BLOG – “Beechwood” – Sex cults, Sojourner Truth, and Frank Vanderlip
Beechwood – today, it’s a 37-unit condominium complex, on the corner of Route 9 and Scarborough Station Road, but Beechwood has a long and storied history. First built in 1780, the main building has been added to over the years. (Supposedly the original fireplace still stands somewhere in there.)
The first interesting connection (to my mind) comes to us from the 1830s, when it was owned by Benjamin and Ann Folger and named “Heartt Place.” The Folgers got involved with a wackadoodle, self-proclaimed prophet (are there really any other kind?) named Robert Matthews who believed he was the resurrection of the apostle Matthias and named the house Zion Hill. Wild and crazy doings went on here, with sex and murder and scandal hitting the local papers. Check out this blog post by Miguel Hernandez for more.
Honestly, it sounds to me like a Charles Manson-like cult, and ironically, one of the victims of the Manson Family Sharon Tate Murders was an Abigail Folger. Coincidence or curse?
Anyway, another fun fact is that Isabella Baumfree Van Wagener, aka Sojourner Truth, worked as a housekeeper here to the Folgers and the Prophet Matthias. Yes, THAT Sojourner Truth, the former slave who, in the 19th century, became a well-known abolitionist and fighter for women’s rights. (Her likely-apocryphal “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech is a favorite of the Common Core Curriculum during Black History month . . .)
SOJOURNER TRUTH An albumen silver print from c. 1870 by Randall Studios
We can be fairly certain that she really did live here because Benjamin Folger implicated her in the murder of one Elijah Pierson, a follower of Matthias and resident of Zion Hill, who mysteriously died after eating blackberries. But though accused of murder, she went to court and sued Benjamin Folger for libel and, amazingly, won. So there are plenty of primary and secondary sources to corroborate this story.
There should be a plaque here commemorating the fact that she lived here, don’t you think? Let’s start a GoFundMe!!
Okay, moving on – the next occupant of this property who interests me is Frank Vanderlip — probably one of the most influential residents of Westchester you’ve never heard of. Vanderlip, you see, lived here from 1905 – 1937 and was President of City Bank, once the largest bank in America. He was also one of the creators of the Federal Reserve System, an Assistant Secretary to the U.S. Treasury, and a founder of the first Montessori school in America.
So, where exactly is this place? This storied Beechwood? Well, running (or driving) south along Route 9, just past Sparta Cemetery and the Scarborough Church, you may have noticed a very long, red brick wall. And the middle of this wall is broken by a gate bordered by two Ionic columns half-sunk into the ground. That’s the old entrance to Beechwood. Those columns were brought up here by Frank Vanderlip when the headquarters of the National City Bank at 55 Wall Street underwent some renovations. (Wikipedia tells me that “55 Wall Street was being remodeled and the columns were re-spaced, with two left over.”)
South of the Vanderlip estate is the Clearview School. This was originally known as the Scarborough School, founded in 1913 by Frank Vanderlip and his wife Narcissa and billed as the first Montessori School in America.
But back to Frank Vanderlip. I mentioned that he helped create the Federal Reserve System. But because the history of monetary policy in the United States is pretty damn dull (to me), and you can just go to Wikipedia to read about the Federal Reserve System if you so desire, let me instead give you a cocktail recipe that comes from Frank Vanderlip’s autobiography entitled “From Farm Boy to Financier.”
First, know that Vanderlip had his own private train car that would collect him at the Scarborough station and whisk him to Grand Central station. Nice, right?
Vanderlip writes that
On hot days, after a train ride from the city, from the Scarborough station I would walk, invariably, up the steep hill – not a short climb – to the lower fringe of the wide lawn. After further hill-climbing, when I was in front of the house, beneath a tree as big as Charter Oak, I would be met by a man who used to be a London Omnibus driver. For 16 years after 1910, Saunders was our butler. When he met me on those hot days, he would have for me, in a tall and frosty glass, a fluid white and crinkly as lamb’s wool. He called it a “Ramos Fizz” and he would assure me that for taking the curse off a stuffy day, it was the finest drink that could be concocted . . . If there was concealed in it a jigger of gin, that was entirely the fault of Saunders; I swear I never said gin to him in all the years of our association. (Vanderlip, 222)
Remember, Prohibition was the law of the land from 1920 to 1933, hence the coy reference to the surprise gin in his cocktail.
Here’s the recipe for the above “Ramos Fizz” (note, I haven’t tried it yet . . .):
Juice of half a lime
Two teaspoons powdered sugar
2 oz cream
Jigger of gin
Cream AND Lime? Blecch. No wonder the result is “crinkly as lamb’s wool”! Still, I will make it come summer. Hmm, I wonder what sort of glass one should serve this in?
6 thoughts on ““Beechwood” — Sex cults, Sojourner Truth, and Frank Vanderlip”
It’s quite a history there – I researched it considerably working on a recent novel inspired by Beechwood, Robert Matthews and the Vanderlips. There’s a load of misinformation, ghost stories and tall tales surrounding the history of the mansion, including ‘Mad Matthias’. The most thoroughly written account of what really happened there in the 1800s is “The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America” by Paul E. Johnson. He did his homework. There’s also a strange Angelika art film, “The Savages” that was filmed at Beechwood in 1971 which used much of the interiors intact as part of the film. Stars a young Sam Waterston in his acting debut. Frank Vanderlip Jr gave them permission to film there – he and his wife were living alone in that 27,000 sq ft mansion then, with many rooms that hadn’t been opened since prior to WWII. Also, John Cheever lived there for close to ten years in one of the buildings as a struggling writer.
Thanks for all this info!! I know that I only just scratched the surface . . .
My wife Betsy and I live in Beechwood and are enthusiastic followers of its history.
We just learned about Sojourner Truth’s connection. Thanks to Jeff Gronauer.