04/27/15 8:00am
04/27/2015 8:00 AM
George Cork Maul, a Southold Town 375th Anniversary Committee member, in front of a mile markers along Main Road in Peconic. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

George Cork Maul, a Southold Town 375th Anniversary Committee member, in front of a mile markers along Main Road in Peconic. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

There were a lot of things Benjamin Franklin accomplished in his life.

The Founding Father invented bifocal lenses and the lightning rod, was a successful newspaper printer, served as America’s diplomat to Paris during the Revolutionary War and signed both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

But one thing he did not do, local historians now say, was place mile markers along Southold Town’s Main Road.  (more…)

04/04/15 10:00am
04/04/2015 10:00 AM

The night before the 1860 presidential election, local activists marched by torchlight through Southold to show their support of Abraham Lincoln. One group of marchers was known as the Mattituck “Wide Awake” Club, which was affiliated with the American Republican Party. They identified themselves with a banner, which still survives and resides at the Southold Historical Society. (more…)

04/03/15 4:58pm
04/03/2015 4:58 PM
Geoffrey Fleming is leaving Southold in May to become the new director of the Huntington Museum of Art, located in Huntington, West Virginia. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Geoffrey Fleming is leaving Southold in May to become the new director of the Huntington Museum of Art, located in Huntington, West Virginia. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Longtime Southold Historical Society director Geoffrey Fleming is stepping down next month.

Mr. Fleming, who was appointed to the position in 2003, is leaving to become the new director of the Huntington Museum of Art, located in Huntington, West Virginia. (more…)

09/09/14 8:00am
09/09/2014 8:00 AM
(Credit: southoldhistoricalsociety.org)

(Credit: southoldhistoricalsociety.org)

Enough with the baloney.

That could have very well been the title of the Southold Historical Society’s latest nonfiction publication, called A World Unto Itself: The Remarkable History of Plum Island, New York.

The 388-page tome is being billed as “the definitive history” of the island off Orient Point.


03/19/14 7:00am
03/19/2014 7:00 AM
'Murder on Long Island: A Nineteenth-Century Tale of Tragedy & Revenge' by Geoffrey Fleming & Amy Folk.

‘Murder on Long Island: A Nineteenth-Century Tale of Tragedy & Revenge’ by Geoffrey Fleming & Amy Folk.

An award of excellence has been given to Southold Historical Society by the Greater Hudson Heritage Network for its 2013 book “Murder on Lond Island: A Nineteenth Century Tale of Tragedy & Revenge.”

The book tells the story of the 1854 murders of Mr. and Mrs. James Wickham of Cutchogue. Nicholas Behan killed the Wickhams after he was fired over his harassment of a female employee who refused to marry him. He was hanged on Dec. 15, 1854.

Awards are given to projects that “exemplify creativity and professional vision resulting in a contribution to the preservation and interpretation of the historic scene, material culture and diversity of the region,” according to a press release.

The book is available at the historical society’s gift shop in downtown Southold. Visit southoldhistoricalsociety.org.

08/30/13 11:00am
08/30/2013 11:00 AM

CYNDI MURRAY PHOTO | Southold Historical Society director Geoffrey Fleming at the new grave of famed impressionist artist Irving Ramsay Wiles.

In a remote Cutchogue cemetery, about four miles from the center of Southold Town, lies the grave of famed 1920s impressionist artist Irving Ramsay Wiles. But until recently, no one would ever know that.

The cemetery, marked only by two stone pillars and is set back from Route 25, is easy to overlook. Mr. Wiles, a once-wealthy Peconic painter, died penniless and was buried without fanfare in an unmarked grave, as his heirs were unable to afford a headstone.

It remained that way for 65 years. His artwork seemingly lost to time.

That was, until Southold Historical Society director Geoffrey Fleming came across documents that brought his legacy to life.

The historical society received hundreds of documents that were rescued from Mr. Wiles’ former residence on Indian Neck Road before it was demolished in the 1980s. The papers included letters and notes detailing the family’s relationships and reflections.

Inspired by the writings, Mr. Fleming went on to publish three books about the Wiles family.

His research eventually revealed Mr. Wiles’ unceremonious burial in 1948 alongside his wife, May. When his daughter, Gladys Lee Wiles, also a well-known painter, died in 1983 she was buried next to her father but, Mr. Fleming said, her grave was also unmarked due to a lack of funds.

Seeing a need to remember the family, Mr. Fleming saved and then spent several thousand dollars of his own money to design and erect a permanent marker over these graves, which would likely have otherwise been forgotten about forever.

“It just seemed ridiculous that these two prominent artists were buried in an unmarked grave here on the North Fork,” Mr. Fleming said. “Artists as good as Irving and Gladys Wiles were very deserving of having a proper monument, and I am happy to have been able to rectify the situation.”

Mr. Wiles was known nationally for his work, particularly portraits and landscapes. Today, his paintings hang in major collections across the country, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Both Mr. Wiles and his daughter were members of the National Academy in New York City, one of the nation’s most prominent artist-based organizations.

On the stone, installed in April, both Irving and Gladys Wiles are noted as being “National Academicians,” a distinction bestowed by members of the National Academy on artists they believe are among the best in the nation.

The Wiles family began visiting Peconic in the 1880s and built a summer home there in the late 1890s. During the Great Depression Mr. Wiles, who was accustomed to spending lavishly, was forced to sell his property and reside on the North Fork. Members of the family remained in Peconic until Gladys’s death in 1983. There are no living relatives, Mr. Fleming said.

The Wiles family included at two other painters, Irving’s parents, Lemuel and Rachel Wiles. But Irving became the family’s most famous member.

Mr. Fleming said his next project will be to get enough money together to erect a monument to Lemuel and Rachel Wiles, who are buried in an unmarked plot in a cemetery in Patterson, N.J.

“There is always another worthy project,” he said.

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04/06/13 12:00pm
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.

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