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Book discloses skeletons in Smithtown's closets -- and an attic

Jean Hebbard, of St. James, has her copy

Jean Hebbard, of St. James, has her copy of the book signed while Ella Smith Scaife and her husband Gram Scaife wait their turn after St. James author Claire Nicolas White spoke to the audience about her new book "The Land of the Smiths: A Collection of Personal Memoirs" at a reception and book signing event on Sunday at The Ward Melville Heritage Organization's Educational & Cultural Center, Sunday, March 31, 2014. Credit: Steve Pfost

The woman wearing a Victorian-era blouse and emerald floor-length skirt might appear to have a charmed life as a descendant of Smithtown's founding family.

But Ella Smith, audience members learned Sunday at the Ward Melville Heritage Organization's Educational & Cultural Center in Stony Brook, was locked in a cage in her family's attic after telling her father that she planned to elope with a cousin who was not a Smith.

"And for a whole month, I saw no one but Black Mary [a servant], who brought me my daily ration of bread and water," Jean Linzee, an English teacher at The Stony Brook School, said while acting as Ella in a vignette.

Ella's life -- and the lives of most of her four sisters -- are featured in the new book "The Land of the Smiths: A Collection of Personal Memoirs" by Village of Head of the Harbor author Claire Nicolas White, a precursor to the Town of Smithtown's 350th anniversary next year.

White, 88, who is a Smith by marriage to the late sculptor Robert White (his grandmother was Bessie Smith, one of the sisters in the book), conducted interviews with Smith descendants in the 1970s and read memoirs.

"I was interested in their love of the land. . . . I think it's very rare in America that generation after generation remains in the same spot," said White, who moved to the area from Holland in the late 1940s.

Ultimately, the book project languished. That is until last August, when she showed the manuscript to Gloria Rocchio, president of the heritage organization, who read it in one night.

"I said this should be published," Rocchio said, adding that her staff typed the book and secured funding to publish it.

White, the author of more than 20 published books, said she hoped readers would take away a greater appreciation for where they live.

For Lisa Broughton, 50, of Smithtown, the book offered a look into the lives she was curious about while growing up. As a child, she tagged along with her father, Michael Mirabella, now 75, of Hauppauge, who was commissioned to create paintings of Smith family homes.

"I always wanted to know who lived in those houses. . . . This, I think, will bring that more to life," Broughton said, adding that she was surprised by Ella's story. "I just looked at the wealth and just assumed it was a very nice life, and she told a story that was heart-wrenching."

Richard Bull Smith, a 10th-generation Smith (and the brother of a Newsday editorial board member) who also is mayor of the Village of Nissequogue, said, "The real story here is the attraction that the land has in pulling people here. . . . I think Claire did a wonderful job."

Jennifer Smith, another Smith descendant who lives in Nissequogue, said White's book offered more details about the family stories she grew up hearing, and introduced new ones -- such as Ella's confinement.

"It's giving you roots and something substantial that I can pass down . . . so my granddaughter will know where she comes from," said Smith.

Richard Foley, 61, of Stony Brook, a member of the Smithtown Historical Society, said the book was also important for local residents.

"It's part of our heritage," said Foley, who performed at the book event. "It's very important to feel connected to the past. That's what grounds us all."

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