An East End Adventure

Upon arriving at the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Cemetery in Southampton on the most spectacular day in the summer of 2002 — the kind you’d custom-order: comfortably warm, not a cloud in the sky of the most vivid blue ever witnessed, not a trace of humidity, and an occasional cool breeze to boot — a wave of guilt crept over me. I silently worried if the fellow occupants of our oversized Tonka Toy (okay, my husband’s bright yellow Frontier pickup) were secretly wishing we were beach-bound — like most east-end day-trippers on a glorious day such as this one — instead of embarking on an unusual adventure, an adventure thirty years in the making. Convincing myself that my accomplices — well, my husband, Joe (driver and photographer), and our two kids, ages five and seven — were willing participants and not hostages, my apprehension eased. The kids, comfortably settled in the backseat after a brief visit to the Rogers Memorial Library (to obtain the 1955 obituary of a Bridgehampton native), followed by a kid-friendly lunch at McDonald’s enroute to the cemetery, kept their towheads down while playing handheld Game Boys, oblivious to the summer sights and sounds of Southampton. Joe reverently drove upon the pavement that divided the graves. Without a soul in sight to guide us in this needle-in-a-haystack search, I asked Joe, “How are we ever going to find Edwin’s grave?” Detecting my anxiety, he calmly offered his usual pragmatic advice. “You look on your side, I’ll look at mine.” Sitting nervously on the edge of my seat, I frantically scanned headstones, fearing a fruitless search. I suddenly envisioned the perennial question posed to students upon their return to school in the weeks ahead: “How did you spend your summer vacation?” and I imagined the innocent replies of our children: “We visited the Hamptons to find the grave of some guy who was murdered with a hatchet 47 years ago.” The sight of a large headstone engraved “Cummings” interrupted my reverie. “Stop the truck! I see it!” My pulse pounding, I leapt from the still-moving truck. I ran towards the stone representing a family plot. I dropped to the ground at the flat stone marked, “Edwin J. 1914-1955.” I began clearing overgrown grass and brushed away dirt with my bare hands. I cried in joyous disbelief. “I found you!” My eyes filled with tears as the immensity of the moment — finding the eternal resting spot of a murder victim I’d wondered about for more than thirty years — choked me up. As a child, I heard my armchair detective grandmother, “Cookie,” frequently complain, “They never solved that taxi driver murder.” At the time of the murder, a snowy evening in November 1955, Cookie and her family lived two miles from the scene of the crime (dubbed “Suffolk’s Bloodiest” by the press) on Scudder Avenue in the historic enclave of Northport. It was the first murder in the history of the tightly knit, idyllic harbor community. Cookie, who often discussed her theories on infamous crimes, died when I was thirteen. She passed away, unaware of the impression she had made upon me — and that I’d grow up to become a Suffolk County Police Officer, and patrol the area where the taxi driver lived and worked the final weeks of his 41-year-old life. Nor would she know that my husband, a volunteer fireman I met at my relief point, grew up on Scudder Avenue. Joe strolled over, camera in hand. I glanced toward the kids, still engrossed in their games as comfortable breezes passed through the open windows. I pointed out the gravestones surrounding the plot and asked Joe to photograph each one. I shook my head. “You’re not going to believe this,” I said, “but Edwin had another sister — unnamed in his obit, who predeceased him at age 17. Her name was Florence V.” Cookie’s name was Florence Veronica. I discovered that Edwin, the ‘baby’ of his family, was orphaned by age 13. In his twenties, Edwin had worked as a bartender at the Casa Basso in Westhampton. He married Marion Basso, but their union dissolved shortly after the birth of their second child. He remained estranged from his family the remainder of his short life. His closest sibling was Irene Hedges, a Bridgehampton widow. As I stood over Irene’s grave, I realized she had remarried, yet chose to be buried next to her first husband, John. As Joe approached, I mentioned my discovery. Spotting Irene’s remarried name, he couldn’t resist. “Uh-oh, the Butler did it!” * Our next stop: The Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Church, where Irene, the Postmistress of the Bridgehampton Post Office (located right next to the church) had arranged for her brother’s funeral mass. I entered the 1911 church, lit a candle for Edwin, then knelt in a pew to say a prayer. The kids emerged from the truck to stretch their legs and stay near Joe while he snapped photos of the church. * Our final destination was the former O’Connell Leek Funeral Home (now the O’Connell Funeral Home), where Edwin’s wake was held. We parked across the street and discussed our next move. The parking lot appeared empty; it was unclear if anyone would answer the door. I volunteered to stay in the truck with the kids as Joe went to take a few exterior shots. Joe spoke with a man who answered a knock on the door. When he returned, Joe said, “I explained how you were researching the unsolved murder of Edwin Cummings, whose wake was held here in November 1955. The man said he remembered it well — he was just beginning his career at the funeral home at the time of Edwin’s wake.” * In 2004, Joe and I visited the Casa Basso Restaurant in Westhampton, where a pair of twelve-foot swordsmen, sculpted by Theophilus Brower, adorn the entrance. Brower also built a castle on this property after studying in Spain and Italy. Casa Basso opened in 1928; amazingly, only three owners have kept it in business for over 80 years. We enjoyed a lovely dinner and met the current owner, Mr. Bejto Bracovic, who knew Marion Basso Cummings. He was surprised to learn the fate of her ex-husband, which she never revealed to him. * A bout with breast cancer at age 42 interrupted my research, but did not deter me. I’ve written a true crime memoir about my research and experience, which I hope to publish someday. I retired from the police department after serving 21 years to spend more time with my family and concentrate on my writing. I’m happy to say that our family has taken more upbeat trips to the east end: in 2007, I had the privilege of studying Memoir Writing with Frank McCourt, and Creative Nonfiction with Matt Klam the following summer, at the Southampton Writers Conference. Joe attended the Hamptons Film Festival last year (while I enjoyed a writers retreat in Paris). We’ve also visited many delightful east end spots, including Shelter Island, Montauk, and Sag Harbor. Our unique day-trip on a stunning summer day as I begin researching a mystery inspired by my beloved grandmother, remains one of my favorite memories. My heart aches to have an adult conversation with her to discuss my findings. ***