Dan Rattiner's Stories

Autumn in the Hamptons: Key Events from 1665–1992

A reflection on fall moments that changed the Hamptons, North Fork and Montauk.

The peacefulness of autumn in the Hamptons allows for the reflection of the summer just past. Traffic returns to normal, summer popups close, the beach crowds are gone and the surfcasters appear. In the quiet of September and October there is time to read a novel or shop for the harvest bounty at our farm stands and stores, or just sit in a park and enjoy the splendid life we have out here.

With all this, I thought it a good time to look through autumns past, and to mark the things that happened that changed the Hamptons, North Fork and Montauk. I have assembled an account of a bunch of these events, chronologically, for your contemplation.

Goody Garlick
Goody Garlick

1665

In the mid-1600s here in the Hamptons, two East End women were accused of witchcraft and brought to trial. Conviction would result in their being burned at the stake.

The first of them was an East Hampton woman named Goody Garlick, who in February of 1657 was charged with using witchcraft to cause the death of Elizabeth Gardiner Howell, the 16-year-old daughter of Lion Gardiner, the most prominent member of the town. This was less than 10 years after that town was founded. Elizabeth, running a high fever, spoke from her bed to say she saw Garlick as a ghost, standing at the foot of her bed, putting a curse on her.

A long, angry get-together in the Town Meeting Hall followed, in which many people in town accused Garlick, but as hysteria welled up, three town magistrates sent her off to Hartford to be put on trial. In Hartford that spring, a jury declared her not guilty—a troublesome woman, maybe, but not a witch. Garlick and her husband returned to East Hampton—her husband had once worked for Lion Gardiner on Gardiners Island—and she lived the rest of her life there.

The second accusation of witchcraft came against a woman named Mary Hall and her husband, Ralph. The pair were said by neighbors to have used sorcery to cause the high fever that ultimately resulted in the death of Setauket innkeeper George Wood and his infant son just after Christmas in 1664.

The trial was held at the Court of Assizes in New York City on October 7, 1665. The jury’s ruling states “we find that there are some suspicions of the evidence, of what the woman is charged with, but nothing considerable of value to take away her life. In reference to the man, we find nothing considerable to charge him with.”

Witchcraft and the burning of women at the stake or death by hanging continued on in New England for a while. Between February 1692 and May 1693, a hysterical population in Salem, Massachusetts put on trial some 200 people, 19 of whom were executed by hanging. When that outburst ended, it essentially ended the witchcraft hysteria in America.

1796

On November 7 of that year, a French builder named Ezra L’Hommedieu announced to President of the United States George Washington that his construction of the Montauk Lighthouse, ordered by Washington four years earlier, was now complete. L’Hommedieu had been selected to oversee the construction—New York contractor John McComb won the bid and in June of 1796 began his construction on a site L’Hommedieu had personally chosen, 345 feet back from the sea.

Montauk Point was a critical location for ships bound for New York City. Having a flashing light there to guide the way was imperative.

Later in November, Montauk’s first lighthouse keeper was named. He was Jacob Hand, age 64, of East Hampton, and he was to be paid $266.66 a year to live there and have with him, at no extra cost, his grandson, also by that name. Jacob Hand lit the wick on the Montauk Lighthouse in April of 1797 and he remained on the job until his passing in 1812.

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman, Photo: Steven Wynn/iStock/Thinkstock.com

1840

In December of 1840, 21-year-old Walt Whitman, the poet, accepted an assignment to be a school teacher in Southold. He had previously been employed, among other jobs, as an assistant in a print shop in Huntington, and by this time he had already developed what at the time were seen by some as radical and controversial ideas—some of which he had written up as essays that had been published in Long Island newspapers.

During the first month, Whitman wrote fiery editorials that appeared in the nearby Greenport Republican Watchman newspaper. People got stirred up. They talked to one another about their schoolteacher. Soon, the editor of the Republican Watchman announced that Whitman is “fired.” There would be no more articles from him.

And then, one Sunday morning, a minister named Ralph Smith gave a sermon from the pulpit of his Southold Presbyterian Church, accusing the young man of sodomy and preying on some of the young boys in his class, in fact, even sleeping in the same room with one of them at the boy’s parents’ house.

Although it was common for a teacher from afar to be given lodgings in a home of one of his students, the preacher nevertheless fired up the congregation, and at the end of the sermon and with the encouragement of Smith they went out the door in search of Whitman to tar and feather him—literally—and ride him out of town on a rail. At that time, a tar pit was kept boiling on a hill nearby for use by anyone who needed it, and some in the crowd went up there and got some.

Somehow, Whitman became aware of the mob. He fled the Wells house, where he had been staying, and headed down the street to the home of Dr. Ira Corwin, bursting in upon the housekeeper, Selina Danes, who hid him in the attic under a pile of tick mattresses. The mob, however, after talking to Wells and learning where Whitman went, marched on down to the doctor’s house and found him there in the attic. They dragged him downstairs and hauled him out into the yard, where they plastered his hair and clothing with tar.

But then a woman named Aunt Lina arrived, comforted Whitman there on the ground, yells at the mob to leave him alone, and the mob melted away. Danes then took Whitman back to Dr. Corwin’s house and nursed Whitman there for a month, without Whitman ever coming out of the house. Whitman then left quietly on his own.

Sometime later he wrote the celebratory book Leaves of Grass and became the literary legend he is today. He never spoke about this incident, and there is controversy about whether this is a legend or fact. There’s arguments on both sides. Letters by others in that era make mention to some kind of trouble Whitman had there, but records also say he summered in Southold in years that followed.

The school, a two-room affair with student desks, chairs and a pot-bellied stove, remained in use for the next hundred years, known locally as the “Sodom School.” By the time I moved out east in the 1950s as a teenager, it had closed and the building was a storage shed. Soon thereafter it was torn down.

Roosevelt in Montauk awaiting immunization
Roosevelt with soldiers and his children, Photo: Dwight L. Elmendorf Spanish-American War Photographs: Montauk, Long Island (Roosevelt R560.3.EL61). Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library

1898

Soldiers from the United States Army’s Fifth Corp of that era, more than 20,000 men, returned from their victory in the Spanish-American War from the hills of Cuba by steamship to Montauk. A thousand or more white tents dotted the rolling land in Montauk for about five weeks where this army recovered from the war, celebrated its victory and went on maneuvers. A few soldiers died in the hospital tents from wounds of the war or the tropical diseases they had encountered. Nurses and doctors from the nearby Hamptons attended the soldiers, as did army doctors and aides and nurses.

Among the officers coming to Montauk in August was Teddy Roosevelt, a colonel then, who with his Rough Riders had famously charged up San Juan Hill, 1,000 strong. The regiment arrived at that dock in Fort Pond Bay. Teddy was well. From the railing he expressed his sadness about those sick among his Rough Riders, who would be taken off the ship on stretchers.

Roosevelt lived in a tent near Ditch Plains for a month. President McKinley visited Montauk to congratulate the troops in the first week of September. He spent time with Teddy.

Around September 10, 1898, the peace treaty with Spain was signed, and as the threat of transmitting disease diminished, it was time to muster out all the men and send them by train off to their various homes around the country. Just days before this, Teddy’s wife and four of his children visited their dad in Montauk. They stayed at Second House out near Montauk Point, where the generals stayed, overseeing, among others, the colonels. Two of Teddy’s sons slept with Teddy in his tent, the boys sleeping on his bed while he reportedly slept on a bench.

In the 1990s, Second House and the 3,000 acres surrounding it became a county park known as the Theodore Roosevelt County Park. Around 2015, for some reason, the county renamed it the Montauk County Park. I thought it a bad idea, and wished it was still a park honoring Teddy Roosevelt.

Carl Fisher, the man with a Montauk dream
Carl Fisher, the man with a Montauk dream, Photo: Courtesy Montauk Library

1925

In the fall of 1925, the millionaire developer of Miami Beach, Carl Fisher, came north up the inland waterway aboard his 100-foot yacht Shadow to have a look at a piece of real estate on the East End the he was interested in purchasing. He arrived at a dock on Fort Pond Bay in Montauk and was taken around by a real estate agent driving a motorcar to see what was involved—the entire peninsula of Montauk, with a few hundred acres of exception, almost 18,000 acres of rolling hills and woodland with a big lighthouse at the end. The cost was $2.5 million.

Fisher had grown up in Indianapolis, where as a teenager he came to own a bicycle shop. Soon he became interested in motorcars. He owned the speed record for the measured mile for a few months in those early years. He bought the patent for a special kind of vacuum car headlight, called it the Prest-O-Lite company and made millions. Every car in America needed those headlights. Fisher then created the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—there’s a statue of him there—and then became an advocate for the Lincoln Highway, the first paved road to cross America east to west.

Then, at 29, he retired to Miami. Looking out at a 10-mile-long island covered with alligators and mango trees, he bought that island, unretired, and built the resort city of Miami Beach in a south-of-the-border pink flamingo style. His trip north to Montauk resulted in his purchase of the peninsula of Montauk and the development of another resort, with the slogan “Miami Beach in the winter, Montauk Beach in the summer.”

He constructed dozens of buildings in Montauk, including the Montauk Manor, the Catholic and Protestant churches, a downtown row of stores, a yacht club, a golf club, a group of indoor glass tennis courts, a polo field, a race track, a surf club and the giant office building, still standing, at the head of the circle in the middle of downtown Montauk today, from the penthouse of which he sold real estate. Incidentally, he laid out and built the entire grid of roads downtown where Montauk village is today. Many of the sidewalks are still pink, the color he favored for sidewalks. For the most part, though, everything was in the English half-timber style. There were soon horses and sheep in the meadows and yachts in the sea all around. Unfortunately, he opened for business in 1927, just 27 months before the crash of the Great Depression.

He died in modest circumstances at the age of 65 on Fisher Island in Miami Beach in 1939.

An interesting story is that his wife, Jane, a great beauty, wrote a memoir about her life with Carl. She was living in Palm Beach by that time and was a well-known matron. In Palm Beach, she lied about her age, announcing herself as being 8 years younger than she actually was.

For the memoir, however, she had to claim she was just 15 years old when she married Carl Fisher in Miami. Otherwise the jig was up about her actual age. I have a copy of her book. Though the legend of her extreme youth as the bride of a rich man has continued to this day, the fact is she was 23.

Westhampton, Great Hurricane of 1938
Westhampton after the hurricane of 1938, Courtesy Southampton Historical Museum

1938

The massive Hurricane of ’38, considered along with Sandy many years later as one of the two most destructive storms to ever hit Long Island, arrived at Westhampton Beach, coming up from the south on September 17, 1938.

There was no internet or TV in 1938. And weather forecasting was in its infancy. The storm took three days to slowly make its way up the Atlantic after brushing Miami Beach, and when storm clouds appeared over the ocean off Westhampton Beach, the weather forecasters said it would just be rain and some wind—the hurricane had been last reported 20 hours earlier, before just passing offshore of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. It was expected to burn itself out at sea.

The hurricane was the single most powerful storm to ever hit Long Island. It came in the late morning, traveling at the astonishing speed of 50 miles an hour, which, added to the wind speeds of 160 miles an hour, made it capable of wreaking havoc in our community. There were more than 40 mansions on Dune Road. After it screamed through, only three stood, the others were shattered to tinder or thrown in pieces into the bay, to be found when it was all over, pressed up against the mainland of Quiogue and Quogue and Westhampton. On the mainland, giant elms were uprooted, cars and yachts thrown ashore and a hundred or more people killed. The official papers of the Village of Westhampton Beach, flooded under four feet of sea water, were found three days later to have been blown into a forest in New Hampshire.

The eye of the hurricane actually passed over Moriches, causing some damage there and to the west. But it was the great counterclockwise swirling arm of the storm that gave a horrendous right-cross to everything east of Westhampton Beach as the storm came through.

Beachfront homes throughout the Hamptons had their roofs blown off, their landscaping flattened. All the giant elms bordering Main Street in East Hampton were gone. They were planted afresh the following year and grew to their massive size again by the 1970s. Waters flooded across Napeague, cutting Montauk off from East Hampton for the next day and a half. The storm also scrambled the little Montauk fishing village on the arc of Fort Pond Bay where Fisher had come ashore aboard the Shadow just 14 years before.

After screaming through the Hamptons, the Hurricane of ’38 came through and smashed up Greenport, then crossed the Sound to assault Newport and Providence, Rhode Island before finally dissipating into Maine.

Albert Einstein, immigrant
Albert Einstein, immigrant, Photo: iStock.com

1939

On October 11, 1939, an aide brought a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt written to him by scientist Albert Einstein, who had been vacationing for the summer in a small cabin at Nassau Point in Southold. The letter informed the President that the Germans were working on the creation of a huge explosive, called an atomic bomb, which could blow up cities. They were years away from succeeding, according to Einstein, but he felt it was urgent that the United States begin its own research to create such a weapon, so it could be used against the Germans before they used it against us.

Roosevelt was astonished to get this letter. But he acted almost immediately by creating a laboratory deep in the woods of Tennessee near Oak Ridge, where American scientists could work on unlocking the atom. The achievement of this goal resulted in a test explosion in the Nevada desert six years later, in July of 1945, 60 days after the Germans unconditionally surrendered. There was an ally of the Germans, the Japanese, still at war with us, however. And when the Japanese refused all offers to surrender, two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which quickly changed that government’s mind. Thus, an amphibious invasion by more than 800,000 American soldiers to force the Japanese surrender, which was believed would have cost 200,000 American lives, was avoided.

Einstein, spending his days in Southold and working on his Unified Theory, sailed mornings in a tiny sailboat in the bay, took walks, and on Friday evenings played violin in a classical music quartet organized by Southold residents. In July of 1939, he was approached by three American scientists who drove out to see him in his vacation cabin and told him about an urgent problem that would require writing to FDR. Only with your signature would it have the power to get through to the President to read it, they told him. Einstein agreed. He wrote the letter on August 6, which was revised on August 20 and handed off to an economist who knew the president personally. The economist, however, could not get it through to FDR until October because of FDR’s distractions with the war.

John Steinbeck, Photo: McFadden Publications, 1939
John Steinbeck, Photo: McFadden Publications, 1939

1960

On November 7, 1960, Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist John Steinbeck set out from his home in Sag Harbor in a pickup truck with a camper top attached to the flatbed in back to tour America with his dog, Charley, for a few months. He was 58 years old at the time, and he told his wife he would write her every day, which he did. We know that the nonfiction book he wrote about his adventure called Travels with Charley: In Search of America was published two years later. It was widely read but did not win any prizes. Indeed, after the blazing success he achieved in the late 1930s with Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1939, there was a long stretch where his work was not as well celebrated.

Charley and Steinbeck began by driving through New England to Maine, then across America to the Pacific Northwest, then through his native Salinas Valley, California, then across Texas and through the Deep South and then home again. He interviewed the people he met, many of them characters, along the way. He slept in his camper truck or in cheap motels or in tents with fellow travelers. But later examination of the love letters he wrote his wife make clear that occasionally—although he never wrote about this in the book—he took a “holiday” from his trip and stayed in fine hotels, even though they might be in Boise, Idaho. Clean clothes, showers and a shave in a nice bed were a necessity for a man approaching 60, even if it may have made him a little dishonest.

Steinbeck loved the small town of Sag Harbor, its whaling history and its hardworking people, and they loved him back. He often said it reminded him of the small blue-collar town of Salinas where he had grown up. Since he had written about Salinas in his earlier works, he now found that the place had changed so much he hardly recognized it. He lived in Sag Harbor for nearly 15 years. In 1962, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the following year he allowed himself to ride in the lead car of the opening day parade of the first Old Whalers Festival. Otherwise he was just one of the guys you might meet in the Sag Harbor 5 & 10.

1992

Joyce Robinson, a casting director from Hollywood with a young daughter, came to live in a house on Skimhampton Road in East Hampton. In the fall of 1992, contemplating the challenges of doing her job in Hollywood from a saltbox home in East Hampton, she decided the only way to proceed would be to organize a film festival for the Hamptons.

She got on the phone. The following year, the First Annual Hamptons International Film Festival, full blown with 40 films, slews of actors, screenwriters, directors, composers and producers, was an instant hit on the film festival circuit during that last week in October of 1993.

Practically all of the films had not yet been seen by the general public. There were Major Motion Pictures with Big Stars—Warner Brothers premiered two and Columbia Pictures offered one. There were student films, art films, shorts. At every screening there was one short film and one long one. Everyone going to see these movies—the general public—got the opportunity to vote for their favorite in three different categories. At the end of the festival, awards were presented to the winners. Other awards were decided by votes from members of the press.

It has grown even more successful since that first year and is now an annual affair held over Columbus Day weekend, which this year falls on October 10 to 14.

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