The legend of Trapper Abe: A true story from 1950s Brooklyn

“This was a real execution, and we were the executioners.”

October 16, 2020 William A. Gralnick
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There must be millions of squirrels in Brooklyn. They were everywhere, including inside the walls of the house on occasion. This is the story of the “now you see them and now you see them again” squirrels who were residents of our backyard in Flatbush.

An encounter with a squirrel in our backyard the other day brought memories of “Trapper Abe.”

In the backyard of my childhood, squirrels were the nemesis of my mother’s green thumb. She liked to plant things that grew from bulbs: crocuses, tulips, and the like. Bulbs are to squirrels what carrots are to rabbits. In would go the bulbs, out would come the squirrels, gone would be my mother’s hope of neat rows of flowers.

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My mother could be a cranky sort, and the squirrel thievery definitely ratcheted things up on the cranky scale. A solution was needed, so “Trapper Abe” rode to the rescue. Trapper Abe was my father. To him fell the decision of dealing with the bulb-filching vermin or dealing with St. Mildred the Cranky.

First, my father called the Parks Department. I think they laughed at him. He then turned to the hardware store. In the ’50s, a hardware store was not only a place that had all manner of exotica one needed for household fixins, but was also run by men who had knowledge about things most people — like dentists — had no clue about.

My father had two choices. One was “mole nuts.” They looked like bulbs, and while designed to kill moles, they would work just fine on squirrels. There were three problems:

  • As a family, we were anti-capital punishment, especially for robbery.
  • No one wanted to be the undertaker.
  • The mole nuts would work as well on our dog as on our poachers. Thus, a bad choice.

But the hardware maven, Mr. Title, had another idea — a trap. The trap was aluminum with wire sides and was about two-and-a-half feet long. In the center was a tray upon which one placed something succulent. The tray was attached to a spring that operated the doors. Squirrel touches tray, tray trips springs, springs trip doors, and doors snap shut and trap squirrel.

We bought two.

Home we went. We chose cheese for the bait. Apparently, it was a good choice because it didn’t take too long before we had, in fact, trapped our first squirrel. Clattering about in the trap, he looked a lot more frantic than guilty.

So, there we were — mother the planter, father the trapper, and sons the snickering bystanders, all relating to someone’s ancestral heritage. We had trapped an animal, but no one was going to skin this baby and make a stew. Short of that, just what did one do with a trapped animal?

Enter again the sagacious Mr. Title. “Drown it,” he said. This genius said to fill up the bathtub; drop in the trap, and a short while later toss the dead squirrel into the trash.

That was not going to happen. Aside from the philosophy of capital punishment, this was a real execution and we were the executioners. No thanks. Besides, unless my father had a way of getting the bathtub out of the house, there was no way my mother was letting him bring the squirrel inside, no less drown it in the tub the family used to bathe.

Then one of us then got a brilliant idea: relocate the population. Who knows, maybe what biologists now are doing all over the globe with endangered species, we started right there on Waldorf Court, in Brooklyn, New York.

We lived about six miles from Prospect Park. My dad threw the trap and trappee into the back seat of the Buick. The beast was released in the park; everyone was a winner, and thus was born the legend of Trapper Abe.

There was, however, a postscript. If you’re not going to skin and eat what you trap as part of day-to-day survival, the process gets old pretty darn quickly. There were countless numbers of stupid, cheese-addicted squirrels in Brooklyn, and only so much time for running to Prospect Park. Ten or fifteen squirrels into the game, my father decided a few less tulips would be just fine, and he could deal with my mother’s crankiness.

The traps went into the garage. The squirrels rejoiced in the trees. The bulbs were left to fend for themselves. And so died the legend of Trapper Abe.

Columnist and author Bill Gralnick was born and raised in Brooklyn. His latest book, titled “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales from Brooklyn,” offers more memories. His writings can be found at https://www.williamgralnickauthor.com/.

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