Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Astronomer's House

Ephraim Niles Byram (1809-1881)
Portrait by Orlando Hand Bears 1834

The title story in Val Schaffner's book, The Astronomer's House, is a fictional tale of an astronomer that haunts his former home. It is one of many short stories based on real people and places in Sag Harbor. In Schaffner's book, the character "Isaiah Mistral" is based on the real life scientist, astronomer and clock maker Ephraim Niles Byram.

The astronomer in Schaffner's book haunts an Italianate Villa with a tall narrow tower from which he could observe the stars. It wasn't difficult for me to imagine the Byram house being haunted as I looked through the locked front gate on this cool October day. The summer crowds were gone and the stillness was only disturbed by the wind blowing red and gold leaves across the road.
Ephraim Niles Byram was born in Sag Harbor on Nov. 25, 1809, the son of Eliab Byram. He became an astronomer, inventor, philosopher, and clock maker. He was also skilled in making compasses, telescopes and other nautical instruments, which he constructed with tools he made himself. At the age of twenty-five he completed a mechanical model of the solar system called an orrery. It was on display at the Sag Harbor Arsenal in 1836, and then was taken on tour around the country. He was best know for clock making, particularly tower clocks. - from the Smithsonian here
 Oakland Cottage, the Byram house was built circa 1852.
In Schaffner's ghost story, the mausoleum of the Astronomer in the cemetery adjoining the home is a prominent part of the tale. In real life, though the Oakland Cemetery is next door, the nearest mausoleum type grave belongs to the Fahys (the watchcase maker) not the Byrams.
The centerpiece of the Byram family plot is a monument with a sphere on top. I examined the sphere to see if there where any earthly or celestial markings but only saw lichen.
A small wooden gate is nearby, it most likely once linked to the larger original Byram property. The front of the monument with the Byram name is seen as you approach from the direction of the gate.
With your back to the wooden gate viewing the monument, you can see the Broken Mast monument a few yards away.
The Broken Mast Monument was erected in 1856 by the Howell family in tribute to John Howell who was killed by a whale. The names of five other whaling captains also killed by whales are listed. The monument serves "To commemorate that noble enterprise, the whale fishery, and a tribute of lasting respect to those bold and enterprising ship masters, Sons of Southampton, who periled their lives in a daring profession and perished in actual encounter with the monsters of the deep. Entombed in the Ocean, they live in our memory."
Close up of the carving on the Broken Mast Monument

Very few of Byram's clocks seem to have made it to the 21st Century. 
The list here testifies to the toll of fire and weather.
"Old Whaler's" church dedicated in 1844
The original steeple lost in the 1938 hurricane had four Byram clocks. The brochure from the church says the the clockworks were removed in 1846 because the high winds interfered with the clock's functioning. The clock was moved to East Hampton's Presbyterian Church where it served until it was gutted and electrified in the 1960s. A video of the clockworks in the tower of First Presbyterian Church of Southampton manufactured around this time gives you a good example of the delicacy of the machinery here.

While researching the Astronomer, I was excited to find the photograph of the portrait of Ephraim Niles Byram by Orlando Hand Bears on the Smithsonian site. The actual portrait appears to be in a private collection in Mississippi. It would be so wonderful to see a color photograph of the work, if not the work in person! Artworks by native Sag Harbor artist Orlando Hand Bears seem to be a rarity. Bears (sometimes spelled Beers) only lived from 1811-1851. 
Orlando Beers (d 2/10/1851) 
Self Portrait on Ivory
John Jermain Library,  here
Guide to Sag Harbor Landmarks, Homes and History by Henry Wiesburg and Lisa Donneson
Hamptons Bohemia by Helen A. Harrison and Constance Ayers Denne
Ephraim Niles Byram Long Island's Only Tower Clockmaker by Frederick Shelley
Of Interest
Walking Tour of Historic Sag Harbor Art and Architecture Quarterly of the East End


  1. Someone sent me this blog, and my husband and I own the painting of Ephraim Niles Byram. It is presently on loan to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It has lovely colors and is in a great yellow-gold painted frame.

    Patty McCullough

    1. Dear Mrs. McCullough,
      Thank you so much for your comment. I love this painting and what I know of Ephraim Niles Byram's story. I hope someday to see it in person!

  2. Thank you for this very nice piece. Although my reclusive astronomer is based only very loosely on Byram, who in real life had many friends, the first part of the story, including the old ladies playing solitaire, is quite true. I really did visit the house when they had it on the market for $192,500 in 1985. Best-- Val Schaffner

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. I loved your book!


Thank you for your comments!