Crawling to Freedom

ECW welcomes guest author Richard Abramson 

The Popham house, likely pictured in the 1930s. Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey.

The old Post Road – since 1930, New York State Route 22 – runs north from New York City all the way up to the town of Mooers, near the Canadian border. It’s a two-lane road for the most part, lined by barbershops, drugstores and five-and-dimes in the towns and by red maples, locusts and sycamores in the countryside. If you’ve got far to go or are in a hurry, the New York State Thruway is your best bet. But to understand small-town and rural New York State, you’ll want to take the Post Road.

In Westchester County, which lies twenty miles northwest of New York City, the carriages and wagons that brought people and goods to eighteenth-century towns like Scarsdale, White Plains, Pelham and Yonkers all traveled on the Post Road.1 By the time of the Civil War, the road had become such a major thoroughfare that runaway slaves heading for the safety of Canada crossed at their peril. Even in New York, where abolitionist sentiment was strong, the Fugitive Slave Law required that an escaped slave be returned to his or her owner.2 Nevertheless, elements of the Scarsdale community, the Quakers in particular, risked prosecution to help runaway slaves make their way north.3

The house I grew up in was built by Major William Popham. Popham fought in the Revolutionary War, serving for a time as General George Washington’s aide-de-camp and, from 1844 until his death in 1847, was the last veteran to serve as President-General of the Society of the Cincinnati.4  The black-shuttered colonial that he built in 1787 a few hundred feet off the Post Road between Crane Road and Wayside Lane in Scarsdale played an important role in James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Spy.5 It was Cooper who gave the house its name – The Locusts – after the three mighty locust trees that ringed its drive, and which still stood when I was a boy.

The house was steeped in history. The Marquis de Lafayette visited the Popham’s on several occasions, and the pineapple-shaped chandelier in the front hallway was a gift from John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.6 Not to be outdone, Alexander Hamilton gifted a larger, more magnificent chandelier for the formal dining room, and both chandeliers still reflected the slanting sun when I grew up. The story may be apocryphal, but it is said that as a guest of Major Popham, Aaron Burr, who hated Hamilton and ultimately killed him in this country’s most infamous duel, smashed a plaster bust of Hamilton that Popham’s wife Mary had provocatively placed in Burr’s bedroom.

My father attended only a year of college on a baseball scholarship before WWII intervened, but his keen intelligence and broad curiosity attracted him to the study of history, and to the history of the Revolutionary and Civil War in particular. It was the principal reason he and my mother stretched their finances to buy the Popham House for the astronomical price of $45,000 — $463,000 in today’s dollars – when it came up for sale in 1957. As a small child, I remember my mother’s admonishments to avoid stepping on the faded fleur de lis stencils that were still visible on the wide oak-plank flooring in the den. And my father, explaining that after carriages dropped off their passengers in the gravel circle at the front of the house, they would continue up the hill to the carriage house, where the horses would be tended and fed. The stable was still there, the heavy stable door inset with thick iron bars in its upper section, and my friends and I would close it behind us and pretend that we were prisoners plotting our escape.

It was no coincidence that by the time I reached second or third grade, I had developed an interest in American history, an interest that my parents encouraged. To many of my friends and classmates, history was nothing more than the dreary recitation of ancient dates, inanimate figures and forgotten events, all entombed in dry and colorless textbooks. But when I sat down for dinner in front of the same fireplace that warmed Hamilton, Jay and Lafayette, or listened to the tolling of a grandfather clock in the front hallway that was made in the same year as the house, the Revolution and the Founding Fathers were more than vague abstractions. In that house, and as brought to life by my father’s lively narration, I could almost feel the gravity of their rebellion, and the magnitude of their triumph.

At dinner one night, I asked my parents about slavery, which we had discussed that day in school. My father spent twenty minutes or so explaining what slavery was and why conflicts over its expansion had inevitably led to war. When he was finished and we had cleared the table, he fetched a flashlight and asked me to come with him.

The house as it appeared in the 1960s or 1970s when the author lived there. Scarsdale Public Library, Harold Haliday Costain Slide Collection.

We went downstairs to the basement, portions of which were largely undisturbed from their original condition. You could still see the charred brick ovens that had once been part of the home’s original kitchen, and the desiccated seaweed that had been used to insulate the walls. Separated from his workshop by two ancient glass-paneled doors stood a smaller room, raised several feet above the main cellar floor and perhaps eight feet long and five feet wide. The ceiling was low, and the room was too small for anything but storage. It may once have been used to cool wine or beer.

Carefully, my father opened the fragile doors and led me in. It smelled old and damp, and he had to crouch. He pointed the flashlight at the outer wall of the house and I saw something I had never noticed. A portion of the wall was a lighter color, and this lighter section – this newer section – was in the shape of a tunnel.

“This is where the runaway slaves entered,” he said. His voice was solemn. “They crawled more than four hundred feet in the darkness, through the water that always seeped in, rats everywhere. Up to and under the road, then on further to the basement of a house on the other side. This was part of the Underground Railroad.”7

I stared, trying to picture what it must have been like, crawling to be free. “Was Harriet Tubman here?” I asked. We had talked about her in school. “I don’t know,” my father said. “She might have been.” He knelt down and put his hands on my shoulders. I was eight, and I worshiped him. “Don’t forget this,” he said. “Do you understand?”

I nodded. I didn’t trust myself to speak.

“I think you do,” he said. “C’mon, let’s go back upstairs.”

Richard Abramson was born in New York but has lived most of his adult life in Northern California. Squandering his undergraduate degree in English Literature, he spent thirty-five years practicing law, first as an intellectual property litigator and then as General Counsel of a major scientific research institute. Since retiring in 2015 he has been teaching at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and spending time with his wife Lisa, his sons Jonathan and Michael, and his golden retriever Bear. His first novel, The Virtues of Scandal, was published in 2020.


 

1 Comstock, SarahOld Roads from the Heart of New York. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915.

2 Making Freedom, The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013

3 Topping, Lesley, and Barbara Shay MacDonald, Slavery in Westchester and Scarsdale, Scarsdale Historical Society, 2021.

4 The Society of the Cincinnati, Officers – 1883-Present, available at https://www.societyofthecincinnati.org/officers-1783-present/

5 Cooper, James Fenimore, The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground. Wiley & Halstead, 1821.

6 Cushman, Clare, The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–2012. Supreme Court Historical Society, SAGE Publications, 2012.

7 Despite its name, the Underground Railroad was almost never subterranean, as the cost and risk of tunneling would have been prohibitive. Nevertheless, the persistent rumors of a tunnel, together with the evidence of a corresponding tunnel entrance in the basement of the even older Underhill-Herman House directly across Post Road from the Popham House, suggests at least the possibility that this may have been an exception. See Fein, Elaine, Old Homes of Scarsdale Hide Ghosts, Secret Passageways, Scarsdale Inquirer, October 28, 1976.

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9 Responses to Crawling to Freedom

  1. Dan Dwyer says:

    This is an outstanding post, thank you. I wonder if the house is still there and is perhaps open to the public?

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, Dan. The house is still there, but unlike my parents, who tried to keep it as close to its original state as possible, subsequent owners felt no such obligation and the house is very different. When I lived there local schools brought classes to the house for tours; one year, my mother actually dressed up in colonial garb to greet them!

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  3. Terri Z says:

    Great post!!

  4. Patrick Kelly-Fischer says:

    This was a wonderful post Richard, thank you. I’m also a Western transplant from the Hudson Valley, and I do miss being surrounded by that particular type of pervasive history.

  5. grego says:

    good stuff… but John Jay did not sign the Declaration of Independence. He was in New York dealing with local and state politics at the time.

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  7. James Buechler I says:

    I vaguely remember growing up in Scarsdale and hearing about the colonial days. Has it happened, after the assassination we met in the front room and watch TV to see Linden be sworn in. That would be the front room of that old house.

  8. Stuart Bair says:

    Richard,
    Did you have indoor plumbing??

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