not far from Twain by a former slave, John Jones, who shares a place on the city’s Welcome sign with the author. Over the past several years, the John W. Jones Museum has done an admirable job to promote its namesake’s legacy, despite numerous hurdles. The site of the camp itself, however, continues to be largely ignored. The lack of attention paid to this significant site is disappointing, given that there aren’t exactly a million Civil War sites in New York, or the Northeast itself. And the camp’s (admittedly far more notable) Confederate equivalent is a National Historic Site. As for Hoffman, the United States covered up its actions after the war. I attended high school on Hoffman St., one of the city’s main thoroughfares.

* * *

The challenges faced by small towns like Elmira are numerous—depopulation and deindustrialization are just two of the biggest ones—so in the grand scheme of things, all of these are relatively minor quibbles. Elmira would not be a bustling metropolis today if it had bought the Langdon mansion 1939, nor would that decision have halted the devastating flood that accelerated the city’s downfall in 1972 or slowed the decline of the city’s population, which has dropped from 50,000 to less than 30,000 over the past 60 years. Nor would it have brought me or many of my friends back to the city to live and work and start families after we left college. For better and for worse, the city seems more resigned to its fate today than it was when I was growing up: more and more people seem to be catching up to the fact that we’re not one big idea away from recapturing our former glory and that most of downtown won’t come back. Trying not to rock the boat has taken the place of the home run. Given the home run swings the city’s taken over the last two decades, that’s probably not a bad thing.

What worries me about Elmira isn’t just its inability to capitalize on its history—it’s the city’s inability to recognize quite what that history means. There’s nothing intrinsically special about what Twain did in Elmira, and he probably could have done it just about anywhere else (though maybe not Hartford). And there’s nothing particularly significant about the fact that the Civil War Camp was set up in Elmira, instead of Binghamton or Oneonta. I don’t know why the U.S. government put one there, and I suspect I wouldn’t be particularly interested if I found out.

What matters to me is that Mark Twain wrote one of the earliest great American novels—the first great American novel about race, the first great American novel to look directly at the inherent ironies that define this country—in Elmira only a decade after the city housed the deadliest POW camp in the North, a decade after the citizens of Elmira would pay a few coins to gawk at Confederate soldiers who were starving and freezing to death, resorting to eating rats and huddling for warmth. The convergence of these two facts—and many others like them—is impossible to commemorate appropriately, even if the city were to suddenly start trying. You can honor a heritage, but the soul of a place will usually remain elusive, will resist specific gestures.

And yet in an odd way, the vandalism of Twain’s grave strikes me as that rare act that can bring a city’s soul to life. In recent days, I’ve gotten a handful of text messages and gchats about the incident from friends—an uncommon occurrence, given that I’m terrible at keeping in touch with anyone who lives more than 25 miles away. The Star Gazette, which has, over the course of my lifetime, transformed from a solid, if somewhat treacly newspaper to a glorified pamphlet, has published stories about the desecration longer and more thorough than anything I’ve seen in the paper in years. It may just be that people love a mystery, but I think the mystery here is more meaningful—and certainly weirder—than the case of a missing plaque. Residents will forget about the incident in a few weeks, but for once, if only briefly, Elmira’s vision of its history is neither triumphalist and empty, nor blinded and even emptier. A desecration might not seem like an intuitive way to “honor the past,” yet the effect it has had seems like the very best kind of tribute.

But none of that, of course, is to imply that I robbed Mark Twain’s grave. I did not rob Mark Twain’s grave.


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.