East Hampton Town crier Hugh King stands in the South...

East Hampton Town crier Hugh King stands in the South End Cemetery in East Hampton. (Dec. 12, 2012) Credit: Gordon M. Grant

It's hard to miss Hugh King -- East Hampton's town crier -- as he goes about his business in a cape and Elizabethan top hat, brandishing a brass bell that he rings, loud and clear, to make sure everyone's attention is undivided.

Since he's cried at town functions for 23 years, few people in the small town haven't crossed paths with King and found out that he somehow knows more about their backgrounds than they do.

He's told East Hampton village board members about things their fire department did a century ago, and people in Montauk about unsung parts of their history. And he can talk extemporaneously about the role of sheep and pigs and cows in town before the Revolutionary War.

He looks it all up, and -- with a teacher's insistence on accuracy and an actor's sense of the dramatic -- drops the appropriate fact into a conversation almost before the echo of his bell fades.

His costume hasn't always worked. Earlier this month, some children looked at his white, wispy hair in a Christmas parade and gave him a whole new identity. "They thought I was Ebenezer Scrooge," he said.

He is scheduled to make his last appearance of the year at Thursday night's town board meeting. King said he will retire someday, but worries there's no one with a similar passion to replace him.

King, 71, was an elementary schoolteacher and decades ago acted in several community plays. His kin were among the original settlers of East Hampton -- but he never thought of being a town crier until former Supervisor Tony Bullock and Town Clerk Fred Yardley fostered the idea in 1987.

King was hired for $1,000 to make 20 appearances around town and talk about its history. The job has evolved into talking about the history of every hamlet and institution in town, but since King started collecting Social Security and got his full-time job running the Home Sweet Home museum in East Hampton, his only pay has been the satisfaction of looking things up and telling people about them.

King shows up at the start of most East Hampton village board meetings and often finds something to say that relates to the day's agenda. "He makes people laugh, and he tells terrific historic stories," Village Manager Larry Cantwell said. "You're dealing with a one-of-a-kind person."

He's led candlelight tours of some of the old town's most historic sites, and walked people through its cemetery, stood on street corners and spoken to the town board, to local veterans groups and to community organizations.

King has made some concessions to modern times. His candles are really LED lights, and when he looks up old Colonial-era documents, he goes to versions printed in modern type. "You can't read them [the originals]," he explains.

But there are dangers in going through old documents, and seeing the reality of East Hampton's history as more than just attractive windmills and wooden houses. Even the Colonial town government, thought by many as religious and proper, wasn't above doing business on Christmas Day in 1664.

They met, King said -- pulling his minutes of that town board meeting off a shelf -- to approve Samuel Dayton's pledge to give his son, Jacob, to his brother Thomas Backer and his wife for 14 years of servitude, in exchange for a promise the boy would get "sufficient meate Drink and apparell & to Doe for him as his owne . . ."

King says it illustrates why people should not boast about how long their family has lived in East Hampton until they check to see what their ancestors actually did when alive.

King and his wife, Loretta Orion, are working on a book about the Goody Garlick witch trial in East Hampton in 1657, based in part on new information they discovered in obscure historic records. "It didn't happen the way everyone thinks it did," King said, happily.

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