Wednesday, August 17, 2022

The James F. Griffen House - 260 East 7th Street


Around 1848 a row of brick-faced homes was completed on the south side of Seventh Street, between Avenues C and D.  Three stories tall and 22-feet-wide, they displayed expected elements of the Greek Revival style--such as the wide fascia boards and dentiled cornices--but showed hints of the rising Italianate style, as well, in the molded window lintels and tiny brackets below the sills.  Most striking, perhaps, was the ornate ironwork of the stoop, which suggests that while the homes sat apart from the fashionable neighborhoods, they were intended for financially comfortable families.

Shipwright James M. Griffen moved his family into 260 Seventh Street (the "East" would come decades later).  The location just a block from the riverfront was convenient to his work.  Living with Griffen and his wife, the former Mary S. Wheaton, was Mary's mother, Olive, and two boarders, Nehemiah and Electa R. Miller.

Taking in boarders was common even within well-do-to families.  Miller was a real estate agent and the couple was affluent enough to own a summer home in Rye, New York.

New York, Past, Present and Future, September 1851 (copyright expired)

In 1854 an outbreak of cholera broke out in New York.  It grew to an epidemic, eventually killing 2,509 people.  It may have been cholera that claimed Mary S. Griffen on November 19, 1855.  She was 43 years old.  Her funeral was not held in the parlor, as was normal, but in the nearby Church of the Nativity on Avenue C.  A week later Olive Wheaton died at the age of 63.  Oddly enough (given that Mary Griffen's was held elsewhere), her funeral was held in the Seventh Street house.

Griffen left 260 Seventh Street in 1858, as did the Millers.  It became home to the Theodore Forster family, including the Forsters' grown sons, Charles, who was in the shoe business; Isaac, an upholsterer; and Henry and his wife, the former Sarah Nichols.

The family's financial condition was reflected in Isaac's 1862 donation of $45.67 to the Western Floating Hospitals and wounded soldiers.  The contribution would translate to about $1,200 today.

The house was again the scene of a funeral in 1862.  Henry and Sarah's son, Theodore, died on February 5, two months before his 12th birthday.  His casket sat in the parlor until his funeral on Friday morning.

Francis I. A. Boole followed the Forster family in the house in 1864.  The City Inspector, he had a highly responsible occupation.  He had previously held the civic positions as councilman for two years and alderman for six.  The Booles' residency would be short, just two years.  During that time they took in an interesting boarder, Harriet Ray.  The widow of Joseph Ray, she was listed in city directories as "clairvoyant."

In 1867 Nathan Rossman purchased the house.  He and his wife, Adelina (known by her family and friends as "Lina"), had four daughters, Mary, Caroline (known as Carrie), Hannah and Sarah.

Rossman ran a jewelry and china shop at 25 Avenue B.  Profoundly devout, in 1865 he was among the founding members of Chevra Agudeth Achim congregation and served as its president.  Its original 25 members in November 1865 came mostly from the Norfolk Street Synagogue.  The year the Rossmans moved into the Seventh Street house, the shul's membership had grown to 94.

The first of the Rossman daughters to leave was Mary.  She was married to Nathaniel L. Nathan on April 22, 1868 in the synagogue her father helped to found.  In Victorian prose, the announcement in New York Herald wished, "May the happy couple's ship of futurity have a peaceful and peasant passage over the stormy and turbulent sea of life."
Nathan Rossman's health began to fail around 1882, and on October 29, 1883, he died "after a lingering illness," according to The Jewish Messenger.  He was 68 years old.

Lina remained in the house, taking in boarders to help with finances.  In 1888, for instance, they included Aaron Hanover and his widowed mother, Sophia; and Gustavus A. Wolfe, who made his living as a clerk.

Lina Rossman sold the property in October 1891 to Sigmund Kraus.  (She moved to Brooklyn where she died on March 29, 1915 at the age of 95.)  Kraus paid $16,500 for the house, or about $484,000 today.  It was almost assuredly Kraus who replaced the entrance doors with modern, multi-paneled examples.

After Kraus sold 260 East 7th Street to R. Sadowsky, it was operated as a rooming house.  Living on the third floor in 1906 was Bertha Cohen, her 17 year old daughter, also named Bertha, and her widowed son-in-law Henry Diamond.

Henry was born in Austria and made his living as a tailor.  Now without a wife had died, he turned his attentions to her sister, Bertha.  Her mother refused to entertain the idea, angering Henry Diamond.  Her disapproval may have been caused, in part, my Diamond's dependency on opium.

It came to a head on September 8, 1906.  Diamond and his mother-in-law got into a loud, heated argument.  Neighbors called for Patrolman Coleman, who was hurrying up the stairs to arrest Diamond, when gun shots rang out.   When he entered the Cohen rooms, Bertha was dead on the floor and Diamond had shot himself twice in the chest.

He was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where he told police he had shot Bertha "because she would not give him money and jewelry belonging to his deceased wife," as reported by The Evening Post.  The newspaper added, "A sister-in-law, Bertha Cohen, seventeen years old, denied this, and said that he had quarreled with her mother because the latter would not allow Diamond to marry her."

In court, Diamond expounded on his story.  On December 17, The Evening World said, "Diamond's wife had died, leaving him childless after seven years married life.  He wanted to marry the deceased wife's sister.  Diamond scolded his mother-in-law because his wife had left him childless, and then shot Mrs. Cohen."

Interestingly, drugs played a major part in Diamond's sentencing.  On the advice of District Attorney William Travers Jerome, Diamond pleaded guilty to first degree manslaughter.  Jerome argued "that the man was an opium fiend at the time of the shooting and that it was unpremeditated," according to The Evening World.  He was sentenced to 20 years in Sing Sing prison, rather than being executed.

The following year Dr. Samuel Herzstein purchased 260 East 7th Street, and opened his medical office in the house.  A well-respected gynecologist, in addition to his practice he published academic articles, such as "Scarlet Fever Complicating Pregnancy, Labor, and Puerperium," published in the September 16, 1911 issue of the New York Medical Journal.

A month before that article appeared, Herzstein's marriage to Esther Kaplan had made news.  On August 23, 1911, The Paterson Morning Call wrote, "Can a mayor elected under the commission government plan perform a marriage ceremony?  He can.  This fact was proved by Mayor Frederick W. Donnelly within half an hour after he had been inducted into office today."  Trenton's new mayor married the couple "in the office of the board of health in the city hall," said the article.  It noted, "The bride was a widow and the bridegroom a widower."

The Herzsteins would remain in the house until the early Depression years.  By 1935 it was again being operated as a rooming house, not all of its residents being upstanding citizens.  That year 39 year old Lewis Hoffman was picked out in a lineup after having been arrested the day before for stealing $3,800 in clothing and furs from the R. W. Clothing Company in Brooklyn.

Although the house has never officially been converted to a multi-family structure, it has three apartments.  Unlike its once-identical neighbors along the row, other than the entrance doors, the venerable house has seen little exterior change.  And its remarkably handsome stoop railings survive mostly intact.

photographs by the author
many thanks to reader Joe Ciolino for prompting this post has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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