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Look Back: 'Old John' the whistler, a Civil War veteran, died 1923

Times Leader - 12/10/2023

Dec. 10—On a blustery, cold day on Dec. 15, 1923, "Old Blind John" Stephens was laid to rest in Wilkes-Barre City Cemetery surrounded by a large number of family, friends and Civil War veterans.

As Stephens' casket was lowered into the grave, Luzerne County Sheriff John MacLuskie played Taps on a trumpet.

Stephens died inside his tiny wooden cottage at 24 Moyallen St., Wilkes-Barre, from heart failure on Dec. 14, 1923. His death impacted Central City Wilkes-Barre where Stephens had gone nearly every day for half a century.

"It is chronicled for reminder of the older generation of Wilkes-Barre the death of "Old Blind John," colored veteran of the Civil War as he was often seen and heard walking the streets with heavy cane tapping the pavement in front of him, gaily whistling "drum corps" tunes — that is who John Stephens was," the Wilkes-Barre Record reported Dec. 14, 1923.

The newspaper reported Stephens knew Central City streets better than anyone having trod paved walks for 50 years when he had his sight.

Stephens, an African American born in York, York County, on Nov. 13, 1839, enlisted in the Union Army in Philadelphia, and fought during the Civil War with the 8th U.S. Calvary, Co. G.

A story in the Evening News on Nov. 20, 1914, reported about Stephens' hobby of walking downtown streets and his time during the Civil War.

The Evening News story stated Stephens' military unit engaged in battles in South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Georgia and Virginia. During a battle on a corn field near Fort Mahone, a Confederate fort near Petersburg, Va., on Oct. 7, 1864, Stephens lost sight in his left eye by a glancing musket ball.

After Stephens was mustered out of service, he relocated to Wilkes-Barre to be with family who lived on Moyallen Street. Stephens was employed as a horse and carriage driver hauling coal ash from homes and businesses in the downtown area from the late 1860s through the 1890s, when he got to know central city streets. Stephens was also a trapeze performer for the Fred Meyers theater that stood on North State Street, Wilkes-Barre.

"Comrade Stephens will be recognized by thousands of people who made his tours of Public Square whistling patriotic airs and swinging a cane in front of him to guide the way. The veteran lost the sight of one eye completely in battle and years ago, the other eye was affected," the Evening News reported Nov. 20, 1914.

Stephens lost his right eye while chopping wood.

As he drove the horse and carriage, Stephens got into the habit of whistling. He continued the practice when he became totally blind walking downtown streets for nearly 50 years.

Members of the Grand Old Republic carried Stephens' casket from Kniffen's undertaker parlor to a mass at A.M.E. Zion Church on South Washington Street. After mass, Stephens was buried with what would be called military honors in the soldier's plot at City Cemetery.

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(c)2023 The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

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