Spirits Rising From the Grave

The idea of spirits rising from the grave might be spooky in October, but in the springtime, with flowers and trees blooming all around, it’s not so spooky.

I spent the whole day driving around on my new scooter, but the very first place I scooted was the West Cemetery in Amherst where modern-day citizens are dressing up and portraying those interred below.

It’s not morbid. It’s part of the celebration of the 250th birthday of the Town of Amherst. Telling the stories of these fascinating people and showing us how they dressed and how they spoke. Professor Hitchcock’s wife is there, and Emily Dickinson’s maid, and a Revolutionary general.

Then I met a true American hero face to face: Henry Jackson, a teamster in Amherst. I hope you’ll read the thrilling story of how he helped to rescue Angeline Palmer from a life of slavery. It’s a corker. I believe it’s only one chapter in Henry Jackson’s service to the cause of freedom.

The great thing about history is that we’re learning so much more about it all the time. The Underground Railroad presents a unique historical challenge because its members had to maintain total secrecy.

And after the Civil War, some misguided spirit of reconciliation prevented all these stories of bravery and sacrifice from being documented as they should have been.

But there is evidence, lots of it, like the letter from the son of Samuel Hill, who writes about his father’s station on the Underground Railroad, and says David Ruggles ran one as well at his water-cure sanitorium in Northampton. OK we knew that, since Ruggles was a stationmaster in New York City for many years and helped Frederick Douglass to escape to freedom.

But then the son of Samuel Hill says they often took runaways to a certain guy’s house in Whately. That’s five miles from my house as the crow flies.

Now we know there was a station in Greenfield, just north of here, and we know about the abolitionist tavernkeepers here in my home town of Sunderland. It’s just a matter of making the connections.

And we know that Harriet Tubman visited Florence and even attended some public rallies. We know slavecatchers came to Florence, too, but thankfully none of them were able to nab her and collect the $40,000 reward offered by plantation owners for her capture — dead or alive. Serious money in those days.

Henry Jackson went from Amherst to Greenfield every day. His friend Basil Dorsey went to Boston all the time. From what I have learned about these two men, I believe it is next to impossible that they were not actively involved in helping runaway slaves.

But getting back to the West Cemetery, I am so happy to find so many people interested in these old stories. Plodding around in libraries is important, but finding kindred spirits is really inspiring, and since they’ve done their share of plodding, too, they can save you a lot of time and trouble.

I’ll have more stories and photos. The reenactors are going to be there all week.