Monday, December 10, 2018

A True Story Word For Word As I Heard It

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist
It was summer-time, and twilight. We were sitting on the porch of the farmhouse, on the summit of the hill, and "Aunt Rachel" was sitting respectfully below our level, on the steps-for she was our Servant, and colored. She was of mighty frame and stature; she was sixty years old, but her eye was undimmed and her strength unabated. She was a cheerful, hearty soul, and it was no more trouble for her to laugh than it is for a bird to sing. She was under fire now, as usual when the day was done. That is to say, she was being chaffed without mercy, and was enjoying it. She would let off peal after of laughter, and then sit with her face in her hands and shake with throes of enjoyment which she could no longer get breath enough to express. It such a moment as this a thought occurred to me, and I said:

"Aunt Rachel, how is it that you've lived sixty years and never had any trouble?"

That’s how the short story “A True Story, Word for Word as I Heard It” by Mark Twain begins. It was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1874 and it really is a true story. Less word-for-word true and more Lifetime-movie true, but true none the less.

Aunt Rachel in The Atlantic Monthly, 1874
The woman Twain called Aunt Rachel was Mary Ann Cord and she had, in fact, known trouble. She was born into slavery in Virginia on a plantation where she eventually served as a cook. She had a husband and seven children, the youngest of whom, Henry, was her favorite. When he was a toddler, he cracked his head open on the corner of a stove and bore the scar for the rest of his life. Now, remember that detail, because it will be very, very important later on.

Mary Ann Cord, image courtesy of Elmira College
In 1852, the family’s mistress went broke and she decided to sell them all. Mary Ann stood helpless as her husband and seven children were auctioned off one by one. As little Henry, only eight years old, was being pulled from her arms, he slipped a simple wire ring on her finger and swore he would escape and find her.  Mary Ann was sold to a plantation in New Bern, North Carolina. She thought she would never see him, or any of the rest of her family, ever again, but she kept that ring on her finger. Henry never forgot his promise and never gave up hope of finding her. 

In 1858, at age 13, Henry escaped and wound up here in Elmira.  It was here that he met Charles Hoppe, the barber at the Brainard House, who gave him a job and a trade he would practice for the rest of his life. During the Civil War, he joined up with a Colored regiment just as soon as he was able and found himself down in New Bern, North Carolina. And that, my friends, is where a miracle happened.

Henry Washington's barber shop

 Mary Ann’s plantation had been liberated by Union troops and pressed into service as a sort of headquarters. The Union officers had asked her to stay on and cook for pay, and she had. One night, a group of colored troops showed up, demanding food and making a mess. Well, Mary Ann wasn’t putting up with that nonsense and threw them right out. If the story ended there, Mark Twain probably wouldn’t have written about it. 

Luckily, it didn’t end there. In Mark Twain’s version of events, she was lighting the stove the next morning when she looked up and saw a young man with a scar and knew it was Henry. What actually happened was a bit more complicated. Henry had been one of the colored troops from the night before and he had been so strongly reminded of his mother, that he had come back. He sat down where the cook was serving breakfast and pushed his hair back off his forehead to see if she’d notice. And boy, did she notice. According to Twain, she started hugging him and crying, but in reality, she took one look at his scar and fainted dead away. It was when he lunged to catch her that he noticed her ring and that was how Mary Ann and Henry, separated by years of slavery and war, found each other. 

As soon as he was discharged, Henry took Mary Ann home with him to Elmira. He went back to his barber shop and she built a life here. She got remarried and ended up working as a cook at Quarry Farm. That was how she came to meet Mark Twain, and how he came to write a version of her story. 

Mary Ann Cord with the Crane-Clemens family on the porch at Quarry Farm


  1. What a story to remind us of how fortunate we really be born into slavery....have your family ripped from your arms and sold off and never to be seen again...what a joy this reunion must have been....a true miracle...