Historic Axe Murders Re-Examined

Independent/Amy Folk

One fateful night in June 1854, Long Island farmer James Wickham and his wife, Frances, were brutally murdered by their former farmhand, Nicholas Behan. In her book, “Murder on Long Island: A 19th-Century Tale of Tragedy & Revenge,” co-written with Geoffrey Fleming, author and local historian Amy Folk tells a tale of blood and betrayal, bringing a piece of North Fork history back to life.

The Wickham axe murders happened in the 1800s. Why are we talking about this now, in 2020?

I have been giving a lecture on this particular topic for a couple of years now. A lot of people like true crime, but it’s local history and I generally do lectures on local history.

I think people have always had this fascination that it happened to someone else and not to me so therefore I can learn about it. “I feel lucky that it didn’t happen to me” kind of thing.

I think also people, because of a lot of modern technology nowadays, have become a little hardened to it. We hear something in the news and we spend three seconds going “that’s terrible,” and then move on. But at the time of the Wickham murders there weren’t quite as many murders and things like that going on, at least not on Long Island.

What, if anything, makes the Wickham axe murders different from murders we hear about today?

Well, they convicted Nicolas Behan on what we would consider nowadays circumstantial evidence. It all came down to a hat being left behind and the fact that he was an Irishman and was a troublemaker to some extent.

Why did he commit this murder?

Nicholas had anger management issues. He injured the wife of the house when the husband was away, so he got fired and was kicked off of the farm. He got his things and he moved to Greenport, got a job, and then went to his boarding house. It was that night he snuck back to the farm.

How did Behan commit the murder?

He got an axe and snuck inside the house. He left his shoes outside and he put his hat down on the furnace. He knew the dog — they had a big Newfoundland dog —so the dog didn’t bark. Behan snuck upstairs and attacked the other farmhand, Steven Winston, who was a kid, a 12- or 13-year-old kid. Frances Wickham, hearing the noise, opened the door, and he was right there in her face and that’s when he attacked her. And then attacked her husband.

Did Frances and James Wickham die right there?

Frances Wickham died of a massive brain injury. Behan whacked her with the axe in the head and her body kept going but she was more or less in a coma. James died of blood loss because there was no such thing as blood transfusions at that point in time. And he never regained consciousness to name his attacker.

And this happened all because Behan was angry at Wickham for firing him and kicking him off the farm?

Well, Behan was not even looking for the Wickhams. He was looking for one of the girls that worked there, Ellen Holland. She basically said, “I don’t want anything to do with you,” even though he had given her shoes and a pin and a bunch of other things that she kept.

What happened to Ellen Holland?

Ellen Holland lived in the attic with Catherine Dowd, another maid. The girls had heard the whole commotion going on downstairs because they slept right over the Wickhams’ bedroom. They realized that something horrible was going on get with all the screaming. Ellen Holland said to Catherine Dowd, “You need to go out the window, you need to go get help.” She got her to go out the window, then out onto the road to try and to find somebody.

Ellen Holland went out the same way and ran to a different neighbor for help. When Behan eventually made it upstairs to find out where Ellen was staying, the girls had left. So he grabbed his shoes, leaving the hat behind, and ran into the cornfield. Meanwhile, the girls got help from the neighbors.

What eventually happens to Nicholas Behan?

Behan gave a full confession on his way to the prison, which was in Riverhead at the time, to the doctor who patched up his injuries, who was also the doctor who was with the Wickhams as they died.

And Behan was executed, right?

Yes. Executions used to be public. And that was a very lucrative sideline for the jailer at that time. Executions used to be like a fair. They would set up food tables and people could buy trinkets and stuff.

When you go into Riverhead, there’s a big brick building by the traffic circle near Main Street. The brick building is where the Suffolk County Courthouse used to be. The courtyard there was where they used to have executions and Behan was the last guy to be executed there. People actually paid to watch him hang.

It’s a horrible thing that happened, but it’s a great story. These are all part of the things that make up history and who we are and what we are.

Folk will be discussing the book, and the murders, in the Cutchogue New Suffolk Free Library community room on Sunday, March 29, from 2 to 3:30 PM. The event is free and open to the public.

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