68 LONGISLANDPRESS.COM • OCTOBER 2020
THE RED OWL AN UNEASY SPIRIT
BY ANNIE WILKINSON
It was a wild, stormy night. The evergreen
boughs, loaded with ice, swayed
heavily in the wind, sighing and moaning
as they scraped against the house.
In the deep, despairing darkness,
many may have been suffering. Some
might even have perished, wretched
on the treacherous coast, frozen in
the rigging, or drowned in the surf
pounding with a deep roar on the
shores of the Island.
The wind howled as the clock struck
midnight. The night promised to be
These words paraphrase Charles A.
Codman’s 1877 short story, a fable
about a great uneasy wandering spirit
that swooped through the storm into
Codman’s Brentwood house in the
form of an owl — an owl that spoke
and told a tale of woe.
The place Codman called home was not
your typical suburb. Originally created
as Thompson Station and Suffolk
Station in 1844 as new Long Island Rail
Road stations, its character radically
shifted in 1851, when it became a utopian
village named Modern Times. It
was one of many social experiments
throughout the country that prized
individual liberty and the absence
of greed, the only such society on LI,
and the first community to be built by
the railroad tracks. Residents planted
fruit trees along the roads to feed travelers
and successfully cultivated the
Pine Barrens, formerly perceived as
an agricultural wasteland. Everyone
enjoyed freedom of expression, food,
and shelter, and there were no jails,
judges, or taxes.
Codman became a resident in 1857
when Modern Times was at its peak
and worked as a paper boxmaker,
sign maker, and cabinetmaker; later,
he was described as a bookkeeper and
booklover because of his large book
collection, as well as a painter and
hermit. He was active in community
improvements and served as a school
board trustee. He was so well regarded
that Brentwood named a street after
him. Living in the pine-surrounded
house he and his wife built on the
northeast corner of Second Avenue
and Brentwood Road, he saw Modern
Times fail and be incorporated as
Brentwood in 1864.
In 1877, he composed his occult fantasy,
"The Legend of the Red Owl."
The legend he imagined tells how he
went to shut a window against the elements
and saw two red eyes peering
at him through the gloom. It was a
red owl, perched on a nearby branch.
To his astonishment, the bird spoke,
asking him to be kind.
Codman replied, “I rejoice in the equal
freedom for others, each according
to his kind, free and fair, and this
includes birds of the air.”
The bird fluttered its wings and flew
to Codman’s extended hand. It told him
it was not a bird, but the condemned,
restless spirit of a slain Native American
“Listen! Three thousand moons ago
I was like thee in the flesh — a living
man, chief of my tribe — Oriwos,
by name, the terror of the Quinnebough….
I ruled this Island when
the white man landed, and him I did
befriend, till slain in mortal combat
when my braves fled hard pressed
before the victorious Mohawks, who
were as the leaves of the forest. I fell in
yonder ravine, the last of my race, and
there my bones remain unburied to
this day, bleaching in the summer sun
and mouldering in the winter storms.”
Codman asked how the chief died and
the owl answered, “I was slaughtered
like any dog, paleface. I would have
done the same by him, had I the victor
been. But woe is me — there my bones
unburied lie and, until they are in the
bosom of the earth entombed, so long
must I wander an uneasy spirit.”
The owl told Codman to bury the bones
and hide the mortal remains from the
sunlight, and flew away. The next
day, Codman “reverently gathered
the remaining fragments and gave
them decent sepulcher, bestrewing
the grave with needles of the pine to
make all decent there,” he wrote.
Three days later, the owl returned
in the glimmer of the gloaming and
said, “Thou hast done well and from
henceforth I will be thy friend, will
shield thee from adversity and make
thee respected of men. I will be thy
guardian angel and providence.
Hang thee my picture on the wall
that thou might cherish my memory.
I bestow my name on thy wigwam.
It shall be known forever — for all
time — as — “The Hermitage of The
Codman ended his tale saying, “The
spirit vanished, and since that hour
all has been well with me.” He died
in 1911 and is buried in Brentwood
“There my bones unburied lie and, until they
are in the bosom of the earth entombed, so long
must I wander an uneasy spirit,” said The Red Owl.
Charles A. Codman, 1911.
(Photo from the Collection of the Suffolk
County Historical Society in Riverhead)
“The Guardian Angel” by Armando Mariño, glass mural at the MTA Brentwood
station, inspired by the legend.