Suffolk County Museum Exhibit Digs Up Wickham Murders Axe

The axe used in the Wickham Murders on display in the Haunted Hallway exhibit
The axe used in the Wickham Murders on display in Suffolk County Historical Society Museum's Haunted Hallway exhibit
Barbara Lassen

In the weeks surrounding Halloween, the masses can’t get enough all things spooky—frightening forest walks, terrifying haunted houses and the like. But the little voice in the back of our minds assures us that these activities aren’t that bone-chilling because they’re not real; it’s all for show! Not so at the Suffolk County Historical Society Museum, where goosebumps are guaranteed as guests peruse the Haunted Hallway, a collection of creepy curiosities that are 100% authentic.

On view in the History in the Hall display area through Saturday, November 7, the all-new exhibit features objects from the historical society’s collection deemed too strange and unsettling to be included in most other exhibits before it, many of which materialized in the collection through strange or mysterious circumstances.

Authentic children's coffins on display at Suffolk County Historical Society Museum
Authentic children’s coffins, Photo: Barbara Lassen

“Some of the items in our collection are such curiosities that we’re not even quite sure how they got here and what the backstory was,” Suffolk County Historical Society Executive Director Victoria Berger explains, giving the example of the small children’s coffins on display. “We’re curious why the coffins exist and why they exist here in the museum. They are authentic; they are empty; and they are nailed shut. We haven’t tampered with them to see if they were actually used at any point on the interior, so some of these things are still haunting questions for us as well.”

As far back as the late 1800s Suffolk County residents would appear on the museum’s doorstep with bizarre, unsettling objects, eager to pass them on to the historical society’s care. “We literally had someone in the last couple of weeks show up with yet another human hair wreath,” Berger exclaims. “This institution was founded back in 1886, and even back then, that’s exactly what people would do—they’d come in with their curiosities and say, ‘Hey, this is weird, creepy and kind of cool, and we want to donate it to the museum.'”

One of the more unsettling items in the Haunted Hallway is a pharmacist’s poison journal, due to the eerie implications of its use. “There was a time when you could walk into a pharmacy and purchase any poison of your liking, and the pharmacist would keep a record of what exactly you bought so if there were any mishaps, it could be traced back to the purchaser. It’s interesting when you see the way that poisons were so readily available and the many uses that are described.”

A Suffolk County pharmacist's poison journal on display at Suffolk County Historical Society Museum
A Suffolk County pharmacist’s poison journal, Photo: Barbara Lassen

By far the most well-known of all objects on display is the very axe used in the infamous Wickham Axe Murders that took place in the summer of 1854. “That’s probably our most famous item, because that story shook Long Island back when it occurred,” Berger says. “To be able to put that on exhibit, is quite shocking to people who may not expect it.”

For those unaware of the harrowing story, it tells of Irishman Nicolas Behan, who had been a farmhand on Wickham’s Farm in Cutchogue until owner James Wickham fired Behan for injuring his wife, Frances, in one of the farmhand’s frequent fits of rage. While Behan was angry about being put out of a job, it is believed that the most triggering aspect of his termination was being cut off from Ellen Holland, one of the Wickhams’ maids who repeatedly accepted his romantic gifts but turned down his advances. Now with no chance of winning her heart, his unrequited love turned to vengeful hate. One night, he returned to the farm with an axe, snuck in through a window and attacked the teenage farmhand who happened upon him first, severing his ear. He then encountered and subsequently assaulted the Wickhams, hitting Frances so forcefully on the skull that brain matter exploded across the floor. James momentarily survived repeated blows of the axe but bled out shortly after. Holland, Behan’s primary target, heard the commotion downstairs and escaped alongside her fellow maid to alert the neighbors, so he fled the scene, leaving the bloody axe behind. Behan was eventually found, convicted and publicly hung on December 15, 1854, in the yard of the Suffolk County Jail, close to where the Riverhead Main Street traffic circle is today.

Wreaths of human hair on display at Suffolk County Historical Society Museum
Wreaths of human hair on display, Photo: Barbara Lassen

When you visit the festively decorated Suffolk County Historical Society Museum, with its eerie music playing ominously throughout the halls, take a moment to prepare yourself before entering the Haunted Hallway exhibit. While there are no ghostly specials effects or jump scares awaiting you within, the history and circumstances surrounding the coffins, bone records, hair wreaths and murder weapons (plural) on display are far more horrifying.

Visit suffolkcountyhistoricalsociety.org to learn more, if you dare.

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