The storied history of Sycamore Hall can still be felt as the ghosts of a dead diva, eccentric millionaire, a passion plagued murder, renown doctors, quaint gift shop owner and a failed banker still roam the halls and rooms and are a part of the historic legacy of the big white house on the hill overlooking Mirror Lake in Browns Mills, New Jersey.
Now in a new transition, the building is at a new crossroads, either to be demolished to make room for a strip mall or preserved as an historic inn, restaurant and tavern, the only two choices on the table at the moment.
The new owner has a soft spot in her heart for the historic building to be preserved.
The original building that dates to before 1820 once served as a health spa and clinic for people with TB and other lung diseases and breathing problems that afflicted center city dwellers during the smog infested industrial revolution. The clear air of the pine barons and the cedar water were promoted for their healthful benefits, and Sycamore Hall was one of a number of such similar lodges that joined together nearly 100 years ago to form Deborah Hospital.
The millionaire was Colonel James Fisk, whose passionate affair with diva actress Josephine Mansfield ended when he was murdered by another lover Edward S. Stokes.
In 1868 New York railroad tycoon Colonel James Fisk, Jr. met beautiful Bostonian Helen Josephine Mansfield, a singer and actress who at the age of 16 married Frank Lawler in 1866 and divorced him in 1867.
Although impoverished an unable to pay rent for her one room apartment, she at first rebuked the advances of Fisk, who was known to give $100 bills to attractive women. Eventually she let him pay her overdue rent and he bought her an elegant home in New York City, furnished it and provided her with everything she desired including four servants, $50,000 in cash, a wardrobe of dresses and a case of jewels.
In 1869 Fisk and his partner Jay Gould precipitated what became known as the first "Black Friday" in the world's financial exchanges when they tried to corner the gold market.
“Friday, September 24, 1869 became known as Black Friday on Wall Street. The markets opened in a pandemonium as the price of gold shot up. But then the federal government began to sell gold, and the price collapsed. Many traders who had been drawn into the frenzy were ruined. Jay Gould and Jim Fisk came away unscathed. Sidestepping the disaster they had created, they sold their own gold as the price had risen on Friday morning. Later investigations showed that they had broken no laws then on the books. While they had created panic in the financial markets and hurt many investors, they had gotten richer.”
Fisk spent many vacations secluded at Sycamore Hall, a Browns Mills hotel with his paramour Mansfield, but Fisk’s lifestyle caught up with him. On January 6 1872 Fisk was shot and killed by his business associate Edward S. Stokes, a jealous co-suitor for the attention of the glamorous Mansfield. This, of course, exposed the scandal.
In 1873 Mansfield and Ella Wesner, a male impersonator in Vaudeville moved to Paris and presided over the Café American. The 1891 U.S. silver certificate known as the Courtesan Note depicts the image of a women that is based on a photograph of Josie Mansfield. She died in Paris and is buried in the historic Montparnasse Cemetery.
In 1910 real estate developer James B. Reilly rebuilt Sycamore Hall and in 1920 rebuilt the dam on Mirror Lake and the clubhouse for the Canoe Club.
The doctor was Dr. Marcus W. Newcomb, one of the doctors who formed the Deborah Consumptive Relief Society that evolved into Deborah hospital. Dr. Newcomb and his wife came to town from Burlington when they both were suffering from tuberculosis. Dr. Marcus W. Newcomb is listed among the members of the Transactions of the Sixth International Congress on Tuberculosis, Volume 6 (1908).
Dr. Newcomb opened the first licensed sanatorium in New Jersey in 1913. Later he sold the sanatorium to the Deborah Consumptive Relief Society. Dr. Marcus W. Newcomb Middle School (Closed in 2012) was located at 100 Fort Dix Road, Pemberton, N.J. and served 594 students in grades 5-6.
Most people who grew up in the area in the fifties and sixties remember the building as Kay’s Gift Shop, owned and operated by Caroline M. Kay Stull from 1943 to 1973. She was a former Pemberton Township Clerk during and following prohibition, and lived as a testament to the area’s healthy climate until she passed away in 2007 at the age of 104.
The failed Sun bank went down in the near economic collapse of the banking industry, and the property was bought as an investment by a new owner who also owns another historic building in South Jersey that they also hope to preserve.
Rather than sell the property at a clear profit for development as a strip mall, the new owner hopes to find some re-adaptive uses for the historic building, including using part of the first floor as a fine restaurant and banquet center for meetings and weddings, and remodel the upper floors for professional offices or bed and breakfast inn rooms.
James Fisk and Josephine (Josie) Mansfield