Recalling a grisly crime from back in time

04/06/2013 12:00 PM |

Ever hear of the Wickham ax murders? If so, chances are it was through a North Fork native, not a textbook.

The rarely told mid-19th-century tale concerns James Wickham, a Cutchogue farmer whose family-owned land is still in operation on Main Road, and his wife, Frances, who were killed in their bedroom by a disgruntled former employee.

Eventually, this story faded into local myth, passed on around campfires and in bedtime stories.

Now, for the first time, the real story, supported by transcripts from one of the North Fork’s most historic trials, is available in paperback.

Southold Historical Society director Geoffrey Fleming and collections manager Amy Folk hope to preserve the tale for future generations in their latest book, “Murder on Long Island: A Nineteenth-Century Tale of Tragedy & Revenge.”

The authors said they believe the book is important because it provides an accurate account of a truly gruesome event.

“People would say ‘No one will ever forget this crime’ — and yet they did,” Ms. Folk said. “Once the last survivor goes, it’s gone.”

According to book, in 1854 Mr. Wickham got into an argument with one of his workers, Nicholas Behan, who was harassing a housemaid who refused to marry him. Several days after his dismissal, Mr. Behan sneaked back into the house and used an ax to kill the Wickhams. After he fled to a nearby swamp, he was captured, tried and convicted of the murders. On Dec. 15, 1854, Behan became the third-to-last person to be hanged in Suffolk County.

Nearly 40,000 people watched.

“It was an enormous story in its day,” Mr. Fleming said. “It was reported as far away as Ohio when it happened. It was so important that the attorney general of the state of New York came to Riverhead to try the case personally.”

The two local historians said they decided to start their research about a year ago, around the same time they began work on a book about the history of Plum Island, which is due out this spring.

The Southold Historical Society also plans to hold a related exhibit featuring the ax used in the Wichkam murders, Mr. Fleming said. The weapon is currently in the collection of the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead.

Mr. Fleming said he and Ms. Folk decided to step away from their Plum Island book temporarily to focus on the Wickham family’s story because they felt a sense of urgency about preserving the local tale. Although he was initially concerned about finding information for the book, Mr. Fleming said he was pleasantly surprised to locate transcripts related to the Behan trial in Riverhead, such as the inquest and testimony from some of the witnesses, that gave the story an “original flavor.”

The transcripts provide a clearer picture of how the crime unfolded, as opposed to newspaper accounts, Ms. Folk said.

“What we’ve found,” she said, “particularly in modern [newspapers], was the story has gotten more and more distorted over time.”

Mr. Fleming said the verbatim records also allow the book to “pull in all of the personalities together.”

One of his favorite characters is Spicer Dayton, an attorney from Riverhead who represented Mr. Behan.

Mr. Fleming described Mr. Dayton as a stereotypical lawyer who didn’t graduate first in his class and never had a stellar career. Although he worked hard and won some cases, it appears his career never took off.

“He obviously picks up this case thinking ‘If I can get them off, I’ll become famous and I’ll become rich,’ ” Mr. Fleming said. “Of course, he loses, so his career continues to go nowhere.”

Mr. Fleming said he believes the book’s foreword — written by Joseph S. Wickham, a descendant of James Wickham’s brother, William, who was the district attorney of Suffolk County when the murders took place — explains it all in a nutshell: “It is a story about a humane couple named James and Frances Wickham, who made a courageous decision to protect a young woman from a bully and ended up paying the ultimate price.”

“It’s a great tale,” Mr. Fleming said. “It’s got blood and gore, and then, at the end, the bad guy gets hanged.”

The book, published March 27 by The History Press, is available at the Southold Historical Society’s gift shop and online through Amazon.com.

jennifer@timesreview.com

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