The history of Otter Pond in Sag Harbor spans over centuries when, originally, the freshwater pond was home to a large population of otters. In 1793, John Jermain was granted the right to dig a ditch to connect the pond to the Upper Cove and build a bridge over the inlet. Hence saltwater flowed into the pond and, with it, the tears of one lovely, but lonely, Amelia Ford Wentworth. The year was 1924 and Amelia’s husband, Derick, known as Dick, had moved his young bride to Sag Harbor, to find his fortune in the old whaling town.
A carpenter by trade, Dick hoped to find work in the building business. He had not anticipated that, with wood a scarcity, more houses were simply moved to new locations rather than being constructed. But his broad shoulders did attract a wealthy widow from New York City, and Dick, with a simple note, one month’s rent, and his incisor left on the kitchen table, disappeared, leaving his new bride to fend for herself.
Amelia found a room at Miss Annie’s Boarding House, across from the pond, and took a small room with a shared bathroom that had a view of the changing estuary. Each morning, she would share her cornbread with the ducks and swans, without an appetite of her own. After a discouraging search for work as a pretty, jilted stranger in town, Amelia saw a notice on the board of the Antheneum Theater, which sat on the corner of Sage and Church streets. They needed a dancer.
As legend goes, one night after a show, she was standing by the wharf, melancholy overtaking her, when she noticed a man on his sailboat staring at her. “I’ve had about enough saltwater on my vessel here, Miss, if you might care to let those tears fall somewhere else,” he said to her. Amelia looked up at the scraggly man, and what should have signaled danger instead was a connection.
Captain Bill McCoy was smiling, stepping off his boat, The Amelia. This was during Prohibition, and many a sailor set out for “Rum Row,” a spot just three miles offshore, where the international water line allowed local vessels to connect with suppliers of contraband hooch, then smuggle it back to shore. If you could avoid the Coast Guard and the mob, it was a lucrative trade.
The captain invited her not for a drink because, of course, that was illegal, but perhaps some tea? Across from the wharf was a speakeasy known as the Mousetrap due to the diminutive nature of the proprietor. The password Dead Cat only helped perpetuate the place’s myth. Bill was greeted as always as The Real McCoy. This nickname was earned because, unlike other bootleggers, he did not water down his whiskey or rum before sending it on its way, so it was “the real McCoy.” When one of the patrons recognized Amelia from her shows and made lewd remarks, Bill firmly grasped his arm and told him, “Just because she has to work doesn’t mean she’s not a lady.”
Snow arrived early that year in December, and despite the captain’s promise to return to her, The Amelia had not been in port for weeks. To make matters worse, Amelia had a glimpse of Dick, his new wife, and the gold tooth installed in his grin. Anger infused Amelia’s dance that night at The Antheneum, which was so self-admittedly smoldering that she determined it would be the performance that brought down the house. And indeed it did. The Antheneum burned to the ground that very night.
Without a job, without savings, without family or friends in a village dominated by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Amelia made a final stop in town and headed back to Miss Annie’s. It was Christmas Eve. The other girls were out, so she had the bath all to herself. She drew a bath as hot as she could stand. Then she put Dick’s tooth on the sill, opened up a small bag, and pulled out razor blades. She took a moment to peer out the window at the pond, and then she noticed a small light coming under the bridge. The light flickered on a vessel moving slowly in the still and silent night. Then it stopped in the middle of the pond, and one by one she saw candles lit until they formed the outline of a Christmas tree.
Amelia climbed out of the tub, put on her clothes, and headed out to this mysterious vision. There, in the middle of Otter Pond, was a small
boat with a glowing Christmas tree. When Captain McCoy pulled up to the shore and helped Amelia come onboard, she asked what he was doing. “If I can smuggle rum past Dutch Schultz, I can certainly smuggle a Christmas tree past Mrs. Russell Sage,” he told her.
On that night he made a vow, “There is no room for Dicks in this town, only the Real McCoy, and
from this point on there will be a Christmas tree lit in the middle of Otter Pond to give hope to those who don’t have hope, and no more saltwater tears shall be shed. . . Now let’s go find us some otters to smuggle back to this pond.”