Peyser Abraham (1876-1950)

Pesach ABRAHAM, my great-grandfather’s brother, was born in Manhattan on 20 October 1876. He was the third child of Morris and Sarah ABRAHAMS, and the first born in the United States. Aside from his birth record and the Hebrew on his grave marker, he doesn’t seem to have used the name Pesach, but instead usually went by Peyser, sometimes Peter, or Pete, or even “Captain Pete”.  No one seems to remember how he picked up the latter moniker.

Peyser moved with the rest of his family to Baltimore around 1884 and became involved in the family clothing businesses. The 1900 US Census shows him living in the family home in Baltimore on 8 June 1900, yet only two weeks later (26 June) he married the widow Rebecca (Becky) RESHEFSKY in Portsmouth, and resided there for the rest of his life. Becky, only 21 years only, had married one Harry ROBINSON in late 1897, but was widowed before 1900. It is unclear how Peyser and Becky met; perhaps it was just through the grapevine of Jewish communities in the region.

In 1905, Peyser took several thousand dollars’ worth of merchandise sales money to New York for the purpose of purchasing more stock. While there, he met up with a runner named Sol Greenstein, who plied him with alcohol and took him to a gambling establishment, where Peyser proceeded to lose $3500 playing poker. Not long afterwards, perhaps in an effort to redeem himself, Peyser staked his remaining $2500, and again lost the money gambling.  Now having neither stock to sell nor money to purchase more, he declared bankruptcy. His creditors were somewhat less than impressed, as was the judge involved in the case.  The judge stated that the story was “too improbable for believe, and cannot be entertained for a moment.” Peyser was ordered to jail until his debts were paid off. Three months later, an agreement was reached to reimburse the creditors for 50 cents on the dollar, and his family produced $4500 (around $120000 in 2016 money) to get him released from jail.

Peyser had a number of businesses over the years, including clothing, furniture, a cash and credit house (somewhat ironically), automobile sales and service, a company selling stoves, and, in later years, real estate. He was quite fond of the word “Empire” in his businesses, and the name of at least four of his ventures contained that word.

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Empire Motor Service, Portsmouth, VA, about 1919. Peyser Abraham on far left

Peyser was a religious man, and he was instrumental in establishing the Chevra T’helim synagogue in Portsmouth in 1916. Later, in 1925, he had carpeting put in honor of the occasion of his daughter’s wedding.

Peyser and Becky had five children:

  • Solomon, born in 1901, was likely named for Peyser’s maternal grandfather, Sholom JACOBY. He never married.
  • David Joseph, 1902. David was given the same name as Peyser’s elder brother, who died young, but not until 1906. It is not clear if the younger David was indeed named for his uncle, and if so, why. David married twice, with a daughter from each marriage.
  • Mary Miriam, 1906. Named for her maternal grandmother. Never married.
  • Sarah Mae, 1908, went by Shirley. Named for Peyser’s mother, Sarah JACOBY, who died in 1907. Married, had a son and two daughters.
  • Lewis Harry, 1916. His brother, Solomon, accidentally struck him with a car when he was a toddler, costing him the use of his legs. Nonetheless, Lewis became fascinated with air and space travel, eventually earning a Master’s Degree from Cal Tech, and became the head of the Douglas Aircraft Strength Section for missiles and spacecraft through the Saturn series. Lewis never married.

Becky died of breast cancer at the end of November 1950. Peyser died of a heart attack three weeks later. They are buried in the Chevra T’helim cemetery in Portsmouth.

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