Unknown Stories of WNY: Mark Twain's Walking Dead

Mark Twain wrote zombie stories while living in Buffalo

BUFFALO, NY - One hundred forty years before the Walking Dead was even a thing, Mark Twain made it a thing.

The year was 1870.  

Twain went by Samuel Langhorne Clemens as the editor of the Buffalo Express newspaper. Using that position as a bully pulpit, Clemens wrote a short story in the form of two essays that appeared in the April 30th and May 7th editions. It was called A Curious Dream Containing a Moral.

As the story begins, the main character, presumably Clemens himself, recalls sitting on a doorstep in no particular city. It is likely that it was his doorstep, on the Delaware Avenue mansion he called home at the time.

The story continues, "Presently up the street, I heard a bony clack-clacking and guessed it was castanets of a serenading party."  Clemens goes on to say,  "In a minute more a tall skeleton, hooded, and half clad in a tattered and moldy shroud, whose shreds were flapping about the 'ribby' latticework of its person. He had two-thirds of a coffin on his shoulder, and some foot and head boards under his arm."

That clacking character is named John Baxter Copmanhurst, one of many skeletons making their way from a graveyard up the street, and telling Clemens of his plight.

"The graves are so leaky, they have to borrow each other's skulls to scoop the water out and that's of course that's a problem because the sediment starts to build up in the skull...the imagery is really fantastic," says Amy Pickard, Curator of Rare Books at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.

Copmanhurst speaks of what the cemeteries once were. "Yes, sir, thirty years ago I laid me down there, and was happy. For it was out in the country then – out in the breezy, flowery, grand old woods" But goes on to tell Clemens of the city growing out to the country, graves being moved to make way for mansions and others forgotten.

Clemens' work and political statement through the vehicle of humor opened some eyes to the problem of cemetery neglect. It also led to a national movement for cemetery reform.


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