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A new home for the cabin of Mark Twain’s parents

Posted by | October 23, 2014

“I had heard that Mark Twain’s father and mother, John Clemens and his wife, had lived near the internationally famous Sgt. Alvin C. York, in the Pall Mall community of the Tennessee mountain county of Fentress,” says John Rice Irwin, founder of the Museum of Appalachia.

“It is a matter of factual history that John Clemens owned much land in that county, and that he was an official in Jamestown, the county seat. He was the postmaster there, and then he moved to Pall Mall on the Wolfe River, and he also opened the post office there.

The John Clemens cabin on its new site at the Museum of Appalachia.

The John Clemens cabin on its new site at the Museum of Appalachia.

“Once while visiting Sgt. York’s son Andrew, I asked about the old log cabin which I’d heard was once occupied by the Clemens family. Andrew was very familiar with it, he said, and he volunteered to take me to it.

“Just two miles north of the old York home, we came upon a tiny one-room log cabin, sitting in an open field, but near a wooded area. This was about 1990, and the structure was quite sound. It was located on property belonging to Ernest Buck, who was not home at the time; but Andrew and I walked over to the forlorn little house, and I took several pictures.

“Some two or three years later, I was speaking to a civic group in Maryville, and I was talking about so much of the largely unknown history of the region, and I mentioned this historic little cabin. After the program, a man named David Buck introduced himself to me. He stated that the cabin to which I alluded was on his father’s property and that it did indeed once serve as the home of John Clemens. He agreed to go with me to talk with his father, Ernest Buck, along with Dean Stone, editor of the Maryville Times. Dean had invited me to speak to the group.

Interior of the John Clemens cabin showing dining area and hearth.

Interior of the John Clemens cabin showing dining area and hearth.

“It took us nearly a year to find a time when the three of us could make the trip—in August, 1995. We found the elder Buck (Ernest) to be a most friendly and knowledgeable person, and one who was keenly interested in all aspects of local history. He had traced the Buck family back six generations to the 1750s.

“Ernest was a graduate of Lincoln Memorial University, and had lived in D.A.R. Hall, the same place, the same floor, and maybe event the same room, as where I roomed several years later. He’s a great farmer, gardener, and along with his wife Grace, a pillar of the community—and most respected, I’m informed.

“According to Ernest, the foremost local historians agree that Mark Twain’s father and mother once lived there, and he produced local history books to verify this. He also told me of the local tradition to that effect.

“’My daddy died when I was very young, and I went to live with my daddy’s sister, Minnie Buck Greer and her husband, Marion Greer. That was about 1921, and they lived near here. I was walking along with my uncle one day, and we walked past that old house, and Uncle Marion pointed to it and said the house was over 100 years old and that a famous family had once lived there—and I think he told me the name of the family, but I was just a child and didn’t learn until years later that it was the Mark Twain family. The original cabin had a stick and mud chimney, but in 1905 a man named R.G. Crouch built the rock chimney that’s there now.

“’I moved there in 1931 to live with my mother (Dollie Sharp Buck) who had recently moved there. She lived there from ’31 until `948, and a Betram Reynolds moved in and lived there from ’48 until 1951.’

“The following comments from Ernest regarding the Clemens family and the log cabin are based, I believe, on both oral and written history—from the people of that region.

“’John Clemens came from Celina (the home of Cordell Hull) in 1826 or 1827. He stayed there for four years, and then he came down here. They called this Possum Trot in 1832. He had a wife and four children at the time, but they said she wouldn’t come with him. She didn’t want to come out here in the wilderness, and she’s supposed to have said that she was tired of having a child every year.

“’They also said that John Clemens was working on a perpetual motion machine, and that he wanted to be in a place where he could concentrate. He founded the Pall Mall Post Office and served as the first postmaster there.

“’His wife and children joined him here at Possum Trot and moved into the little log house with him. Three of his children went to school here—at a school called Mt. Vernon.

“’John Clemens sold out to the Berry Gatewood family and went to Missouri. Some say that Mark Twain was born here and was taken to Missouri as a child, but most people say he was born a few months after his parents moved there.

“’Some people thought the cabin had been moved a little ways from its first location, but that’s not right. I’m sure that it was never moved ‘til you [John Rice Irwin] moved it.’

“The cabin had become severely damaged in the last four or five years. The cabin leaned to such an extent as to allow all the water draining from the northeast side of the roof to fall directly onto the logs on that side. Hence many logs were totally rotted. It would soon have fallen and been impossible to restore. I think that is why Ernest and Grace agreed to let me have the cabin. Also, they had recently visited the Museum of Appalachia (unbeknownst to me) and were much impressed, they said.

“I took my crew of workers, two trucks, and a trailer to take down the cabin on a very hot day—August 29, 1995. They went back a couple of days later and got the chimney.”

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The Wizzard Clip –part 3 of 3

Posted by | October 22, 2014

The bulk of the following is from “Wizzard Clip,” by W.W. Laidley, published in the West Virginia Historical Magazine Quarterly,
 January 1904

Part 3 of 3

“The result of the inquiries led Adam Livingston to visit an Episcopal minister, who then resided in Winchester, but he derived little satisfaction from this visit, and returned home much disappointed.

“He was then advised to see the McSherry family, who were Roman Catholics, and who resided in a very fine estate called “Relievement,” about a mile east of Leetown, at which place the priest was often in the habit of stopping while discharging his spiritual functions in that neighborhood.

“Late in the evening of the same day Mrs. McSherry saw a man coming to her home; she met him at the gate when he told her he wanted ‘to see the priest.’ She informed him that the priest was not at her house, but there would be church in Shepherdstown the following Sunday, when the visitor would have an opportunity of seeing him.

“Mr. and Mrs. McSherry, in company with Mr. Joseph Minghini, went to church on the appointed day, and there they saw the man who had inquired for the priest, and who proved to be Livingston.

“As the priest appeared at the altar, vested for Mass, Livingston seemed to be perfectly overcome. He wept bitterly, and exclaimed loud enough to be heard by the small congregation: ‘This is the very man I saw in my dream; he is the one that the voice told me would relieve me from my troubles.’

“When the service was over, Livingston promptly called on the priest and told him his sad story; but the priest, Father Dennis Cahill of Hagerstown, laughed at him and told him it must be some of his neighbors who were plaguing him, and that he must go home and keep a strict watch for them.

“Richard McSherry and Joseph Minghini, who were present at the interview, were much moved by the old man’s tears and tried to comfort him. After much urgent persuasion, Father Cahill, accompanied by Mr. McSherry and Mr. Minghini, agreed to visit Livingston’s house and to inquire into the strange transactions which he had related.

Church and Graveyard, Middleway, WV

Church and Graveyard, Middleway, WV

“They found his story corroborated not only by the family, but by most of the people with whom they conversed in Smithfield.

“Father Cahill resorted to the remedy of sprinkling the house with holy water, which did not expel the troublesome visitor from the house. However, this attempted remedy yielded a deposit on the doorsill of the exact amount of money that Livingston had mysteriously lost a week after the unnamed traveler’s death.

“The strange clipping still continuing after that time, it was determined by Father Cahill to have Mass celebrated in the house, which was done, and Livingston was relieved from all annoyances of his ghostly visitor.”

The West Virginia Historical Magazine article fails to mention that the old Lutheran farmer was so deeply grateful for having obtained the relief that had been promised him, that he and his family decided to convert to Catholicism.

At this time, in the fall of 1797, a young Catholic priest was sent by Bishop Carroll of Baltimore to investigate the strange happenings at the Adam Livingston house. Father Demetrius A. Gallitzin started as a skeptic but, after interviewing witnesses and seeing the phenomena himself, changed his mind.

Father Gallitzin befriended Mr. Livingston and remained close to him and the family up until Livingston’s death. “Mr. Livingston removed from Virginia to Bedford County, Pennsylvania, where he died in the spring of 1820,” says Gallitzin in his memoirs. “I had Mass at his house repeatedly. He continued, to the last, very attentive to his duties, but did not receive the rites of the Church in his last sickness, which carried him off too quick to afford any chance of sending for a priest.”

Sources: The Mystery of the Wizard Clip, by Father J. M. Finotti, Baltimore, 1879
Mystery of the Wizard Clip, by John B. Piet, West Virginia, 1879
The Mystery of the Wizard Clip, Our Lady of the Rosary Library, Prospect, KY

http://www.wvculture.org/history/notewv/wizardclip1.html

“Haunted House,” by Mark Gauvreau Judge, The Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2003

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The Wizzard Clip –part 2 of 3

Posted by | October 21, 2014

The bulk of the following is from “Wizzard Clip,” by W.W. Laidley, published in the West Virginia Historical Magazine Quarterly,
 January 1904

Part 2 of 3

“In about a week afterward, his barn was burnt and his cattle all died, the crockeryware in his house, without any visible agency, was thrown upon the floor and broken; his money disappeared; the heads of his turkeys and chickens dropped off; and chunks of burning wood would leap from the fireplace several feet out into the floor, endangering the building unless promptly replaced.

“Soon the annoyances, which were then destroying his peace, assumed a new form. The sound of a large pair of shears could be distinctly heard in his house, clipping in the form of half moons and other curious figures, his blankets, sheets and counterpanes, boots and shoes, clothing, etc.

“This was all in one night, but the operation of clipping continued for upwards of three months, a small portion of it only being done at a time, but the inexorable shears never being silent twenty-four hours at a time.
“By this time the news of these strange proceedings was spread through the country for thirty miles around.

Image 013044/ West Virginia Historical Photographs Collection/ West Virginia University

Church and Graveyard, Middleway, WV

“An old Presbyterian lady of Martinsburg, hearing of the clipping that was going on at Livingston’s—to satisfy her curiosity, she went to Livingston’s house. Before entering the door she took from her head her new silk cap, wrapped it up in her silk handkerchief and put it in her pocket to save it from being clipped. After awhile she stepped out again to go home, and having drawn the handkerchief out of her pocket and opened it, found the cap cut in narrow ribbons.

“Many other phenomena are stated and testified to by many witnesses. The long continuance of this mysterious clipping had now aroused the country for many miles around.”

According to a 2003 article in the Wall Street Journal, Livingston begged a local Episcopal minister for help. The man, named Alexander Balman, had been a chaplain in the Revolutionary War, but his courage did him no good with the Clip. One account claims he “attempted an exorcism, and was famously abused by the scornful spirit, so that the prayerbook he used was found subsequently in one of the rooms, in a place which indicated no great respect for our admirable liturgy on the part of the ghost.”

As a result of this, Mr. Livingston turned in desperation to some local conjurers or magicians, one of whom promised to banish the evil spirit if paid a good sum in advance, but refused the job when the shrewd old farmer offered to pay him double that amount – after he succeeded!

The West Virginia Historical Magazine Quarterly article picks up the thread again: “Three daring and adventurous young men from Winchester came to Smithfield declaring their utter unbelief in the reports and offered to sleep in the house all night and to face the Devil himself, if he were the author of these doings.

“But as soon as they became comfortably seated in the house, a large stone was seen to proceed from the fireplace and to whirl around the floor with great velocity, when they took to their heels and made their escape.

“The condition of poor Livingston had become deplorable, he had lost much rest, and his imagination was so worked upon by his nocturnal visitor that his health began visibly to fail.

“Shortly after this Livingston had a dream. He thought he was climbing a high mountain and had great difficulty in the ascent. He had to labor hard, catching at roots and bushes, and moving forward slowly by their aid. Reaching the summit, he saw an imposing personage, ‘dressed in robes,’ as he described it.

“After contemplating for some time the person in view, he heard a voice saying: ‘This is the man who can relieve you.’ His wife heard him groaning in his sleep and she waked him; thereupon he communicated to her his dream and said he did not know of any minister who wore robes, but he would make inquiry in the morning.

(continues tomorrow…)

Sources: The Mystery of the Wizard Clip, by Father J. M. Finotti, Baltimore, 1879
Mystery of the Wizard Clip, by John B. Piet, West Virginia, 1879
The Mystery of the Wizard Clip, Our Lady of the Rosary Library, Prospect, KY

http://www.wvculture.org/history/notewv/wizardclip1.html

“Haunted House,” by Mark Gauvreau Judge, The Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2003

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The Wizzard Clip –part 1 of 3

Posted by | October 20, 2014

The bulk of the following is from “Wizzard Clip,” by W.W. Laidley, published in the West Virginia Historical Magazine Quarterly,
 January 1904

Part 1 of 3

“From the “Eastern Pan-Handle” we take the following ancient ghost story.

“A town was laid out by John Smith in 1794, a town on his lands, then in Berkeley County, since in Jefferson, then in Virginia, now West Virginia. This was by Act of 1798 made a town by the name of Smithfield. It has since been known as Middleway, is located about five miles west of Leetown, and has about eight hundred inhabitants.

“The earliest record of the story was written by Rev. Demetrius A. Gallitzin, whose memoirs were prepared in 1797, and about the same time, Mrs. Annella McSherry wrote letters containing about the same facts, and since then there have been other papers written, all giving about the same facts, and the further fact that for fifty years the original name of the place was lost and it was only known as Wizzard’s Clipp, shows that the people there had no doubt of the facts related.

“The story gathered from the various publications is as follows: Adam Livingston, becoming dissatisfied with his residence in Lancaster County, PA, determined to remove to the State of Virginia, and carried his purpose into effect by the purchase of a house and lot in Smithfield, VA, and seventy acres contiguous thereto. This was about the year 1790.

Church and Graveyard, Middleway, WV

Church and Graveyard, Middleway, WV

“He had the reputation of being an honest and industrious farmer, of fair intelligence, and brought with him his wife and a family of three sons and four daughters.

“Livingston continued to reside there without attracting any particular notice, until 1794, when a stranger, of middle age and of respectable appearance, made a visit to the place and was received as a boarder in his house.

“In a few days after the arrival of this traveler, he was taken sick, and as his illness became more threatening he called Livingston to his bedside, informed him that he was a Catholic, and inquired of him if there was not a priest somewhere in his neighborhood whose services he could procure, should his malady prove fatal, which he had reason to then fear it would.

“Livingston, who was an intensely bigoted member of the Lutheran church, very gruffly replied to him ‘that he knew of no priest in that neighborhood, and if there was one, he should never pass the threshold of his door.’ The dying man repeated his entreaties for the spiritual aid of a Catholic priest, but Livingston was inexorable and refused to countenance his request.

“The stranger died, his name being unknown to his host, and there being nothing among his papers to throw any light upon his history.

“On the night of the traveler’s death Livingston employed a man by the name of Jacob Foster to sit up with the corpse. But so soon as the candles were lighted in the chamber of the dead, after giving a weak and flickering light, they went out and the room was left in darkness. They were re-lighted several times, supposing it to result from some remedial defect in the candle, but with the same result.

“Livingston then brought two candles into the room which he had been using in his own family room, which were about one-third burnt down and which he knew to be good. But so soon as they were placed in the room with the corpse they became immediately extinguished. This so alarmed Foster that he abandoned his vigils and left the house.

“On the night succeeding the burial the peace of Livingston was much disturbed by the apparent sound of horses galloping round his house. He frequently rose during the night to satisfy his mind. While he could distinctly hear the tramp of steeds, he could see nothing to assure him that it was anything more than a figment of his own imagination.

(continues tomorrow…)

Sources: The Mystery of the Wizard Clip, by Father J. M. Finotti, Baltimore, 1879
Mystery of the Wizard Clip, by John B. Piet, West Virginia, 1879
The Mystery of the Wizard Clip, Our Lady of the Rosary Library, Prospect, KY

http://www.wvculture.org/history/notewv/wizardclip1.html

“Haunted House,” by Mark Gauvreau Judge, The Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2003

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Listen Here: Appalachian History Weekly podcast posts today

Posted by | October 19, 2014

We post a new episode of Appalachian History weekly podcast every Sunday. Check us out on the Stitcher network, available on mobile phones, in-car dashboards and tablets worldwide. Just click below to start listening:

We open today’s show with guest author Dr. Michael Ruth. Dr. Ruth has just released Memory of a Miner: A True-Life Story from Harlan County’s Heyday. This book is the story of his dad’s life as an old-time coal miner in “bloody Harlan” in the early to mid 1900s, told in his own words and dialect.

We’ll pause in between things to catch up on a calendar of events in the region this week, with special attention paid to events that emphasize heritage and local color.

Next, director and playwright Thom Fogarty leads us through the strange journey he’s taken in trying to revive Lillian Smith’s play Strange Fruit. The play closed on Broadway after a total of only 60 performances. Smith was furious at how her work had been handled, and was swift to pronounce that Strange Fruit was to never again be produced. That was 69 years ago. True to her word, her literary agents and her estate have never allowed it to be produced. Until now.

We’ll wrap things up with a tale from Haints of the Hills: North Carolina’s Haunted Hundred. “One night, having been awoken from a deep sleep, the widow tiptoed to the kitchen cupboard after she heard the dishes rattling. But when she reached the cabinet, the noise did not abate. The brave woman groped for the cabinet door and jerked it open. A cat-like creature leaped from the cupboard and rubbed against her legs. But it was no ordinary cat.”

And thanks to the good folks at Warren Wilson College Archives, we’ll be able to enjoy some authentic Appalachian music from Red Parham a 1957 recording of Lost John.

So call your old Plott hound up on the porch, fire up your corncob pipe, and settle in for a dose of Appalachian history.

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