American Gruesome

By John Eilertsen
In their new book, Geoffrey K. Fleming and Amy K. Folk use a notorious Cutchogue murder as a jumping-off point to explore broader themes.

“Murder on Long Island”
Geoffrey K. Fleming
and Amy K. Folk
History Press, $19.99

    In June 1854, a disgruntled farm worker picked up an ax, climbed through an unlocked kitchen window, and brutally murdered a husband and wife, James and Frances Wickham, the master and mistress of a prosperous farm in Cutchogue on the North Fork of eastern Long Island. While the surrounding communities were shocked by the double homicide, newspapers around the country and their readers reveled in the sensational aspects of the case, one that aptly filled the increasingly insatiable appetite of 19th-century print media, and their subscribers, for screaming headlines and gory details.
    E.L. Doctorow wrote in “Billy Bathgate” that “The innocent do find murders exciting. . . . Murders are perceived as momentary descents of God and so provide joy and hope and righteous satisfaction to parishioners, who will talk about them for years afterward to anyone who will listen.”
    There is something about an ax murder that does seize the imagination, often remaining in the public’s mind for decades. Generations of children have recited some version of the doggerel “Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.”
    In Villisca, Iowa, 100 years after the fact, visitors still are drawn to the crime scene where a murderer or murderers unknown bludgeoned to death the entire family of Josiah Moore and two overnight guests on June 10, 1912, with an ax.
    And in New Orleans, the Axman of New Orleans first struck on May 23, 1918, slaying an Italian grocer and his wife while they slept in the apartment above their grocery store. The murder weapon, an ax, was found in the apartment, still coated with the victims’ blood. The Axman murdered a total of eight people before the killings stopped. The crimes remain unsolved.
    But in “Murder on Long Island: A Nineteenth-Century Tale of Tragedy and Revenge” we learn the murderer’s identity almost immediately. In 12 chapters spanning 102 pages, plus copious notes, a useful bibliography, and almost three dozen historic photographs, we learn of the events preceding and following the gruesome murders in idyllic Cutchogue.
    In the foreword, Joseph S. Wickham, the great-great-great-nephew of the murder victims, writes that “When I was growing up, my grandfather would often tell the story of the Wickham ax murders as we all sat around the dinner table.” He adds, “All us grandchildren would sit there with wide eyes as we tried to imagine the horror of being chopped up alive. Afterward I would go to bed and lay there wondering if I was also doomed for a violent end, perhaps that very night. I found out later that I often stayed in the same bedroom where the murders occurred.”
    The authors, Geoffrey K. Fleming and Amy K. Folk, combine data from various resources, including Wickham family lore, historic documents, and newspaper accounts, to tell the tale of the Cutchogue murders. But this book is not just about murder. It also offers a succinct examination of the history of the North Fork, including its initial settlement as a plantation for the New Haven Colony in Connecticut around 1640, and its eventual development as a locally controlled government, independent from New Haven.
   In its telling it also briefly describes the means by which many Irish immigrants found their way to America, where they hoped for a new and better life. And it offers insight into the legal systems of New York and Suffolk County during the middle of the 19th century, as well as introductions to the lawyers and judges associated with the murderer’s trial.
    The book also addresses in brief the transformation of the American press, and notes that the partisan and political nature of American newspapers and their owners would continue during the 19th century. The authors quote Patricia Cline Cohen, a historian who used the phrase “sex-and-death sensationalism in news reporting, a style of journalism that is utterly familiar to us now. . . .”
    The authors set the scene by describing the growing prosperity and influence of the Wickham family on the North Fork from the early settlement days until the end of the American Revolution, when much of their farmland was confiscated by the new government for having supported the British Crown during the war. The family’s fortunes once again grew after the war, and we are given a description of life in Cutchogue in 1850. We also meet the ill-fated James and Frances Wickham, whose farm was situated “down the long driveway away from the road” and surrounded by fields.
    James and Frances Wickham were murdered by Nicholas Behan (who coincidentally had the same surname as E.L. Doctorow’s fictional character Billy Bathgate before he took on the name of a Bronx street). Behan came to America fleeing the starvation and deprivation caused by the potato blight in his native Ireland. He found his way to Cut­chogue, where he worked as a farm laborer for the Wickham family but was ultimately fired for his unappreciated courting of Ellen Holland, a domestic servant for the family who also came from Ireland. The authors suggest that Behan and Holland both found work with the Wickhams through the Emigrant Labor Exchange in New York City, an organization that attempted to help recent immigrants find suitable employment.
    In any case, both individuals arrived in America at a time when tremendous animosity existed toward Irish immigrants. The authors reprint a private letter written in 1851 that describes the Irish as “the locusts of Egypt [and] they arrive by the thousands. Our poorhouses are overflowing and our taxes are enormous.” Mr. Fleming and Ms. Folk note that “it was into this environment that Nicholas Behan would arrive.”
    Mr. Fleming and Ms. Folk graphically recreate the crime itself and Behan’s attempts to escape. They describe in detail his capture, incarceration, trial, and conviction ending in his execution.
    “Murder on Long Island: A Nineteenth-Century Tale of Tragedy and Revenge” describes a horrific event within the context of national and local history and culture, as well as societal attitudes about an influx of new arrivals from Ireland. It is perhaps a sad commentary on human nature that so many of the same resentments toward new arrivals exhibited then still exist today. Certainly the media’s and the public’s appetites for sensationalism remain unabated.

   John Eilertsen is the director of the Bridgehampton Historical Society. He lives in Southampton.
   Geoffrey K. Fleming is the director of the Southold Historical Society, where Amy K. Folk is the collections manager.