Monday, October 16, 2023

Joseph H Cohen: WH School District President During Pivotal Era


Advertisement (Sept 17, 1935, Nassau Daily Review) for Joseph H Cohen's fruit stand

Some while ago, I had occasion to stop in at the George Washington School and noticed an intriguing dedication plaque of the building in the foyer.  The plaque had a listing of names of members of the school board during the school’s inauguration, and the largest name listed on that plaque was that of the school board president, Joseph H. Cohen, the subject of the present writeup.

Born in Russia in 1886 to Nathan and Frances Cohen, Joseph Harry Cohen's journey to the United States at the age of eight, alongside his parents and three sisters, marked the beginning of a remarkable life of contribution and service. The Cohen family were among the early settlers of Woodbine, New Jersey, an agricultural community with a significant place in history. Founded in 1891 with the support of philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch, Woodbine was created with the dual purpose of settling Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe who were fleeing persecution, as well as providing them with the agricultural skills to become productive members of their new host country. (In its heyday during the initial years of the 20th Century, Woodbine was 94% Jewish, and the first one of the only municipalities where its local government, from Town Hall to the school district to the fire department, was headed by Jews.  The fact that the United States is the first modern democracy in the world [the oldest existing nation with a constitutional government in which the people elect their own government and representatives], would mean that Woodbine was purportedly the world’s first semi-autonomous Jewish town in nearly 2,000 years since the destruction of the Second Temple.)

Cohen graduated from the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School and proceeded to run a poultry farm business with his father in Woodbine.  In 1923, Cohen and his family moved out to Long Island when a 23-acre farm in West Hempstead on the south side of Hempstead Turnpike went up for sale.  His farm focused on two products: peaches and poultry.

Upon arriving in West Hempstead, Joseph Cohen dove right into local civic leadership. In 1927 he ran for and won the office of President of the WH School Board. Throughout the 110+ year history of the WH school district, Cohen’s tenure as president occurred during the most significant and transformative era in its entire history.  Until then, the district consisted of one 8-room school building on Chestnut Street.  In Cohen’s initial year, an expansion of that building was completed, effectively doubling its capacity. Then, in rapid succession, two additional school buildings were voted on and built.  The Eagle Avenue School opened Monday, November 5, 1928, and was dedicated on February 21, 1929. The George Washington school, (originally called the Carl Street School), was authorized by local voters in December 1929 by a 138-75 margin, at a cost of $355,000. It opened on November 30, 1931, and was officially dedicated on Monday, February 22, 1932, the date chosen to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the birth of the school’s namesake, George Washington.  The rapid conversion of former farms into housing developments was transforming WH in a profound way and the district went through a period of unprecedented growth during that time.  In September 1929, enrollment stood at 613 students. Just one year later, that number grew to 776, an astonishing increase of almost 27%. 

In addition to his contributions to education, Cohen was actively involved in the West Hempstead community. He served as the President of the West Hempstead Civic Association, starting in 1927.  A hot-button issue during that time was the question of whether to incorporate within the Village of Hempstead. Many locals actually advocated for incorporation, since it would ostensibly bring with it an increased level of municipal services that were lacking in WH. Cohen’s civic engagement also extended to the West Hempstead Fire Department, where he held the position of Financial Secretary. Meanwhile, Cohen was an active member of the Jewish Agricultural Society as well as at Temple Beth Israel in Hempstead.

The Cohen family's legacy extended beyond civic affairs. Joseph's wife, Mrs. Eva Cohen, served as the chairwoman of the George Washington PTA and on the ladies’ auxiliary of Beth Israel. Their dedication continued through their involvement in organizations like Sons of Zion.

The Cohen family's farm along Hempstead Turnpike was a hub of agricultural activity, specializing in chicken and peaches. The farm, known as Peach Grove Farm, became a local favorite for its delicious peaches, sold at the fruit stand along the Turnpike. The Cohens ran the farm and stand until 1939, when they decided to sell the property to a developer.  Thereafter, the “West Hempstead Oaks” development, with its 150 homes, took root on the property. The farm was marked with two prominent, physical characteristics; its numerous peach trees toward the front of the property and the many old-growth oak trees in the rear of the property.  Hence, the lasting legacy of this farm remains with the naming of its two central streets off the Turnpike – Oakland Avenue and Peachgrove Drive.  

(The developer retained many of the prized peach trees to shade the backyards of his new homes.  Many of the old, majestic oak trees also remained, a few of which can still be seen today along Henry, Maxwell, Bell, and Wilson [formerly George] Streets).

After it was developed, the West Hempstead Oaks neighborhood created its own identity and formed a very active civic association of its own called the West Hempstead Oaks Civic Association to advocate for civic causes. It has been a long-standing tradition of the West Hempstead Fire Department to conduct a Santa fire truck parade on Christmas Eve, and this tradition was purportedly started by the West Hempstead Oaks Civic Association in 1942.  (Other organizations like American Legion Cathedral Post featured events with Santa starting back in the 1930s, but the truck parade was first introduced by the Oaks Civic).

Joseph Cohen continued to live in a house on the Turnpike for a number of years and ran a liquor store in Floral Park until his retirement.  His daughter Gwen (Goldie) married Bernard Perchanok and continued to live on Elm St in WH into the 2000s.

Friday, February 21, 2020

William Balfour Ker and Mary Ellen Sigsbee – Famous Lakeview Illustrators

Throughout the Nineteenth and into the Twentieth Century, the West Hempstead and Lakeview area was a popular location for country homes that were kept by affluent New York City merchants. During the Summer months, these estates provided a respite from the bustle and stifling heat of the city for the well-heeled set.  Two such Lakeview residents, a husband and wife named William Balfour Ker and Mary Ellen Sigsbee, both artists who were rather famous in their time, purchased a large country home in 1906 from a NYC jeweler named Henry Ginnel located on Woodfield Road, just south of where the Lakeview library is currently located.

Location of the Henry Ginnel estate along the west side of Woodfield Rd in Lakeview, from the 1906 E. Belcher-Hyde map

As far as illustrators go, both Mary Ellen and William became pretty well-known.  Perhaps the most effective venue for pop art during that time was the covers and pages of well-circulated magazines and journals, such as Life, the Saturday Evening Post and Harpers. This is how Norman Rockwell became so famous.  Mary Ellen and William’s art graced the covers of many of these magazines, particularly in holiday editions of these journals where, for example, they depicted scenes of families around the hearth, and various snowscapes.

Both William and Mary Ellen came from somewhat well-known families; William was the son of a wealthy Scottish businessman and banker and his mother was the first cousin of Alexander Graham-Bell.

W. Balfour Ker
Mary Ellen was the daughter of Admiral Charles Sigsbee, Captain of the USS Maine, the sinking of which was the catalyst of the Spanish-American War.  When William and Mary Ellen began dating in 1898 as students of the famed American illustrator Howard Pyle, Mary Ellen’s father vehemently objected to the relationship because of Wllliam’s socialist leanings. No doubt the mysterious explosion of Capt. Sigsbee’s ship in Havana Harbor that year gave the young couple the opportunity to elope while Mary Ellen’s father was preoccupied with other matters.
Mary Ellen Sigsbee

Early in their marriage, the Kers had been part of the fast growing artist colony in Greenwich Village, but by 1906 and now with a young son to care for, they were in the hunt for a summer retreat on Long Island, and they found a lovely estate along Woodfield Road in Lakeview.   At that time, Woodfield Road was still heavily wooded and undeveloped and still afforded a beautiful natural landscape.  Parallel to Woodfield Road, on the eastern side, ran Schodack Brook, a shallow rivulet that meandered through the woods, as it emptied downstream into Smith’s Pond in Rockville Centre.  (As late as 1930, a Brooklyn Eagle reporter visited Lakeview and described the beauty of the scene as “a slice of old Connecticut transplanted to Long Island" and "suggestive of Shakespeare's Garden of Arden").

One of Ker’s most famous paintings was a scene called From the Depths, first published in a novel entitled The Silent War in 1906.  The scene was a commentary on social inequality and depicts the ballroom of a party attended by the upper class, whose floor is propped up upon the backs of the struggling masses.  The party is disrupted by a fist belonging to one of the wretched souls from below, that breaks through the floor of the room, to the bewilderment of the partygoers.
From the Depths, by W Balfour Ker
A popular theme among Ker's paintings were scenes about love and heartbreak, amidst some chosen scenic backdrop, such as a seashore or a woodscape. One of the paintings that Ker rendered during his time in West Hempstead was one he titled Playing Bridge, copyrighted on March 30, 1909, and was possibly inspired by a scene across the street from his West Hempstead home.  In the picture, a man carries his love interest in his arms across a shallow wooded stream, safe and dry to the other side.

Playing Bride, by W Balfour Ker.  Painted during their time in Lakeview, possibly inspired by local scenery.
By 1910 Ker and Sigsbee's marriage unraveled and Sigsbee sued for divorce. Shortly thereafter, with no longer any use for their country home, the couple sold their West Hempstead estate.  Both Ker and Sigsbee remarried. Ker moved to Europe but returned to the US during WWI, where he helped out in the war effort by drawing illustrations for Liberty War Bond posters, before his death in 1918 at the age of 41.  One of Ker's daughters from his second marriage married into the famous Weld family of Massachusetts and was the mother of Tuesday Weld, the famous movie star from the 1960s.   Sigsbee remarried and became an outspoken advocate for women’s suffrage.  She continued to illustrate for various publications, including the Christmas 1934 cover of the Saturday Evening Post entitled “Christmas Peek”, depicting a little girl peeking through a crack between double doors in the hopes of seeing Santa Claus, until her death in 1960 at the age of 84. 
Christmas Peek, by Mary Ellen Sigsbee.  Cover of Saturday Evening Post, Dec. 22, 1934

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Beginnings of the West Hempstead Fire Department - 100 Years On

Original WH Fire House, circa 1925.

The inception of the West Hempstead Fire Department began years before the adoption of it’s formal charter in 1919. Life-long West Hempstead resident Helen Duryea recalled that, in the early decades of the Twentieth Century, her father and uncle, Edwin and Frank Duryea, would organize volunteer “bucket brigades” among the local farmers to confront fire emergencies that occurred in the area.

By the end of the second decade of the Twentieth Century, a confluence of factors contributed to the formation of our Fire Department. First, the adjacent neighborhood of Lakeview had already been served since 1909 by the Lakeview Hook & Ladder Company, and West Hempstead residents looked to emulate the successes of their neighbors to the south. Second, residential subdivisions, starting with Fairlawn Park in 1906, would begin a long process whereby West Hempstead property would be converted from farmland into rows of homes upon neatly platted streets. Thereafter, fire protection in West Hempstead became a matter of safeguarding entire town blocks from destruction rather than merely saving isolated barns and farm houses. Finally, fresh from victory in Europe in WWI, scores of young, able-bodied “doughboys” would return home in the beginning of 1919 and provide a propitious pool of volunteers to join the fire department.

At the start of 1919, the Victory Chemical Engine Company was formed out of a series of meetings that were held to plan the way forward for the nascent department. On Friday, March 21, at the third meeting of the company at the home of Ed Duryea, it was reported that 36 members had already been recruited. At that same meeting, the initial officers of the Company were installed, their names comprising a veritable Who’s Who of prominent citizens of West Hempstead: Foreman William S. Stringham, who owned a general store on Hempstead Turnpike in Munson (at the current corner of Nassau Blvd.); Assistant Foreman Wallace Hill, whose day job as a foreman at the NY Telephone Company no doubt served him well in his new position; Treasurer Henry Lee, a retired Norwegian shipbuilder who lived on Chestnut Street and founded Trinity Lutheran Church, among other local achievements; President Emil Baumbach, a machinist who lived with his family on Railroad Ave (Hempstead Gardens Drive); Vice President Paul Ohrtman who had a prolific local civic career as School District 27 president, Sanitation District 6 commissioner, and Town of Hempstead Receiver of Taxes; and trustees Ed and Frank Duryea, well known farmers and builders in the area. Soon thereafter the group filed incorporation papers with the Town of Hempstead and the New York Secretary of State, as the Victory Chemical Engine & Hose Co. No. 1. On July 10, 1919, it was reported in the Hempstead Sentinel that the Town of Hempstead had given its consent to the charter; in the following month, the Secretary of State followed suit.

A suitable, centrally-located property upon which to build a fire house was chosen along Hempstead Turnpike on land owned by Alice Bailey. In February, 1921, a Ladies Auxiliary was formed with Mrs. Sadie Ohrtman, Mrs. Lillian Naumann, and Mrs. Barbara Baumbach as founding officers. The Auxiliary hosted barn dances, strawberry festivals, and various social events to obtain the requisite funds for the new firehouse, while their inaugural event held in April 1921, a barn dance on the grounds of Charles Botsch, brought in $700 for the cause.  Groundbreaking for the firehouse occurred soon after on May 15, 1921 and the well known local contractor Carl Mirschel was hired to build the edifice. Another barn dance, held the following year on February 7, 1922, typified the kinds of prizes that were awarded at such events: a ton of coal, a barrel of flour, a pig, and a barrel of potatoes.  The following year, on April 17, 1922, a vote held at the brand new fire house was carried for the appropriation of $5,090 for the purchase of fire apparatus and equipment, as well as a new fire alarm.

In 1927, the formation of the West Hempstead Water District had a profound effect on fire protection of the neighborhood, as water lines and hydrants were installed throughout the district. In the ensuing years, the volunteer firefighters competed in various athletic and skills competitions. The Westerners drill team went on to win numerous State Championship drill competitions, including an unprecedented "threepeat" in 1939, 1940, and 1941, as well as the National Championship in 1939. In 1952, a new modern, brick fire house was built to replace the old wooden house that had served the district for 30 years.

Many of the officers and volunteers of the West Hempstead fire department have deep roots whose families span two and sometimes even three generations of service to the district, including well known local families such as Brohm, Riesterer, and Schroeher. The Schroeher family planted roots here in the 1790s. The patriarch of the family, Louis, ran what was probably the first hotel in the area in Franklin Square. Louis’ grandson, Joseph, was a founding member of the West Hempstead Fire Dept. and his son, Keith, served as fire chief for many decades as well.

The WHCSA wishes the West Hempstead Fire Department and well deserved congratulations on this milestone. The 100th anniversary parade and celebration block party will take place on September 21, starting at the Fire House.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Lost West Hempstead WWI Monument

The following article appeared in the February 2019 edition of the WHCSA News and Views Newsletter

Image of the WH war memorial cannon that stood at the LIRR station Plaza

This past November marked the hundredth anniversary of the end of WWI, and provides an opportunity to focus upon a long lost feature on the West Hempstead Landscape, the West Hempstead WWI Memorial Monument.  The following is the story of this short lived shrine.

The driving force behind this local war memorial was the nascent American Legion Cathedral Post 1087, whose charter was presented at a Nassau County meeting six years earlier on February 24, 1933.  Cathedral Post 1087 was ably led by veterans who were also residents and businessman of West Hempstead, like their first commander John A. Palmer, who owned a meat store on Hempstead Turnpike and was also a founding member and Vice President of the WH Board of Trade, forerunner to the WH Chamber of Commerce.   In the ensuing decade, more than 100 dedicated members of this post organized local civic events in West Hempstead, such as lectures and winter festivals complete with Santa Claus appearances, which won them multiple national awards from the American Legion for the most active post in the region. In the early years of the Cathedral Post, one of its first orders of business was to address the lamentable absence of a war memorial within West Hempstead.  Other than a simple marker and flag mast to the USS Maine and veterans of the Spanish American War, located at the Church of Good Shepherd on Maple St., no other memorial to American veterans had heretofore existed in West Hempstead. (As an aside, the remaining concrete marker of this memorial still exists on the grounds of the current location of the Church of Good Shepherd on Donlon Avenue). Donations were collected and designs submitted for a worthy monument to be constructed at West Hempstead’s busiest location at the time, the WH railroad station plaza.  

Finally, on a pleasant late spring Sunday on June 4, 1939, officers and members of the Cathedral Post, along with a slew of representatives of area civic groups, gathered at the railroad station plaza to dedicate their long awaited war memorial to local veterans of World War I. The chosen design was created by a WH sculptor and Post veteran named Edwin T. Howell and consisted of a boulder upon which was a plaque, tersely inscribed with the immortal phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “That this nation might live”. Next to the monument was a 12 ft long navy gun that had seen action during WWI, mounted onto a white cement base.  Along with the many dignitaries who were there, some 2,000 participants and spectators joined the spectacle.The memorial was intended to primarily honor veterans of the Great War, which had ended only 20 years earlier and during which all members of the local American Legion post had served their country.  However, being that WWI was at the time considered the “war to end all wars”, it was decided that servicemen of all American wars were also included in the commemoration.

Those 2,000 celebrants who came home the next day to read about coverage in the Nassau Daily Review Star of the ceremony they had just attended would have also noticed a top-fold headline on the same page that blared “Military, Economic Rearmament to Continue, Nazis Say”, which describing Germany’s belligerence less than three months before they were to invade Poland.  Notwithstanding that premonition, few would have presaged that only three months later, Germany would invade Poland, setting off the tragic and costly events of World War II.

After the December 7, 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor, the US was abruptly drawn into WWII. By 1942, American resources were severely strained to support an all-out war effort that would be fought in two major theatres.  Citizens on the Home Front were asked to sacrifice whatever they could to help out the war effort. These sacrifices came in the form of mass enlistments, purchasing war bonds, planting “victory gardens” to avert food shortages, abiding by strict fuel rations and donating scrap metal, among other things.  

As WWII went into full gear, and in response to a plea by the War Department to alleviate a scrap metal shortage, members of the Cathedral Post did what they thought their deceased comrades for whom they erected the memorial would have have wanted them to do.  They made the decision to dismantle the navy cannon and donate it to the war effort as a supreme token of their patriotism. As solemn a decision that was, they took their inspiration from those timeless words of Abraham Lincoln that graced their commemoration plaque - “That this nation might live”.  At 5:00 p.m. on September 23, 1942, as the Marines were sending reinforcements to Guadalcanal and the Allies were fighting their way up the Italian Peninsula, Cathedral Post Commander Chauncey A. Rich took a blowtorch to the navy cannon to be broken down for scrap.

This Memorial Day, as we end the parade at West Hempstead’s current war monument at Echo Park, we should all celebrate the West Hempstead WWI ornamental that never had a chance to survive thanks to the patriotic spirit of our bygone members of the WH community.  


Friday, October 20, 2017

Ode to the Last Great Estate in West Hempstead

The following essay appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of  the WHCSA News & Views newsletter

Last year’s demolition of the large estate at 764 Hempstead Avenue and subsequent subdivision provides an opportunity to reflect upon the development of West Hempstead as a residential community.  At 1.66 acres, the parcel represented the last remaining large residential tract in West Hempstead, and has given way to the erection of eight homes in its place.  Over the past three years, the process took on a certain inevitability ever since the place was sold to a developer in 2014, knowing that it was only a matter of time before proper permits were obtained to tear the structure down.  As a historian, I view this event with the sad realization that the transformation of West Hempstead from a once sprawling rural suburb into an overdeveloped neighborhood, is now complete.  This transformation began at the start of the 20th century with the development of the Fairlawn Park subdivision in 1906, and continued steadily with two notable growth spurts; one, after the West Hempstead LIRR line was electrified and the Southern Parkway was completed in 1926 and 1927, respectively; and the other, after WWII and the coming of the baby boomer generation. 

To me, the moment a suburb has been denuded of its great residential landmarks and replaced with neatly packed in 60x100 cookie cutter homes reminiscent of the green and red properties of a Monopoly board, it has lost a large part of its unique identity, and in many ways becomes indistinguishable from its neighboring megalopolis to the west. In this, I am reminded of what Allen Ginsberg once referred to as the “invisible suburbs”, having fallen prey to Molloch, the pagan god of industrialized overdevelopment.  

In my mind, the lovely home was emblematic of West Hempstead’s working class roots, a domicile that seemed roomy and comfortable but not overly ostentatious like the grand estates of Garden City; one that seemed to place greater value upon its expansive surrounding open spaces than its living quarters per se.  The style of the house, with its stucco exterior and Mediterranean roof, perhaps reflected the tastes of the two families that occupied it over the years, both of which were of Italian extraction.

The origin of the home follows the story of American upward mobility in the 1920s, when an Italian immigrant named Joseph Cavallaro and his wife Annie moved out from Brooklyn, after Joseph built up a successful business importing fruit and other goods.  He died in 1939, and Annie continued to live in the home until her passing in 1947.  The following year the home was sold to Theodore Gaeta and his wife Rose.  Gaeta was a well known restaurateur on Long Island who owned and managed a number of popular upscale eating spots across the Island. Early on, he managed the Cas-Albi Lounge and Restaurant, located inside the Mineola Hotel on 2nd street in Mineola.  In 1966, the Mineola Hotel became victim of a terrible fire and never reopened.  Thereafter Gaeta embarked upon a prolific food service career, running eateries that were well known jaunts on both the North and South shores: the Swan Bay Inn in Centerport, the Gaetway Harbour Restaurant, the West Wind Yacht Club and the Schooner Restaurant, all in Freeport, the Vernon Valley Inn in East Northport, the Gaetway North Steakhouse in Huntington, and the Gaetway South in Bay Shore.  In the mid 1960s, after being inspired by a trip to Hawaii, he opened the Polynesian themed Bali Hai Restaurant in Northport.  Ted Gaeta was reportedly a ubiquitous presence at all his establishments, and would often know and greet his regular patrons by name.  He was an active member of the Freeport Chamber of Commerce and received numerous accolades for improving the business character of the Village and was involved in numerous toy and food drives over the years.  He was well acquainted with celebrities and politicians, like Alfonse D’amato, who would frequent his restaurants.  Gaeta died in 1989 at age 92, and Rose passed away in 2000. 

There was a time, recently enough for people who are still alive to remember, when travelers could drive along Hempstead Ave. from Nassau Blvd. to Locust Street and spot perhaps a mere half dozen homes that lined the avenue.  As they would travel north, to the left was the picturesque watering hole that was Halls Pond, and on their right, they would pass the stately home of interior designer Edith Hebron at the northeast corner of Eagle Ave, which was eventually turned into the Maison Pepi/ Gum Ying restaurant before it was knocked down and replaced by a CVS.  (In that instance, the words of the Joni Mitchell song seem all too appropriate: “Don't it always seem to go That you don't know what you've got til its gone, They paved paradise And put up a parking lot”).  Further up on the right was they would pass the Cavallaro/ Gaeta home and then the large Norwood Villa Hotel at the corner of Oak(ford) St.  Another 200 yards and they would see the Alexander Nelson estate at Elm st, and across the street from there they would find the Collins estate.   With the demise of 764 Hempstead Ave, an irreplaceable piece of old West Hempstead has died along with it, and signaled the close an era when our neighborhood was once characterized by country homes and open spaces.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

In Memory of Police Officer Matthew Giglio, Forty One Years after His Murder

The following essay appeared in the Winter 2017 edition of the WCHSA New & Views newsletter

NCPD Officer Matthew Giglio

The recent deaths of two individuals with a local connection provide an opportunity to revisit the somber history of a cop shooting in West Hempstead whose effect still carries strong reverberations, despite the long passage of time. The shooting occurred on October 7, 1975 and took the life of NCPD Officer Matthew Giglio, after a courageous two month struggle for his life at Mercy Hospital. This past August 4, Giglio’s killer, John MacKenzie, died in prison after an apparent suicide, while serving a 25 years to life sentence. And more recently, our friend and resident of nearby Malverne, NYPD Detective Steven MacDonald, himself a victim of a 1986 shooting while on duty, passed away on January 10.

There are few residents of West Hempstead who have resided here long enough to remember the only cop killing to have occurred in our hamlet. Indeed, most people walk right past the scene of the crime, right in the center of town along Hempstead Avenue, with nary a clue as to what transpired there. The following is a synopsis of the incident.

Since 1948, the row of shops at the corner of Hempstead Ave and Locust St. have occupied a prominent place on West Hempstead’s landscape.

One of these stores, Filnord’s Pharmacy at 492 Hempstead Ave, was the site of WH’s first permanent post office. The 1960s saw the popular Tony’s Delicatessen as the occupant at 486 Hempstead. By  1971, Tony’s gave way to a boutique clothing store called Thelma J’s, the kind of which was more common back in those days but rarely seen today. It was outside this boutique where the shooting occurred. On October 4th, MacKenzie and his accomplice, Colleen Irby, cased out Thelma J’s in the guise of customers, when MacKenzie asked to use the bathroom in the back of the store which contained a window facing the rear of the building. On a typical cool early morning of October 7th, 1975, two Nassau County patrol officers responded to a burglary at Thelma J’s, where it was reported that hundreds of articles of clothing were stolen. At 2:30am, the two officers on the scene questioned Irby, who was sitting in a car at the back of the store and called for backup, whereafter Officer Giglio, working as a police EMT, promptly arrived at the scene. Upon arrival, Giglio spotted MacKenzie exiting the front of the store when MacKenzie fired his gun, striking Giglio in the abdomen. The two officers rushed to Giglio’s aid and drove him to Mercy Hospital in his own ambulance. At the hospital doctors made the bleak discovery that the bullet had hemorrhaged Giglio’s aorta.

Back at the scene, hundreds of police officers, as well as two police helicopters, descended upon West Hempstead and started a massive manhunt for the shooter. At 10:00am, officers found MacKenzie hiding out in a nearby garage and located the weapon nearby as well. At the hospital, Giglio underwent eight hours of surgery and received 35 pints of blood in a desperate attempt to save his life. In the first few days, Giglio was able to communicate by scribbling simple messages on a piece of paper, but then he slipped into a coma, never to recover. As weeks passed, Giglio developed an infection in his leg, which required an amputation. All the while, his comrades and family members kept a bedside vigil, praying that he might rally. Local churches and synagogues also held special prayer services for Giglio until he took his final breath after a seventy day battle, on December 16th.

Matthew Giglio was born in 1940 in Brooklyn. One might say he was a typical Italian kid who tore up the stick ball circuit on the Borough Park streets where he grew up, and savored the victory of the Dodgers’ World Series win when he was 15 years old. Giglio moved out to Long Island and chose his calling as a police officer, like his father who was a patrolman for the NYPD. Giglio was in his eleventh year of service, and lived in Valley Stream with his wife and three children in 1975. Nassau County later honored Officer Giglio by dedicating the Matthew F. Gilgio Memorial Plaza at intersection of Corona Avenue and Dutch Broadway, not far from where Giglio lived and a few blocks from the 5th Precinct headquarters where he was based. In July 1976, MacKenzie was put on trial and convicted with 1st degree murder and given a 25 years to life sentence. Four years later, the NY Court of Appeals vacated his sentence and a retrial was ordered after the US Supreme Court affirmed the decision, after it was established that MacKenzie’s confession was improperly obtained. The case established guidance for police officers that is in use to this day, that if the suspect immediately requests a lawyer, then any subsequent confession cannot be entered as evidence, unless in the presence of the suspect’s legal counsel. In any event, the case was retried and once again MacKenzie was convicted and sentenced, making him eligible for parole in 2000.

Every two years since then, MacKenzie’s parole hearing has stirred up the passions of politicians and police benevolent groups, urging that his parole be denied. MacKenzie had exhibited remorse for the killing but always maintained that he didn’t know that Giglio was a cop, and he couldn’t remember details of the incident because he was on drugs. After his last denial in June 2016, Mackenzie gave in to despair and committed suicide in his cell on August 4.

A couple years ago I had the privilege of meeting Detective Steven MacDonald after he and his wife Patty graciously offered to drive me home from Manhattan. During that ride, Mr. MacDonald gave me a copy of a book that he wrote where he outlined his remarkable journey toward ultimately forgiving his shooter and finding peace in his life. My brief encounter with Steve and his book left a deep impression on me and caused me to bring new meaning to my understanding of human strength and courage.

The confluence of MacKenzie’s and MacDonald’s deaths this past year, together with this past Law Enforcement Appreciation Day on January 9th, one day before MacDonald’s passing, gives us all cause to be grateful for the lives of our loved ones and those tasked to protect them.

May the memories of Officers Giglio and MacDonald be for a blessing.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Tanglewood Preserve - Site of First Revolutionary War Skirmish on Long Island

The following essay appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of the West Hempstead Community Support Association newsletter, News & Views

Some time ago, while browsing through some of the West Hempstead Historical Society website’s growing collection of local historical material, I came across an item regarding a little known Revolutionary War incident that took place just down the road in present day Lakeview, at the current site of Tanglewood Preserve. The episode became known as the Skirmish at Hempstead Swamp. While the incident in and of itself was a relatively minor one, I decided to find out some background about it and was surprised to learn that it actually represents the first action during the American Revolution that involved bloodshed on Long Island between the warring parties.

There are scant details of the event. One of the only sources we have about it comes from a book published in 1844 entitled Revolutionary Incidents in Queens County, by Henry Onderdonk Jr.

Here is some brief background about it.

In colonial times, Pine Stream used to run free and clear from Hempstead Plains down through modern day West Hempstead, where it formed a series of ponds and swampland all the way down to the Atlantic Ocean. Part of that tributary, Tanglewood Preserve was once a swamp that sat just north of Smith’s Pond, known in those days as DeMott’s pond, named after Michael DeMott and his son Anthony, who ran a mill at the southern end of the pond, where the water crosses Merrick Road in Rockville Centre. In fact, the name Tanglewood bears an echo of testimony to the swamp that once enveloped the property.

Throughout the South Shore of Long Island, there was heavy loyalist sentiment among residents in the leadup to the American Revolution. Parenthetically, this was the apparent reason for the Break-off of the Town of North Hempstead, whose residents were frustrated by their southern neighbors’ loyalty to King George III, from the greater Town of Hempstead.

According to George Combes, historian for the TOH in the 1940s, many South Shore residents were initially sympathetic to the Patriot cause, particularly after British troops landed in Boston in 1775. But a series of actions perceived to be too aggressive on the part of the Patriots, including a raid upon Long Island by the New Jersey militia in April of 1776, crystallized sentiment in the area solidly for the British.

In July of 1776, around the time of our Nation’s independence and a full month before General Howe’s troops arrived in New York, some loyalists had tried to subvert the cause of independence by attempting to poison George Washington by planting Paris green into his soup. The attempt failed because it made the soup taste terrible, but it certainly got the attention of our founding father. It was determined that the scheme had been hatched by loyalists from Long Island and so Washington promptly dispatched troops to Hempstead to arrest the perpetrators. The loyalists were warned in advance of these troops’ arrival and so they packed provisions and took shelter in the swamps south of Hempstead village. The DeMotts were also loyalists and they agreed to hang a white sheet in the window of their mill as a signal to warn the fugitives of the troops’ impending arrival. Onderdonk Jr. recounts the episode as it occurred on the third Saturday of July, 1776:

“...a party of Whig soldiers went to Hempstead Swamp at the head of DeMott's mill pond to take
up some Tories who were hiding there. ... A party of nine of them in two sedge boats were concealed in the swamp at the head of the mill pond. Stephen Rider climbed an oak tree to reconnoiter, when a ball whistled by his head. He saw the smoke whence it came and, a loaded gun being handed him, he fired, and the ball passed through the body of George Smith.” The Tories were then cornered and soon after surrendered. They were then rounded up and taken in chains to a jail in Jamaica but were soon freed after the British had occupied Long Island. George Smith was badly wounded in the shoulder, but was treated by a local physician named Dr. Searing, and recovered from his wound. 

By then the Revolutionary War was well on its way, but most of the famous battles would be fought in other parts of the country, while for the most part, Queens (Nassau) County quietly remained under British occupation.

Although the event could hardly be considered a major action in the annals of the Revolutionary War, given the impetus for its occurrence and the fact that it saw the first blood spilled on Long Island soil in the War for Independence, in my opinion, consideration should be given to add the site to the list of New York State Revolutionary War Trail Sites of Long Island.