Bloody Long Island

By Richard Barons
Kerriann Flanagan Brosky Thomas Decker Studio

“Historic Crimes of Long Island”
Kerriann Flanagan Brosky
History Press, $21.99

It has been said that it is in our very nature to enjoy reading about murders and mayhem, but only as long as those bloody tales are seen as safely removed from our own protected existence. Since the beginning of time, we humans have been quite fascinated by crime and punishment. It is an instinct and a passion. Whether our ancestors eagerly queued up to watch early Christians get stoned to death or waited for the next edition of The London Times to catch up on Jack the Ripper’s latest escapade of slaughter, for better or worse, murder has held the headlines.

My mystery reading tends toward what the English call “co­zies.” I like the classic Christie or Sayers drawing room travails that are more about rural eccentrics and annoying lords and ladies and less insistent on gory details. I rarely find myself near the library shelves housing the true crime genre. Indeed, when an editor suggested to me a book about Long Island’s old murderous past as a likely subject for a review, I was assuredly skeptical. I could think of several appropriately lurid East Hampton crimes that made the national tabloids recently, but I was at a loss to come up with any 19th-century East End misbehavior that was worthy of a reminder. I also wasn’t sure that in these trying times a collection of grizzly stabbings and shootings was what the world needs.

Within hours, Kerriann Flanagan Brosky’s book “Historic Crimes of Long Island: Misdeeds From the 1600s to the 1950s” had arrived, with its antiqued, sepia-tone cover, on my desk. The publisher’s graphic designer created a collage of vintage photographs and then splattered them with dark red spots of dried blood, carelessly dripped for effect.

I must admit that the evening was stormy and dark. I fixed a rum and Coke and settled down by the fire to acquaint myself with a new book and a new author. Ms. Brosky is a historian who has written widely on the ghosts of Long Island and the history of Huntington. I was in good hands for an evening shared with cutthroats and butchers, and I would be safe within a historian’s point of view.

In reality, thinking one is safe at home is just what any mystery writer hopes for. Safety is a sham. The dark shadows that envelop the corners of a fire-lit room loom like flitting spirits. The wind at the window sash clamors for attention, as does the unidentifiable sound from the back garden. Why is the cat suddenly at attention? The reader must be vulnerable to suggestion and open to seduction. By opening a book, we have signed on to whatever is next. Down a hallway, behind a curtain, another door and another windowless room — the author has us! Help!

Each crime in Ms. Brosky’s collection of misdeeds is a chapter. As with so many local history books, there are no maps, but the crimes and misdemeanors are well spread over Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk Counties, from Glen Cove and Massapequa to Quogue and Gardiner’s Island. I needed an atlas to find Asharoken, Greenlawn, and Freeport. The date range is impressive, from East Hampton’s Goody Garlick witch case of 1658 to Francis Henry Bloeth, the “Mad Killer” of Smithtown, who was paroled in 1981. 

If there is a barometer for pints of blood loss in mystery books, fiction or nonfiction, I would say that the author has carefully chosen a wide range of felonious activity — some of the events are quite horrifying, while others seem mundane in comparison. I’d place the mercury level in the middle.

It is always hard to read about real crime cases from generations past, because as readers we have so many questions that cannot be answered. An author inventing characters, plots, and scenes for a detective novel gives us careful psychological backgrounds for the cast of players, be they red herrings or the featured murderer. When we trespass back into another century, we get what the press might have written, transcripts of the trial, and even the outcome. What we don’t get is character development, oftentimes the most fascinating part of any story. This puts the onus on the historian to fill in the missing back story. I am going to look closely at the first story in “Historic Crimes of Long Island” to show how Ms. Brosky can bring a harrowing 1872 happening to life. 

Chapter 1 is titled “The Tarring, Feathering, and Murder of Charles G. Kelsey,” and the setting is Huntington. It is a story of misguided passion. The center of this jealous tale is Julia Smith, a young and beautiful daughter of one of the wealthiest families in the area. She lived with an aunt on Main Street and had two suitors, a socially prominent, well-to-do fiancé, Royal Sammis, and the older but wealthy Charles Kelsey. 

Kelsey owned a large farm, taught school, and wrote poetry. Julia’s family wanted her to have nothing to do with him; indeed she was forbidden to see him. The poet was forlorn and tried to communicate with Julia by mail, but his letters were intercepted, and the gossip in Huntington was that they were obscene. Her aunt was nervous that Kelsey (whom the local newspaper called “a lovelorn idiot”) might try to enter the bedroom where Julia slept. She switched rooms with Julia one night and said that Kelsey climbed in the window and tried to rape her. This midnight escapade was never proved. 

On the night of Nov. 4, 1872, the locals were anticipating the re-election of President Ulysses S. Grant the next day, and the town was jubilant. Friends of Julia tricked Kelsey into believing that she had set up a rendezvous while the neighbors filled the streets. Julia later admitted that she was part of the deception, but whether she knew that Kelsey was to be beaten, tarred, and feathered is not clear. She surely didn’t know that things would get out of hand to the extent that after Kelsey ran home, he would be attacked once more and then never seen again. 

A mutilated lower portion of a male body was discovered floating on Oyster Bay three months later, but the condition was so bad no identification seemed possible. A jury made the decision 11 months later that the body was Kelsey’s. And, of course, there is more to this gruesome story as you finish the chapter. There is no way there can be any satisfactory ending. So, it is on to the next chapter, “The Corn Doctor Murder” of 1932 in quaint Quogue.

Not all of these stories about homicide and manslaughter are as intense as the account of Charles Kelsey. The chapter on Captain Kidd and his adventures with John Gardiner, the third lord of the manor, is more picaresque, though Kidd does get hanged in London. Ms. Brosky follows the adventure with the same fast pace as Kidd lived. 

Modern research has pretty much discredited the idea that any treasure was buried on Gardiner’s Island. It is more likely that Gardiner stored it in a warehouse there for Kidd until he returned. But legends are hard to smother. Of course Kidd did not return, but Gardiner returned the treasure himself to Boston. The signed receipt survives, dated 1699, with a fascinating complete inventory. This is one of many illustrations in the book. 

Likewise the story of Goody Garlick, East Hampton’s infamous witch, starts with the death of Lion Gardiner’s daughter Elizabeth Howell, but the story continues to a most unusual verdict at the 1658 trial in Connecticut.

If your life seems in need of a bit of Long Island history with more punch than why a road in East Hampton is named after Egypt or the story of the creation of Town Pond, maybe a particularly ugly 1854 crime from Cutchogue with the bloody bodies of James and Frances Wickham might warm up a cold February night. That story just might make you think of something different the next time you stop at Wickham’s farm stand. It won’t be apples.

This book is an amazing compilation of Long Islanders doing very bad things. Readers beware — once you have opened its blood-spattered cover, you won’t get out until you have read to the last chapter. Nighty night!

Richard Barons was the executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society from 2006 to 2017 and remains its senior curator. He lives in Springs.

Left, the hanging of Capt. William Kidd in England. Right, a portrait of Charles G. Kelsey, famously tarred and feathered — and worse — in 1872. East Hampton Library Long Island Collection, Huntington Historical Society Archives