By Marilyn Weigold
Mention the East End and what comes to mind is the Hamptons and, increasingly, the North Fork, an area Dan’s Papers dubbed “a Hamptons in training” in 2006 when the Hampton Jitney acquired the Sunrise Express and began providing posh bus service from various pick-up points in Southold and Riverhead townships to that other island across the East River. Although each of the forks possesses, at least for now, its own unique identity, viewed from a regional perspective, the entire area served by the Jitney is a magical land of sun, sand, and romance.
Once upon a long time ago, however, before theEast Endbecame an international playground, leisurely summer days at the beach were unheard of, especially for the women folk who resided in these parts. These ladies were far too busy to relax on the warm sands of the Twin Forks. Open hearth cooking, tending a kitchen garden plus child rearing filled their days. Talk about multi-tasking! Of course, with a life expectancy in the mid-thirties people did not toil away indefinitely. They usually expired long before reaching their “golden” years, the women earlier than the men because of childbirth related deaths.
For some women death brought release from emotional as well as physical suffering especially if their lawfully wedded husbands were anything likeCaptainJohnUnderhill, who lived in the center of Southold. Underhill’s home was at Feather Hill, now the site of the Southold Library. After gaining fame as an Indian fighter during the Pequot War, Underhill “got around” in more ways than one. Charged with adultery, he leftBostonand spent time in a number of places before heading to thePeconicBayarea where he and his long suffering wife, Helena, settled down. Mrs. Underhill may have regretted the sound advice she had given her husband about always wearing his helmet in battle. An Indian arrow actually pierced the dear Captain’s helmet but he escaped unscathed and lived to fight, and love, another day.HelenaUnderhillendured her husband’s romantic wanderings until her death. In time, the Captain remarried a Quakeress, Elizabeth Feake. His last child was born only months before his death, at age seventy-four, UpIsland atOyster Baywhere he had moved. Of note also is the fact that Underhill had exceeded, by more than twice, the average life expectancy.
So did Ezra L’Hommedieu, Yale graduate, authority on scientific agriculture, and prominent political figure who served in the Second Continental Congress, the New York Provincial Congress, the New York State Senate and as a Regent of the University of the State ofNew York. He became a father, for the first time, at age seventy-two. Following the death of his first wife, Charity Floyd, sister of William Floyd, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, L’Hommedieu was a widower for eighteen years. Then, at age sixty-nine, he married thirty-eight year old Mary Catherine Havens, a member of a prominentShelterIslandfamily. He brought his bride to live in his spacious home on a bluff overlooking town harbor in Southold. Mary and Ezra’s daughter, who bore the same name as her mother, married at age eighteen. Her husband, Samuel S. Gardiner, was seventeen years her senior.
Such “May-December” romances were not uncommon and they often involved prominent men. The widowed Dr. Joshua Clark, a seventyish something physician, took a seventeen year old bride. Dr. Clark was so anxious to remarry that he jumped on his horse one fine day in 1780 and headed from his home in Mattituck to Southold village where he proposed, obtained the permission of the girl’s parents, and exchanged vows, all within ninety minutes! Of course it helped that eighty year old Judge Samuel Landon lived a stone’s throw from the bride’s residence and was able to drop in at a moment’s notice to officiate. Hardly anyone on the laid backNorth Forkraised an eyebrow.
Yet a century later, on the other side of the bay, when Henry P. Hedges, anEast Hamptonlawyer, judge and author, remarried, it was a local cause celebre because of the twenty year age difference between the groom and his blushing bride. Addressing this in his memoirs, Hedges said that he was seventy-four when he wed Mary G. Hildreth, director of the Bridgehampton library. According to Hedges the age difference “was noticed, under flaming headlines in the newspapers.” There was lots of gossip, which eventually subsided. When the couple marked their twelfth anniversary, Hedges, then eighty-six, reported that there had been “no scandal of inharmonious life” in all the years he and Mary had been married.