Local historians Geoffrey Fleming and Amy Folk uncover this gruesome 19th-century story of revenge and murder on Long Island.
In the mid-19th century, James Wickham was a wealthy farmer with a large estate in Cutchogue, Long Island. His extensive property included a mansion and eighty acres of farmland that were maintained by a staff of servants. In 1854, Wickham got into an argument with one of his workers, Nicholas Behan, after Behan harassed another employee who refused to marry him.
Several days after Behan's dismissal, he crept back into the house in the dead of night. With an axe, he butchered Wickham and his wife, Frances, and fled to a nearby swamp. Behan was captured, tried, convicted and, on December 15, became one of the last people to be hanged in Suffolk County.
About the Author
Geoffrey Fleming has worked at a wide variety of museums and historical societies on Long Island, and has served on several boards and committees. Fleming is author or co-author of 12 books. Amy Folk is the collections manager for the Southold Historical Society. She is the co-author of Hotels and Inns of Long Island's North Fork.
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THE WICKHAM FAMILY AND CUTCHOGUE
In the shadow of New York City lies one of the longest islands in the United States. Appropriately named Long Island, the land is shaped like a fish with a body that extends eastward out from the city and into the Atlantic Ocean. To the north of the island separated by Long Island Sound are the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Approximately 130 miles long, the island today supports a variety of communities. On the western end are interconnecting urban communities that are part of the sprawl of Manhattan. The center of the island is covered in miles of suburbia with row after row of quarter-acre houses and shopping malls. At the far eastern end, the land divides to form the fish tail, also known as the South Fork and the North Fork. The South Fork, the more well known of the two forks, is the home and playground of a number of wealthy and famous people and thousands of vacationers. In contrast, the North Fork is among one of the few rural areas left on the island. Prior to World War II, the vast majority of Long Island once resembled the North Fork, with nothing but miles of farmer's fields from New York City out to the far east end. The western end of Long Island was originally settled by the Dutch when New Amsterdam was founded on what is today more familiarly known as Manhattan. As the colony grew, it started to spread into the surrounding islands, forming communities such as Brooklyn and New Utrecht. Although claimed by the Dutch, the eastern end of the island was actually settled by the English when colonists from New England traveled south to set up communities on the forks.
Unlike Southampton, which started as an independent colony, Southold began sometime around 1640 as a plantation of the New Haven Colony in Connecticut. The land had to be purchased twice — once from the Native Americans by representatives of the New Haven Colonies and again from James Farrett, who was the agent representing Lord Stirling, the British noble granted the land by the Crown. Settlers from Connecticut, led by Reverend John Young, set out to create an English community on the land. For a decade, the area was officially a plantation and not a colony, and residents of Southold had no local government. Landowners had to sail across Long Island Sound to Connecticut to transact all legal matters. Land sales, complaints about neighbors and voting all had to be taken care of in New Haven. Not until June 25, 1649, did Southold purchase its independence from New Haven and set up a locally controlled government. Governor Andros didn't formally recognize the new town until October 31, 1676.
Southold was modeled after many of the colonial governments around it, and as such, only landowning white males who were members of the church had the right to participate in government. In essence, the town government was run by the church — a theocracy. The inhabitants who were qualified to vote were expected to help run the government. Men gathered annually to be elected to jobs such as fence viewer, sheriff and road overseer.
Originally, Southold Town encompassed the entire North Fork and about ten miles west on the main body of the island. But as time passed and newcomers moved into the area, the number of farms and far-flung distances made the centralized community difficult to manage. In 1661, the town divided itself into three sections. To the east, the Oysterponds division was made, and to the west, the Cutchogue and Occabauck divisions were created.
The communities along the fork stretched from the Long Island Sound to Peconic Bay and formed a series of strips next to each other. Starting from the eastern end formed from the Oysterponds division were the hamlets of Orient and East Marion. Then, moving westward, Greenport, Hashamomaque and Southold evolved from the original Southold community. On the western side of Southold were Peconic, Cutchogue and Mattituck of the Cutchogue division. The Occabauck division included Franklinville, which became Laurel, Jamesport, Northville, Aquebogue, Riverhead, Calverton and Wading River.
One of the first areas to split off from the original plantation was Cutchogue. The name Cutchogue is derived from the word Kehtchiauke, which in the local Native American language means "the principal place." The name in the early records can be alternately spelled Cachauk, Cautchchaug or Corchaug, depending on the writer. The local tribes inhabited the southern area of the hamlet known as Fort Corchaug, where the Native Americans had their main village and fort. After the settlers convinced the local tribes to sell the land, the tribes simply faded from the local historic record. Whether they moved away or died in mass numbers from new diseases brought by the Europeans was not noted by the local sources.
The newcomers divided the land of the Cutchogue division into forty-four lots, each about 120 acres. All of the lots were split among twenty-one owners. The original boundaries of the division stretched from the western edge of Southold in what is today Peconic to the base of Mattituck Inlet on the eastern edge of the partition. Over time, the original lots were divided up and sold or traded among the residents for land in other areas.
The hamlet of Cutchogue is framed to the north by Long Island Sound and in the south by Peconic Bay. To the west is Mattituck, which was formed from the Cutchogue division almost as soon as the new community was created. To the east is the neighborhood of Peconic. The southern shore of Cutchogue is flat, but as you move to the north, the land rises into a series of gentle hills that were called Manor Hills. The area during the colonial period through the mid-nineteenth century had one road that crossed from west to east, bisecting the entire North Fork, appropriately called Main Road. Four smaller roads traveled from the center of the hamlet toward the far northern section of Cutchogue, which was nicknamed Oregon. Two roads travel south, one toward the community of New Suffolk and the other to Little Hog Neck, now known as Nassau Point. It was to this area that Joseph Wickham (1662–1734) eventually moved his family. In 1686, Wickham moved from Killingworth, Connecticut, to Southampton Town with a land grant that set two conditions for ownership. First, he had to set up his own business as a tanner along the shores of Sagg Pond in Sagaponack, and second, he had to stay for a period of seven years. Wickham married twice and had ten children. When his contract ended in 1698, he moved his family to Cutchogue. There he purchased a farm and house from Joseph Horton, who had inherited the farm from his brother Benjamin. The property was described as being located on the western edge of "Broad Fields," which was located in the center of Cutchogue. Amassing property in the area, Joseph expanded the size of his new farm, extending it southward toward Peconic Bay. Among his more notable purchases was Robin's Island, a 435-acre island located in Peconic Bay.
The family continued to prosper, with Joseph's eldest son Joseph Jr. (1701–49) marrying Abigail Parker (1703–80) in 1723. They raised nine of their eleven children to adulthood. Joseph Jr. started a tradition of service to the community in law and/or government that each generation of Wickhams continued. Beginning in 1703, Joseph Wickham Jr. served as the local constable. He was the collector of taxes in 1709, and he served as commissioner of highways in 1718, 1726, 1728 and 1745–46. He acted as an overseer in 1735, an assessor in 1743 and the overseer of the poor in 1747. By 1748, he had earned the nickname "Justice Wickham in Southold," although according to local records, he did not hold a judgeship within the town. While it was expected that landholders of the area take an active part in government, Wickham took it even further, remaining active almost up to his death.
Parker Wickham (1727–85) was the eldest son of Joseph Jr. Like his father, Parker was active in local government, holding similar posts as his father and eventually becoming town supervisor in 1770, an office he held until 1777. Parker was a man caught between a rock and a hard place during the American Revolution, and not everyone in town was sympathetic to his situation. Elected to one of the highest posts available in the town, he was expected to uphold legitimate British rule even when the vast majority of his neighbors did not support the loyalist government. It is possible that the Wickham family followed the same strategy many other east-end families used — one member of the family proclaimed himself in support of the government and signed the oath of allegiance to the king while the rest of the family departed for Connecticut in support of the rebellion. It was hoped that by having a representative on each side of the conflict the family's property would come through the hostilities intact for the next generation. Parker, with his position, was the sacrificial lamb.
However, it is also possible that he did believe in and support the system of government he had served for so long. Toward the end of the war, Parker saw that the British were not going to prevail, and to protect the family property, he transferred ownership of his holdings to his mother and his son Joseph Parker, both of whom had remained politically neutral. Wickham had undoubtedly hoped that the land, which consisted of 240 acres and the house his grandfather had purchased in Cutchogue plus Robins Island, would remain in the family when the war ended and the new government took over. But that hope was not realized. Enemies of Wickham put his name on the forfeiture of property list of the new government, and the force of the new laws steamrolled over the provisions that the family had made. The farm and Robins Island were seized and sold at auction. The land in Cutchogue was purchased by Jared Landon of Southold, while Ezra L'Hommedieu bought the island. Parker Wickham left New York and moved to Connecticut, never to return. He died shortly thereafter in New London. His eldest son, Joseph Parker, who had spent the later part of the war in the Caribbean, came home when he got the news about his father's death and the loss of the farm. He petitioned both the British government and the new state government for the return of the property, which was in his name. In 1789, instead of receiving the house and farm, he was awarded £2,800 in compensation.
Even with this blow to the Wickhams' holdings, other branches of the family were still very much a presence in the community. After the revolution, Joseph Parker's eldest sister Parnel (1757–93) married James Reeve (c. 1756–1830), who was also from Cutchogue and had served in the local patriot regiments in Connecticut. They had a daughter, Anna Reeve (1782–1825). Anna Reeve married William Wickham (1773–1859), whose father was Parker Wickham's younger brother John (1734–1808). The new couple moved into John Wickham's farm, which William inherited in 1808 on the western end of Cutchogue. William and Anna had seven children: James (1804–54), Parnel (1807–86), Elizabeth (1813–85), John (1810–91), Hannah Nancy (1816–?), William (1819–81) and Henry (1823–93).
James Wickham was the eldest son of William and Anna, born in Cutchogue just after the start of the new decade. While there is no information on his childhood, he was probably educated locally along with his brothers and sisters. The family attended the Cutchogue Presbyterian Church, where his father, William Wickham Sr., was a trustee. Likewise, there is no record of James's movements after he came into adulthood. Like most young men, he probably continued working on his father's farm until he decided what he wanted to do with his life. Sometime in the 1840s, James decided to make his fortune away from Cutchogue. All of the current recounting of James Wickham and the tragedy that befell him state that prior to purchasing the farm in Cutchogue he was living in Brooklyn making his fortune as a grocer. While there was a man named James Wickham involved in the grocery business in Brooklyn, he is not James Wickham from Cutchogue.
There are literally hundreds of men named James Wickham who have lived and died in the United States. In 1850, there were three men named James Wickham living in New York State. One was living in Syracuse and after 1854 worked as a lamplighter in the city. The other two men named James Wickham were involved in business either as a grocer or as a storekeeper. One was living in Brooklyn and was married to a woman named Elizabeth and had several children. The other was moving around in upstate New York and is noted only by advertisements of letters waiting for him at the post office and by notices he placed in the newspapers for his business.
James Wickham of Cutchogue was the man in upstate New York. He first appears in lists of people who have letters waiting for them in the local post office at Silver Creek, New York, in 1839. Silver Creek was located on the western edge of New York State near Buffalo, just north of Fredonia. His occupation at the time is unknown.
On May 5, 1847, James Wickham returned to Long Island to marry Frances Post at the Westhampton Presbyterian Church in Westhampton, Long Island. Frances was the youngest and sixth child of Abraham Post (1775–1866) and Sarah Howell (1779–1838). She was born in Southampton Town on May 31, 1821. Frances' father, Abraham Post, was noted several times in the Sag Harbor Corrector for being involved in two bankruptcy proceedings after the death of her mother. Frances Post was an older bride, twenty-six when she married, and there was a seventeen-year difference between the bride and groom. It is possible that James Wickham and Frances Post met when she was visiting her relatives in Mattituck.
More of James Wickham's life is apparent in the newspaper articles after his death. He did spend some time in the Syracuse area, where he was a partner in the grocery firm Wickham and Carwin. Another paper stated that he ran a grocery in Fulton, New York, which is just north of Syracuse. He next appears to have branched out into his own business. In advertisements run in the local papers of Syracuse, Wickham is listed as the proprietor of a paper/stationery store from autumn of 1850 to as late as the spring of 1851. When James retired to become a farmer, he was financially well-to-do. He had invested in businesses other than his own and was possibly receiving a good return on those shares. Upon his death, James Wickham's property and personal estate was valued at $20,600.
Life in Cutchogue
In the 1850s, the community of Cutchogue was a mixture of farms and homes. Most residents had their homes clustered along the Main Road in the center of the hamlet. Few houses were situated outside the downtown area. The region was known for its farmland and abundant yields. Books describing Cutchogue during the era noted that farmers used not only the fish known as menhaden or bunker to fertilize the fields but also seaweed and grasses with outstanding results.
Cutchogue's business district was centered along the main thoroughfare. During the mid-nineteenth century, residents had the choice of shopping in one of the two general stores. Located in the center of downtown was the store owned by William Betts, which also housed the local post office. On the eastern edge of town, H.H. Case ran another store dealing in dry goods and groceries. Interestingly, general stores at this time period often acted as the local saloon. Customers could purchase rum or other alcoholic beverages by the glass or by the bottle. Credit would have been extended to any newcomer who came with a recommendation from a solid local citizen. Farmers had a number of services available locally. Those who wanted to handle the sale of their own crops in New York City or Brooklyn could take advantage of the numerous ships and ferries that made regularly scheduled trips up and down the sound. For those who didn't want the extra work of finding buyers for their crops, O.B. Corey's marketman business would act as a middleman between farmer and market. His establishment was located on the north side of Main Road. A local harness shop and two blacksmith shops were also located in the community.
O.T. Goldsmith and his partner A.B. Tuthill advertised themselves as dealers in "lumber, bricks, posts, bails, locust posts, stone, lime, cement and farmers' tools." Not to be outdone, both of the general stores advertised that they carried tools for farmers as well. Residents who wanted an alternative did not have to go to Goldsmith & Tuthill; they could also patronize L.B. Tuthill, who manufactured and sold bricks from the corner of Main Road and the road leading south to New Suffolk. J.H. Terry, a professional mason, also lived nearby.
There were two churches to serve the residents of Cutchogue. The Presbyterian church was built in 1737, and a Methodist church was erected around 1829. Three different schools were situated along the north side of the Main Road, and a shoemaker had a shop on the western side of the hamlet. The area must have been busy with visitors, because both William Betts, the general store owner, and J.B. Tuthill publicized their establishments as hotels. Cutchogue also had a lyceum, which included a stage and lecture hall for concerts, speeches and plays.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder on Long Island"
Copyright © 2013 Geoffrey K. Fleming and Amy Kasuga Folk.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Joseph Wickham 5
1 The Wickham Family and Cutchogue 9
2 Nicholas Behan and Ellen Holland 18
3 The Dismissal 26
4 The Murder 31
5 The Hunt for Behan 40
6 The Lawyers 46
7 The Press 53
8 Tourism 60
9 The Trial 65
10 The Verdict 83
11 The Aftermath 91
12 The People 96
About the Authors 128