A weekend history lesson

While in Elmira over Thanksgiving weekend, I brought up the possibility of stopping by Woodlawn Cemetery to take in the sights.  Strange, right?  Well, perhaps you don’t know of the historical significance of Woodlawn Cemetery.

First Stop was brilliant American author Samuel L. Clemens, known more commonly by his pen name, Mark Twain.

Samuel Clemens spent many summers in Elmira at Quarry farm.  During his stays, he wrote some of his most famous works, such as  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. His wife’s family, the Langdon’s, were apparently Elmira socialites.  Although he lived a number of places (Buffalo and Connecticut) , he was buried in his wife’s family plot at the Woodlawn Cemetery.

Mr. Clemens married Olivia Langdon in 1970 and they had four children.  Their first born, a son, Langdon, died before the age of two.  His daughters  Olivia Susan, Clara, and Jean, each survived to adulthood.

However, in 1896, at age 24, Olivia Susan (“Susy”), died of spinal meningitis. Her gravestone is inscribed with beautiful words, which I discovered was from a poem written by Robert Richardson: “Warm summer sun shine kindly here, Warm southern wind blow softly here, Green sod above, lie light, lie light — Good night, dear heart, Good night, good night.”

A few years later, in 1904, his wife Olivia died while living in Italy.

Finally, in 1909, his youngest daughter Jean died on Christmas Eve by drowning in the bathtub following what was suspected to be a heart attack brought on by an epileptic seizure. Her gravestone features a line from Macbeth (“After life’s fitful fever, she sleeps well”), and a note that her desolate father lay the stone.

The next year, in 1910, Samuel Clemens died of a heart attack at aged 74.  Interestingly, he was born a few weeks after Halley’s comet’s closest approach to the Earth, and died a day after its next appearance.  There were a few pencils left by his grave, as well as a number of coins on the headstone.

(Vivian soaking up some creative juices for her career as a world-famous author.  Note the pencil to the left.)

After his remaining daughter Clara, was widowed, she erected the “Mark Twain monument” in honor of her father and her late husband.

(my father and Viv in front of the monument.  Parenting Rule #1: never wake a sleeping baby, even for photo ops)

(inscription on the Mark Twain monument)

She was also buried in the family plot after her death in 1962, along with her daughter and her second husband.

After soaking up some literary inspiration, we headed over to a newer portion of the Cemetery for some athletic awakening.
Ernie Davis was the first African-American Heisman Trophy recipient. He was awarded the trophy in his senior year playing football for Syracuse University.
A lifelong Elmira resident, he played for Elmira Free Academy (my father’s alma mater). Shortly after he was drafted to the professional league, he was diagnosed with leukemia and died.
On a more personal note, Ernie Davis’ mother, Avis Fleming, was lucky enough to be roommates with my Nanny when they were both hospitalized in St. Joseph’s Hospital!  At the time, it was discussed with her that there was a rumor that a movie about her son would be made.  She replied that it was something that was always floated around, but that she doubted it would ever happen.  The movie, The Express, was released a few months after she passed.
After doing some sleuthing, we were unable to locate the graves of my mother’s aunt and uncle, Betty and Stew Wheeler.  Hopefully we can do some research and come visit them next time.
But by that point, we were feeling ambitious.  So we headed out of the public cemetery  and over to Woodlawn National Cemetery to pay our respects to those who served our country. Tune back for tomorrow’s continued history lesson!

2 thoughts on “A weekend history lesson

    • I haven’t studied Twain ever! I don’t think I took one English class in college. Though now, I wonder if I would have liked it.

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