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What’s Underneath the Trap Door?

~by Maya Cantrera~

Benjamin Halsey and His Daughter

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Ithaca! Whether it’s your first time or your hundredth here in town, you may know that Ithaca is celebrated for its many beautiful gorges, however, there is much more to this beautiful city than meets the eye. Ithaca was actually an important city of refuge for slaves escaping from the south. 

            As we cross the street, you will see the first destination on this section of our tour. This house on the corner belonged to Benjamin Halsey and his daughter. Benjamin was a local abolitionist and railroad stationmaster. This house isn’t technically his, but he had it built for his daughter. He also had it built to help slaves escape on their way to freedom, as he wanted to make it part of the Underground Railroad. Specifically, he created a secret space under the floor of the kitchen, where slaves could hide from any officers searching for them. When looking at this house and the story of Benjamin Halsey and his daughter, we have to understand that there were many efforts to conceal the Underground Railroad and its likeness around this time. This is why it is really difficult to determine if these stories, and the sites associated with them, are historically accurate. To determine how much we should believe in a certain historical event, we will use the Wellman scale. The scale was created by Dr. Judith Wellman who is the head of the Historical New York Research Associates. It is a scale that helps “separate fiction from fact regarding a particular site.”[1] I have done specific extensive research on these topics in many places including Cornell University’s Library, Ithaca Public Library, and beyond, but I have yet to find any written historical documentation of this house, located at 125 West Green Street, as an official stop on the Underground Railroad. Because this story was mostly passed down through oral traditions, we would label this site on the Wellman scale as a level two, which means that “the story is possibly true but at this point, there is no written evidence but there is no reason for doubt,” unless information is found to create doubt surrounding the oral tradition.[2] Both Benjamin Halsey and Miss Halsey’s names are mentioned in the materials compiled by Tompkins County Historian Gretchen Sachse.[3] There is little information about Benjamin’s daughter, but we know from our limited resources and knowledge, that Benjamin himself was a local abolitionist and railroad stationmaster. To my knowledge, he is not documented anywhere else besides in the map of the Southside African-American Heritage Walking Tour devised by Gretchen Sachse, however, like Wellman suggests, there is no reason to doubt that this information is false, so we will believe it. 

Images of 125 West Green Street, Ithaca, NY, from Google Earth[4]

            If you look at the house now, you will see that it is very detailed, gorgeous, and bright in color. The current owners of the house happened to take a picture of it when they bought it in the 1930s. You can see this picture below. The family who owns it now actually gives us more information about Benjamin Halsey: they say that as well as being an abolitionist, he was a Quaker who never turned away a runaway slave. They say that, as a result of this heritage, the home will forever provide a sense of security and safety to anyone who enters it.[5]

© Madera Home 1968 | Historic Ithaca[6]

            Our next stop will be 126 West Court Street, pictured below. This is actually Benjamin Halsey’s house. Like I said before, it is rumored that he bought the house not only for his daughter, but to turn it into a safehouse for runaway slaves. I am now going to read you a fictional story that I have created to give you a better idea of the dangerous job Benjamin Halsey had. I imagined that he was becoming infamous amongst officers and he needed a different hiding place. 

Image of 121 West Court Street, Ithaca, NY, from Google Earth[7]

            In the winter of 1862, on a cold Ithaca night, Benjamin Halsey got a knock on his door. It was a young black woman around the age of twenty holding the hand of a little boy who looked about five. The girl asked if she could have some food for the road, and Halsey knew that that was code for “I need help,” and he knew that she was an escaping slave. He immediately let them in his house, gave them some water and warmth by the fire, and asked them a couple of questions. She explained that they had been traveling for days; her name was Patty and she ran away just as they were put up for sale in Montgomery, Alabama. She stayed at the St. James AME Zion church for a couple of days, but they told her it was too dangerous there, so they sent her to Benjamin. There were men who had followed her all the way from Alabama; she couldn’t give up and surrender now. Benjamin Halsey recognized the brevity of the situation and knew he needed to send the woman and boy to his daughter’s house. He wrapped them up in blankets, and the three of them walked in the pitch dark night to his daughter’s house. 

            They went to the back entrance. Benjamin knocked four times in a patterned way, and immediately the doors flew open. It was Benjamin’s daughter, ready to help whoever it was that her father was bringing to her. As they were climbing in the doors, Benjamin saw officers coming his way. He ushered them inside and shut the doors. The officers questioned him, but he assured them he was just visiting his daughter and must be on his way. Miss Halsey knew the drill; she told Patty she was in good hands and told the little boy that he had to be quiet under all circumstances. She led them upstairs and into the kitchen, where she lifted the carpet to reveal a big trap door that when lifted, opened to a small room underneath. She gave them a lamp, told them not to worry, and ushered them downstairs quickly but kindly. She closed the hatch, put the carpet back over it, and acted as if nothing happened. Just as she expected, the officers knocked on her door just seconds later. She opened the door and they pushed her aside. They searched the house, while Miss Halsey remained calm. She knew that if she were to show any worry, they would become even more suspicious than they already were. After almost 15 minutes of searching almost every nook and cranny, the officers finally left. 

            While this story is fictional, I will show you a document about a girl similar to the one in the story, Patty, who was being sold in Montgomery around this time. This document is dated August 3rd, 1832, when the Underground Railroad was in full swing. The document is titled “‘Sale of Valuable Negroes’ – Annotated by Someone who Probably Bid at the Auction, but with No Prices Realized.” This pamphlet shows us how little value black people were given as humans, but how much value they were given as commodities.[8]

            If we look at the document, the aspect that draws our attention the most is the title. In big, bold font, it reads, “Sale of a Valuable Negroes!”, with emphasis on the exclamation point. Like I just said before, these slaves were seen as valuable commodities and nothing more. This pamphlet reminds me of an advertisement that you would see today, typically one that sells some sort of object or new gadget, but back then, they were advertising these humans. 

            The second detail that I would like to point out is the usage of the word “Negroes”. Slave owners and slave traders used this word as an instrument of power or to show that these black people were inferior by labeling them all into one group. 

            If you look into the fine print of this document, you will see that every line describes a “valuable” slave. It states their name, their age, and a little description of them. You can see here at the top  that they were selling both male and female slaves in this auction. We would expect the age of an on-sale slave to be not too young, but not too old, so around 30 to 40 years old, but if we look a little bit further down, we can see that they were selling little girls and boys of ages 10 and 11 but also as young as 2 years old. The description for the 2 year old is nothing but their name. However, descriptions for the toddlers you can see read “very likely.” Calling a slave “likely” was used to describe their curent strength and health and indicated that they were young enough to become productive workers in the future. If you continue to look at the descriptions of these slaves, you can see that a lot of them are described a being a “full hand,” a “three-fourths of a hand,” or a “one-half of a hand.” In slavery terms, a person in his prime who could complete two whole tasks in one day of work was considered a full hand. Someone who could complete one task in one day of work was considered a three-fourths hand, and most children were included in this group. Lastly, we have the one- half hands: they were the slaves who could complete half a task for one whole day’s worth of work. When we’re talking about a “task,” we’re most likely talking about how many rows of field work or how much cotton picking the slave could do in a day.[9] With a little bit more information, we get more shocked the more we look at this document. For example, on this list is an 18 year old girl named Emma, who is pregnant, but is still labeled as a full hand. 

            This document tells us a lot about slave society of the time. For example, they didn’t label anybody under 18 with the type of field hand that they are. There were also labels of family members on here. We can see that Lewis, who is 22 years old, is marked as the son of Will and Judy, who are also being sold as a married couple. Some slaves were described for having good character while some were described by their beauty. One slave served an apprenticeship, but is still being forced into slavery. We can see when we get to the bottom, there are slaves that people of the time would not think about being very “valuable.” For example, a slave named January, who injured one of his eyes, might not sell as well as the slaves who are labeled as “very likely.” Additionally, the label of the last slave on the list, Hannah, as “orphan” raises some questions because they were selling most of these children without their parents anyway, so we wonder why they would single her out as the only “orphan” in the list.

© Cornell University Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Gail and Stephen Rudin Slavery Collection[10]

            I hope you enjoyed my section of this tour and that you will find my colleagues’ parts equally exciting. Thank you for listening!


Cornell University Library. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Gail and Stephen Rudin Slavery Collection. #4681. “Sale of Valuable Negroes!” Accessed May 18, 2022.

Gable, Walter. “Uncovering the Underground Railroad in the Finger Lakes.” March 2007.

Google Earth. “121 West Court Street Ithaca, NY.” Accessed May 18, 2022.

Google Earth. “125 West Green Street Ithaca, NY.” Accessed May 18, 2022.

Ithaca Heritage. “Macera Family Home.” PocketSights Tour Builder. Accessed May 18, 2022.

Sachse, Gretchen. “Underground Railroad Materials Compiled by Gretchen Sachse Tompkins County Historian in 1996.” 1996.

Trinkley, Michael. “South Carolina – African-Americans – Brutal Work Regimen.” SCIWAY South Carolina’s Information Highway. N.d. Accessed May 18, 2022.

[1] Walter Gable, “Uncovering the Underground Railroad in the Finger Lakes ,” March 2007,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gretchen Sachse, “Underground Railroad Materials Compiled by Gretchen Sachse Tompkins County Historian in 1996,” 1996. 

[4] “125 West Green Street, Ithaca, NY,” Google Earth, accessed May 18, 2022. 

[5] “Macera Family Home,” PocketSights Tour Builder, accessed May 18, 2022,

[6] Ibid.

[7] “121 West Court Street, Ithaca, NY,” Google Earth, accessed May 18, 2022. 

[8] “Sale of Valuable Negroes!,” in Cornell University Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Gail and Stephen Rudin Slavery Collection, #4681, accessed May 18, 2022,

[9] Michael Trinkley, “South Carolina – African-Americans – Brutal Work Regimen,” SCIWAY South Carolina’s Information Highway, n.d., accessed May 18, 2022,

[10] “Sale of Valuable Negroes!”