Sunday, June 19, 2016

John W. Jones - Angel of Hellmira

  John W. Jones was born a slave on June 21, 1817 in Leesburg Virginia. He belonged to a kindly woman named Sarah Ellzey who liked John very much. Miss Sarah was elderly and John was afraid of what might happen to him after she passed away. On June 4, 1844, John and four others, which included his two half brothers, decided to escape using the Underground Railroad. They were nearly captured in Maryland by slave catchers. John and his group found a barn on the farm of Dr. Nathaniel Smith in Pennsylvania. When the doctors wife found them they were exhausted and hungry. She cared for them until they were strong enough to travel. After Mrs. Smith died flowers would mysteriously appear on her grave until Jones died in 1900 and it was believed that he was the one responsible. Jones group reached Elmira New York on July 5, 1844. He settled there and helped other slaves escape north on the Underground Railroad. John became a sexton of his Baptist church and assisted the volunteer fire department by ringing the church bell if there was a fire. Jones was one of several sextons in the church. The fire department would pay two dollars to the first sexton who could ring the bell. Jones was usually first because he attached a rope to the bell clapper and the other end to his bed post. He kept accurate records for church members who died and were buried in Woodlawn cemetery. 

  During the Civil War a notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp was established at Elmira. It was so bad that the rebels nicknamed it Hellmira. There were so many rats that a dog was used to catch them. Rat meat was sold to the prisoners for five cents but few could afford it. Two prisoners eventually captured the dog, cooked it, and ate it. They were sent to solitary confinement for thirty days. Prisoners were starved and dysentery along with typhoid, pneumonia, smallpox, bad medical care and flooding of a nearby river resulted in the deaths of 2,963 prisoners. There was a mortality rate of about 25 percent. A platform with chairs and binoculars was built outside the prison camp. Visitors were charged 10 cents apiece to look at the prisoners. Spectators were sold refreshments while they watched Confederate soldiers starve. Most people know about Andersonville, and how horrible it was, but the North had these camps all over. The death rates were almost as high as Andersonville. The Confederates had some excuse because they could barely feed their own soldiers and people. These camps were in the midst of plenty and there was no excuse for Confederate soldiers being starved and mistreated like this. For close to a century the mistreatment of Confederate soldiers was treated as rumor in the North. Three thousand Confederate soldiers died in Hellmira. 

  John Jones buried, or either supervised the burial, of all of these soldiers in Elmira's Woodlawn cemetery. He kept such accurate records that only 7 soldiers are unknown. He was paid 2.50 for each burial and was able to buy a farm. Jones became the wealthiest black man in that part of the state. He clearly marked the coffins with any information that was available on each soldier. A sealed bottle with the information was placed inside the coffin. The soldiers valuables were carefully cataloged and stored. Wooden markers were placed on the graves and arranged in a pattern as if they were lined up for inspection. The graves of Union soldiers surrounded the Confederate graves. Families were impressed by the care that Jones had shown for their loved ones. He passed on letters, photographs, personal mementos and keepsakes to the families. They were so moved that only three families decided to disinter their loved ones for reburial in the South. When the son of his old overseer at the Ellzey plantation in Leesburg Virginia, John R. Rollins, died at the prison camp, Jones sent the body back to the family. A few years after the war he managed to visit his old plantation in Virginia and was warmly welcomed. Jones married in 1856 and he and his wife had three sons and one daughter. One son died at the age of three in 1864. Jones died on December 26, 1900 at the age of 82. Woodlawn Cemetery became a national cemetery in 1877. In 1907 the Federal government replaced the wooden markers on the Confederate graves with permanent marble headstones.

Confederate graves at Woodlawn

The grave of John Jones in Woodlawn

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