Who was John T. Lewis, the farmer whose name has been forgotten — along with the fact that he was a friend to one of America’s great writers, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain)?
He was born in 1835 (the same year as Twain) in Carroll County, Md., and in 1853 as a black freeman living in a slave-holding society, he was allowed to join the “mostly white” Church of the Brethren in Westminster, Md. In 1860, he left Maryland and settled on Marsh Creek, just south of Gettysburg, from which he moved just in time to escape the bloody battle there. Still restless, he journeyed north, finally putting down roots near Elmira, N.Y., in 1864.
In August 1877, Mark Twain had come from Hartford, Conn., to visit relatives, the Langdons, whose Quarry Farm was located just outside Elmira. There, the year before, Twain had finished his best-selling novel “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”
One of the black female servants at Quarry Farm was Mary Lewis — wife of John, who worked a small farm in the area. One evening as John slowly drove his two-horse wagon home from Elmira, a runaway horse and buggy headed toward him. Quickly, he pulled his team across the road and formed a V with a fence.
As the speeding buggy entered the V, John, with extraordinary strength, grabbed the bit of the wild-eyed horse just in time to keep it from going over a steep cliff only yards down the road. The driver of the buggy was Ida Langdon, Mark Twain’s sister-in-law. Langdon’s daughter Julia and a black nurse were passengers.
Twain was first to arrive on the scene, having seen the runaway buggy as it left Quarry Farm. He spoke often of the lifesaving incident: “If Lewis had missed his aim, he would have been killed on the spot in the trap he had made for himself, and we should have found the rest of the remains way down at the bottom of the steep ravine.”
For his daring act, the Langdons gave Lewis a large sum of money. Twain gave him a set of his books containing “greenbacks.” With the cash, John and Mary Lewis paid the debt on their 64-acre farm. Ida Langdon gave her rescuer a gold Swiss pocket watch inscribed: “John T. Lewis, who saved three lives at the peril of his own life, August 23, 1877. This in grateful remembrance from Mrs. Charles J. Langdon.”
Twain’s relationship with Lewis lasted 26 years. Whenever he returned to Quarry Farm, he would look up his old friend, and they would spend hours discussing religion and world affairs. In “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” he developed a character of a runaway slave called simply Jim, the only black man in his novel. Many believe that he had in mind Lewis, who, like Jim, had risked his own life to save others.
In 1903, the year the “battlefield Bible” was returned to the Dunkard church at Antietam, Twain and Lewis met for the last time at Quarry Farm. Lewis’ only child, Susanna, cared for him after the death of his wife, and in 1906, the 71-year-old farmer also died. Four years later, Mark Twain was laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery at Elmira, just yards from his friend John T. Lewis.