Greenport’s History, Told Through A Proud 19th Century Home
by Beth Young
Greenporter Roselle Borrelli doesn’t scare easily, but when she bought a historic house in the village, the ghosts she encountered there shook her to the core.
If you look at the maps for the village’s historic walking tour, her house at 519 First Street is listed as “a conglomeration of Italianate and Mansard styles,” with “exceptional workmanship is by Andrew Wiggins, carpenter, who built the house for his own family.”
The stately home, with a prominent tower on the left side of its façade, certainly catches the eye. But it is also a style that seems familiar. If you look closely throughout Greenport, you will find many similar embellishments on homes throughout the village.
When Roselle closed on the house in 2012, she was suspicious about its provenance. After all, what kind of carpenter would have the resources to build such an ornate home for his own family? A member of the village’s Historic Preservation Commission, she also thought the date of its construction, “circa 1858,” listed on a historic marker on the side of the house, seemed off.”
“The style didn’t look right for the time,” she said on a recent walk through her house.
That mystery has led to five years of in-depth research for Ms. Borrelli, a cellist and Aflac agent who is just now publishing an account of what she found, “Greenport: Right Place at the Wrong Time,” her first-ever venture into writing.
The story was too compelling, she said, to not put it to paper.
Ms. Borrelli attributes her deep dive into historical detective work to her father, Joseph Borrelli, the New York City detective who helped crack the Son of Sam serial killer case and who now lives in Greenport.
“Maybe I’m a history detective,” she said.
But what she found has as much to do with the supernatural as it does with detective work. On visiting the house just after the closing, Ms. Borrelli was scared out of the tower twice by something that she felt fly past her on the stairs.
She called her sister, crying, saying she was sure the house was haunted.
She had just bought a kneeler that she’d hoped to put in a chapel she wanted to build in a small bumped-out foyer built by Dr. Tuthill, who had owned the house and used it as his office, and she went home to her former house on Moore’s Lane and prayed for guidance.
When she next visited the First Street house to take photographs of the floors being refinished, what she saw made her jump out of her skin. She immediately shared the photographs with her priest at St. Isidore’s RC Church in Riverhead, whom she’d already asked to come bless the house after feeling the spirits on the stairs.
“Father, what do you see?” she asked.
On the wall, in a whitewashed streak that hadn’t been visible when Ms. Borrelli took the photo, was a human form that looked like it was kneeling in church.
“He said “I see a woman on the wall recollected in prayer,’” said Ms. Borrelli.
“I said ‘that’s what I see! The blessing obviously didn’t work. What do we do?’” said Ms. Borrelli. “He said ‘get over yourself. Make friends. People die in their homes all the time and spirits exist. Get over it.’”
Ms. Borrelli decided to take that advice, but her faith would be tested again when she hosted a meeting in her new home to help organize a concert. While giving a woman in attendance a tour of the house, her guest froze on the stairs to the tower and began trembling.
“She grabbed my hand and said ‘I want to get out of here right now,’” said Ms. Borrelli. “I said ‘No. We’re not leaving. Tell me what you see.’”
Her friend said she saw five women, the original owners of the house, wearing high-necked blouses and long skirts. Ms. Borrelli asked her friend to ask them what they wanted and she began speaking directly to the ghosts: “Can’t you see she’s a good person? She’s just trying to make it beautiful.”
“She said they were worried about the previous owners, what they did up here…” said Ms. Borrelli.
Now thoroughly concerned, Ms. Borrelli really went on a search for the true history of the house. From reading through newspaper obituaries, she found Andrew Wiggins’ great-grandson, David Higbee, who still lives in Southold.
Mr. Higbee’s brother had saved a box filled with information on the First Street house, and in their first meeting, he brought along a photograph of five women, all members of Mr. Wiggins’ wife’s family, all dressed in high-necked blouses and long skirts, sitting on the front porch of the house.
She threw the photograph down, shaking, realizing the quest for the truth was bringing her closer to her supernatural experience.
She followed her priest’s advice, and began learning period songs from the 1860s, which she sang to the ghosts while working on fixing up their house, and she got deeper into their history, learning about Andrew Wiggins’ work as the proprietor of a dry goods store in downtown Greenport, his partnership with his wife Adeline Young’s older brother, Wallenstein Young, who had also run two fancy dry goods shops in Brooklyn.
A friend called her from a yard sale in Cutchogue, where she’d found a screen decoupaged with old issues of the Weekly Suffolk Times, which contained at least nine advertisements for Mr. Wiggins’ shop.
She learned from one of Greenport’s oldest residents while having her nails done at Suki Zuki that members of the Ku Klux Klan had owned her house in the 1920s, and had, in fact, done some horrible things in the tower.
And she learned who really built the house, a man named Orange J. Cleaves, whom Ms. Borrelli believes should have a more prominent place in Greenport history.
She found Mr. Cleaves’ ledger in the archives of the Oysterponds Historical Society, filled with details about houses and public buildings he was designing, and the carpenters who worked with him on projects.
Mr. Cleaves built what is now the Greek Orthodox Church on Main Street, which at the time had been the village’s Presbyterian Church, along with the ornate mansion house that had once served as Eastern Long Island Hospital before it was torn down to build the hospital that is there now.
Most of his work shared the features of towers and mansard roofs, with ornate Italianate trim throughout.
Ms. Borrelli was nearly finished writing the book when she found a blurb in the library about the construction of David Gelston Floyd’s Brecknock Hall, which said the man who did the carpentry inside was named “Gus Cleaves.”
The paragraph hit her like a ton of stone. There were no other Cleaves working in construction in Greenport at the time Brecknock Hall was being built, which historians agree took place between 1850 and 1857.
“They used to call him ‘Boss’ Cleaves, not ‘Gus,’” she said. Then she went back to Mr. Cleaves’ ledger and found that during that seven-year stretch, he was dispatching carpenters to work on a project for “David G. Fluid.””
“I realized it was a spelling mistake! He was dispatching carpenters to work for David G. Floyd,” she said.
But that wasn’t the final proof. Ms. Borrelli was up in Vermont putting the finishing touches on her book, when she found in her readings that the crew that restored Brecknock Hall found a board under the entry staircase to Brecknock Hall signed and dated by a man named John Ashbey.
She shuddered, recognizing his name from the ledger as of one of Mr. Cleaves’ carpenters.
As soon as she returned from Vermont, she insisted that her significant other, Joseph Schoenstein, open up the paneling under their own front staircase.
With a Sawzall and a cell phone camera light, they carefully opened up the paneling. There, amidst the rubble, was a piece of framing timber, signed and dated by John Ashbey.
“Joe just looked at me, said ‘oh my God,’ and walked away.’”
Ms. Borrelli had just cracked her own historical cold case.
“A carpenter took center stage after all,” she said. “A humble man left me a precious gift.”
“Greenport: Right Place at the Wrong Time” is available for sale at Burton’s Books on Front Street in Greenport, and on Amazon.com.