Friday, January 4, 2013

The Wickham Murders of 1854

The Wickham family of Cutchogue has an extraordinary farming history here on Long Island, but in 1854 they had a great tragedy befall them. The Wickham murders were one of the most horrifying events to take place on the East End. Like any event of its kind, tales of spirits haunting the place where the murders took place soon followed.  

The Wickham family history can be traced to the southern coast of England. By the middle of the 1600’s the family had fled their homeland for religious reasons and sailed to New England. One of its members, Joseph Wickham, settled on Long Island and operated a tannery in Bridgehampton. In 1698, he moved to Cutchogue and bought the old English house and 160 acres of fertile farmland which ran from the main road south to Peconic Bay. Joseph Wickham farmed the land until his death in 1732, at which time the land was willed to his eldest son, Joseph Jr. Now, 281 years later, the land is still being farmed by descendants of Joseph Wickham, and the old farmhouse where the murders took place still remains.  

James Wickham, who was married to Frances Post of Quogue, had left his grocery firm of Wickman and Corwin in New York City to retire to the family farm in Cutchogue. He farmed the land with a black servant and an Irish farmhand named Nicholas Bain.  

According to written descriptions, “Bain was a huge, black-haired fellow who walked with a long, rolling gait.” He had worked for Wickham for two to three years. Supposedly Bain had a drinking problem, and would often make advances towards the servant girls. One girl in particular, Ellen Holland, he had asked to marry. Upon her rejection, Bain became very angry. James Wickham argued with him, and had had enough of the turmoil Bain was causing on the farm. On Wednesday, May 31, 1854, Wickham terminated Bain’s employment. Bain continued to hang around and torment Ellen. By Friday morning, June 2nd, Bain was forcibly evicted from the farm by James Wickham. 

Nicholas Bain left for the railroad station in Greenport, all the while screaming for revenge on Wickham. He did not board a train; instead he checked his bags in town and began the ten-mile walk back to Cutchogue. By 11:00 that night, he was back at the farm and all was quiet. Searching through the yard, he came across a pole axe, picked it up and headed to the farmhouse.

Minutes later, two servant girls living in the house heard the screams of Mrs. Wickham, and the sounds of someone being beaten. Then Mrs. Wickham cried out, “Nicholas, don’t kill him, don’t kill him!”

The girls, fearing for their own lives, escaped through the windows just as Nicholas was entering their room. They ran to the neighbors, and Joseph Corwin, William Betts and Dr. Carpenter came immediately to the Wickham farm. 

The murderer was most definitely Bain, because he had left his hat behind in the rush to escape. Also, his very large bloody footprints tracked away from the house. Because of Bain’s size, only one person could have made those footprints.  

A manhunt began. The Wickham killings were the first murders the Town of Southold had seen in thirty years. That, coupled with the fact that everyone knew and liked the Wickhams, caused the town’s inhabitants to erupt in fury. Hundreds of men set out with pistols and rifles, looking for the murderer. At this point, Bain was successfully hiding in the woods. Days went by, and the enraged men kept searching the woods, the hills and the valleys. On the morning of the Wickhams’ funeral, the discharge of a pistol created a general alarm, and the teams of men knew that Bain had been caught. He had been captured in a south side swamp, east of Cutchogue. 

Upon their arrival, the men found Bain, greatly fatigued, with a two-inch wound visible on his throat. The New York Herald wrote, “In his pockets was found a single barrel pistol, loaded with small shot, a pocket knife, and a razor case, from which it is supposed he took the razor to kill himself, and after inflicting the wound threw it away. In his pockets was also found bread and cake enough for him to subsist upon for two days. The bottoms of his pantaloons were saturated with blood, apparently from that of his victims.” 

The townspeople wanted to hang him right away, and yelled all sorts of slurs at him. The sheriff stepped in and immediately led him to Riverhead, followed by a band of thousands of men and boys. Within four months Bain was convicted of first degree murder. On December 15, 1854 he was hanged in a courtyard behind the jail in Riverhead. The militia from Sag Harbor was called in to keep order within the angry mob of people who showed up for his execution. It turned out to be the largest crowd of spectators ever to attend a public execution in the county. 

Once dead, Nicholas Bain’s body was taken down, placed in a wooden coffin and brought to the south side of the Peconic River to a place named Egypt. He was buried in an unmarked grave.  

According to the local authorities, it was determined that Frances Wickham had died a few minutes before her husband. The Wickhams had no children, and as their wills were written the farm would have gone to her family, the Posts of Westhampton, had she outlived her husband. It is because she died first that the farm remained in the Wickham family.

You can read this story in its entirety along with an interview from members of the Wickham family in Ghosts of Long Island; Stories of the Paranormal.  


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