Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, May 26, 2014

James D. Fish and the Mansion He Built that Once Stood on the Most Easterly of the Twin Islands in Pelham

The Twin Islands are adjacent to Hunter's Island in today's Pelham Bay Park.  A magnificent mansion once stood on the most easterly of the Twin Islands with splendid views overlooking Long Island Sound and the shores of Long Island.  (Hunter's Island and West Twins Island were joined to Orchard Beach by landfill in 1947.)

The mansion was known at different times as the "Fish Mansion," the "Ogden Mansion," and the "Hoyt House" based on the names of various owners.  It was built of sandstone as a summer retreat in the 1880s by New York banker James D. Fish. 

[Ogden Mansion.]

"Ogden Mansion" circa 1910.
Source:  Gelatin Silver Print, 
Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.6992

James D. Fish was the oldest son of Asa Fish and Prudence Dean Fish.  He was born in Mystic, Connecticut August 7, 1819, and died in Brooklyn, New York, on March 31, 1912.  He lived much of his life in Brooklyn and was a banker, merchant and shipping agent.  

James D. Fish came from a family whose members were "prominent in shipping in Mystic and New York City and were early settlers of Mystic, Connecticut.  According to one source:

"James had four brothers (a fifth died young) and three sisters. All but one of these siblings married and had children. He himself married three times. His first wife was Mary Ester Blodget whom he married on June 4, 1843. They had seven children. Mary Ester died on Jul 17, 1868. His second wife was Isabelle Rogers whom he married on March 18, 1872. They had one son named Paul Rogers, born in 1873. Isabelle died on Dec 20, 1879. His third wife was Sally Reber Laing whom he married on May 20, 1884. They had one daughter born February 24, 1885 named Alice Reber Fish. Sally died on March 10, 1885."

Source:   Mystic Seaport - Fish Family Papers (Coll. 211):  Biography of the Fish Family, available at <http://library.mysticseaport.org/manuscripts/coll/coll211.cfm#head46806520> (visited May 23, 2014).  

James Dean Fish in an Undated Photograph.
Source:  Ancestry.com.

The brief biography quoted above omits an important set of facts.  Not long after building the sandstone mansion on the most easterly of the Twins, James D. Fish was shipped off to jail although, eventually, he was granted clemency by President Grover Cleveland.  

Fish was imprisoned for fraud after two closely-related firms in which he was a partner (in each) collapsed, setting off the financial panic of 1884 that led to the failures of more than 10,000 smaller firms.  As one source notes, the "immediate cause" of the financial panic was the failure of Grant & Ward and also Marine National Bank of New York City. Fish was the President of the Marine National Bank at the time of its collapse and was a member of the investment firm known as "Grant & Ward" which many believed merely "traded on the name" of former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, a part owner of the firm.  These two firms were joined closely together precisely because James D. Fish was a partner in both.  When these two major firms collapsed, it had a ripple effect across Wall Street causing many firms to fail. 

Scene on Wall Street on the Morning of May 14, 1884
During the Financial Panic of 1884 as Depicted in the
May 24, 1884 Issue of Harper's Weekly.  Source:
Wikimedia Commons.

The obituary of James Dean Fish that appeared in the March 31, 1912 issue of The New York Times detailed the impact that the collapse of his firms and his imprisonment had on his life.  That obituary read in full as follows:


He Had Lived In Seclusion Since His Release from Prison.

James Dean Fish, President of the Marine Bank at the time of its crash in 1884 and a member of the ill-fated firm of Grant & Ward, which traded on the name and involved the fortunes of Gen. Grant, died at the age of 93 on last Sunday, and was buried in Mystic, Conn.  The quietness of the funeral was part of the rigid seclusion Mr. Fish maintained for many years at his home, 105 Felix Street, Brooklyn, where he lived with his daughters, and, in fact, ever since his release from Auburn Prison, to which he was sentenced for his part in the Wall Street crash.

The firm of Grant & Ward, which usually had large deposits in the Marine Bank, was first composed of Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., and Mr. Fish.  Then Gen. Grant bought a seventh interest in the business, and a subsequent purchase of a fifty-thousand-dollar share by Mrs. Grant and his son, Jess, put the ex-President on an equal footing with the other pratners.  When the crash came the despair of thousands of investors whom Gen. Grant's name had been sufficient to draw to the firm was mingled with the pity of the entire country that he should have been involved in such finance.

Ferdinand  Ward and Fish were sent to prison, the latter sentenced to a term of ten years:  but this was commuted by Gov. Cleveland [sic] and he was released before he had served four years.  His daughter, Anna Fish, never wavered in her devotion, living in the prison town until her father left.  For a while Fish lived in seclusion in the library of his house in West Thirty-fourth Street.

In the days of his prosperity Fish was an inveterate first-nighter at the theatres, and not long before the failure of his bank he took for his third wife Sally Reber, an opera singer and a daughter of Judge Reber of Sandusky, Ohio.  A daughter was born on the day Fish was sentenced to Auburn, and five weeks later his young wife died."

Source:  J. D. FISH, EX-BANKER, BURIED, N.Y. Times, Mar. 31, 1912.  

After the financial troubles that sent James D. Fish to jail, the mansion he built passed through the hands of several additional owners until the Twin Islands became part of Pelham Bay Park in 1888 when New York City was acquiring lands for park development.  Beginning in the early 1900s, the mansion saw use as a children's summer retreat overseen by the Jacob Riis Foundation.

New York City reportedly demolished the mansion in 1937 citing an inability to maintain the property.

Immediately below are transcriptions of various resources that reference James D. Fish, members of his family, or the mansion he built on the easterly Twin Island.

*          *          *          *

"The Twin Island house is pictured here at the turn of the century.  Twin and Hunter Islands became part of Pelham Bay Park in 1888, when New York City began acquiring land for park development.  The house was known as the Fish Mansion, Ogden Mansion, and Hoyt House, depending on who lived there at the time.  The city demolished the structure in 1917 because it could not maintain the property."

Source:  Scott, Catherine A., Images of America:  City Island and Orchard Beach, p. 101 (Charleston, SC:  Arcadia Publishing 1999). 

"The parks department leased the Twin Island House beginning in the early 1900s to the Jacob Riis Foundation for a children's summer retreat.  Approximately 86 underprivileged youths lived here each summer and participated in recreational activities under the Riis Settlement House Program."  

Source:  Scott, Catherine A., Images of America:  City Island and Orchard Beach, p. 101 (Charleston, SC:  Arcadia Publishing 1999). 

"The women in this c. 1904 photograph were involved with the Jacob Riis Foundation at Twin Island.  Prior to 1911, people traveled to Twin Island by boat or canoe.  When the city built a concrete-reinforced pedestrian bridge connecting Twin to Hunter Island, people could walk here.  They crossed over a causeway situated along the Shore Road, entered Hunter Island, and then used the pedestrian walkway between the two islands."  

Source:  Scott, Catherine A., Images of America:  City Island and Orchard Beach, p. 102 (Charleston, SC:  Arcadia Publishing 1999). 

"A group of campers who paddled to Twin Island from the Throggs Neck area of the Bronx sit in the Twin Island house, c. 1920.  The city government issued camping permits to various organizations for sites on Twin and Hunter Islands.  In 1914 the Working Girls' Association maintained two tents on Twin Island.  Parks supplied running water to the camp after discovering that the existing well water was polluted.  Members of the DeLasalle Institute regularly surveyed the Twin Island coastline."  

Source:  Scott, Catherine A., Images of America:  City Island and Orchard Beach, p. 102 (Charleston, SC:  Arcadia Publishing 1999).  

*     *     *

The Grand View Hotel, in Pelham Bay Park, is to be removed, but a hotel will be opened in the Ogden mansion, near by. . . . "

Source:  PARK BOARD PROCEEDINGS, N.Y. Times, Nov. 30, 1893.  



WASHINGTON, Jan. 28. -- The President has commuted the sentence of Banker Fish so that he will be released from confinement in May.  He has had the case long before him for consideration and has listened to many arguments in Fish's behalf.  His reasons for extending Executive clemency are given in a memorandum issued to-day, but that does not carry the names of the petitioners who recommended that Fish be pardoned.  There never was a petition stronger in names than that laid before the President in this case.  Among the signers were the following:  Ex-Gov. Alonzo B. Cornell, Charles Parsons, Oliver Bryan, George S. Coe, William R. Booth, Daniel Drake Smith, Joseph A. Parsons, Charles B. Foote, D. B. Match, R. Bayles, J.P. Paulison, A. Foster Higgins, D. Underhill, Joseph W. Dreyfus, J. D. Vermilye, W.H. Cox, A. W. Tenney, George H. Potts, H.H. Boody, W.A. Camp, John H. Mott, Richard Kelly, William A. Walker, William B. Hilton, G.D.S. Trask, Nathaniel Niles, E. F. Winslow, W. P. Shearman, Theodore L. Cuyler, J. Seligman, Ambrose Snow, C. H. Van Brunt, Isaac Phillips, C. Meyer, T. C. Platt, D. C. Robbins, Waldo Hutchinson, A. F. Jenkies, Peter Notman, Edmund D. Riggs, Henry J. Van Dyke, J. A. MacDonald, W. B. Dana, H. K. Thurber, C. H. Mallory, David M. Stone, Peter Moller, D. L. Moody, E. C. Patterson.  There were many others equally familiar.  The President's memorandum indorsed on the petition is as follows:

'This convict is 69 years of age.  Prior to his conviction he was trusted and respected by all who knew him and all his dealings and intercourse with his fellow-men both in business and social life had been such as to secure their confidence and esteem.  In the view I take of the application for his pardon there is no occasion to refer to the nature of his offense nor to comment upon the evidence upon which his conviction rests, further than to suggest that this is a case in which the actual and willful intent to defraud depend upon influences somewhat uncertain.  I have rarely, if ever, seen a petition for Executive clemency signed so numerously as the one presented in this case by citizens of great respectability and business standing.

'The prisoner since his conviction has aided the administration of the criminal law by giving vainable testimony upon the trial of another offender.  He has endured his imprisonment thus far with all the fortitude and resignation possible, and has bee scrupulously obedient to all prison rules and regulations.  Medical proof produced before me fully establishes the fact that with advanced age and serious disabilities, and by reason of his confinement, he is physically and mentally fast failing, and I am satisfied that he will not survive his imprisonment if much longer extended.  Every object sought to be obtained by the punishment of crime will be accomplished, in my opinion, by a commutation of the convict's sentence to imprisonment for a term of five years and six months, with allowance of deductions for good conduct.  Such commutation is therefore granted.'

AUBURN, N. Y., Jan. 28.--When James D. Fish was called into Waren Durston's private office this afternoon and informed that President Cleveland had commuted his sentence the old man was not surprised in the least.  To reporters who tried to question him, he said:  'I have nothing to say.'  His daughter, Miss Anna Fish, has resided here ever since her father came to the prison and has been devoted in her attention to him.


A petition asking for a full pardon for James D. Fish was sent to the President from this city about a year ago.  It was gotten up and circulated chiefly by Mr. Fish's sons, who secured a large number of weighty signatures.  They made special efforts to get the signatures of bank Presidents and were very successful in that direction.  A lawyer who saw the paper before it went to Washington said yesterday that he had never before seen so many names of conservative and influential business men attached to a petition for clemency in a criminal case.

The term of five years and six months to which the imprisonment of James D. Fish is limited by the President's action will be reduced by the allowance for good behaior one year seven months and fifteen days.  That will liberate Mr. Fish about the 12th of May, 1889.  He will then have been in prison just three years ten months and fifteen days.  

The news of the President's action was an agreeable surprise to the sons of the aged prisoner.  John D., Irving, and Dean Fish are in business together at 15 State-Street, this city.  They have waited so long for a response to the petition that they had begun to fear that the weary red tape of the official departments at Washington would not enable it to reach the present Executive.  They were greatly pleased with the wording of President Cleveland's indorsement on the petition.  It is expected that James D. Fish will retire to a quite home somewhere in the interior of this State soon after his release."


"Ex-Banker FISH Released.

Auburn, N. Y., May 11

James D. FISH, ex-president of the Marine Bank, was released from prison this morning, and in company with his two daughters started for New York.  He is in the best of health and refuses to be interviewed."

Source:  Ex-Banker FISH Released, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 11, 1889. 

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At 9:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article, Blake. Thanks for sharing!


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