For three consecutive days in May 1885, the death of Sallie Reber, a singer with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, best known for its Gilbert & Sullivan productions, was front page news in The New York Times.
The headlines: Was she the wife or mistress of prominent New York banker and, more notably, convicted felon James D. Fish, born and raised in Mystic? Who was the father of her just-born daughter? And, bizarre as it might read, then and now, was the cause of her death, as the presiding doctor suggested, a severe gastric disorder brought on by overindulgence in oranges, stewed clams and ginger ale?
Visitors to the Elm Grove Cemetery in Mystic will find Sallie Reber’s name chiseled on a headstone beneath that of James Dean Fish, the banker and one of the principals sent to prison for fraud in the Wall Street financial scandal of 1884 that left Ulysses S. Grant, among others, ruined.
But she’s not there. The inscription under her name lends itself to the same lurid curiosity that captured New York at the time of her death. The headstone reads:
“Sallie Reber. His wife. May 20, 1850. March 10, 1885. Born and buried in Sandusky, Ohio.”
Fish, with the headstones for his first two wives, Mary Esther Blodgett and Isabelle Rogers — on either side of his in Elm Grove — was president of the Marine National Bank in New York. In 1880, he formed, with Wall Street wunderkind Ferdinand Ward and Ulysses S. Grant Jr., known as Buck, the investment firm of Grant & Ward that proved, four years later, to be a front for a massive Ponzi scheme the collapse of which, in 1884, caused a calamitous financial panic bankrupting many, including Grant, hero of the Civil War and 18th president of the United States.
Both Fish and Ward were tried for fraud, embezzlement and related crimes with attendant front-page newspaper coverage, and sent to jail.
In February 1885, a few months before Fish, then in his mid-60s, began his prison sentence, Sallie Reber, popular singer on the New York concert stage, gave birth to a daughter in a small village in New Jersey. The baby’s father was recorded as Franklin Laing, to whom Sallie had been married but who died 18 months before the baby’s birth. The baby’s mother was recorded as Nellie Laing.
Shortly after the birth, Sallie Reber’s health began to decline and, according to a story in The Times, “her digestion troubled her again and took the form of a craving for strange food.” Two weeks after giving birth, Sallie Reber died. She was 35. Her doctor, J. W. Phelps, attributed the death to “acute gastritis,” brought on, he was quoted in several stories, by over-indulging in oranges, clams and lemonade, later changed to ginger ale.
Geoffrey Ward, an author known for his books associated with filmmaker Ken Burns’ PBS productions, is the great-grandson of Ferdinand Ward and, in 2012, published a book about him: “A Disposition to be Rich: How a small-town pastor’s son ruined an American president, brought on a Wall Street crash and made himself the best-hated man in the United States.”
In the book, Ward writes about Reber’s death: “It is impossible to know the truth, but it seems likely that she suffered from puerperal (or ‘childbed’) fever, the form of fast-acting septicemia that was the leading killer of childbearing women in the 19th century. There were two possible motives for the doctor to have misrepresented the facts: to spare an unmarried woman’s family the knowledge that she had given birth in secret, or to cover up his own incompetence …”.
But, as the Times reported, Reber apparently was married — to James D. Fish.
“Mr. James D. Fish was visited in Ludlow-Street Jail by a Times reporter yesterday,” begins the story published on May 9, 1885. “In reply to an inquiry concerning his acquaintance with Sallie Reber-Laing and his marriage to her, made the following statement, which he re-read and carefully revised ….”
Basically, Fish said he’d known her for several years but while she was married never called on her. After her husband, who was a drunk, died, he began seeing her and “sympathized with all her troubles.” They soon decided to marry, and did so, but because of the financial collapse and ensuing arrest and trial, and the recent death of her husband, they decided not to make the marriage public. However, Fish said Sallie, in strict confidence, told several family members about it. He also said he was informed by family members after her death, that her body would be transported back to her girlhood home in Ohio for burial, and apparently he did not object.
The child, Alice Reber Fish, lived with Fish and a daughter from one of his previous marriages, and reportedly lived in Mystic as well under the care of the family of Fish’s first wife, Mary Esther Blodgett. Alice became a composer of songs, one of which, “Love’s on the High Road,” used as lyrics a poem written by Dana Burnet, a prolific writer and playwright who lived in Stonington in his later years.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.