Vignettes of an Island

Written By: Caitlin  Cummings

Every small town has its own folklore, and the east end of long island is in essence a collection of small towns. Growing up on Long Island, and especially on Shelter Island, one could not help but listen to these tales and grow curious as to their origins. Even though these stories, featuring everything from ghosts, to axe murders, to nazis and pirates, may sound like tall tales, in truth, they reflect Long Island’s long and diverse history as well as a steadfast commitment to oral tradition. Here is a collection of four stories and although they reveal only a small part of the East End’s folklore, they epitomize the rich history surrounding these small towns. Gardiners Island and Captain Kidd’s Treasure Gardiners Island was originally owned by Lion Gardiner and has been held by his decedents for the past 400 years. In June of 1699 the notorious pirate William (Captain) Kidd buried over 30,000 dollars worth of treasure on the Island whilst on his way to face a trial for piracy in Boston. The treasure of gold dust, silver, gold, candlesticks, and porringers (small shallow bowls) was buried in a deep ravine near Bostwick’s point. He buried the treasure on the island trusting that the Gardiners would keep it safe, and he gave Lion Gardiner’s wife, Mary Gardiner, a length of gold cloth as payment for her troubles. Some rumors claim that Captain Kidd threatened to kill the Gardiners if his treasure was not on the island upon his return, while others claim that Captain Kidd was quite courteous towards the Gardiner family. The colonial governor, or 1st Earl of Bellomont, Richard Coote, sponsored Captain Kidd as a privateer but after realizing that Kidd had turned to piracy, Coote quickly set up Kidd’s arrest in Boston. Richard Coote was aware of the treasure Kidd had buried on Gardiners Island because part of the gold had originally been intended for him, as he was Kidd’s sponsor. Coote then proceeded to order Lion Gardiner to hand over the treasure as evidence of Kidd’s piracy. This evidence convicted Captain Kidd and eventually led to his hanging in England two years later on May 23, 1701. Although there is record that Lion Gardiner handed over the treasure to the Earl of Bellomont, there is widespread belief that the treasure is still buried on the island. This myth is propagated by the fact that the entire island is heavily guarded private property that has stayed in the Gardiner family for hundreds of years. Until recently the Gardiners would post weekly warnings to trespassers in the local newspaper’s classifieds. Unfortunately the treasure is no longer buried on the island, although there is a plaque marking its past location. Lion Gardiner is also said to have kept only a single diamond from Kidd’s treasure, and that diamond has stayed in the Gardiner family ever since. Today the gold cloth that was given to Mary Gardiner is still in existence, and a fragment of it can be viewed in the East Hampton Library’s Long Island collection. Plum Island Plum Island is entirely owned by the government and, although it was previously used as a training base during World War II, it has been used as an animal disease testing facility since 1954. The facility, known as the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, was created to test diseases in a quarantined environment. There is only one known instance where a disease escaped the lab and infected the rest of the island. This disease was the extremely contagious (to animals) foot-and-mouth disease. Although there is no evidence, many people believe that Lymes disease was created on Plum Island and was spread to the mainland by birds. This is not true however because although the island was once used to research biological warfare during the Cold War, it was directed only towards livestock and no diseases were studied that would be harmful to humans. This myth might have been created due to the high security surrounding Plum Island and the mysterious nature of their experiments. In 2008 a mysterious animal carcass washed ashore in Montauk. It was named “The Montauk Monster” due to its unknown identification. The beast is popularly believed to be some sort of hybrid animal that washed ashore from Plum Island and was subjected to some rare disease there. Many other people have, perhaps, more logically, concluded that it is more likely just the corroded carcass of a raccoon. Camp Hero On the farthest tip of Long Island is the town of Montauk, and this is where the United States built the Montauk Air force Station in 1942. The base was built as a response to threats of German U-boat attacks during World War II and was dubbed “Camp Hero” after Major General Andrew Hero Jr., who was head of the army’s coast artillery. The government disguised the military base with its artillery guns as a small fishing village. Montauk was considered a prime spot for invasion because of its proximity to both New York City and Boston, and was again put into commission during the Cold War. During the Cold War the Camp Hero radar tower was constructed as a response to Soviet bombers. The base no longer contains its heavy artillery guns; as the base was decommissioned in 1981 and later disarmed; but the abandoned radar tower still stands and serves as a landmark today. There are many rumors and myths surrounding the base but the most popular conspiracy theory is that the government used Camp Hero to test the possibility of time travel. This theory, also known as the Montauk Project, was originally coined in a book by conspiracy theorists Peter Moon and Preston Nichols. These two men reportedly were also part of the “Philadelphia experiment” in which the government made a warship both time travel and become invisible. There is no evidence that either of these events actually occurred but Peter Moon and Preston Nichols’ book has spurred several sequels and has become quite popular, spreading the rumor even further. Today the radar tower and its surrounding buildings are off limits but the rest of the base has become a state park and is open to the public. The Cutchogue Axe Murder The Wickham family has owned the farmhouse in Cutchogue since 1698 and it has been a working farm ever since. However in 1854 the Wickham family suffered two tragic deaths, the murders of James and Frances Wickham by their servant Nickolas Bain. Bain had worked for the Wickham’s for only a couple years when he was dismissed after making repeated drunken advances toward a servant girl, Ellen Holland. At one point he asked her to marry him, and she rejected his offer. Bain’s drunken anger after this incident caused James Wickham to dismiss him from the farm. He sent Bain off to the train station but Bain reportedly never took the train out of town, but instead checked his bags into a nearby hotel and walked the 10 miles back to the farmhouse. Enraged at the Wickham’s for dismissing him, Bain picked up a poleaxe and entered the farmhouse. Two servant girls heard the cries of the Wickhams and escaped out the window to fetch the neighbors. Everyone new it was Bain because he left his hat behind with the bodies and the large bloody footprints could have only belonged to him. The local townspeople led a manhunt in search of Bain, and it was days before they found him hiding in a nearby swamp. When they found him his trousers were still soaked with the blood of his victims and he had razor wounds on his neck, supposedly from a suicide attempt (Huntington Patch). The enraged townspeople followed Bain and the sheriff in an angry mob to the Riverhead jail, where Bain was then tried and hung for manslaughter. Today the historic farmhouse still stands and is still in production, but its gruesome history has led to many peoples’ suspicions that it is haunted by the ghosts of James and Frances Wickham, and the surrounding farmland haunted by the dreaded Nickolas Bain.