Fearless and Fiery: Upton’s Polly Bradish, a Renowned Abolitionist
Portrait of Polly Dean Bradish, renowned Upton abolitionist, early 19th century, by Porter and Doyle, in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Photo public domain
Her house still stands on N. Main St., was stop on Underground Railroad
By Linda Chuss
Despite rebuffs from fellow residents and legal risks, Upton’s Polly Dean Bradish (1797-1876) was a passionate anti-slavery advocate known throughout the region.
She was born Polly Dean to a farming family in 1797 and was said to have been trained for future domestic life. In 1819, at age 22, she married blacksmith Harvey Bradish.
In 1826, they built their first home at 15 Main St. (which was later moved to 18 Nelson St.) and in 1844, built their second home at 10 North Main Street, said to be the largest in town, which is still standing. That Bradish house served as a station on the “Underground Railroad” and hundreds of fugitives, who were escaping slavery in the south, were reported to have stopped there for a meal or a night as they made their way to Canada. The Polly Dean Bradish House is still occupied today, and about 20 years ago Upton Historical Society President Tom Bair toured the residence.
“On the second story was a kitchen. The door of a cabinet was opened, and you could see a removeable panel at the back. Behind that was a crawlspace leading to the attic. It’s amazing that feature hasn’t been lost to renovation,” Bair added. It may have been used for hiding a fugitive if authorities came.
Slavery was ruled illegal in Massachusetts in 1780. Some, like Bradish, regularly helped conceal those escaping bondage from other states. The federal Fugitive Slave Law enacted in 1850 levied a $1,000 fine (equal to about $38,000 today) and up to six months in jail for abettors, and the escapee was returned to their life in slavery.
Because safe houses needed to be kept secret, records documenting the Underground Railroad are scarce. Bradish is named in “A Journey Through Upton Memories,” published in 2014 by the Upton Historical Society. William Brown, a “passenger” on the railroad who later became a noted public speaker, said he was concealed at the Bradish home one night, not long before the Civil War began. Then, “At three o’clock the next morning, Harvey [Ruggles] harnessed his team and carried the slave to a friend in Hopkinton, who was another secret agent on the same route.” Ruggles was a fellow abolitionist in Upton and his “team” was likely horses carrying a wagon filled with hay on top of the fugitive.
Though Bradish was outspoken about her surreptitious activities, she was never caught.
Bradish had been an active abolitionist for many years, and in the 1850s, joined the Worcester County South Division Anti-Slavery Society, according to the town’s National Register of Historic Places registration form filed with the National Park Service when creating the Upton Center Historic District. Events hosted by the organization featured fiery speeches and served as a means to raise funds for the movement. Bradish was also known for singing at these events, as a way to warm up the crowd.
She was an in-demand speaker at the society and in Upton, and helped to secure prominent guests. Most renowned, Frederick Douglass spoke at the Upton Anti-Slavery Fair in 1844.
Many contemporaries admired Bradish, while others shunned her. Even in northern states, some favored slavery, benefiting from the lower cost of goods produced under slavery in the south. Leading up to the Civil War, an increasing majority in Upton supported abolition, persuaded by Bradish and her compatriots.
While the Bradish home remains intact, Polly’s contributions to helping end slavery will stand much longer.
For more information about the abolitionist movement in Upton, and Bradish specifically, visit the Upton Historical Society at 2 N. Main Street or on Facebook at UptonHistoricalSociety
The town’s application for the historic district can be found at https://bit.ly/3YYfF53.