Etching of Max Nordau, 1899, Shapell Manuscript Collection
October 22, 2021

Max Nordau: A Man of Vision and Obscure Legacy

Every city in Israel has a Nordau Street, and it’s usually a main one. If you Google Max Nordau, you’re likely to find something about “Muscular Judaism,” or the degeneration of art. But Max Nordau was also one of the prominent pioneers of modern Zionism – he co-founded the Zionist Organization with Theodor Herzl and his prestige as an author and psychiatrist gave the fledgling Zionist movement some gravitas. While Herzl was and remains a Zionist icon, Nordau has largely been relegated to the past. Why is this?

Max Nordau’s path to Zionism was winding and complex.  He was born Simon Maximillian Südfeld in 1849 in Pest (Budapest, Hungary), like Herzl, who was born there eleven years later. [1] Unlike Herzl, who came from an assimilated Jewish family, Simon, or Simha, as Nordau was then known, was the only son in an observant family; his father was a rabbi, and young Max was given a religious Jewish education. When Max was fifteen, he abandoned Jewish practice, and when his father died, he changed his name from Südfeld (southern field) to Nordau (northern meadow). As a first-generation assimilationist,  Nordau’s name change reflected his desire to move away from his Jewish heritage to a more Germanic or “northern” culture.  [2] His later marriage to a Danish Protestant woman, Anna Dons-Kaufmann, furthered his assimilation.

In 1872, Nordau completed his medical degree from the University of Pest, travelled around Europe for a few years, and settled in Paris in 1880, where he worked as a correspondent for Die Neue Freie Presse, a Viennese newspaper. Nordau’s breakthrough work, The Conventional Lies of Our Civilization, was published in 1883. His critique of religion, as well as of the aristocracy, made him a household name. The book was translated to over fifteen languages, ran through at least seven editions, was banned in Austria and Germany, and was denounced by Pope Leo XIII.

Shortly thereafter, Nordau published Paradoxes, in which he explored optimism, pessimism, prejudice, passion, and other powerful undercurrents of society. This 1885 work eerily presaged the two Word Wars: “It is not probable that the Twentieth Century will pass away without having witnessed the conclusion of this grand historical drama. Until then a large part of Europe will see much distress and blood-shed, many crimes and deeds of violence; peoples will rage against each other, and whole races will be pitilessly crushed out of existence.” [3] Though this and many other observations Nordau shared in Paradoxes were prescient, this work is overshadowed by his most famous work, Degeneration.

In 1892, Nordau published Degeneration, a scathing denunciation of the excesses of modern art, explicitly mentioning such artists and writers as Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Emile Zola, and Oscar Wilde. Degeneration was such a popular work and concept that it has been immortalized in both Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Oscar Wilde’s plea for clemency after being convicted for “indecency” (sodomy). [4] Ironically, in its cataloguing of contemporary art’s failures, Degeneration essentially functions as an anthology of modernist art. 

The same year that Degeneration was published, Nordau met Theodor Herzl, another event that changed his life and legacy. Nordau had been working for Die Neue Freie Presse  since the 1870s, and Herzl had become the paper’s Paris correspondent in 1891. The two remained colleagues until 1895, when Herzl was referred to Nordau in the capacity of a psychiatrist. Herzl’s obsession with anti-Semitism and his proposed solutions of Jewish self-determination and autonomy, was considered so outlandish that Herzl felt compelled to seek professional psychological help. 

Nordau, who had detached from his Jewish identity but who had experienced a horrifying rise of personal and general anti-Semitism, was eventually swayed by Herzl’s position. Both men had covered the Dreyfus trial and were quite shaken by the blatant anti-Semitism in the French Republic. Nordau reportedly embraced Herzl after the latter had pitched his ideas about a Jewish State, and exclaimed “If you are insane, we are insane together! Count on me!” Within two years, Herzl and Nordau had established the Zionist Organization, and the first Zionist Congress took place that year.

Returning to the question of the two men’s very different legacies, perhaps the reason for Herzl’s fame and Nordau’s obscurity is the issue of nuance. Herzl was a Political Zionist, as opposed to a Cultural Zionist. Political Zionism sought to solve the problem of Jewish persecution, whereas Cultural Zionists were not necessarily concerned with Jewish autonomy but rather with the rebirth of Jewish culture. The East Africa Scheme (in which Britain was to establish a Jewish homeland in present day Kenya) illustrates the difference between these movements: Political Zionists accepted it as a practical and useful solution to getting the Jews out of Europe and away from persecution (albeit as a rest stop before inhabiting the land of Israel), and cultural Zionists rejected it outright, as Africa was not the ancient homeland of the Jewish people. 

But this is more than an example. Nordau nearly paid for this with his life. Though Nordau himself was not in favor of a Jewish colony in East Africa, as a member of the establishment Zionist Organization and a close friend of Herzl, he defended the scheme, as a temporary solution to the rising anti-Semitism and violent pogroms plaguing Eastern Europe. At a Hanukkah party in Paris in 1903, a mentally ill Jewish student attempted to assassinate Nordau, firing two shots at point blank range, screaming “Death to Nordau, the East African!” Nordau emerged unscathed, and a bystander was shot in the leg. Charges were not pressed against the Russian student, and the East Africa scheme was abandoned within two years. 

Nordau had been one of the most public intellectuals of his time, and his conversion to Zionism was a watershed moment not only for him, but for the rest of the Jewish assimilationists. To say people were surprised was an understatement; many people did not even realize that Nordau was Jewish. But perhaps the real answer to why Nordau’s popularity has diminished whilst Herzl’s continues to rise (a new biography on Herzl was released in 2020) is because the bulk of Nordau’s work was pseudoscience, and makes for uncomfortable reading in the twenty-first century.

Nordau’s interest in racial theories and racial Zionism, though de rigueur and part of turn-of-the-century Europe, would be considered racist by the mores of our time, especially in light of the Nazi’s popularization and adherence to racial theories. In that sense, much of Nordau’s work has been rejected and debunked. As for Nordau’s critique of modern art, the “cultural diagnosis” of a Jewish “psychiatrist who wrote about degenerate art forty years before Hitler” is not a good look. [5]

However, when Nordau addressed the tenth Zionist Congress in 1911, his words were tragically prescient. In criticizing Europe for emancipating Jews essentially only on paper, he conveyed an urgency to get Jews out of Europe that when read after the Holocaust, is chilling:

“The virtuous Governments, which work with such noble zeal for the spread of eternal peace acquiesce in the downfall of six million creatures–acquiesce, and no-one, except the victims raises a voice against it…The administration of hero funds and the distribution of the interest is laid in the hands of the authorities who favor the massacre of the Jews even if they themselves do not directly instigate them.”

Between the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the 1919 pogroms at Kishinev, Nordau agitated for Jewish autonomy in Palestine, advocating for the immediate transfer of thousands of Jews out of Europe and into their ancestral homeland in Palestine. In 1921, Nordau retired from public Zionist activities, dying two years later. In 1926, he was reinterred in Tel Aviv. Nordau, who was prophetic on a number of occasions and issues, faded away from the cultural and Zionist consciousness. Perhaps his legacy deserves another look.

  1.  Baldwin, P. M. “Liberalism, Nationalism, and Degeneration: The Case of Max Nordau.” Central European History, vol. 13, no. 2, Cambridge University Press, Central European History Society, 1980, pp. 99–120,, p. 101
  2.  Golomb, Jacob. Nietzsche and Zion. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2004, p. 49
  3.   Max Simon Nordau. Paradoxes. From the German of Max Nordau. Chicago, L. Schick, 1886, p. 365
  5.  van der Laarse, Robert. “Masking the Other: Max Nordau’s Representation of Hidden Jewishness.” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, vol. 25, no. 1, Berghahn Books, 1999, pp. 1–31,, p. 1
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William Howard Taft as Chief Justice, 1921, Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress
August 30, 2021

Chief Justice William Howard Taft: A Dream Deferred

“I was engaged in the respectable business of trying to administer justice [but] I have fallen from that state now and am engaged in running for the presidency.” [1]

-William Howard Taft

There are six American presidents who failed to win reelection. Most recently, Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection in 2020. Before him, George Bush, Sr., Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Herbert Hoover, and William Howard Taft all failed to win a second term. William Howard Taft is the only former president who made a public career comeback to serve on the Supreme Court. He remains today the only person who has served as both the President of the United States and Chief Justice. When Taft was appointed Chief Justice in 1921, he succeeded Edward Douglass White, whom Taft himself had elevated to Chief Justice when he was President in 1910. [2] Not many people can say they settled on the presidency after their first choice career didn’t pan out, but that is essentially what happened in Taft’s case. When he promoted White, Taft confided in George W. Wickersham, his Attorney General, that “There is nothing I would have loved more than to be Chief Justice of the United States. I cannot help seeing the irony in the fact that I, who desired that office so much, should now be  signing the commission  of another man.” [3]   Let’s step back for a moment and trace Taft’s trajectory to where he happily ended his career as a public servant: that of Chief Justice of the United States of America.

William Howard Taft was born in Cincinnati in 1857, the scion of the Taft family, who traced their origins to Ireland, but more recently, to Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Taft’s great grandfather, Samuel Taft, served in the Revolutionary War under George Washington and stayed at Samuel’s tavern at Uxbridge. A letter from the newly-elected Washington thanking Taft for his hospitality survives. When Taft was born, his father, Alphonso, started a law firm with William M. Dickson, who was one of the founders of the Republican party. Alphonso himself had written the platform of the Republican party the year before William’s birth, emphasizing, amongst other things, its commitment to the Constitution. William H. Taft studied at Yale from 1874-1878, where he was a member of the elite Skull and Bones society, which his father had co-founded. During the younger Taft’s time at Yale, his father served as a judge on the Superior Court of Cincinnati, lost a bid for the Ohio governorship to Rutherford B. Hayes, and was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant as Secretary of War. Shortly thereafter, Alphonso became Attorney General. The confluence of law and politics ran deeply in the Taft family, to put it mildly, and both his father’s example and his counsel that it was greater to be Chief Justice than President were to impact William’s career path. 

In 1878, Taft finished Yale and moved back to Ohio to study law in Cincinnati, passing the bar in 1880, and entering his father’s firm. The following year, Taft was appointed Hamilton County’s Assistant Prosecuting Attorney [4] which he resigned the following year, in 1882, when he was appointed by President Arthur as Collector of Internal Revenue. All of these achievements and opportunities were attained by the time Taft was twenty-five.  [5] 

In 1886, Taft married fellow Cincinnatian Helen Herron, with whom they would eventually have four children. Helen’s father had also been active in the Republican party and had been legal partners with Rutherford B. Hayes. Helen’s political pedigree further fueled her aspirations for her husband to seek public office, ultimately becoming the driving force behind Taft’s political career. In the meantime, Taft continued working up the ranks of the legal profession, and in 1887, at age 29, he followed in his father’s footsteps and was appointed Judge of the Superior Court of Cincinnati. Two years later, Taft was tapped to join the Supreme Court, but was instead appointed by President Benjamin Harrison the following year as Solicitor General, and in short succession, Taft found himself a circuit judge, and dean of his alma mater, the Cincinnati School of Law. In 1900, President William McKinley appointed Taft the first head of the  civilian governor of the Philippines. Though this delighted his wife, who made no secret of her White House ambitions for him, Taft would have preferred to devote himself to the law. [6]

In 1902, Taft was informed by President Theodore Roosevelt that he wished to put Taft on the Supreme Court bench. He confided in then-Secretary of War Elihu Root “I long for a judicial career, but if it must turn on my present decision then I am willing to lose it.” [7] Taft was essentially bowing to his wife’s political aspirations for him.  Roosevelt didn’t give up, but Taft’s sense of duty to finish his work in the Philippines, combined with Helen’s urging that Taft’s career not be shelved on the Supreme Court bench, ultimately won out.

In 1904, Taft followed in his father’s footsteps yet again when President Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of War, bringing the Tafts to Washington. While there, Roosevelt tried his luck again to convince his old friend to join the Supreme Court. By now, though, there was a growing consensus that Taft would make an excellent president. Taft confided in his diary that Helen was “Bitterly opposed to my accepting the [court] position and that she telephoned me this morning to tell me that if I did, I would make the biggest mistake of my life.” [8] After a private half-hour meeting with Helen Taft, President Roosevelt became the most vocal proponent of Taft’s bid for the presidency.

In 1908, with Roosevelt’s help, Taft won the election. Though viewed as Roosevelt’s successor, Taft was different in temperament nearly across the board. Whereas Roosevelt stretched the limits of the constitution, Taft felt duty-bound to be constrained by them. In other words, his judicial temperament made him less suited for the expectations of a president. Taft was relieved to lose his bid for re-election in 1912 to Woodrow Wilson, ending a somewhat unpopular term in office. 

The former president still needed a source of income, and was delighted to begin teaching law at Yale. Finally, in 1921, Taft’s dream became a reality when President Harding appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taft served in his position until 1930, retiring shortly before his death. In the words of Jeffrey Rosen, Taft’s most recent biographer, “Taft’s constitutional restraint helped solidify his legacy as our most judicial president and most presidential chief justice.” [9]

  1. Caroli, Betty Boyd. The First Ladies “From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama” Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 131
  2. Grover Cleveland had appointed White as Associate Justice in 1894, and Taft’s elevation of White to Chief Justice was surprising, given that Taft was a Republican.
  3. Rehnquist, William H. “Remarks of the Chief Justice: My Life in the Law Series.” Duke Law Journal, vol. 52, no. 4, 2003, pp. 787–805. JSTOR,, p. 797. Accessed 19 Aug. 2021. 
  4.  The county seat of Hamilton is Cincinnati 
  5. Warren, Earl. “Chief Justice William Howard Taft.” The Yale Law Journal, vol. 67, no. 3, 1958, pp. 353–362, p. 355. JSTOR, Accessed 16 Aug. 2021.
  6. Ever since Helen Herron Taft visited the Hayes’s White House as a small girl, she was determined to return as First Lady, and passionately pursued her ambitions vicariously through her husband
  7. Warren, p. 356
  8. Caroli, p. 130
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Elizabeth Bacon Custer, circa 1860-5, by Mathew Brady, Library of Congress
August 9, 2021

Libbie Custer: Shaping a Legacy

General George Armstrong Custer is a figure who was controversial in death, as in life. Known alternately as a hero who made the last stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, or as the ill-equipped General who marched his men into a massacre, Custer’s legacy is still not completely settled. Libbie Custer, his widow, is often given the credit-or the scorn-for rehabilitating her late husband’s image. President Ulysses S. Grant put the blame of the death of 268 soldiers at Custer’s feet; in response, Custer’s 34-year-old widow would launch a speaking tour and eventually publish three books (at the encouragement of her friends Mark Twain and Henry James) defending her late husband’s honor. An examination of Libbie’s role in the shaping of that legacy provides a glimpse into the business of legacy-making and power and rhetoric in the 19th century. Before we delve into Libbie’s role in shaping her late husband’s legacy, some background on the Custers may be in order.

Elizabeth Bacon was born and raised in Monroe, Michigan in 1842. Before she reached the age of thirteen, her three siblings and mother had died. Her father was a local judge and senator who was eager for his daughter to marry a suitable husband. In 1862, the dashing Custer, a young captain on leave from the Civil War, met Libbie Bacon. He was definitely not what her father had in mind. Libbie, a young woman from a well-to-do family, had just finished seminary as valedictorian. Custer, on the other hand, came from poverty, and had graduated West Point at the bottom of his class the year before. An army wife was not the future that Daniel Bacon envisioned for his only remaining daughter. 

Two years later, in 1864, Custer, now the 23-year-old“Boy General,” had enthralled the nation with his exploits on the battlefield, leading Daniel Bacon to finally relent to the young couple’s marriage. The Custers were generally inseparable, with Libbie joining “Autie” (as he was generally known) at camp and even having a special ladies uniform made for herself. When Custer was killed in battle, Libbie was not only made a widow, but destitute. To compound matters, Custer’s reputation was in tatters.

Libbie’s fight for her husband’s reputation cannot be seen in a vacuum. In the midst of her grief, months after Custer’s death, Libbie discreetly lobbied for relief for the widows of the Little Big Horn. That is to say that she wasn’t solely focused on her husband’s legacy but also on the wellbeing of her husband’s men’s families. Moreover, Libbie was not the only person who reshaped Custer’s “defeat into an epic.” No less than “America’s Poet,” Walt Whitman penned “A Death Sonnet for Custer” a day after hearing the news of Custer’s death, and it was subsequently published on July 10, 1876, just fifteen days after the tragedy occurred. John Mulvany, the Irish-American painter created a visual representation of the Custer myth, with his famous 11×21 foot painting of “Custer’s Last Rally,” which was completed in 1881, and was exhibited in numerous states.

But Whitman, Mulvany, and Libbie herself, it can be argued, were all following in Custer’s footsteps. The foppish “Boy General” with his Goldilocks haircut had long been self-aggrandizing, since at least the Civil War. Indeed, he had distinguished himself in battle at Gettysburg and the Shenandoah Campaign. And though actions are generally thought to speak louder than words, Custer made sure to add words to his actions: “He wrote glowingly of his own exploits, was photographed frequently for the public and kept his favorite portraits on the walls of his home.” To literally distinguish himself, “Custer had crafted his own blue velveteen sailor suits with lavish gold lace and red neckerchiefs.” Taking Custer’s own mythologizing of himself into context perhaps serves to explain at least part of Libbie’s motivations. Libbie was completing what her husband had started: in transforming Custer’s failure into an icon of the American  West, the glory Autie had been chasing for much of his life was finally achieved by Libbie.

  1.  Adams, Michael C.C. “Poet Whitman and General Custer.” Studies in Popular Culture, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1996, pp. 1–17. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Aug. 2021, p.4.
  2. Adams, p.5
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Though finally taking place in Summer 2021, the Tokyo Summer Olympics were scheduled for 2020 and were postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
July 25, 2021

The Olympics and US Presidents

The arrival of the belated Summer Olympic Games offers an opportunity to reflect upon the sportier U.S. presidents who, like the Olympics, abide by a four-year schedule. Presidents are no strangers to the Olympics, and more generally, have had an affinity for sports.

One of the most avid sportsmen of all the presidents was probably Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt secured the first Olympic Games to be held in the United States, which took place in St. Louis in 1904. But the Games were a flop – Roosevelt never attended and only 12 foreign athletes participated.[1] 

Not surprisingly, golf is perenially popular among presidents. William Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Warren Harding (-no relation to Tonya Harding-) all enjoyed a good game of golf. Taft was a terrible golfer, but he hit the links almost every day. He even had a so-called “Golf Cabinet” that included his Vice President James Sherman.[3] Wilson played more golf than any other president – more than 1200 rounds during his presidency! Harding played golf after he voted on election day in 1920.[5]

Herbert Hoover loved baseball, and even played shortstop at Stanford until he dislocated his finger. While the Great Depression torpedoed Hoover’s presidency, In 1930, Babe Ruth defended his own unprecedented $80,000 yearly salary – higher than Hoover’s – by saying, “Why not? I had a better year than he did.”[8] The 1932 Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles, but Hoover declined to attend, choosing instead to focus on his reelection. It didn’t help – Hoover lost in a landslide to Franklin Roosevelt and did not even carry California. [9]

FDR played football in his younger years, participated in crew during his time at Harvard, and enjoyed a variety of outdoor activities.[10] But regarding the Olympics, he is probably best remembered for his snub of Jesse Owens. Owens once said, “I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.[11] 

Dwight D. Eisenhower had a fascinating history with sports and one well-known Olympian. In 1912, Ike’s military career was nearly cut short after he injured his knee in a West Point football game. The injury occurred when he tried to tackle Jim Thorpe, arguably the greatest Olympian of all time.[12] He also loved baseball, and according to the NY Times, Eisenhower claimed to have played minor league baseball under the assumed name of “Wilson.”[13]

John F. Kennedy shared Eisenhower’s love for golf, if not much else. (The two had a cool relationship.) But when it came to the Olympics, JFK was outshined by his sister, Eunice, who organized the Special Olympics in 1968.

Tokyo last hosted the Olympic Games in 1964, and Lyndon Johnson made sure Americans could watch their athletes get the better of Soviet athletes. He ordered the use of NASA’s Syncom II satellite to allow for coverage of the Games, the first time they were broadcast internationally.[15]

Jimmy Carter competed in high school tennis and track and field.[16] He wasn’t much of a fan of baseball, but he loved to play softball.[17] And he was no stranger to Olympic controversy. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, Carter organized an international boycott of Moscow’s 1980 Summer Games.

Ronald Reagan was never much of an athlete; he was a high school swimmer. But prior to his acting career, he earned his stripes as a radio sportscaster. He recreated Chicago Cubs games and called Big Ten football games.[18] Reagan also became the first president to attend the opening of the Summer Games, which he did in L.A. in 1984. 

As we all enjoy the camaraderie of this year’s postponed summer Olympic Games, let us all hope that the next time we watch them it will be an even-numbered year.


[1] Olivia B. Waxman, “A Brief History of U.S. Presidents and the Olympics,” Time, July 24, 2012,

[2] “Rare William Howard Taft Autograph Letter as President: He’s Happy to Meet After His Daily (Golf) Game,” December 3, 1911, Item #262, and “‘Big Bill’ Taft, Happily Golfing, Relates His Post-Presidential Loss of Eighty Pounds,” April 10, 1914, Item #1286,

[3] John Fischer, “In Golf, President Taft Finds a National Treasure,” Morning Read, December 9, 2019,

[4] “President Woodrow Wilson: Lonely in the White House,” August 13, 1915, Item #128, and Ronald G. Shafer, “This president played more golf than any other. And it’s not Trump.” Washington Post, April 6, 2019,

[5] Dave Shedlosky, “Did you know: This U.S. president played golf after voting on Election Day,” Golf Digest, November 2, 2020,

[8] Joel Treese, “President Herbert Hoover and Baseball,” The White House Historical Association,

[9] Waxman.

[10] “Facts & Figures: FDR,” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum,

[11] Larry Schwartz, “Owens Pierced a Myth,” ESPN,

[12] Greg Botelho, “Roller-coaster life of Indian icon, sports’ first star,” CNN, July 14, 2004,

[13] Michael Beschloss, “Eisenhower’s Baseball Secret,” New York Times, July 18, 2014,

[14] “Eisenhower & Kennedy: Eisenhower Writes JFK a Chilly Letter After Losing the 1960 Election,” December 16, 1960, Item #703,

[15] Waxman.

[16] Patrick J. Kiger, “Oval Office Athletes: Presidents and the Sports They Played,” January 29, 2019,

[17] President Jimmy Carter Baseball Game Attendance Log,

[18] Lou Cannon, “Ronald Reagan: Life Before the Presidency,”

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Isaac Leeser, circa 1868, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons
July 13, 2021

Isaac Leeser’s Proto-Zionism

Isaac Leeser was one of the most important Jews of the nineteenth century, and certainly the most important rabbi in America at the time. Leeser, an orphan who had been raised by his grandmother, immigrated from Germany to Richmond, Virginia in 1824 at the age of eighteen to live with his uncle. Four years later, in 1828, Leeser publicly defended Judaism in the pages of The Richmond Whig in response to a virulently anti-Semitic article that had been published in London and then republished in New York.[1] Leeser’s polemics not only caused a stir, but brought him to the attention of the Philadelphia Congregation Mikveh Israel. Despite Leeser being only twenty-two and Ashkenazi, the Sephardic congregation asked Leeser to be their Hazzan, or congregational rabbi, a position he held for over twenty years.

It has been said that Leeser was the forerunner of Modern Orthodoxy in America. Modern Orthodox Judaism seeks to synthesize the traditions and tenets of Judaism with the secular and modern world while retaining the particularism of the Jewish people. He insisted on delivering his sermons in English (as opposed to German) in order for German Jewish immigrants to better integrate into their adoptive country, and popularized the practice of preaching in Orthodox synagogues. In a remarkable display of scholarly ecumenism, Leeser jointly published the Masoretic version of the Bible with an Episcopalian minister.[2] He also established and edited The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, a monthly magazine, from 1843-1868. This was the first Jewish serial to be published in the United States, and provided Jews with an established cultural foothold. Today, it is an invaluable record for historians of Jewish antebellum history. Perhaps where Leeser was the most visionary in bridging two worlds or philosophies was how he viewed the Holy Land. 

Supporting Jews who were living in the Holy Land seemed to contradict the desire of Jews living in the United States (or elsewhere) to integrate fully into American society, as it reinforced not only the theological notion of redemption to the Land of Israel, but also the sociological idea that the Jews were indigenous to the Land of Israel, and therefore foreigners in a strange land when living in the diaspora.[3] Leeser managed to belong to both camps – to reinforce and reinvigorate the traditionalism of Judaism, and yet at the same time, advocate for the Jew to be a model American citizen, and to be an outspoken proponent of the Constitution.  

Leeser’s thought on Zionism, his moderate position, was an evolution of several years and factors. Being Orthodox, he came from the traditionalist position that believed only in the return of the exiled Jews to the land of Israel with the coming of the Messiah. Two contemporaries helped change his mind: Mordecai Manuel Noah and Warder Cresson. As early as 1844, Noah advocated for a Jewish homeland, with the help of Christian allies. Leeser initially disagreed with Noah’s position not only because he could not imagine gentile support for a Jewish country in Palestine, but more importantly, because Noah’s vision seemed to lack the support of divine providence. Nonetheless, Leeser printed Noah’s work in The Occident. And despite disagreeing with Noah on the subject of Jewish autonomy, Leeser’s traditional worldview meant that he did support the indigent Jews in Palestine throughout his entire career. Though they didn’t come to fruition, Leeser also supported Cresson’s agricultural aspirations in the Holy Land. 

A turning point in Leeser’s thought was the European Revolutions of 1848. That year, Leeser, observing that Germany, Poland, and Italy had successfully reconstituted themselves as nation-states, wondered “why should not the patriotic Hebrew also look proudly forward to the time (even without revelation) when he may again proudly boast of his own country, of the beneficent sway of his own laws…” [4] Leeser finally conceded Noah’s point that he had vigorously opposed for years earlier, interestingly relegating the major theological point to a parenthetical one. Leeser no longer saw Divine Revelation as a prerequisite for Jewish statehood in Palestine.

Another component of Leeser’s already affirmed Jewish patriotism came at the end of his life, in the 1860s. The turmoil preceding and following the Civil War brought with it a rise of anti-Semitism in both the North and the South. Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders No. Eleven, issued in December of 1862, expelled Jewish people from Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and parts of Illinois with 24 hours notice. Though President Lincoln quickly rescinded the order, the state-sponsored anti-Semitic expulsion had already horrified Leeser. Like Theodor Herzl some thirty years later watching French Republic pull itself apart over the Dreyfus Affair, Leeser was convinced of the practical need for a Jewish state. 

Before supporting the idea of an autonomous Jewish State in Palestine, Leeser was an eager supporter of Jewish agrarian communities in the Holy Land, in particular the endeavors of his friend, Warder Cresson, to farm the land around Jerusalem. By the end of his life, Leeser was an ardent supporter of a self-sustaining Jewish enterprise in its homeland. In other words, Leeser was an early Religious Zionist. 

  1.  Sussman, Lance J. “Another Look at Isaac Leeser and the First Jewish Translation of the Bible in the United States.” Modern Judaism, vol. 5, no. 2, 1985, pp. 159–190. JSTOR, Accessed 30 June 2021, p. 162
  2. The word Masoret is Hebrew for tradition, and the Masoretic version of the bible is considered the most authentic version of the Hebrew bible. It was codified between 600 and 1000 AD by Talmud scholars who wished to transmit the original text of the Old Testament. They also provided vowel signs to ensure correct pronunciation as well as important marginal notes.
  3. Shiff, Ofer. “At the Crossroad between Traditionalism and Americanism: Nineteenth-Century Philanthropic Attitudes of American Jews toward Palestine.” Jewish History, vol. 9, no. 1, 1995, pp. 35–50, p. 38.  JSTOR, Accessed 29 June 2021.
  4.  Occident, vol. VI, no 2 (May, 1848), pp. 71-72
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June 28, 2021

Paul Bunyan Day: The American West and Theodore Roosevelt

Paul Bunyan lives on in the American and Canadian consciousness as a strapping lumberjack giant who embodies the spirit of the rugged North-American West. Many Americans commemorate this day by telling tales of the fictional Paul Bunyan and his giant blue ox named Babe and celebrating other heroes of western folklore. What better way for us at the Shapell Manuscript Foundation to mark the day than by sharing a letter from Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th President (who himself often seemed larger than life) in which he declares his affinity for the West? Roosevelt describes himself as “nearly as much of a Dakota man as a New Yorker. I like pioneer life; and the part of our history for which I most care is that dealing with the extension of our frontier and the building up of the nation.” Happy Paul Bunyan Day!

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Charles Warren, photographed by Elliot and Fry, London, Wikimedia Commons
June 24, 2021

Jerusalem, Jack the Ripper, And the Boer War: The Journey of Charles Warren

Though not exactly a household name in our time, anyone reading the newspapers in the latter half of the 19th century would have been familiar with Charles Warren. He gained fame for such disparate events as surveying Gibraltar to excavating Jerusalem, finding the killers of a prominent archaeologist and bringing them to justice, to the humiliation of being the police commissioner on whose watch Jack the Ripper terrorized the people of London and eluded arrest. Warren was also the scapegoat of one of Britain’s worst military disasters – the Battle of Spion Kop– and helped found a global organization: The Boy Scouts. If anyone remembers Warren today, it is for vastly divergent things. Let’s delve into the highs and lows of Warren’s career.

Charles Warren was born in Wales in 1840. At age 17 Warren was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. He gained praise and promotion for his work surveying Gibraltar from 1861-1865. This laid the foundation for the next phase of his career, which would bring Warren considerable fame.

In 1870, the newly-founded Palestine Exploration Fund recruited Lieutenant Warren to survey the Ottoman-controlled Holy Land for archaeological purposes. Warren was the first person to conduct a major excavation of the Temple Mount and became the preeminent explorer of Jerusalem. Warren also “settled several vexed questions of site, and amongst them that of the position of the Temple.”[1] Though his discoveries in Jerusalem were what gained Warren acclaim, he also led expeditions in Gaza, Ashkelon, and Jericho. Remarkably, Warren only spent three years in Palestine before returning to England as a result of ill health.

He was next dispatched to South Africa, another flashpoint of British imperialism at the time, in 1876. After his work surveying there, as well as gallantry in battle, he was made a companion of the Order of St Michael and St George, promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel, and had a town (Warrenton) named after him. In 1880, he returned to England to assume the role of Chief Military Engineering Instructor, but in 1882, he was dispatched on a special assignment. Edward Henry Palmer’s archaeological expedition had gone missing, and Warren was charged with determining their fate. He successfully found the company’s remains (they had been ambushed and murdered) in the Sinai and brought the killers to justice, earning him several knighthoods. In all likelihood, this may have led to his unlikely and unfitting appointment as Chief Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police in 1886. 

Although Warren set about reorganizing and expanding London’s Metropolitan police force, his appointment seemed doomed from the beginning. In 1887, he was roundly criticized for his heavy handling of “Bloody Sunday,” in which many protestors in Trafalgar Square clashed with the police and military, resulting in numerous injuries on both sides. His bad luck continued, when in April 1888, Jack the Ripper claimed his first victim. In September of 1888, the Ripper committed a double murder. What is now known as the Goulston Street Graffito was found at the scene of the crime. The text according to Warren’s report was:

The Jewes are

The men that

Will not

be Blamed

for nothing

Warren, generally punctilious about detail and army discipline, made a decision that was highly irregular: he ordered the graffiti washed off the wall before the police photographer could arrive at the scene. In his report, Warren explains that the graffiti was incendiary in light of the strong anti-Semitic sentiment in London at the time and it needed to be removed immediately – a necessity that trumped retaining the evidence in the murders. In doing so, Warren very likely prevented a pogrom.[2]

Two days after submitting his report about the Goulston Street Graffito, Warren tendered his resignation from the Metropolitan Police on November 8, 1888, and within hours, the serial killer struck again. Though the press relentlessly crucified Warren for his inability to bring in Jack the Ripper, the resignation was more about internal politics and power struggles that had existed prior to the Ripper’s killing spree. Warren returned to the military and was promoted to general. 

Warren’s career would hit a nadir, even after the Ripper affair, with the disaster of Spion Kop, where the British were massacred in the bloodiest battle of the Second Boer War in South Africa in 1900. The 59-year-old Warren had been charged with relieving British soldiers besieged by the Boers at Spion Kop. Effectively sitting ducks being picked off by the Boers, a young lieutenant in the South African Light Horse regiment of the British Army named Winston Churchill described the carnage: “The scenes on Spion Kop were among the strangest and most terrible I have ever witnessed.” [3] Churchill, a war correspondent, acted as a courier during this battle, directly urging Warren to send more reinforcements and explaining that their soldiers were trapped on the mountain. The agitated Warren ordered Churchill’s arrest and did not send reinforcements. Had he done so, the British would have won the battle. At dawn, the Natal Ambulance Corps, led by their leader, Mohandas (known later as Mahatma) Gandhi, marched 25 miles bearing stretchers to remove the wounded and dying from the summit. Warren, who managed to blunder a battle in which 20,000 British soldiers faced off against 8,000 Boers, was held responsible for what went down in history as one of Britain’s worst military disasters.

Warren’s initial brilliance as an archaeologist is a chapter of his life that he never quite closed. Warren “retained his interest in Palestine to the last. He strongly supported the renewed excavation of the Hill of Ophel, which was carried out by the Fund in the years 1924 and 1925. At the end of the latter year, when the report on these excavations was being published, he assisted materially in the preparation of the map of the excavations…”[4] Warren died two years later, in 1927. Periodically, the world’s attention is on Jerusalem; Warren’s name will always be associated with the city.

  1. F. C. “Obituary: General Sir Charles Warren, G. C. M. G., K. C. B., F. R. S.” The Geographical Journal, vol. 69, no. 4, 1927, pp. 382–383. JSTOR, Accessed 2 June 2021.
  2. “I do not hesitate myself to say that if that writing had been left there would have been an onslaught upon the Jews, property would have been wrecked, and lives would probably have been lost.” Warren also notes in his report that the Chief Rabbi thanked him for his handling of the volatile situation. Ref. HO 144/221/A49301C, ff. 173–81, Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, pp. 183–184
  3.  Millard, Candice. Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill. Doubleday, 2016
  4.  From Warren’s obituary in The Geographical Journal
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Theodore Roosevelt with his wife and children, taken by the Pach Brothers, July 13, 1903, Library of Congress
June 20, 2021

Theodore Roosevelt and Father’s Day

Despite his stature as American royalty of the Oyster Bay Roosevelt clan, the famed commander of the Rough Riders, an avid conservationist and outdoorsman, and, of course, President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt cherished one aspect of his life above all others: fatherhood. Whether it was getting on the floor and playing with his children, indulging their antics and pets in the White House, or mourning his youngest son, Quentin, Theodore Roosevelt’s characteristic boundless energy was especially reserved for his children. In fact, in 1919, the year he died, a collection of Roosevelt’s letters to his children was published in one volume, tracing the letters he wrote to them when they were small children through their lives into adulthood, revealing a devoted father whose mind and heart was always focused on his children. Happy Father’s Day. 

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Director of Shapell Roster research, Adrienne Usher
May 31, 2021

Director of Shapell Roster Joins JewishGen’s Advisory Board

We are pleased to announce that Shapell Roster Director, Adrienne Usher, has been invited to join the Honorary Advisory Board of JewishGen’s USA Research Division. The advisory board is made up of a variety of academics and specialists, all with a focus in the area of Jewish American Studies or Genealogy. 

With a mission to preserve “our Jewish family history and heritage for future generations,” JewishGen features millions of records, unique search tools, and opportunities for researchers to connect with others who share similar interests. 

A project of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, the Shapell Roster is a comprehensive, online database of Jewish-American soldiers and sailors who fought in the Civil War for both the Union and the Confederacy. Under Adrienne Usher’s leadership, the Shapell Roster research team has spent the last decade verifying the names of previously assumed Jewish soldiers, identifying their accurate military service, and adding more than a thousand soldiers that Wolf omitted.

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Posthumous official presidential portrait of John F. Kennedy by Aaron Shikler, 1970, Wikimedia Commons
May 30, 2021

Newly Digitized Kennedy Manuscript

After over a year of the arts shuttering as a result of the pandemic, museums, galleries, cinemas, and music venues are starting to reopen. This newly digitized manuscript underscores President John F. Kennedy’s commitment to the arts. Those of us who have awaited the announcements of reopenings can relate to Kennedy’s genuine joy and excitement in his eagerness to see “…two albums filled with letters from the artists and writers who were invited to the Inauguration ceremonies.  Mrs. Kennedy and I have had extraordinary pleasure in going through these volumes.  We are grateful for the letters, and we shall treasure them for the rest of our lives.”

View the manuscript here.


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Benjamin Shapell, Founder of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, at Warder Cresson’s gravesite, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, 2013
May 25, 2021

Warder Cresson and the First Amendment

The discovery, in 2013, of the Mount of Olives gravesite of the first appointed U.S. Consul to Jerusalem, reopened a long-forgotten piece of American history, involving lunacy, religious freedom, and a direct challenge to the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. In May of 1850, Warder Cresson, the former U.S. Consul to Jerusalem brought an appeal before a Philadelphia court with the goal of overturning the ruling that his conversion to Judaism meant that he was certifiably insane. The case was widely covered in the media, and though it lasted five days, the court’s ruling in favor of Cresson’s right to practice the religion of his choosing is a testament to the durability of the First Amendment and a major victory against the not uncommon American antisemitism of the 19th century. 

Warder Cresson was born in 1798 to a Philadelphian Quaker family. Sometime before 1824, he married Elizabeth Townsend and started farming just outside Philadelphia. His able management of the farm meant that it kept growing, and he was an affluent and respected member of Philadelphian and Quaker society. [1] In 1827, the Great Separation arose amongst the Quakers, which divided them into Hicksite and Orthodox Quakers, or poor agrarian Quakers and wealthier, urban, Quakers, respectively. Philadelphia was the heart of the controversy, and the city where the split was finalized. Warder Cresson was 29 at the time and jumped into the fray, becoming a Hicksite. That year, he published his first religious tract inveighing against privilege in Quaker circles (ironically) entitled An Humble and Affectionate Address to the Select Members of the Abington Quarterly.  In 1829, during an internal Quaker investigation of his faith, he doubled down on his harsh critique of materialism with another pamphlet — Babylon the Great is Falling! The Morning Star, or Light From on High, in which he decried the affluence of local Quakers.

As Cresson’s brood grew (by 1833, he had four children), he left his home and participated in Shaker services in New York. He then successively became a Mormon, a Millerite, and a Campbellite. [2] It is important to note here that 19th-century America was engulfed by the flames of religious passion, and conversion between the various sects rapidly arising was not uncommon. In 1840, Cresson met Isaac Leeser, and with him, the last religion he would eventually call his own: Judaism. Leeser was the rabbi of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel synagogue and the editor of The Occident and Jewish American Advocate, the country’s largest Jewish periodical. Originally from Germany, Leeser was one of the most important American rabbis of his time. Leeser fatefully introduced Cresson to Mordecai Manuel Noah, who advocated for the Jews to return to Zion and who likely influenced Cresson’s desire to travel to Jerusalem.

Cresson, not yet a Jew, made the journey to the Holy Land in an ingenious if not eccentric fashion: he petitioned President John Tyler’s Secretary of State John Calhoun to send him to Jerusalem as America’s first Consul. Jerusalem, an Ottoman backwater, hardly needed an American representative, but since the affluent Cresson was offering to take the position without requiring compensation, his appointment was granted. Cresson left his wife and six children in May of 1844. His arrival in Jaffa was equally flamboyant. He alighted the ship with an American flag in one hand and a caged dove (presumably symbolizing peace) in the other. Before he arrived the following month, however, his appointment had been terminated. Samuel Ingham, who had served as Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of the Treasury wrote to Calhoun explaining that Cresson’s appointment was an embarrassment to the United States as Cresson was a “weak minded man” who “has a passion for religious controversy.” The British satirist William Thackeray quite agreed with this assessment after meeting Cresson in the Holy Land. [3] Cresson didn’t mind that his appointment had been rescinded and continued to act as American Consul, which did no credit to his reputation as someone of sound mind, yet no one intervened.

By 1848, Cresson had converted to Judaism and sailed back to Philadelphia to share his news with his wife and family and, in all likelihood, to have them join the fold. In his absence, he found that Elizabeth, too, had converted: to Episcopalianism. Judaism was a bridge too far for Elizabeth. Warder had left Elizabeth with power of attorney, and she had no desire to relinquish that power. The majority of his estate was in her hands, many of his personal effects had been disposed of, and in 1849, she and her children sought to secure the rest of his estate by having him declared insane on the basis of his conversion to Judaism. [4] Warder had revoked the power of attorney and offered his wife half his estate to keep the case out of court and to show good will. Elizabeth pressed on and the court declared Warder insane. 

Cresson, or Boaz Michael Israel as he was now known, appealed the ruling, which commenced in May of 1851. He stayed in Philadelphia and attended Leeser’s synagogue and contributing articles to Leeser’s periodical. Cresson’s appeal was a five-day trial that enthralled the nation. There was even a display of cutting-edge nineteenth-century science, in which an amateur naturalist named Peter Browne proved to the audience and jury that Cresson was not insane by examining specimens of Cresson’s hair roots and contrasting them with his catalog of specimens he obtained at a Virginia insane asylum. [5] It didn’t take the jury long to concur with Browne.

Though the court documents were lost to a fire, Leeser published the notes of Cresson’s defense lawyer, General Horatio Hubbell of the Pennsylvania Militia, in The Occident. According to Leeser, Hubbell was “a strict adherent of the Presbyterian Church.” [6] This underscores Hubbell’s defense of minorities both on the battlefield — famously saving two Catholic churches from destruction during the Know-Nothing Riots of 1844, and in the courtroom, with his defense of not only Cresson but Judaism. 

In addition to pointing out the obvious financial advantages that Cresson’s wife and his brothers stood to gain by taking over Warder’s affairs, Hubbell made clear that antisemitism was a significant contributing factor to the accusation of lunacy. In turning his attention to Warder’s son-in-law, Alexander Porter, who had also quite the religious journey from being a Presbyterian, then an Episcopalian, and finally a Millerite, Porter’s derision of Cresson as insane only for turning to Judaism “let out the whole secret.” [7] Hubbell then goes on to lambast Porter for his bigotry and hypocrisy: “No, it was all very well while he pulled with him or them; but to dare to embrace Judaism was something beyond this man’s narrow comprehension, a thing unheard of, a foul imputation; thus endeavoring to stigmatize the venerable faith of Israel, to brand its professors, and to stamp any one as a lunatic who should believe in its sublime yet simple doctrines, as if any honest Jew would not be ashamed to compare himself for a moment with this insolent and ignorant bigot!” [8]

Cresson left Philadelphia, returning to Jerusalem shortly after his victory in court. He remarried – this time to a Jewish woman named Rachel Moledano and had two children who did not survive to adulthood. When Cresson died in 1860, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “he was buried on the Mount of Olives, with such honors as are paid only to a prominent rabbi.” And yet his grave’s whereabouts remained a mystery for nearly a century.

 1. Fox, Frank. “Quaker, Shaker, Rabbi: Warder Cresson, the Story of a Philadelphia Mystic.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 95, no. 2, 1971, pp. 147–194. JSTOR, Accessed 18 May 2021. Pp. 148-149

2. Schoffman, Stuart. “‘Insane on the Subject of Judaism’: Pursuing the Ghost of Warder Cresson.” The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 94, no. 2, 2004, pp. 318–360. JSTOR, Accessed 18 May 2021. P. 334

3. Ibid, pp. 336-337 

4.Fox, pp. 173-4

5. “New Psychological Test of Insanity.” The Star And Banner [Gettysburg, PA], XXIII, 13 June 1851, p. 1.

6. The Occident, Vol. XXI (1863) No. 5, p. 203, accessed at 23 May, 2021

7. The Occident, Vol. XXI (1863) No. 7, p. 303

8. Ibid, p. 304

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George Washington Farmer at Mount Vernon, Junius Brutus Stearns, 1853. Picryl.
May 13, 2021

George Washington: General, President, and Farmer

“It will not be doubted that with reference either to individual or national welfare, agriculture is of primary importance. In proportion as nations advance in population and other circumstances of maturity this truth becomes more apparent, and renders the cultivation of the soil more and more an object of public patronage.” –President George Washington, Eighth Annual Address to Congress, December 7th, 1796 [1]

Composting, food security, farming, agrarian experimentation, and barn innovation are not the first concepts that are associated with George Washington. And yet, the man who had commanded the Continental Army, who crossed the Delaware to defeat the British, and who went on to serve as America’s first president, was consumed by these ideas later in life. His agrarian pursuits were actually the achievements of which he was most proud.  Lord Byron (and many others) eulogized George Washington as “the Cincinnatus of the West.” Like the Roman statesman, Washington had the opportunity to seize complete power, and yet relinquished his command of the Continental Army, insisted on a presidency instead of a monarchy, voluntarily retiring after two terms, and, like Cincinnatus, returned to his farm after serving his country.

Washington’s agricultural pursuits reflect the shift in revolutionary America. Like many Virginians, tobacco was his cash crop (it even functioned as currency in colonial Virginia – taxes were paid in pounds of tobacco), as it was in high demand in Europe. The colonists would ship the tobacco to England, where it would be sold by merchants in London. Most arrangements meant that the tobacco could be bartered by the colonialists for fine items from Europe and England. But by 1766, Washington understood that tobacco was an unsustainable crop. In addition to being incredibly labor-intensive, tobacco left farmers with very poor soil, as a result of erosion caused by the tobacco plants. Washington himself was in personal debt because of his love of fine imports from Europe and not getting a fair market price for his tobacco. [2] Around then, Washington transitioned from tobacco to grains. 

In addition to the value of grains for sustenance, Washington established a distillery at Mt. Vernon shortly after his second presidential term ended in 1797. Whiskey-making was far and away his most profitable business, and by 1799, it was one of the largest distilleries in America. Washington’s pivot from tobacco to grain was emblematic of America’s pivot away from an eroding relationship with both England and America’s natural resources (soil, particularly) and towards self-sufficiency and stewardship of American farmland.

The same quality that existed in Washington that led him to serve his country commanding the Continental Army and as the nation’s first president, led him to experiment with new farming techniques: duty. Washington felt that the responsibility to experiment with new farming techniques rested on the shoulders of the wealthier farmers, who could easily recover from losses. As president, Washington’s longest and most frequent letters were about agricultural reform. [3]

Washington’s main obsession was with soil regeneration, and therefore with manure. In 1785, after retiring to Mount Vernon for the first time following the resigning of his military commission, he sought a farm manager who was “Midas-like” in his ability to “convert every thing he touches into manure, as the first transmutation toward Gold.” [4] Washington, often called America’s “first farmer” left his most prominent mark on what today we would call composting. It’s very possible that Washington built the very first structure in America that was dedicated to compost, what he called the “stercorary.” Archaeologists at Mt. Vernon date the structure to approximately 1787. [5] Though composting is common practice in our era, in Washington’s, it was a novel idea in the West,  just beginning to be written about by English agronomists, and he was a pioneer in championing it and experimenting with its benefits.

Many of the concerns that occupy environmentalists and agronomists that have crossed into public consciousness such as soil health and sustainability are those that were raised by Washington at Mt Vernon two hundred years ago. To Washington, the success of America relied on the scientific study and sustainable harvest of its natural resources.

  1. The Addresses and Messages of the Presidents of the United States, to Congress: Comprising All the Inaugural, Annual, Special, and Farewell Addresses and Messages of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Q. Adams, Jackson, and Van Buren. Charles Lohman, 1837.
  2.  Sturges, Mark. “Founding Farmers: Jefferson, Washington, and the Rhetoric of Agricultural Reform.” Early American Literature, vol. 50, no. 3, 2015, pp. 681–709. JSTOR, Accessed 26 Apr. 2021, p. 692
  3.  Sturges, p. 693
  4.  Library of Congress introduction to Washington’s papers,
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May 3, 2021

Book Review: Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel

Last month, news broke that Emmy-nominated Shira Haas (of Shtisel fame) would play Golda Meir in a new miniseries produced by Barbara Streisand, based on Francine Klagsbrun’s 2017 biography of the fourth prime minister of Israel. We thought it would be a good opportunity to share some thoughts with our readers about Klagsbrun’s book, Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel on Golda Meir’s birthday.

The biography is clearly exhaustively researched, yet manages to be thoroughly engrossing. Klagsbrun spellbinds her audience with the story of a Jewish girl who was born in Kyiv (then part of Soviet Russia) in 1898, raised in Milwaukee, and emigrated to Palestine, to become the first woman in the world who was democratically elected to the position of head of state, in 1969.

Meir’s time as Prime Minister was actually the least interesting part of this book, and that is because Klagsbrun does an excellent job of depicting Meir’s childhood in Milwaukee and putting it in the context of American history: when Meir discovered socialist Zionism, Theodore Roosevelt, and then President Taft occupied the White House.

Another strong point of the book is that Klagsbrun brings to the reader’s attention Meir’s indispensable role in establishing the State of Israel.  Like Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion — with whom she worked closely — Golda Meir was what you could call a Founding Mother of the modern Jewish State.  

As the reader follows Meir’s ascent in the Labour Party, Klagsbrun ensures that the dizzying politics and history of the party are (relatively) digestible and easy to follow. Meir also made history in 1956 when she was appointed Foreign Minister – the only woman in the world to hold that position — which she did for a decade. 

Klagsbrun is also frank about Meir’s shortcomings, which is a welcome departure from the breathless hagiography that is generally published about public figures. Moreover, a biography about a Jewish woman who was raised in America and was fundamental to establishing the modern state of Israel is apt at a time where both communities are consuming and producing unprecedented amounts of media about the other in an attempt to understand one another.

Meir’s commitment to African countries (she had scores of namesakes who were born in Congo, Ghana, Togo, and Sierre Leone — and each baby Golda received a small gift from the Foreign Minister) and Soviet Jewry were other high points, as well. Meir left office, surprisingly with a decent approval rating. Only after she died was her reputation sullied by the Yom Kippur War. The incompetence in dealing with what notoriously lives on in Israeli memory the nation’s deadliest war was laid at the Prime Minister’s feet. And though Meir resigned and took responsibility for the fiasco, Klagsbrun brings to light the share that Moshe Dayan (the Defense Minister at the time) bore for the disastrous war. He did not give the Prime Minister complete information, and unlike Meir, he more or less fell apart from the stress of the war. 

With the declassification of several documents, her reputation is improving with a better understanding of the events that unfolded during her tenure, and this book is a great companion to a reexamination of Golda Meir.

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Vaccination from the Calf, Charles Joseph Staniland. London, 1883, courtesy of Picryl
April 18, 2021

President Jefferson and the First Vaccine

Thomas Jefferson & The Smallpox Vaccine

Of Thomas Jefferson’s numerous achievements as a statesman, a Founding Father, and a progenitor of many Americans, his early experiences with anti-vaxxers probably doesn’t come to mind for most people. As the nation watches another administration deal with the Coronavirus outbreak, we explore how Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, dealt with the plague of his time: smallpox. In order to better understand President Jefferson’s response to the smallpox epidemic, let’s have a brief introduction to the smallpox vaccine and its evolution.

How Does The Smallpox Vaccine Work

Inoculation is a procedure in which a small amount of the infection is placed in a person’s bloodstream in order to trigger a mild case, from which the patient recovers and has antibodies. According to Voltaire, inoculation against smallpox originated with the Circassians and came to the West via the Turks. Voltaire, who was writing about his time in England between 1726 and 1729, not only provides his reader with a brief historical observation about  smallpox inoculation, but he also gives some context to the inoculation debates raging in his own lifetime, when he wrote that  “It is whispered in Christian Europe that the English are mad and maniacs: mad because they give their children smallpox to prevent their getting it, and maniacs because they cheerfully communicate to their children a certain and terrible illness with the object of preventing an uncertain one.” [1] Here, the fault lines between inoculation and anti-inoculation are geographical. 

How Did The Antivax Movement Start?

Jefferson, an admirer of Voltaire, and a man of science himself, had opted for inoculation against smallpox in 1766, when he was in his twenties. [2] Shortly thereafter, in the spring of 1768 and again in 1769, in Norfolk, Virginia, anti-inoculation riots erupted. After inoculation, people had to be quarantined, and the people who lived near the physician’s house were uncomfortable with the procedure being performed so close to them. A small outbreak of smallpox had been attributed to a physician releasing patients from quarantine too early, which fueled anti-inoculation sentiments. These riots culminated in the burning down of one of the physician’s houses. None other than Thomas Jefferson was retained to bring suit on behalf of Archibald Campbell, the physician whose house was burnt down. Unfortunately for Campbell, the judge was anti-inoculation, and the physician was eventually indicted for nuisance. But by 1777, a bill was passed by a committee of which Jefferson was a member, which allowed for inoculation to happen anywhere in the Colony of Virginia, provided it was approved by the majority of the neighbors. Five years later, under the protection of that law, Jefferson inoculated his children. 

The Vaccine For Smallpox Was Discovered

Approximately twenty years after the anti-inoculation riots had broken out in Virginia, an English physician named Edward Jenner demonstrated that contracting cowpox (a far less serious disease than smallpox) made people immune to smallpox, and inoculated patients with cowpox in 1789. In doing so, Jenner created the first vaccine: the word ‘vacca’ is Latin for cow. Jenner’s findings were published in 1796. Jefferson naturally kept abreast of Jenner’s progress, and even corresponded with him later. [3] 

When Did The Smallpox Vaccine Come Out?

In 1800, Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse began the first vaccinations in America. Waterhouse, a cofounder of Harvard medical school, had studied medicine in Scotland and later in the Netherlands, where he had shared a room with John Adams. After conducting successful vaccinations on his children and 19 boys in a controlled experiment in Boston, Waterhouse reached out to his former roommate, then President, to expand the vaccination program. Adams was unresponsive, but his Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson, was electrified by the idea. [4] 

The following year, in 1801, Jefferson ascended the presidency, and Waterhouse found in Jefferson a much more cooperative president, who was willing to endorse Waterhouse’s efforts. Jefferson also assisted Waterhouse by providing numerous physicians with the new vaccination from England. [5] Jefferson’s contributions went beyond any executive administrative undertaking. He helped troubleshoot the efficacy of the vaccination by suggesting keeping it cool during transport, thus helping to expand the reach of the vaccination. [6] Moreover, Jefferson personally directed the vaccination of over 200 people at Monticello and surrounding environs, and then began collecting his own vaccine from those who had been inoculated. Rather than awaiting more shipments of the vaccine from England, Jefferson was able to send vaccine to other areas of Virginia, as well as Washington, D.C. [7]

Jefferson’s vaccination notes were published, and he received recognition from the Royal  Jennerian Society (eponymously named for Edward Jenner) for his efforts to promote vaccination in America. It would be hard to find a world leader who was more committed to public health as both an administrator and a clinician than Thomas Jefferson.

 1. Voltaire’s Letters on the English, Letter XI

2. Dewey, Frank L. “Thomas Jefferson’s Law Practice: The Norfolk Anti-Inoculation Riots.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 91, no. 1, 1983, pp. 39–53. JSTOR, Accessed 11 Apr. 2021. Page 39



5. Blake, John B. “Benjamin Waterhouse and the Introduction of Vaccination.” Reviews of Infectious Diseases, vol. 9, no. 5, 1987, pp. 1044–1052. JSTOR, Accessed 12 Apr. 2021.

6. Hitchens, Christopher. Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (Eminent Lives). Illustrated, Harper Perennial, 2009. P. 44


Discover other great blogs from Shapell, including .Napoleon in Jaffa, Harry & Bess Truman, George Cortelyou and more!










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Wikimedia Commons
April 8, 2021

National Library Week: Staff Reading Picks

Did you reach the end of the Internet while stuck at home during the pandemic? If so – or you’re just looking for a new medium – we’ve gathered a list of some of our staff’s favorite American History books in a nod to National Library Week. Let us know if you pick one up and what you think!

Eliza Kolander, Strategic Partnership Manager: 

They’ll Cut Off Your Project: A Mingo County Chronicle is a memoir by Huey Perry in which he recounts his efforts to help a local, low-income Appalachian community achieve self-sufficiency and challenge the corrupt local government who tried to block their progress at every turn.

Michal Gorlin Becker, Administrative Director: 

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson is the story of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and the serial killer who used this event to target his victims.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts is a groundbreaking piece of investigative journalism that exposes why the AIDS epidemic was willfully ignored or underplayed by public health professionals.

Ariane Weisel Margalit, Director of Special Projects: 

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward Lawson delves into the 1925 Scopes Trial, which pitted creationism against evolution, and influenced the ongoing discussion regarding religion in American society.

The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural by Wendell Berry is a collection of twenty-four essays in which the author explains the interconnectedness of humans, animals, land, weather, and family.

Thea Wieseltier, Director of Public Affairs:

Truman, David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of President Harry Truman.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a New York Times  best-seller that reflects on America’s race problem, through letters of the author to his adolescent son.

Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner discusses the enormous shift in America following the Civil War and the end of slavery and its enduring relevance in contemporary America.

Grant is a 2017 New York Times best-selling biography on Ulysses S. Grant by Ron Chernow.

Naomi Weiss, Research Associate: 

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the  Murder of a President by Candace Millard explores Garfield’s assassination at the hands of a mentally unbalanced office-seeker through the lens of pitfalls of contemporary medicine.

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America by Russell Shorto takes a look at the rough and tumble colony of New Amsterdam, contrasting it with the dour New England that looms large in the American imagination, and discusses how the Dutch Republic planted the seed of liberalism in the American cultural landscape in their colony at Manhattan.

Caitlin Winkler, Researcher, Shapell Roster of Jewish Service in the American Civil War: 

They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War. DeAnne Blanton and Lauren  M. Cook tell the overlooked stories of women who disguised themselves as men and fought for both the Union and the Confederacy in the American Civil War.

The Things They Carried is a collection of interlinked short stories by Tim O’Brien about the experiences of men in a platoon serving in the Vietnam War

Alexandra Apito, Researcher, Shapell Roster of Jewish Service in the American Civil War: 

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who

 Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell tells the story of Virginia Hall, rejected by the secret service because she was a woman and had a prosthetic leg, was the first woman deployed to occupied France to spy on behalf of the British.

Kenny Kolander, Research Associate: 

Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of a Young Black Girl in the Rural South by Anne Moody is an eye-opening memoir of a woman who was born to sharecroppers in rural Mississippi and her journey to stand at the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement.


Jamie Levavi, Director of Digital Projects has a great recommendation for children that might be more accessible than Twain’s suggested reading for young adults:

The Secret Soldier: The Story of Deborah Sampson by Ann McGovern. For much lighter reading, this children’s book made an impression on me in elementary school – to the point that as an adult, I recalled it and bought it for my daughters. Less a story of U.S. history, and rather the true story of a young woman who did not allow the norms of the time to bind her, The Secret Soldier: The Story of Deborah Sampson, is about a young woman who successfully disguised herself as a man and served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. This book and others like it, such as the Who Was series, are fantastic biographies that will get kids curious and reading and will stick with them!


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James A. Garfield, Wikimedia Commons
April 5, 2021

Rags to Riches Presidents & The Poorest Presidents In US History

America is known as the land of opportunity. The rags-to-riches narrative is best exemplified in America’s very top position, the presidency. Anyone born in the U.S., no matter his or her station in life, can be selected by the people to sit at the apex of power not only of the country, but essentially, of the world. The most famous example of the so-called “log-cabin” presidents is Abraham Lincoln, who grew up, in the face of poverty and with a lack of education, to become one of the most beloved presidents in American history. Two additional figures, whose combination of resilience and relatable occupations prior to becoming president, deserve mention: James Garfield and Harry Truman.

“To some men, the fact they came up from poverty is a matter of pride. I lament it sorely.” -James Garfield

The Last President Born In A Log Cabin & The Poorest President In US History

James Garfield was the last of the log cabin presidents, and he was actually the poorest man to ever become president. Born in 1831 on a Northeast Ohio farm, Garfield lost his father when he was eighteen months old. He tried his hand at all sorts of jobs in order to support his family. He worked on a canal boat, as a janitor, a carpenter, a professor, and even as the president of the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute Hiram College (now known as Hiram College). His dislike of faculty politics drove Garfield to pursue a career in law and he passed the bar in 1861, two years after becoming the youngest member of the Ohio State Senate at 28. In August of that year, Garfield entered the Union army as a colonel of the 42nd Ohio Infantry, where he was tasked with filling its ranks. He did so successfully, finding many men from Hiram College who were willing to follow their former teacher into battle. Garfield earned distinction on the battlefield and ended the war as a Major-General. In 1863, Garfield resigned his army commission to take his place as a congressman in the House of Representatives. It was a position he never campaigned for, but that his constituents felt he deserved based on his record as a radical abolitionist and a war hero. In Congress, his drive, affability, and gift for orating meant that his popularity amongst Republicans skyrocketed, and he was eventually appointed the minority leader. 

At the 1880 Republican National Convention, Garfield addresses the convention members twice, the second time to promote his friend John Sherman for the presidential nomination. Garfield had just been elected to the U.S. Senate by the Ohio Legislature with Sherman’s support, so what happened next was truly shocking to Garfield. The delegates were so taken by Garfield’s earlier speech at the Convention, that they determined he was the only candidate who could garner enough votes across the party. Much to his own astonishment, Garfield found himself on the Republican ticket, and shortly thereafter, the nation’s twentieth president. Sadly, Garfield was shot only four months into his presidency, and died two months later. 

The Last President To Not Attend College & Truman’s Childhood Home

Another farmer who became president of the United States was Harry Truman. Truman is the only 20th-century president who never earned a college degree. Born in 1884 on a Missouri farm, Truman never knew a life of opulence. Even as president, Truman spent the vast majority of his term at Blair House, as the dilapidated White House was being restored. 

Just as the Truman family farm had its ups and downs, Harry’s businesses and investments all floundered, yet he was diligent and didn’t give up. Like Garfield, Truman worked all kinds of jobs to make ends meet: he was a drugstore clerk, a railway timekeeper, and a bank clerk, before becoming a county judge and entering politics. And just like Garfield, Truman’s political career took a dramatic turn at a national convention. The 1944 Democratic National Convention began without President Roosevelt having chosen his running mate. Henry A. Wallace, the incumbent vice president, seemed like the logical choice, and most journalists reported that most of the delegates supported  Wallace. Truman did not seek the nomination and was a fairly obscure Missouri senator who could not have predicted his selection as running mate for Roosevelt’s fourth term. And yet, after much backroom wrangling, Roosevelt selected Truman to be his running mate. To be fair, it was more that Roosevelt chose to not have Wallace or the other men put forth as options. Two months later, Roosevelt was dead, and Truman found himself president during the largest war in human history, World War II.

After his presidency, Truman returned to Missouri and was scraping by on his veteran’s pension  (he had served in World War I). Largely because of his financial straits, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act in 1958, which awarded lifetime pensions to former presidents. Neither Garfield nor Truman sought the presidency outright, and yet they were both catapulted to it from their modest origins. Both men were also prodigious readers who saw books as a diversion from their current station, and as a means to educate and elevate themselves. In Truman’s case, he also felt it enabled him to rise to the challenges he faced when becoming president.

Read more about presidents and other political figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Has The US Ever Had A Woman President, Jerry Parr, The First Vaccine, and more!

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President Harry S. Truman Gets Ready to Throw the First Pitch at Opening Day, 1951: Rowe, Abbie, 1905-1967 National Park Service, Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.
April 1, 2021

Opening Day, 1945

On April 12, 1945, Vice President Harry Truman was looking forward to attending Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season, and hoped the weather would make for a great experience. He wrote this letter thanking Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators baseball club for the tickets. Before he could send it, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died of a massive stroke, and by that evening, Truman himself was President. Handwritten at the bottom of the letter, Truman explains that he will have to delay his attendance at the ballgame, owing to the “terrible responsibilities” he now faced. Five years later, Truman would make history by throwing out the first pitch of Opening Day ambidextrously, a tradition, incidentally, started by his friend, Clark Griffith.

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General Order No. 11 Historic Marker, Mississippi.
March 31, 2021

Ulysses Grant’s General Order No. 11 Historic Marker In Mississippi

On March 18th, 2021, a new historical marker was installed by the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation in Holly Springs, Mississippi, with support from the City and the Marshall County Historical Society Museum.

The marker commemorates General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous General Orders No. 11, often considered the worst anti-Semitic Government act in American history. The order – -issued on December 17th, 1862, from Holly Springs — expelled all Jews from Grant’s military district, which comprised areas of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky. 

President Abraham Lincoln countermanded the General Order on January 4, 1863.

Learn more here of how Grant later tried to lose the anti-Semite label engendered to him by the order.

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Cook's Nile & Palestine Tours Poster, Shapell Manuscript Foundation
March 25, 2021

A Year Less Traveled

As we find ourselves already a year into reduced travel, it might be interesting (or tormenting) to have a look at some historic Thomas Cook travel posters from our Collection. In 1841, Thomas Cook, a cabinetmaker from Leicestershire, England, first started organizing excursions for people to attend temperance meetings by train. The eponymously named company’s excursions expanded from rail to sea, and eventually, to plane. The company also pioneered organized tourism to the Holy Land in the 1860s, as well as to Egypt. Many luminaries of the nineteenth century visited the Holy Land as a result of Cook’s work. Perhaps the most famous was Kaiser Wilhelm II.

The 178-year-old company, considered the world’s oldest travel firm, sadly collapsed in 2019. At the time of Thomas Cook’s dissolution, 150,000 Britons were on vacations organized by the company. The government, in coordination with the company, flew back all its citizens, making it the biggest peacetime repatriation in British history. Happily, Thomas Cook relaunched as an online travel agency this past December, ensuring their rich history will not soon be forgotten.

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March 15, 2021

Educating for American Democracy: A Partnership With The NEH & US Department Of Education

A selection of the recently released Teacher Resources curricula from the Shapell Manuscript Foundation is featured in the new cross-ideological initiative, Educating for American Democracy: A Roadmap for Excellence in History and Civics Education for All Learners.

Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the US Department of Education, Educating for American Democracy provides guiding principles that educators can use to transform how civics is taught in schools. Released as a report and pedagogical “roadmap,” the endeavor offers a blueprint of integrated civics and history instruction from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

Key to the project’s roadmap and structure is a pedagogical shift from breath to depth; rather than focusing primarily on events and individuals from US History, the project centers on key themes and inquiries that recur over time. The roadmap is neither a set of standards nor a curriculum, but rather suggested strategies, implementation recommendations, and a website of curated examples. 

The Shapell Manuscript Foundation Teacher Resources are featured in Educating for American Democracy’s curated examples. 

The Teacher Resources are based on primary sources from the Shapell Manuscript Collection and provide teachers and students the opportunity to explore meaningful, and sometimes lesser-known, scenes from history. Each lesson plan fits within state and national educational standards and includes ideas for differentiation, assessment form, and document-based questions (when applicable). 


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Albert Einstein, 1920, Deutsches Bundesarchiv, 1930
March 14, 2021

Albert Einstein the Activist

Today, March 14th, marks the birthday of the most renowned physicist of the modern era: Albert Einstein, who was born in 1879. Einstein is probably one of the most instantly recognizable people, and his name is synonymous with genius. E = mc2, though perhaps not well-understood, is widely-known. A lesser-known thing about Einstein is that he was one of the founders of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But most people don’t realize that Einstein, himself persecuted by the Nazis from very early on in their regime, also worked feverishly before and during World War II to get hundreds of fellow Jews out of Europe. Here is a collection of Einstein’s private letters discussing anti-Semitism as well as his efforts to help Jewish people flee Europe.

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Edith Bolling Galt in the first electric automobile driven by a woman in Washington, D.C., 1904, Library of Congress
March 9, 2021

Edith Wilson, First Woman President?

Has The US Ever Had A Female President?


The story of Edith Bolling Wilson, the only woman in American history thus far to have been thought of as a de-facto president is a complicated one. A widow herself when she met the widowed President Woodrow Wilson, Edith Bolling laid claim to descent from both Pocahontas (ninth-generation on her father’s side) as well as Thomas Jefferson (her great grandmother was Jefferson’s sister). Edith had been born in 1872 to a once-prominent Virginian family, whose ancestors included John  Rolfe, the first Englishman to settle in Virginia and export tobacco. With the Civil War and Reconstruction, Edith’s formerly slave-owning family could no longer maintain their plantation seat, and Edith’s father became a circuit court judge in order to support the family. Edith was the seventh of eleven children, nine of whom survived to adulthood. As a result of her family’s tightened financial situation and of her sex, she received less of a formal education than her brothers. Despite the persona she wove later in life of an aristocratic existence in Virginia, Edith’s upbringing, though not hardscrabble, was lean.

In 1896, 23-year-old Edith Bolling married Norman Galt, a prestigious Washington jeweler. Edith had met Galt on a visit to one of her married sisters in DC, and Galt, a few years her senior, courted Edith for four years before Edith agreed to marry him. Galt’s shop was an establishment that could count amongst its earlier patrons Mary Todd Lincoln, as well as Edith’s distant relation, Thomas Jefferson. Edith quickly grew accustomed to the upscale lifestyle with her first husband, which helped set the stage for her claims of aristocracy and her preparedness to rub shoulders with royals with her next husband. In 1903, Edith gave birth to a baby boy who died a few days later, and whose birth left her unable to have children. The following year, Edith became the first woman in Washington to purchase and drive around in a car. In 1908, she was suddenly widowed when Norman unexpectedly died at the age of 43, with Edith as his sole heir. 

Edith & Woodrow Wilson

In March of 1915, Edith met President Woodrow Wilson, himself a widow of eight months, and nearing the end of his first term in office. The two instantly fell in love and were married by December of that year, following the one-year mourning period for the President’s first wife, Ellen. In 1916, Wilson secured his second term in office. 

Though President Wilson did everything in his power to keep the United States out of World War I, by 1917, the US had joined the fray. This was when the President began to subject himself to serious overwork and strain by refusing to delegate most tasks having to do with negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. In 1919, President Wilson traveled to Paris for the Peace Conference just in time for the second wave of the 1918 influenza pandemic. There, he caught a bad case of the flu, and was never the same. His mental health deteriorated and he had several strokes. 

Edith refused to let President Wilson step down and she hid his illness from the American public and from members of Wilson’s own cabinet. She believed that retiring or retreating from the presidency and public life would further degrade her husband’s condition and that the only cure for him would be to stay in office. Instead, Edith ran what she called a “stewardship,” and what others – both in her time and in ours – have called a secret presidency. Edith carefully curated which memos and information would reach the president, and she also decided who would have access to him and when, thus alienating his cabinet and maintaining singular influence on the President and the office of the presidency for approximately a year and a half.

Edith’s memoir, published in 1939, was written with the solitary goal of defending her husband’s legacy from detractors who claimed that Edith had overstepped her bounds and acted as president-de-facto. Edith insisted throughout the memoir that she never assumed any presidential power or made any decisions, rather, she just decided what to put in front of the president. 

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Though Edith was not interested in assuming any power or making important policy decisions, she did impact political outcomes through her curation of information to the president and her crippling of the cabinet’s ability to function. It is also difficult to parse out how much of Wilson’s mental capacity and strokes were to blame for the dysfunction, and how much of the political paralysis was Edith’s doing. It can be more definitively stated that in some cases, Edith compounded the president’s disability by isolating him from his cabinet.

One such example is the failure of Wilson’s League of Nations proposal to pass in Congress. The organization of peacekeeping nations in the aftermath of World War I was a concept that Wilson championed, though the United States did not join the coalition. Some historians have contended that Edith’s isolation of her husband from his most trusted political advisors meant that Wilson did not compromise on the treaty, and therefore, presented as it was, Congress rejected it. 

Wilson finished his second term in March of 1921, and was succeeded by Warren Harding. Wilson died in 1924, and Edith lived until December of 1961. Her last public appearance was at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. In 1967, nearly 50 years after Edith “stewarded” the presidency for her husband, the Unites States ratified the 25th amendment to the constitution, which stipulates that if the president is deemed unable to do his or her job, that the vice president assumes the responsibilities of the president.

Read more about presidents and other political figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Rags To Riches Presidents, Jerry Parr, Harry Truman Post Presidency, and more!

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President Grover Cleveland, First Lady Frances Cleveland, and Ruth Cleveland. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C
March 4, 2021

It’s Not The First Time The White House Experienced A Quarantine

Throughout its history, the Executive Mansion – The White House – has seen illness, deaths, destruction. As we’re now into the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re taking a look at how the White House has previously handled deadly outbreaks. In this letter from then President-Elect Grover Cleveland and father of then-infant Ruth, he writes to his doctor concerning the recent outbreak of scarlet fever which preceded the quarantine of the White House. The Clevelands had been advised against entering the White House with their child. The letter is in hope of receiving reassurances that the White House premises may be safe to enter with the baby in tow after the March 4th presidential inauguration. Read more and view original letter here.

Grover Cleveland Faces A Quarantined White House


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The Mortal Presidency: The President of the United States has arguably the toughest job in America, and it turns out, the most deadly.


He is Head of State, Commander in Chief, and the country’s top legislator. The President of the United States has arguably the toughest job in America, and it turns out the most deadly. Statistically, the US presidency is more dangerous than law enforcement, construction, space exploration, and mining. 20% of presidents have died in office, 20% were targets of assassination attempts, and 10% were assassinated.

Two thirds of us presidents have died before reaching their life expectancies. The job has been described as a killer. The question is, what makes the U S presidency so dangerous and so deadly? Perhaps it is best to start with the job’s home base, the White House. Considered one of the most elegant homes in the world today, in the early 19th century, the White House was one of the unhealthiest places in America.

Built on muggy marshland, the house was damned and vermin infested. Raw sewage flowed freely in nearby streams, turning the South lawn into an open sewer. Many presidents and their families suffered with gastrointestinal disease. Two of Abraham Lincoln’s sons caught typhoid fever there. 11-year-old Willy would die from it. Not until the introduction of modern sanitation and other improvements did presidents and their families live comfortably in the presidential residence.

And then there is the job itself. Most of us can appreciate how difficult the job of president must be, but only those who occupy the office understand the toll exacted by its burdens. Consider this. For most of the 19th century, appointment to any federal job, even running the corner post office, was at the discretion of the White House. The result? Presidents were besieged by job seekers.

William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office, complained of being harassed by the multitude. James Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled and mentally disturbed job seeker. Add to this the inherently disputatious nature of the democratic process. Sectional struggles over slavery and civil rights split the country and weighed heavily on presidents for two centuries. Today, increasingly complex domestic and global politics, an unwieldy bureaucracy, and around the clock media scrutiny add to the strain of presidential responsibilities.

At least 7 presidents struggled with serious medical conditions while in office. Amazingly, they were able to cover them up. No one knew Grover Cleveland had two secret cancer surgeries. Franklin Roosevelt was paralyzed and couldn’t walk, and Woodrow Wilson didn’t get out of bed for seven months following a devastating stroke. Presidents promoted images of strength and vitality, even as they suffered with illness and incapacity. New details of presidential illness and denial are being discovered to this day.

Adding to the mortality mystique of the presidency is the zero factor. Legend has it that William Henry Harrison brought a curse down upon the presidency when he killed the great Indian leader Tecumseh during the war of 1812. Beginning in 1840, when Harrison died just 40 days after his inauguration, every president who was elected in a year ending in zero died in office until Ronald Reagan. Reagan narrowly survived an assassination attempt just 69 days into his first term. George W. Bush was spared when a grenade thrown towards him failed to detonate. The curse, it appears, is broken.

Take an extraordinary journey into the mortal presidency. Read original letters from presidents, their doctors, and presidential assassins, as they provide an intimate look inside the most deadly job in America, the presidents of the United States.

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Soldiers on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, 1973, Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson's Unit
February 25, 2021

Review: Valley of Tears

In November of 2020, HBO Max aired the Israeli miniseries Valley of Tears, which had premiered in Israel the month before. The series is trailblazing in a few ways. The first is its subject matter. The series depicts Israel right on the eve of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and ends with the subsequent tank battle in the eponymously named Valley of the Tears. In addition, it’s the largest budget of an Israeli series to date, with an estimated $1 million per episode; features some of the best-known Israeli actors; and, behind the scenes, many of Israel’s best writers.

For context, the Yom Kippur War is to many Israelis what Vietnam is to Americans. Not only was a large number of Israeli men of that generation lost in combat (2,500), but the war was largely viewed as an avoidable catastrophe and utter hubris on the part of Israeli intelligence and the political establishment. Though officially acquitted by a commission, Prime Minister Golda Meir resigned as a direct consequence of the war and was haunted by it until her dying day. That being said, the three-week war was a remarkable military victory against slim odds that resulted in Israel retaining more territory than before the war. It ultimately led to a historic peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1977, negotiated by their heads of state, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, respectively.

Valley of Tears tells the story of regular soldiers in the IDF, caught up in a surprise war against the backdrop of their personal struggles. There is plenty of much-needed comic relief, which makes the stories more relatable.The show opens with an awkward and clever intelligence soldier, stationed at the northern Hermon outpost, who repeatedly warns his superiors of an impending war. The soldier is constantly ridiculed until his suspicions are verified and the Syrians close in on the outpost. This frames the general mindset in Israel at the outset of the war. 

By far, the most compelling and innovative storyline is that of three tank brigade soldiers who are activists in “Pantherim Shchorim” (the Israeli Black Panther movement, created by Mizrachi immigrants from Middle Eastern and North African countries). In this aspect, Valley of Tears breaks fresh ground in addressing the social and economic inequality faced by Mizrahi immigrants in the State of Israel.  The artistic choice to frame the chaos and struggles of the Yom Kippur war against the backdrop of social injustice and unrest mirrors the change that Israel went through in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. The long-powerful Labor Party’s demise following Meir’s resignation after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 paved the way for change. The ascendancy of the Likud party in 1977 was largely due to the vote of Mizrachi Jews, who had felt so marginalized by Labor governments. Valley of Tears manages to capture a sense of Israel on the brink of meaningful change. It is also an engaging and thought-provoking look at Israel at war – with itself and its enemies.

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Rutherford B. Hayes as a major during the Civil War, 1861, Rutherford Hayes Presidential Center
February 16, 2021

Presidential Brothers in Arms: Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley

The 23rd Ohio Infantry Regiment was raised outside of Columbus in June 1861 as a three-year regiment. Its colonel, William Rosecrans, would go on to have a controversial military career and later, served as the American representative to Mexico to be followed by consolidating the Southern Pacific railroad. Rosecrans wasn’t the only person of distinction from the 23rd OH. Several members went on to have careers in public service – notably the 19th and 25th presidents of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes, and William McKinley, respectively. 

Rutherford Hayes was a 38-year-old attorney practicing law in Cincinnati when he volunteered to fight in the Civil War. He joined the 23rd OH as a major, and as one of Rosecrans’s staff officers. William McKinley, by contrast, was an 18-year-old teacher living in Poland, Ohio. McKinley had volunteered for the Poland Guards, which soon after was consolidated into the 23rd OH.

Hayes’s non-military professional experience served him well as a leader in the unit.  As a lawyer, he knew how to speak and rally his soldiers. Hayes’s devotion to his men was both legendary and mutual. He took care of them, and they, in turn, revered him. Moreover, Hayes was quite the war hero. In his four years in uniform, he had four horses shot out from under him, and was wounded five times — once severely. Though he was one of five presidents to serve in the Civil War, he was the only one who sustained wounds in battle. Hayes was recognized for his bravery and competence and rose through the ranks steadily. By the end of the war, he was a Major-General.

“On more than one occasion during these engagements, General Hayes bore an honorable part. His conduct on the field was marked by conspicuous gallantry as well as the display of qualities of a higher order than that of mere personal daring. Having entered the army as a major of volunteers at the beginning of the war, General Hayes attained by meritorious service the rank of brevet major general before its close.” 

– Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs

While Hayes was a leader amongst the 341 men in the 23rd OH, and William McKinley was but a private, the two men more than connected. McKinley proved himself time and again on the battlefield, especially at the Battle of Antietam. When news of McKinley’s bravery reached Hayes, Hayes suggested McKinley be promoted. With his promotion to Second Lieutenant, McKinley then served on Hayes’s staff when the latter was a colonel. At the war’s conclusion, McKinley was a Brevet Major. 

The relationship between the two men most likely began when McKinley served on Hayes’s staff, and grew into a long-lasting bond. In an 1862 letter to his wife, Lucy, Hayes described McKinley as a “handsome, bright, gallant boy,” in addition to being “one of the finest officers in the Army.”[1] For his part, McKinley considered Hayes a lifelong mentor whose input was not limited to the sphere of war. In 1867, McKinley’s first foray into politics was to stump for Hayes, who was running for governor of Ohio. As McKinley’s profile in law and politics grew, his path would cross with Hayes even more. In 1875, he attended the Republican state convention at which Hayes was nominated governor for the third time.  The following year,  McKinley, in the midst of his own congressional campaign, found the time to campaign for his old army comrade, Rutherford B. Hayes, who was then making a bid for the presidency. 

During Hayes’s tenure in the White House (1877-1881), the McKinleys were frequent guests, considered an honorary son and daughter-in-law to the Hayeses. Rutherford Hayes made sure to introduce his protege to key political contacts who would later help McKinley on his journey to the White House in 1897.  When Rutherford Hayes died in January of 1893, his funeral procession was led by William McKinley, then himself the governor of Ohio, along with President-Elect Grover Cleveland, also a veteran of the Civil War.[2]

The role of the military in shaping the characters and careers of various presidents is fertile territory, and as seen here, the Civil War unquestionably helped put both presidents on the path to political careers.

  1. Major McKinley: William McKinley and the Civil War, (Kent: State university Press, 2000) by William H. Armstrong, p. 46
  2.  James Garfield actually served as the chief of staff to Rosecrans, who had been the first colonel of the 23rd OH before being promoted to Brigadier General in the Regular Army.
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Adriene Usher, Director of Shapell Roster Research.
February 14, 2021

Webinar: Researching Hebrew Union Veterans Association (HUVA) Members, Part II


The National Museum of American Jewish Military History and the Shapell Manuscript Foundation invite you to join us as we explore the progenitor of the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. – the Hebrew Union Veterans Association, in the context of the Shapell Roster of Jewish Service in the American Civil War.

We will discuss the origins of the organization, talk in detail about the lives of some of their members, and explain how the Shapell Roster research team has discovered the service history of several of the soldiers. Have your questions and comments ready for the Q&A at the end!

Date and Time: Mar 18, 2021, 3PM EST

Register here.

Part I of this webinar is available to watch on YouTube.

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Nancy and Ronald Reagan at his Inaugural Ball, 1985: National Archives
February 7, 2021

Love in the White House

As Valentine’s Day approaches, we thought it would be fitting to explore how the White House has been the backdrop to various stages of love.


The only president who assumed office as a bachelor, and remained so, was James Buchanan. Buchanan served as the 15th President of the United States from 1857-1861. Having presided over the nation leading up to the Civil War, and failing to grasp the gravity and extent of the division facing the country, his political legacy and reputation are about as brutally depicted as his love life. For his own part, Buchanan bore his lot with good humor, lamenting on occasion his “hard fate with the ladies.” 


Like Buchanan, Grover Cleveland entered the White House a bachelor in 1885, but he would not remain so for long. The following year, 49-year-old Cleveland married 21-year-old Frances Folsom in the White House. Though Cleveland was the second president to marry in office, Grover and Frances were the first – and to date, only – couple to marry in the White House. Francis became the 22nd First Lady, and the youngest in history. Cleveland had been law partners and very close friends with Francis’s father. In fact, Cleveland had bought the Folsoms a pram on the occasion of Frances’s birth. When Oscar Folsom died, Cleveland became the executor of his estate, and Francis, then 11, became Cleveland’s ward. Despite the age gap and nearly familial bonds between the two, the American public embraced the union, and the young and charming First Lady, in particular. 

Golden Years

When Ronald Reagan was elected the 40th President in 1984, he made history in two ways: at 69, he was the oldest president elected (Joe Biden most recently took the title, having just assumed the presidency at age 78), and he was the first divorced person to assume the office. Reagan did not enter the White House alone, though – far from it. Nancy Reagan, the First Lady, had been his wife for over 30 years. Nancy and Ronald were famously and enduringly in love. Despite the pressures of always being in the limelight (they were a Hollywood couple before), their love never wavered, and it’s been commonly said that they never stopped courting. Indeed, their marriage has been described as “the greatest love affair in the history of the American Presidency.”


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The Trumans on the Porch of Their Independence, Missouri Home. National Archives.
February 2, 2021

Harry and Bess Truman

Harry Truman fell in love with Bess Wallace when he was six years old and she was five. In high school, he excitedly recalled in his journal that he was “lucky enough to carry her books home.” Harry never loved another girl or woman, and didn’t even date anyone but Bess. Bess was more reserved about her feelings for Harry – initially, she didn’t appear to have any. Finally, in 1910, nine years after Harry and Bess graduated high school, Harry and Bess’s eight-year courtship began. Harry was at his cousins’ house across the road from where Bess lived. Bess’s mother, Madge, had given the Nolands a cake, and the plate needed to be returned. Harry’s grandmother slyly suggested that Harry be the one to return it. The rest, as they say, is history, with Bess finally agreeing to marry Harry (he had to ask twice) in 1918 just before he shipped off to France to fight in World War I. 

Although chocolates are customary for Valentine’s day, we decided to do some hands-on research and bake Bess’s famous brownies from a manuscript of her recipe which has been digitized for the public. Bess Truman, the 33rd First Lady of the United States, was known to be a woman of few words.  It’s no surprise, then, that her brownie recipe can be described as having a striking economy of words. Bess Truman shared many of her recipes for charity cookbooks or for interest pieces in newspapers. 

For our international readers, most American baking chocolate used to be packaged in one-ounce squares (some brands still maintain this practice). So four squares would be four ounces, or 113.5 grams, roughly. Nuts? Whatever you have on hand, and as for in or on, Bess does not specify, so you are left to do as you please. 

Bess Truman’s Brownie Recipe


2 cups sugar

1 cup butter

1 ½ cup flour

½ teaspoon salt

4 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

4 squares chocolate (melted)

1 cup chopped nuts


Cook at 350° for about forty minutes.

Read more about Truman and other political figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including How Did Vaccines First Start, Napoleon in Jaffa, Archibald Butt and more!

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Gabby Giffords. Image: Cheriss May for The New York Times.
January 18, 2021

Gabby Giffords Draws Upon Inspirational Words Of Abraham Lincoln

“During a week in which our country has endured shock, I’ve thought a lot about resilience and determination.” –

Ms. Giffords was a Democratic representative from Arizona from 2007 to 2012 and the target of an assassin in January 2011. In this opinion piece, she reflects on what can help steer the nation toward healing and draws upon inspirational words from Abraham Lincoln. Read more.

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Herman Melville, circa 1860, Wikimedia Commons.
December 30, 2020

Clarel Disinterred

In the winter of 1856-1857, Herman Melville traveled to Europe and the Levant, and spent approximately nineteen days in the Holy Land. He was one of many luminaries who took the same routes and tours, and stayed at the same hotels; Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt followed suit over the next thirty years. Melville, burnt-out at 48 from a string of failed novels and overexertion, embarked on his journey as a form of recuperation. His journals from the five-month trip, which spanned three continents and nine countries,  reveal that it was in the Holy Land that the author reached a turning point, and his journey was every bit as immersive emotionally as it was physically. To be sure, Melville was not entranced by the Holy Land per se, as his travel journal reflects: “No country will more quickly dissipate romantic expectations than Palestine—particularly Jerusalem. To some the disappointment is heart sickening.” But the trip certainly had an impact on him.

Nineteen days of contemplation in the Holy Land would be brought to life nineteen years later, with what Melville considered his most personal work: Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, published in 1876. Longer than Paradise Lost by nearly double, and arguably less accessible, Clarel remains the longest poem in American literature. The novelist had achieved overnight success in 1846 for Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, and notoriety for the commercial flop Moby Dick in 1851. Yet he had also enjoyed moderate success for his volume of poems treating the American Civil War that was published in 1866. It was not enough success, however, to support his family. Working as a customs inspector in New York, Melville devoted his evenings to writing Clarel.  In Clarel, Melville tried his hand at iambic tetrameter in creating his own epic poem. Clarel was the eponymously named protagonist of the epic. A seminary student, facing a spiritual crisis, Clarel journeys to the Holy Land to rediscover his faith. And there lies the parallel not just between Melville’s personal spiritual journey, but America’s. In the wake of the Civil War and the scientific breakthroughs of the 1870s (such as Darwin’s), Americans were plunged into a crisis of faith. Naturally, this was met with a great religious revival, producing much discussion, if not clashing, in reconstructed America. Clarel, the naive American,  meets characters of many religions and races, who question and debate faith against the backdrop of Biblical sites. The epic ends with Clarel experiencing a renewal of faith, only to have it dashed when his Jewish fiance dies and is not resurrected at Easter. The narrator then exhorts Clarel to faith despite all he has been through. 

Melville had the two-volume epic printed at his own cost. He anticipated the negative reception by essentially disavowing himself of its content in his author’s note on the first edition: “I here dismiss the book–content beforehand, with whatever future awaits it.” Privately, he described the epic to a correspondent as “eminently adapted for unpopularity.”[1] He was right. It was, indeed, a commercial and critical flop. Of the 350 copies printed in the first run in 1876, 220 were pulped. Nine years later, Melville agreed to disinter a rare copy of the book for another rarity: a fan of Clarel. It’s fair to say that the epic remained interred until its themes of religion and depth psychology re-emerged in the wake of the Second World War, renewing interest in the poem. [2] In the decades that followed, there were a few articles published about Clarel by Melville scholars, as is to be expected. 

More recently, it seems that Clarel is becoming disinterred yet again. In August of 2019, Herschel Parker, who has devoted over half a century to studying and writing about Melville, published his edition of Melville’s complete poems, in celebration of the author’s bicentennial. The star of this hefty volume is, undoubtedly, Clarel.  In May and June of 2020, two articles were published online about the relevance of Clarel to understanding the crisis of American faith both in Melville’s day and in our own. A humanities podcast even dedicated an episode to it around the time those articles came out. Maybe it should not be too surprising, as themes of individual crisis and the tensions between faith and science never do go away or get resolved. Perhaps Clarel deserves another look if not from people of faith (or who study it), then from historians, as Clarel also emerges as a historical document par-excellence. 



  1. Clarel:  A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991), ed. By Herschel Parker, pp. 540-542
  2. Parker, p. 507


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December 17, 2020

Join Us On January 12th: Original Manuscripts in the Contemporary Classroom

Join us on January 12th for History Lessons: Working with Original Manuscripts in the Contemporary Classroom.

The Shapell Manuscript Foundation is proud to present, “History Lessons: Working with Original Manuscripts in the Contemporary Classroom,” a conversation with Gil Troy, Sara Willen, Jonathan D. Sarna, and Nathan Sleeter. Leading scholars will discuss how we take the treasures of the past and turn them into relevant lesson plans that teach middle and high school social studies students how to think like historians. The four lesson plans are based on primary sources from the Shapell Manuscript Collection, and provide teachers and students the opportunity to explore meaningful, and sometimes lesser-known, scenes from history. Each lesson plan fits within state and national educational standards and includes ideas for differentiation, assessment form, and document-based questions.
January 12th, 2021
6PM EST on Zoom
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Theodor Herzl with a Zionist delegation in Jerusalem, 1898. Wikimedia Commons
December 14, 2020

Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, and the East Africa Scheme

In August of 1897, after putting together the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Theodor Herzl, resplendent in his white tie and tails, his noble visage self-consciously groomed, rose to speak. He had to wait for a quarter of an hour for the applause to die down. A few days later, the congress ended as it began – with thunderous applause, this time with the younger delegates lifting and carrying  Herzl on their shoulders around the hall. [1]  

Six years later, in 1903, at the Sixth (and Herzl’s last) Zionist Congress, Herzl, who had less than a year to live, strained to breathe as he spoke, and had a rebellion on his hands. Only after declaring in Hebrew “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning” did the aggrieved party, the Russian caucus of the Zionist delegates, agree to come back into the hall.  [2] Herzl had suggested that the Congress consider the British offer to create a Jewish homeland in East Africa (modern-day Kenya), which was such a point of contention that it threatened to split the World Zionist Organisation. Herzl’s dear friend and right-hand man, Max Nordau, was even the target of an attempted assassination shortly thereafter. What happened in these six years to the Zionist Organization? The answer might be found in a closer examination of the relationship between Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, and a young rival, Chaim Weizmann, the future first president of the State of Israel. 

Chaim Weizmann was roughly fifteen years Theodor Herzl’s junior. Unlike Herzl, an assimilated Central European Jew, Weizmann hailed from Russia, and in addition to his doctorate in chemistry, was the beneficiary of a traditional Jewish education and upbringing. Weizmann first laid eyes on Herzl at the Second Zionist Congress in Basel in 1898. [3] The two men maintained a correspondence, and actually found common ground in Weizmann’s goal of establishing a Jewish university in Palestine. 

But by 1901, a growing number of younger Zionists were unhappy with the slow progress of the Zionist movement. These young men, mostly Russian, as was Weizmann, felt that though Herzl had given Zionism a shape, he was off the mark when it came to its substance. Weizmann’s anti-Herzl agitation (“Herzl has no idea of Russian Zionism and of Russian Zionists”) served to make a name for himself, and more critically, led to a meeting with Herzl. Though Weizmann was spoiling for a fight, the elder statesman recognized the need for the younger generation to have their own conference, which took place shortly before the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1902. Though there was some chafing between Herzl and the younger group, which called itself the Democratic Fraction, Herzl tried to work with them and keep the Zionist movement unified. By 1903, shortly before the Sixth Zionist Congress, Weizmann was at the helm of the Fraction, which, for all its animated discussions, hadn’t achieved much. 

The violent pogroms in Kishinev in April of 1903 alarmed Herzl to the point where he very seriously considered accepting the British government’s offer to establish a Jewish homeland in East Africa. Though Weizmann initially heard Herzl out on the idea, he was amongst the many Russian delegates who vociferously opposed the resolution at the Congress in August of that year. Pandemonium broke out, with the Russian delegation splitting off and having their own meeting, passing a resolution refusing to ratify any formal consideration of the East Africa scheme. [4] In this separate meeting, Weizmann denounced Herzl as “not a nationalist, but a promoter of projects.” [5]

In fact, Herzl never denied the centrality of Palestine to the Jewish people. Despite the Fraction’s claims earlier that Herzl didn’t understand Russian Zionists, it was the existential threat to Russian Jews that made Herzl consider the scheme as a temporary measure to ensure their safety. This reassurance, echoed by Nordau at the lectern, incidentally, was enough to placate at least two other Russian delegates: Weizmann’s brother and father. [6]

Though the Congress closed with an agreement to send some delegates to get the lay of the land without any formal commitments, the East Africa scheme caused a major rift and power struggle in the Zionist Organisation. Weizmann, who had been agitating against Herzl’s political Zionism for a few years now, took full advantage of this rift in order to boost his own profile as well as the commitment to the Land of Israel. Immediately after the Congress, he launched an all-out attack on the East Africa scheme, focusing solely where it had support: Western Europe. And as his professional opportunities dried up in Switzerland, Weizmann’s two callings — chemistry and Zionism– intersected, and Weizmann found himself pursuing both in what had been Herzl’s territory: the United Kingdom. 

The African scheme fizzled out by December of 1903, as a result of opposition by British colonists in  East Africa. And yet, it still held the Zionist Organization in a power struggle. By July of 1904, Herzl was dead, and the Zionist Organization was bereft. Nordau, the natural choice for Herzl’s successor, declined. Weizmann, who finally had his ducks in a row, moved to the UK a few months later. En route, he met with Nordau, who mused that some day, the young Weizmann would take up the mantle of Zionist leadership. [7]

Weizmann had already done a lot of campaigning for his cause – that of the Land of Israel for the Jewish homeland – on his pilot trip to London in 1903. If anything, Herzl had achieved a landmark in getting the British Empire to recognize the Zionist cause. Weizmann picked up where Herzl left off. And two years later, in 1906, Weizmann had his first meeting with Lord Balfour. Weizmann’s refusal to contemplate the East Africa scheme had a profound impact on Lord Balfour, though it would be another decade until Weizmann would pull off one of the most remarkable diplomatic achievements of the 20th century: the Balfour Declaration. This  British commitment to a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel was a long road that was paved by Weizmann, but one blazed by Herzl.


  1. Howard M. Sachar, A History of Israel From the Rise of  Zionism to  Our Time (New  York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), p. 46
  2. Anita Shapira, Israel: A History, trans. Anthony Berris (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 2014), p. 23
  3. Norman  Rose, Chaim Weizmann: A  Biography (New  York: Viking, 1986), p. 49
  4. Derek Penslar,  Theodor  Herzl: The Charismatic  Leader (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2020), p. 192
  5. Rose, p.  73
  6. Rose, p. 72
  7. Rose,  p. 85
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"Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa" by Antoine -Jean Gross, 1804, Wikimedia Commons
December 2, 2020

Napoleon in Jaffa: His First Waterloo – Acre

At the end of the 18th century, the trade route to India was of supreme economic importance to European colonial interests. In an attempt to weaken British control along the route, Napoleon Bonaparte launched an invasion first of Egypt, and then, as a bit of an afterthought, of the Holy Land, in 1799. The attack on the Holy Land, including the infamous siege of Acre, was ultimately devastating both for Napoleon’s forces and for the local inhabitants, whom the French soldiers plundered as they beat back their retreat. Yet Napoleon’s attempted conquest and its accompanying surveys and detailed maps of the Levant stimulated renewed interest in the region. 

Jaffa & Napoleon

In setting his sights on conquering the Holy Land, Napoleon had expected a swift victory and to subsequently march towards Jerusalem; he had already conquered Malta, Alexandria, and Cairo. In order to take the Holy Land, he would first need to conquer Jaffa. On March 3rd, 1799, Napoleon lay siege to Jaffa. By March 7th, it was his.

Less than three weeks later, Napoleon attempted to take Acre. This was where his Egyptian campaign began to unravel. The Ottoman Turkish defenders, aided by the British Navy, managed to repulse the French forces after an initial infantry attack. The British, under the command of Commodore Sidney Smith, actually managed to capture Napoleon’s artillery and hand it over to the Turks. Thus, the Turks largely defeated Napoleon with his own artillery.  After 54 days, Napoleon lifted the siege, in May of 1799. From there, Napoleon beat a hasty retreat to Egypt, from where he deserted his army in the middle of the night. 

The Napoleon Jaffa Painting

One of the most iconic images of Napoleon in the Holy Land is a painting that he commissioned five years after the event, in 1804, commemorating the high point of the campaign there, in Jaffa. In Antoine-Jean’s “Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa,” Napoleon is depicted as touching a leper, in a scene that is meant to invoke Christ. This painting, now hanging in the Louvre, is the first masterpiece of Napoleonic painting. While the painting depicts Napoleon as brave and virtuous in caring for his sick men, it was Napoleon’s carelessness and haste in attempting to conquer Acre with infantry alone that cost the lives of 2,300 men, with another 2,200 ill or wounded, and ultimately, brought the end to his campaign. 

Upon his return to Europe, Napoleon claimed he had besieged and burnt Acre to the ground, and declared his Egypt campaign a success. In France, Napoleon’s claims were believed despite the loss of half of his army and his entire fleet. The English version of events tells a very different story: Horatio Nelson’s missive celebrates “the villain” Napoleon’s retreat from Acre. 

Napoleon did have one success in this campaign, and that was to further the sciences and exploration of that area. But to the victor go the spoils, and this case was no different. With the abandonment of his troops in Egypt, Napoleon’s scientists and scholars preferred to return to England with their findings than return to France without them. One such important finding was, of course, the Rosetta Stone, which spawned Egyptology.

Napoleon’s attempt to take the Holy Land, and the later Egyptian occupation of Palestine (1831-1840), also opened up the floodgates for modern diplomacy and travel to the Holy Land. This tiny outpost of the Ottoman Empire again began to attract the attention of major European powers for both strategic and religious reasons. Ignited anew, as well, was the American imagination and longing for the land of the Bible

Read more about Napoleon and other political figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including How Did Vaccines First Start, Harry & Bess Truman, Harry Truman Post Presidency and more!

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David Rice Atchison. Photographer: Mathew Brady, U.S. Capitol, 1849. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
November 22, 2020

Senate Stories: David Rice Atchison – (Not) President for a Day

The day of David Rice Atchison’s presumed US Presidency was March 4, 1849. Who was David Rice Atchison and on what basis could he claim to have been the president of the United States, even if for only one day? Read more at the United States Senate Stories:

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David Ben-Gurion, Israel Defense Archive
November 18, 2020

Ben-Gurion the Archivist

In 1950, the State of Israel was only two years old and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, was facing monumental, existential challenges. The fledgling state was still imperiled by enemies, a struggling economy, and even food security. Yet Ben-Gurion, widely acknowledged by historians for his prescience as well as his ability to seize historic opportunities, locked in on one particular idea while vacationing in Tiberias: preserving Jewish manuscripts. In Ben-Gurion’s own words,

Our first duty is to save Hebrew literature. There are thousands of Hebrew manuscripts lying idle in various libraries. Many of them have vanished in the darkness of the past or have been destroyed by the wrath of oppressors…It is the duty of the State of Israel to acquire and gather those exiles of the spirit of Israel dispersed in the Diaspora. [1]

Thus began Ben-Gurion’s ambitious project: to establish an Institute of Manuscripts in order to microfilm and catalog every single Hebrew manuscript in existence. The Prime Minister, who had also served as Defense Minister, had already created the military archive two years prior. In this same letter to his Finance Minister, Ben-Gurion requested an allocation of £50,000 for the project, “without delay.” Ben-Gurion, whose own home was crammed with books, and who would set out to write a history of Israel upon his retirement, had made a decision that was rooted in philosophy. In his studies of military history, Ben-Gurion noted, “decisive and constant victory is that of spiritual power.” According to Ben-Gurion, the source of spiritual power for the Jewish people in their new country would be their ancient literature. Once returned home to its roots, these manuscripts would provide the spiritual sustenance needed to overcome the very material challenges the Jewish people now faced, and serve as the nucleus from which to study and preserve the corpus of Hebrew literature.

Ben-Gurion’s project was also the natural continuation of Chaim Weizmann and Albert Einstein’s dream of the founding of a Jewish university in Jerusalem. Indeed, the microfilm project was a partnership between the state and the Hebrew University. In 1925, at the inauguration of the Hebrew University, Weizmann (who would serve as the country’s first President), acknowledged the asymmetry of a country with existential issues establishing a university:

It seems at first sight paradoxical that in a land with so sparse a population, in a land where everything still remains to be done, in a land crying out for such simple things as ploughs, roads and harbors, we should be creating a center of spiritual and intellectual development. But it is no paradox, for those who know the soul of the Jew. It is true that great social and political problems still face us and will demand their solution. We Jews know that when the mind is given fullest play, when we have a center for the development of Jewish consciousness, then coincidentally, we shall attain the fulfillment of our material needs.

Ben-Gurion, who spent many days at the New York Public Library between 1915 and 1917, where he met his wife, Paula, also understood the importance of enabling Jews to access the world’s cultures and literature. “Everything human is not foreign to us–and everything human must be provided for us in our language,” the Prime Minister asserted, as he took the first steps to launch the Hebrew series Masterworks of World Literature. Ben-Gurion, perhaps uncharacteristically, let the series committee decide which works of literature to translate into Hebrew, though he did request that they include a particular passion of his: Indian philosophy. 

Ben-Gurion’s prescience and ideals concerning making far-flung Hebrew manuscripts accessible is today echoed in the near-universal effort of digitizing manuscripts for the public. The result of Ben-Gurion’s vision of making Jewish materials from all over the world available to anyone, anywhere, can be seen in the National Library of Israel’s Ktiv website, where many of the Hebrew manuscripts are on view.


  1. For more on Ben-Gurion’s ideas about the relationship between the Hebrew language and the modern state of Israel, see Anita Shapira, Ben-Gurion, Father of Modern Israel, pp. 182-183


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November 7, 2020

NEW: Teacher Resources Curricula Now Available at Shapell

The Shapell Manuscript Foundation is happy to announce the release of teacher resources. These new resources, in the form of four lesson plans for middle and high school, are available on our website. 

Developed to improve students’ historical thinking skills, the four lesson plans are based on primary sources from the Shapell Manuscript Collection. They provide teachers and students the opportunity to explore meaningful, and sometimes lesser-known scenes from history. 

John F. Kennedy and Service (intended for 7th or 8th grade Civics or History) uses the unique example of Kennedy to explore what it means to live a life of service. Designed for 11th grade U.S. History, Abraham Lincoln and the Jews introduces students to the attitude of our 16th president towards various religious minorities; Americans Tourists in the Holy Land explores early tourism with the help of the writing of Mark Twain; and third-party politics during the historic 1912 election are explored in Theodore Roosevelt and the 1912 Election, which could also be used for 12th grade U.S. Government. 

Each lesson plan fits within state and national educational standards, and includes ideas for differentiation, assessment form, and AP History practice questions (when applicable). 

These lesson plans were developed in partnership with Nate Sleeter and Kris Stinson, of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. 

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October 20, 2020

Researchers share stories of Ohio Jewish Civil War soldiers

“A new project sheds light on the lives and experiences of Ohio’s Jewish Civil War soldiers, aiming to share stories and history that have likely been forgotten through generations.

The Shapell Roster: Jewish Service in the American Civil War, is the first comprehensive, national data archive documenting Jewish soldiers who served in the war, according to the Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s website. A virtual program focusing on Ohio soldiers was presented in conjunction with the Columbus Jewish Historical Society Sept. 13, where researchers from Shapell and CJHS shared some interesting findings from their work thus far.

“Adrienne Usher, director of the Shapell Roster, said building the roster started with inspecting a previously created roster by Simon Wolf, a prominent Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and social justice advocate who published the book, The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen in 1895. Wolf, who was born in Germany and immigrated to Ohio, compiled the book about Jewish service in American wars to refute anti-Semitic claims that American Jews are not patriotic.” – read more here.

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The USS Cricket. Credit: "U.S. gunboat Cricket." [Photographed between 1861 and 1865, printed between 1880 and 1889]. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. LC-DIG-ppmsca-34013.
September 11, 2020

Leopold Rothschild

“I met some one [sic] who talked to me about the navy. This man took me to a recruiting office on the levee. I was asked my age and I said I was 15. I recall that this man said to the recruiting officer that ‘It was all right. He is 21.’ After some formality which I do not recall, I was taken to the receiving ship which was tied to the wharf, I think, on the Ohio shore. Within the first hour, someone called out ‘Fresh Fish’ at me and I was in a fight.”

Leopold, or “Lee,” Rothschild was already familiar with battles and adversity before he joined the US Navy at only fifteen, and was immediately jumped by his fellow sailors. Born in Sien, Prussia, Lee’s mother died before he was three years old, and his father left him and his siblings with relatives, to build a new life and family in America. In 1863, at fourteen, Lee made the journey to America too, all by himself. He attempted to live with his father and that new family in Pittsburgh, but the transition was rough, and teenage angst turned Lee into a runaway. And, like so many runaways before him, Lee found his place in the Navy.

Lee’s story is another new discovery by The Shapell Roster Project, and his name will now be added to the ranks of Jewish sailors who fought to save the Union during the Civil War. Read more of Lee’s story.

Read more about US history, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including .Teddy Roosevelt’s Grandchild, When Did The US First Get Involved In The Middle East, Napoleon in Jaffa and more! 

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August 27, 2020

Harry Truman Post Presidency: Presidential Recollections

Harry Truman was “one tough son-of-a-bitch of a man,” according to General Harry Vaughan. Vaughan would know. He served alongside Truman in France during WWI and also in the White House. But Truman had a vulnerable side, too. These seven letters, which span the period between Truman’s final days as president in January 1953 and the domestic and international turmoil of the early 1960s, reveal an unknown personal side to Truman. The letters were all written to Dean Acheson, Truman’s trusted Secretary of State. The two developed a close friendship during their White House years, and maintained a regular correspondence during Truman’s post-presidential years. In May 1971, more than eighteen years and scores of letters later, Acheson wrote his final letter to Truman, wishing his friend a happy eighty-seventh birthday. Truman would pass away the following year.

The modest, straight-talking Harry Truman took on the “terrible responsibilities” of the presidency after Franklin Roosevelt’s death in April 1945. It was baptism by fire for Truman. He had to navigate the final months of WWII and make the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan. After narrowly defeating Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election, Truman chose not to run for reelection in 1952. His approval rating was low and he withdrew his candidacy after losing the New Hampshire primary. Truman’s post-presidential years were marked by financial hardship, which inspired Congress to finally pass legislation to provide a pension for past presidents. Truman also faithfully campaigned for Democratic candidates.

These letters clearly communicate one element of Truman’s personal life – his love for history. He found great value in applying the lessons of the past to the problems of the present. He was an expert in presidential history, and referred to past presidents often in these letters. The writer and humorist Mark Twain is usually credited with the clever observation that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” These Truman letters illustrate the rhyming nature of history. They touch on topics – such as racial tension, conflict on the Korean Peninsula, sour relations with Russia, biased newspaper coverage, and partisan politics – that are still relevant today, though in different contexts.

Truman continually feuded with the Kansas City Star for its pro-Republican coverage and often derided columnists who wrote unflattering accounts of his presidency. He almost certainly would have used the phrase “fake news” if it was popular at the time. Instead, he went as far as to call many in the media “prostitutes of the mind,” in a famous letter from December 1955.

While bemoaning negative newspaper coverage, Truman, less than a year after leaving office in 1953, wrote of recent editorials that “if it weren’t tragic it would be the best comedy in history… I’ve read the press on Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, Teddy R., Wilson and F.D.R. and there seems to me to be no parallel” In another letter, Truman reviews his presidency and compares himself to Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Grover Cleveland – presidents who took decisive action and employed the full power of the Executive to handle domestic and international crises. He also compliments his good friend Acheson for being an extraordinary secretary of state, and compares Acheson to Thomas Jefferson and William Seward, who served George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, respectively.

Harry Truman Memoirs

Truman wrote in his memoirs, “My debt to history is one which cannot be calculated. I know of no other motivation which so accounts for my awakening interest as a young lad in the principles of leadership and government.” With little formal education, Truman was self-taught from voracious reading: in 1962 he wrote to Acheson about his childhood experiences reading books from the library: “Our public library in Independence had about three or four thousand volumes, including the ten encyclopedias! Believe it or not I read ‘em all… Maybe I was a damphool [damn fool],” Truman noted, “but it served me well when my terrible trial came.”

Learn More About Harry Truman After His Presidency

Read more in this selection of post-presidential correspondence between Truman and Acheson, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Titanic Victims – Archibald Willingham Butt, Anne Frank Family Album at the Anne Frank Fonds, and George Cortelyou.

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Department of the Interior. Bureau of Pensions. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Veterans Who Served in the Army and Navy Mainly in the Civil War and The War With Spain ("Civil War and Later Survivors' Certificates"): Nos. SC 9,487-999,999, 1861-1934. Textual Records, ARC Identifier no. 300019: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.
August 13, 2020

Archaic German Manuscripts, Jewish Civil War Soldiers, and a Professor of English in North Dakota

With his unique skill set and being a professor of English and German, Jim Simmons’ contributions to the Shapell Roster research have been essential in understanding Jewish Civil War soldiers’ history.

Jim Simmons grew up in Cumberland, Maryland, a city with a substantial German-speaking population. When Jim’s grandmother was growing up in Cumberland in the 1890s, all of her classes, except for English, were taught in German. When it was time for Jim to go to college, he attended Davis and Elkins College, across the state line in Elkins, West Virginia, where he majored in German. He continued his education in North Dakota, where he obtained a Masters in German and later a PhD in English. 

Dr. Simmons spent his career teaching English at the college level in North Dakota, South Dakota, Illinois, and Mississippi. He is currently retired and living in Fargo, North Dakota, where he teaches ethics, cheers on the local junior hockey team, does a great deal of reading (in English and German), and volunteers for the Shapell Roster translating German documents. 

Most of the documents that Jim has translated for the Roster are from the pension records of soldiers. He has translated letters written by German doctors attesting to the medical condition of Civil War veterans, and court documents supporting the claims of a widow who returned to Germany. Without his help translating, the Shapell Roster research team would not understand the meaning of the documents we have acquired written in the unique German script used before WWII. 

Thank you, Jim Simmons, for sharing your time, knowledge, and skill with the Shapell Roster.

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Regimental Colors of the 16th O.V.I. Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection, image # p267401coll32_10019.
August 13, 2020

Little Phil: The Heroism and Hard Luck of a Civil War Soldier

“Philip Friedberger…was a boy of remarkable grit, whilst six footers were falling by the wayside, ‘Little Phil’ (as we called him) never left the ranks, his grit never forsook him… He was the best soldier in Co. I. Do his widow justice & do it quick.” – Samuel L. Montgomery, Late Sergeant;Company I, 16th Ohio Infantry. 11 May 1898.

The anguished – though not entirely rare – story of Philip Friedberger, a Private in Company I of the 16th Ohio Infantry, was recently uncovered by the Shapell Roster researchers. For the first time in the public record, Private Friedberger will be counted as a Jewish soldier who served in the Civil War. 

A German immigrant, Friedberger made his way to Wooster, Ohio, and by November 1861 he committed to supporting the Union cause for what would end up a three-year-long enlistment. He was an exemplary soldier with a strong reputation. After the war, he settled in Uniontown, Alabama, where he married into a family of Jewish Confederate veterans, the Unger family. Friedberger’s post-war life appears to have been marred with declining health and financial misfortune, ending tragically in 1879. While in a hotel in Greensboro, Alabama, Friedberger overdosed on morphine. It was unclear whether this overdose was intentional or not. 

Read more of Philip’s story.

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July 26, 2020

Watch: The Hebrew Union Veterans Association & Shapell Roster Webinar

The National Museum of American Jewish Military History and the Shapell Manuscript Foundation invite you to join us as we explore the progenitor of the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. – the Hebrew Union Veterans Association, in the context of the Shapell Roster of Jewish Service in the American Civil War. We will discuss the origins of the organization, talk in detail about the lives of some of their members, and explain how the Shapell Roster research team has discovered the service history for several of the soldiers. Have your questions and comments ready for the Q&A at the end! Chartered by an act of Congress in 1958, the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, under the auspices of the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A., documents and preserves the contributions of Jewish Americans to the peace and freedom of the United States, educates the public concerning the courage, heroism and sacrifices made by Jewish Americans who served in the armed forces, and works to combat anti-Semitism.

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Dr. Richard Kane
July 2, 2020

Shapell Roster Contributor, Richard Kane of Wisconsin

Having enjoyed Civil War history for years, when Richard Kane retired from medicine in 2014, he decided to pursue a unique activity: researching Jewish Civil War soldiers from his home state of Wisconsin. He quickly discovered that the few lists of Jewish soldiers in Wisconsin were not accurate. Thus started his work to uncover and verify soldiers’ service, a welcome contribution to local history.

Jonathan Sarna, Professor of American Jewish History, connected Richard with Adrienne Usher, Director of Research for the Shapell Roster. Kane specifically addresses his interaction with Adrienne: 

“I want to thank her and her team for providing me with some names that I didn’t have and for helping me to verify the Jewish identity of a few soldiers that I strongly suspected of having Jewish heritage. In return, I have shared a dozen or so names of Jewish soldiers that they did not have, from Wisconsin and elsewhere.”

Adrienne recommended that Kane go to Jewish cemeteries to look for soldiers’ graves, a great way to discover additional soldiers. Walking through a cemetery with his wife Diane on a beautiful Wisconsin day has proved to be a relaxing activity for the couple, and has been rewarding for his research project. “My wife likes to tease me,” he says, “saying that, ‘I am spending my retirement looking for dead people.’” 

Kane’s research is particularly challenging, due to the small number of Jews who lived in Wisconsin before the Civil War. Of an approximated Jewish population of about 2,600 in 1860, he estimates that about 150 Jews from Wisconsin served in the Civil War. “They are so rare that finding someone can be quite exciting,” he says. As this topic has not been previously investigated, he enjoys uncovering hidden clues and being able to add to the body of Civil War research. 

Thank you, Dr. Richard Kane, for your research and contributions. 

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June 3, 2020

Webinar: Discover Hebrew Union Veterans Association & Shapell Roster

The National Museum of American Jewish Military History and the Shapell Manuscript Foundation invite you to explore the Hebrew Union Veterans Association. We will discuss the origins of the organization, talk in detail about the lives of some of their members, and explain how the Shapell Roster research team has discovered the service history for several of the soldiers. Have your questions and comments ready for the Q&A at the end!

To reserve your spot, register for the webinar at the link.

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US Cabinet Secretary George Cortelyou
May 10, 2020

George Cortelyou

In September of 1901, on the grounds of the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, two shots rang out. President William McKinley, mortally wounded, fell into the arms of his private secretary, to whom he spoke the famous words, “My wife, Cortelyou, be careful how you tell her.” This was probably the most dramatic moment in US Cabinet Secretary George Cortelyou’s public service, if not his life. Though he is mostly associated with McKinley’s assassination, there is far more to Cortelyou’s legacy. Having served under three presidents directly, Cortelyou’s roles were precursors of what would become the duties of Chief of Staff and Press Secretary. But Cortelyou managed to be quite more than the sum of even these two monumental roles.

George Cortelyou was born in New York City in 1862. After attending George Washington University and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., he worked as a school teacher and principal in preparatory schools. He became a stenographer and entered public service in 1889 as a private secretary to various public officials.[1] In 1895, the Assistant Postmaster General was so taken with his private secretary that, when President Grover Cleveland approached him in search of a chief clerk, he immediately recommended Cortelyou.[2]

Within two years, Cortelyou managed to prove himself invaluable to the President. Upon Cleveland’s departure from the White House in 1897,  Cleveland told the incoming McKinley that if he wanted “things to run smoothly around here, my advice is to keep Cortelyou.[3] McKinley took that advice, and Cortelyou soon went from assistant presidential secretary to McKinley’s main Cabinet Secretary. 

Cortelyou and McKinley established a relationship with the press that laid the foundation for future administrations. They met with the press personally and cultivated not only their goodwill but kept them updated by sharing presidential statements and establishing a press office inside the White House.[4]

Cortelyou’s practical approach extended beyond his relationship with the press. He had a well-founded concern for McKinley’s safety, considering that America had lost Presidents Garfield and Lincoln to assassination as recently as 1881 and 1865, respectively. Perhaps more on his mind was the recent assassination of Umeberto I of Italy in July of 1900. Cortelyou urged President McKinley not to attend the very public Pan-American Exposition, going so far as to cancel McKinley’s appearance at the Exposition twice, only to be ignored both times. Following McKinley’s assassination, Cortelyou asked for congressional funds to increase the security for his next boss, Theodore Roosevelt. Though there was an attempt made on Former President Roosevelt’s life as he campaigned for a third term in October of 1912, Cortelyou’s initiative had a lasting impact on the protocol for keeping the most powerful person on earth safe.

Cortelyou worked for Cleveland for two years, and four for McKinley. But it was with Theodore Roosevelt that he enjoyed the most intimate relationship and under whose auspices Cortelyou fulfilled his powerful and numerous potentials, enacting change that would have a lasting impact on the office of the presidency, as well as the nation.

When Roosevelt took over McKinley’s term upon the latter’s assassination, he not only retained Cortelyou, but charged him with reorganizing the Executive Mansion. It was at this time that Roosevelt gave it the official name of “The White House,” and even had the letterhead changed. Roosevelt, the scion of a powerful business family, wanted the White House to run with the same kind of efficiency. Cortelyou obliged and wrote protocols for how White House staff were to conduct themselves and fulfill their responsibilities. He even insisted that at the end of every workday, all desks would be cleared of paper. He also completely overhauled the chaotic travel protocol for the President. 

Cortelyou was far more to Roosevelt than a clerk or private secretary. He became one of Roosevelt’s most trusted advisors. In fact, Roosevelt created a cabinet position for Cortelyou, and appointed him the first United States Secretary of Commerce and Labor in 1903 in order to control the excesses of big businesses. The following year, Cortelyou left his cabinet position to run Roosevelt’s successful reelection campaign. Cortelyou went on to serve as Postmaster General in 1905 and Secretary of the Treasury, where he presided over the Great Panic of 1907.

Not many people manage to occupy as many powerful positions as Cortelyou did in his lifetime. But this is not what made Cortelyou remarkable. Most people are lauded if they impact one aspect of government. George Cortelyou managed to improve the way multiple aspects of the presidency and the United States are run. Cortelyou’s overhaul of White House staffing and presidential correspondence enabled the president to be more efficient. His allocation of congressional funds and the doubling of secret service agents made the office of the presidency safer. Cortelyou’s inclusion of a press office in the White House during the McKinley administration made the president more accessible and the office more transparent and accountable to its citizens. His invention of the press release during the Roosevelt administration allowed the president to get ahead of leaked reports and to influence his image in the media.[5] It was during Cortelyou’s tenure as Secretary of Treasury from 1907 to 1909, that Cortelyou established his most far-reaching legacy where the American people are concerned; Cortelyou began to advocate for a central banking system, which ultimately led to the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913.

After his service as Secretary of Treasury, Cortelyou worked for the Consolidated Gas Company until 1935. He passed away in 1940 at the age of 78 leaving behind a wife, two sons, and two daughters. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended the wake, as she was best friends with Lilly, Cortelyou’s wife.

Manuscripts from George Cortelyou:

President McKinley’s Secretary Cancels McKinley’s Engagements “Owing to Mrs. McKinley’s Serious Illness”

McKinley’s Last Tour: Cortelyou Thanks the Mayor of San Francisco for His Help

George Cortelyou also remains enshrined in another piece of history. This clip is the first video ever taken of a president. McKinley and Cortelyou are reenacting the moment where Cortelyou informs McKinley of the latter’s Republican nomination for President in September of 1896.

Learn More About George Cortelyou & Other Important Political Figures

Read more about George Cortelyou and other political figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Titanic Victims – Archibald Willingham Butt, Anne Frank Family Album at the Anne Frank Fonds and Harry Truman Post Presidency


[1]  “George B. Cortelyou, Financier, 78, Dies.” The New York Times, October 24, 1940, p. 25


[3]  Ibid

[4] For more on the modernisation of the presidency with regard to the press, see Ponder, Stephen. “The President Makes News: William McKinley and the First Presidential Press Corps, 1897-1901.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 4, 1994, pp. 823–836. JSTOR, Accessed 20 Feb. 2020.

[5] For more on Cortelyou’s general innovation and  impact on the press during the McKinley administration, see List of McKinley Firsts

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April 23, 2020

Watch: Jewish Confederate Soldiers – Georgia

Jewish Service in the American Civil War: The Solomons Family, originally from South Carolina moved to Savannah before the Civil War, and brothers Abraham Alexander, Lizar, Joseph M., and Moses Joseph all served in Georgia regiments; Louis Merz of West Point, GA, who died during the Battle of Antietam in 1862; Anselm Sterne, also from West Point, who survived the war and was an active member of the United Confederate Veterans; and Joseph Byron Canman – a Union ancestor in the family tree of one of the members of The Jewish Genealogical Society of Georgia (JGSG).


Adrienne Usher:
Welcome to the Shapell Roster of Jewish Service in the American Civil War. On behalf of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation and my colleagues, Alex and Caitlin, I’d like to extend our thanks to Peggy Friedman of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Georgia, and Jeremy Katz of the Breman Museum. We are so grateful for their enthusiasm, cooperation and tireless effort to promote this event, which is evident by how many of you are here today. So let’s get started.

Adrienne Usher:
Before I tell you more about the Shapell roster, some of you might not be familiar with the organization behind our project, the Shapell Manuscript Foundation. They’re based in Israel, with offices in California. And the foundation is dedicated to collecting and exhibiting original manuscripts and historical documents, with a focus on unique themes in U.S. history and the Holy Land, with emphasis on 19th and 20th centuries. Our research is just one of the many ongoing projects at the foundation. Some of these projects include an exhibition called Mark Twain and the Holy Land, which was at the New York Historical Society until last month. And we have two books in production, one on John F. Kennedy, and another one on Abraham Lincoln, and those will be coming out in the near future. If you would like to know more about the foundation, you can go to and find out more.

Adrienne Usher:
We are a small team of six, currently located in West Virginia, that’s myself, Montana, that’s Caitlin, Massachusetts, that’s Alex. And then we have additional researchers in Virginia, California and Nebraska. We come from different disciplines, museums, public history, historic preservation, genealogy, art history, and Caitlin is a lawyer with a passion for Civil War history. What we all have in common is curiosity and a dedication to bringing this research to the public. As a side note, if you are interested in volunteering with us, we actually have a handful of volunteers. We’d like to hear from you. And at the end, we will give you an email address you can use to contact us and let us know you’d like to help us out.

Adrienne Usher:
Before I get started on how we got started on this project, I’m going to ask three questions. After each one, I’d like everyone in the audience to use the raise hand feature if your answer is yes. Let’s see if this works. Okay, question number one, how many people here know if they have an ancestor that served in the Civil War? Oh, my goodness, look at that. Wow. Okay, that’s awesome. Excellent. Okay, question number two, how many people aren’t sure if they have an ancestor that served in the Civil War, but their family was in the United States at least before the Civil War?

Adrienne Usher:
Excellent, excellent. Okay. You could put your hands down. Question number three, how many people have heard of Simon Wolf? Wonderful. Let’s see here. So for those of you not familiar with Simon Wolf, he was a prominent Washington, DC based lawyer who was Jewish. If he was alive today, we’d probably call him a social justice warrior, because he was exactly that. He also had a special tie to Atlanta. Another raise hand opportunity, how many of you know about the Jewish Educational Loan Fund? Excellent. Oh, boy. Lots of you guys. Oh, that’s exciting. Okay. All right, next question. How many of you know that it began back in 1876 as a proposal by the President of the national B’nai B’rith to create a Hebrew Orphans Home, which was finally completed in 1889?

Adrienne Usher:
Excellent. All right. And for those of you, Simon Wolf was that President. In 1895, he published a book called The American Jew as Patriots, Soldier and Citizen. In it, he listed nearly 10,000 names of Jewish Civil War soldiers and sailors. And ever since then, that 10,000 number has become synonymous with Jewish and Civil War. It was a limited list, however, comprised of the usual military basics, name, rank and regiment. When I first started on this project nine years ago, I was informed that all the names in Wolf’s roster were Jewish and needed no further research other than to confirm their service information. This is probably a good time to mention that I myself am not Jewish. And having done academic research my entire professional career, when someone tells me no further research is needed, I assume the opposite is true. So when we started seeing clues that some of the names in Wolf’s roster might not be Jewish, I started asking some questions.

Adrienne Usher:
The first seed of doubt was planted by a Massachusetts soldier named Henry Marks, good Jewish immigrant name, right? The problem was, he was brought up on charges for stealing a ham for his own use. Now, like I said, I’m not Jewish, so I asked around, and I was told that dietary restrictions could be lifted during extenuating circumstances. Civil War would certainly qualify as meeting that criteria. And that made sense to me.

Adrienne Usher:
The next anomaly was an obituary for the mother of a soldier named Philip Halpin. The problem was it stated that she’d lived a true Christian life. Again, I asked for guidance, and I was told that marriage and conversion to the Christian faith was not uncommon. That also made sense. But what really convinced me that Wolf was simply engaging in the 19th century accepted practice of name profiling was the following. Wolf listed in his roster, this is just random samples, there’s more, a guy named Carl Moritz, another guy named Gustav Rosenfeld and a guy named C.C. Fleck. Now, I assumed that those are all good Jewish sounding names. The problem is when we did our research, Karl’s full name was Carl Christian Moritz. Gustav’s middle name was Christian as well and C.C. Fleck was actually Christian C. Fleck.

Adrienne Usher:
Okay, last question for hand raising. Raise your hand if there is anyone named Christian in your family tree who’s Jewish. I don’t see any raised hands. Okay. In short, Wolf wasn’t being nefarious or duplicitous, but his 19th century work needs a 21st century upgrade. And our mission is to correct the historical record and provide as best as we can an accurate accounting of Jews who served in the Civil War.

Adrienne Usher:
When it goes live, the Shapell Roster will be a free to the public, online, searchable database of Jewish service in the American Civil War. As an aside, when I say soldier, what I really mean is those who served in the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. Air Force, that’s right. The Civil War era Air Force was known as the Balloon Corps. In addition to the regular military branches, we also have a cabinet member and even a few spies. We often get asked, when will the roster be available? I don’t have a definitive date. But the current plan is within the next few years. We’ve spent years on Union soldiers, and we want to make sure that we give the Confederates the same attention. Wolf listed far more Union names, but we also believe that he missed more Confederate names than Union names. So we want to make sure we give the Confederates our full attention.

Adrienne Usher:
Within the database, each soldier will have his own page, which includes, if we have it, his birth and death date and location, a detailed accounting of his military service, the connections, if any, that we know of, between him and other individuals in the database, and you’re going to find out more about that later when Alex is talking. And marriage, residence, occupation details, and historical documents that provide insight into their lives.

Adrienne Usher:
Some of our soldiers, like Edmund Louis Gray Zalinski, get an in depth soldier story treatment. You can view examples of the soldier stories we’ve already written on our website. So if you go to, just add a /roster, or you can just find roster in the bar and click on it there. Those historical documents I just mentioned get attached to the soldier’s record when we find something cool about them, or if we need a proof or evidence for something.

Adrienne Usher:
We have two objectives when researching the soldiers. The first one is proof of military service. The second is for the names from Wolf’s roster, evidence that they were in fact Jewish. Excuse me, we prefer primary source documents, which are defined by the Library of Congress as original documents and objects which were created at the time under study.

Adrienne Usher:
So let’s look at examples of primary source documents organized into three categories. That would be military, public and personal. Examples of military primary source documents include the list you see here. We find these at the National Archives, websites like and multiple genealogical sites. We build each soldier’s military service history as best we can, given the information available to us and scan and attach records on a case by case basis.

Adrienne Usher:
There are two things you should know about Civil War research. Number one, 21st century research of 19th and early 20th century documents is best described, as one of our colleagues used to say, as shooting a moving target from a moving vehicle. Right now, there are more digitized records available than there were this morning when you woke up. Number two, less Confederate records survived the Civil War than Union records. The ones at the National Archives are what the Confederate States gave to the federal government after the war. We know that other records exist, however, and we are dedicated to finding them. But less records is a problem. We do not want to exclude someone’s ancestor, just because there’s no known proof that he served. So we are currently brainstorming on how to adapt our methodology to accommodate soldiers with no traditional proof of service.

Adrienne Usher:
Allow me to give you an example. One of our attendees here today contacted me earlier this week to tell me that her grandfather told her that his father served in the Civil Waar on the Confederate side. I offered to do some research, see what I could find. And I found a biographical passage written about her grandfather while he was still alive that included the same information that she told me. There’s no reason to doubt the story. But unfortunately, her great grandfather left very few footprints in the historical record. And I haven’t yet found evidence of his service during the Civil War. But this is important, That doesn’t mean he didn’t serve. Sorry about the double negatives. It is important to us that 125 years from now, our research won’t be regarded as similar to Simon Wolf’s. So we will keep working towards an answer on how to get Julius Katz into the Shapell roster.

Adrienne Usher:
Next category, public records. These are usually created by government or business entities. They allow us to track soldiers throughout their lives through the historical record. Something to keep in mind with regards to obituaries. Obituaries are the last opportunity to be the person you always wanted to be. So just remember to take the information in them with a grain of salt.

Adrienne Usher:
And lastly, we love personal records and objects. We find them in Union pension records. We find them in archives, libraries, museums, historical and genealogical societies that have collections, and in private collections. And we are especially, and I mean this sincerely, especially grateful to descendants who share their family treasures with us. There’s something about seeing a signature or looking at an object and feeling that connection to the person connected to that. When we know that they died during the war or died never having married, we often wonder if we’re the only ones who remember them.

Adrienne Usher:
So that wraps up the bird’s eye view of the project, and I’m going to let Alex and Caitlin tell you about some of the soldiers in our database. Thank you so much.

Caitlin Eichner:
Hi, everybody. I’m so excited to be here. So today, Alex and I get to highlight some of our soldiers for you and show you some examples of the type of information and the documents we collect, which will be made available to everyone once our database goes live. We’ve picked soldiers with Georgia connections since most of you are from Georgia, and I’m sure some of you will recognize names and places. First, we have the Solomons family. Simon Wolf included a section in his book called Brothers in Arms, documenting some families who served during the war. We’ve taken that concept and run with it. We traced brothers, cousins, in laws and non familial relationships, like friendships, co-workers, neighbors, among many others. Seeing these personal relationships beyond our soldier service really allows us to have a fuller picture of what these soldiers’ lives were like.

Caitlin Eichner:
In the Solomons family, brothers Abram Alexander, so you can see if you look on the family tree, top left was R. Joseph, M. Moses and Moses Joseph, all served in Georgia regiments during the Civil War. Plus, Moses Joseph’s future son in law Joel or Joseph Levenstein served in Virginia and you can see him down on the right side of the family tree right under Moses Joseph. None of these soldiers were listed in Simon Wolf’s book. We believe he had significantly less records, access to records and fewer sources available to him in the south. So we have already added a lot of previously unrecorded Jewish Confederates and expect to find a bunch more.

Caitlin Eichner:
For those of you familiar with Malcolm Stern’s First American Jewish Families, he included the Solomons families in his genealogies as seen here. But he only acknowledged Joseph Solomons in his survey, but R. Joseph and Moses all served together in first Olmstead’s Georgia infantry in 1861. Mazhar then reenlisted with Abraham in 1st Symon’s Georgia reserves in 1864. The family was originally from Georgetown, South Carolina, which had a significant Jewish population in the early 19th century. And they moved to Savannah before the war. We see a lot of these older Jewish families from the south contributing significant numbers to the cause. It is not uncommon for us to work with families where there are a dozen or more members fighting during the Civil War.

Caitlin Eichner:
There is some of this on the Union side, but a lot of the men we see up north are much more recent immigrants, and they don’t have the numbers living in America at the point the Civil War broke out. Our job is really exciting, but it can also be challenging and sometimes pretty tragic. A lot of the men we invest our time in learning about had hard lives, and some are cut short fighting in the Civil War, killed in action but also dying of disease, exhaustion, starvation. We hope the work we’re doing now in some small way honors those sacrifices.

Caitlin Eichner:
Louis Merz was an immigrant from Bavaria. He came to the United States in 1853 and settled in West Point, Georgia, setting up shop as a merchant. Merz volunteered right at the beginning of the war in the 4th Georgia infantry. His brother Daniel Merz also tried to enlist but was turned away for poor eyesight, so Daniel stayed back and manned their store. Unfortunately, Louis was killed in action at Antietam, which took place September 17, 1862, and which would later be acknowledged as the bloodiest single day of the Civil War. But fortunately for us, Louis Merz was a prolific writer, so we know a lot more about him and what his life was like than we do with most of our soldiers. He kept a detailed diary during his service, which was published in 1959 by the Chattahoochee Valley Historical Society, and he has letters held by the American Jewish archives. Additionally, we have copies of brother Daniel Merz’ letters through a descendant who has been working with us, telling the story of how a comrade gave Louis’ ring after his death to the governor of Georgia, and the governor personally tracked down Daniel to return the ring to him.

Caitlin Eichner:
We collect these resources and use them to find new soldiers, relationships between soldiers, and we’ll make them available for everyone to use and learn about these soldiers once our database goes live. Let’s switch over to Alex here.

Alexandra Apito:
Hi, everyone. I’m going to talk to you about our next soldier, Anselm Sterne. Through Louis Merz’ diary and letters, we know that he and four other Jewish soldiers, Jacob Friesleben, Isaac Heyman and brothers, Levi and Anselm Sterne were friends, all from West Point Georgia, and enlisted together in Company D of the 4th Georgia Infantry.

Alexandra Apito:
Other primary source documents give us additional information about a soldier’s service history, but also a valuable insight into other parts of their lives. Here, we have this great newspaper article written about Sterne. The byline of this article is this article is a fourth in a series of articles about the fathers of real daughters of the Confederacy in this area. The first paragraph of this article reads, “12 year old Anselm Sterne didn’t divide the United States into North and South when he came to America from Germany. But when he settled in America, it was the small Georgia town of West Point and when the Civil War broke out, his love of the town and his friends there made him aware that his South was being brought under fire. He was already a member of a crack company, the West Point Guards. When Georgia seceded on January 19, 1861, the Guards immediately offered themselves to the Confederate government for 12 months. Sterne, with such friends as Louis Merz, an uncle and others in the guards were ordered to Augusta.”

Alexandra Apito:
This article is really great because it tells us not only that Sterne was already a member of the West Point Guards when the war began, but it tells us more about his immigration to the United States, his place of residence before the war, and that he had an uncle that served with him. It also mentioned Louis Merz again, the soldier that Caitlin has just discussed with us, who wrote about his friend Anselm Sterne in his diary.

Alexandra Apito:
From his records, military records, we found that Sterne was appointed a member of the brass band during his service, which is really interesting. And after the war, Sterne moved to Albany, Georgia, where he was a charter member of the Jewish congregation. He then moved to Anniston, Alabama, where he was lay reader at Temple Beth-El.

Alexandra Apito:
Another newspaper article we found titled Hebrews in Vital Roles and Affairs in Anniston also has the same photo of Sterne that you can see here. It’s always so great to find a photograph of a soldier that you’re researching. This article lists Sterne as an early leader of the synagogue in Anniston. Stern also appears on a roster of charter members of the Jewish congregation of Albany from the history of Dougherty County. And a document we always love to find, which we were able to find for Anselm Sterne is his obituary. We were lucky to find it, because not everyone has one, and his obituary states that few men have passed away in Anniston in recent years leaving behind such a large number of devoted admirers, as were claimed by Anselm Sterne.

Alexandra Apito:
As Adrienne mentioned before, an obituary was really the last place that the deceased or their family could present themselves the way that they wanted to be remembered. This lets us know that Sterne was admired and had a lot of friends. But this document also gives us other information, such as information about his funeral services. They were conducted at the Temple Beth-El by Rabbi [inaudible 00:22:19] of Montgomery, Alabama, and also includes other valuable data to us, specifically such as information about his birth, his immigration, his residence at the time of his death. And it also mentions that he served in the Civil War.

Alexandra Apito:
Sterne was an active member in the United Confederate Veterans, and his wife led a chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. And these organizations provide us a great way to be able to track guys that were having trouble confirming service for through traditional service records, or if we’re having trouble confirming their civilian identity after the war. And then the document that you can see on the right of your screen is a reproduction of the pledge made by Anselm Sterne to not escape if he was released from a prisoner of war camp while on a working detail in Union hospitals. That’s also really interesting.

Alexandra Apito:
The next soldier I wanted to talk about was Joseph Byron Canman. He’s brought to you by one of our descendants who is in our audience right now, Peggy Friedman. Thank you so much, Peggy. She was instrumental in organizing this meeting today and making everything happen. And she brought us her ancestor. Canman was a union soldier. He served in the 117th Illinois infantry as a fifer, and then as a drummer. And then he was put on special assignment as a clerk for court martial tribunals. He was then sent to the Ordinance Department and finally, the Adjutant General’s department. This is an example of a trend that we often see, which is using Jewish soldiers as clerks, as they often had higher rates of literacy than the general soldiering population at the time.

Alexandra Apito:
One of the main reasons that Canman is a prime example of an outreach success story for us is that without Peggy, we probably would have never known that he was Jewish. He was married in a Methodist wedding ceremony, and as far as we can tell, did not live an outwardly Jewish life. However, he is Jewish through his father, and we would never have known this had Peggy not reached out to us and let us know more of her family history. Peggy also informed us that Canman was really considered the black sheep of the family, and we found this to be true when we found a really interesting tidbit about him. Canman began living under the name of Joseph Campbell in 1878 after the war, because he claimed that he was trying to escape a debt of $4,000 because he had, and also because he had left his family and didn’t want them to find him, so a little scandalous, but very interesting.

Alexandra Apito:
This is a great example of a soldier using an alias after the war, which was more common than you may think. People changed their names a lot during this time period. Again, this is why it’s so important to gather information from descendants who will know more about their own family history, obviously, than we will. We also have many examples of soldiers using aliases during the war. One of the main reasons we have found this happening so far was that soldiers often wanted to hide military service from their families, whether they were underaged at the time of day enlisted, or they just had really protective parents. Many soldiers feared that their families would interfere with their enlistment. And many were afraid that their mothers and fathers would actually show up and drag them home from the war. We have also found a few examples of soldiers expressing that they didn’t want their true name to be published in newspapers if they were to die, because they didn’t want to upset their families with details of their death.

Alexandra Apito:
So we want to hear from you. We’ve been hearing from a couple people in the chat so far, but definitely let us know if your ancestor served in the Civil War. When the Shapell Roster goes live, it will be again free and open to the public. Each soldier will have their own page with documents we’ve gathered from a multitude of archival repositories. If we already have your ancestor, you will be able to access all of these documents we found, and you’ll be able to download them for free. And if we don’t have your ancestor, we would love to do research about them for you for free. So please give us their names and any information you might have about them. And either way, we really want to talk to you.

Alexandra Apito:
So the best way to do that is to email our outreach coordinator, Eliza. Her email’s on the screen, so we can make sure that your ancestors are honored for their patriotic service. So now, we’re going to address any questions that were asked during the presentation. I’m not sure if we have any. But please use the Q&A function at the bottom or the top of your screen. I believe it’s near the hand raise function that you guys were practicing earlier to ask us any additional questions you might have about any of the contents of our presentation or any further questions you guys have. Thanks.

Adrienne Usher:
Okay, excellent. Oh, look at all those questions lining up, okay. You want me to take Peggy’s question?

Alexandra Apito:

Caitlin Eichner:
Go for it.

Adrienne Usher:
All right, great. So Peggy asked, is there a list of soldiers on the Shapell Roster, so that we can know if we’re sending you the name of someone that you have already researched? So the answer to that is no but for very good reason in that literally, our list changes daily. So there would be no way for us to-

Caitlin Eichner:
We want to hear from you whether we’ve already researched your ancestor or not.

Adrienne Usher:
Exactly. So we just want to hear from you guys. So Jeremy just asked, I know you still have a lot of research to do, but what is your current tally, both Union and Confederate? So let me start by saying that we’ve been going through the Wolf names, and to date, we’ve already found 800 duplicate names. So that doesn’t mean that they were Jewish or not. Those are just duplicate names, where somebody served in multiple regiments and they’re listed multiple times as individuals. So we have worked really, really, really hard to stay away from what we call the numbers game, because we feel like there are still so many names that we haven’t found, especially on the Confederate side. And once we finish our analysis of Wolf, we’ll be better able to address the number question, but just so you know, right now, Wolf names fall into three categories. They are either Jewish, they are either not Jewish, and there’s a handful of those, or we have a category called Jewish according to Wolf. And what that means is we have not yet found anything to give us direction one way or the other. So until we get all of those names assigned a status, we won’t really be able to address the numbers question. So I’m sorry that was a non answer, but-

Caitlin Eichner:
We’re working on it.

Adrienne Usher:
We are working on it. So Sharon asked, do you plan to connect your database to and other genealogical websites? So I’m assuming most of you all are familiar with JewishGen and JewishGen’s partnership with Ancestry. So what we would, we have discussed this with people at the foundation, and we feel like it’s too early at this juncture to make a decision one way or the other. But my guess is if we were going to do that, we would do it through JewishGen. That seems to be the best way to do that. And I’ve had some conversations along those lines with the people at JewishGen, but I think that but regardless, because our database will be free to the public, even if it stands at me, a standalone, and we don’t end up partnering with Ancestry, you won’t need to worry about having to do a membership fee. So it will still be free.

Caitlin Eichner:
Also, I just wanted to grab Sandy asked a question in the comments section, and I just want to address that really quickly. Sandy asked if we list deserters, and we do, and we don’t judge. We have guys who enlisted and were around for five days. We have guys who deserted after almost four or five years or four years of service. We’re totally non judgmental. If you served a day in the military, you were officially on the rolls, we include you.

Alexandra Apito:
It was very prevalent during the Civil War and a lot more soldiers deserted than you would ever imagine and came back a lot too.

Caitlin Eichner:
A lot, yeah. President Lincoln at one point issued a proclamation allowing deserters to come back. And if you would fulfill the remaining time left on your enlistment period, they’d totally forgive your desertion. So we have a bunch of guys, too, who left at some point and then come back and actually end up fulfilling their service honorably.

Adrienne Usher:
And we also have people who were said to have deserted, which was actually paperwork issues. In other words, if you’re not there at roll call, somebody’s going to assume you deserted. Well, you may have been detached and the guy taking roll call wasn’t informed enough. You could have been in the sick, the hospital.

Caitlin Eichner:
We see a lot of that in the official records, things being corrected later on. There’s a lot of chaos in war. So we also have a question in the comments about how much we’ve used Robert Rosen’s book to help with our research. And we definitely have referenced Rosen. We’re adding to some of his information. He’s been helpful. So we appreciate his work.

Adrienne Usher:
One of the things to keep in mind about Robert Rosen’s work is that when he did his book, the Internet was in its infancy. So the difference between then and now is huge. But we absolutely have been in touch with him. And he’s actually pretty excited about what we’re doing. And so, but one of our very first objectives was to make sure that every name in Rosen’s book has been researched by us and a lot of them were also in Wolf, but some of them that we didn’t know, and so they are now in the database, absolutely.

Alexandra Apito:
Any resource like that, that we can get our hands on, we definitely try to vet and include as much information as we can.

Caitlin Eichner:

Adrienne Usher:
Looks like next question in the Q&A is from Rebecca. It says was what Jewish soldiers said about slavery markedly different than non-Jewish soldiers? Were there any Jewish religious overtones? And I see a couple of upvotes on that. I’m trying to say-

Caitlin Eichner:
We got a mix, and honestly, it runs the gamut kind of the way. I think the entire American population kind of ran the gamut. We definitely have guys coming over who were [inaudible 00:34:27] in Europe who are fighting their own rebellions and they come over and they tend to be very staunchly anti-slavery abolitionists. It goes against their intellectual belief in equality and access. We also have some Jewish slaveholders, so there is definitely a mix.

Caitlin Eichner:
I think the biggest thing that we found about our Jewish citizens at this period of time that doesn’t always get talked about is there’s a lot of assimilation to the societies they’re living in. And so our southern Jews fought for the Confederacy and some specifically point out and say, “Hey, I don’t believe in slavery, but I believe in my home and this is my home now.” Some of them did have slaves or some of them were more okay with the practice. A lot, most of them we don’t have records on how they felt about it to be honest. But we do have some noted abolitionist types from up north. It definitely runs the range, just like the entire population in the United States at that point.

Alexandra Apito:
Yeah. And just going back to one of the soldiers that I had mentioned during the presentation Anselm Sterne, he specifically in the article that we found written about him, said that he wasn’t really concerned about matters between North and South, but that he was very devoted to West Point, Georgia. And if West Point, Georgia was going with the Confederacy, that’s the way he went, because he was about West Point, Georgia. So again, like Caitlin just said, it was a lot of going with the community that you were in, and wanting to be on that side.

Adrienne Usher:
So let’s see. All right, so Peggy, Peggy asked, which archives have you been to, have we visited for research? Is this an area where you are using volunteers? Yes, ma’am. So remember that part where I said we’re a really small team of six, and we don’t have the ability to travel. And thanks to COVID-19, now we’re not even allowed to so. Yeah, that kind of changes everything. But absolutely, because here’s the thing to keep in mind about archives, libraries and historical societies. They are limited. The smaller they are, the less budget they have. And we know, because I’ve been in the museum world for 25 years, that there are absolutely valuable resources in these tiny museums and archives and libraries all over the country. And they tend to collect the families’ business histories and genealogy histories and whatnot. And so there are tiny towns all over the South, where there were Jewish former soldiers, veterans that were very prominent members of society.

Adrienne Usher:
We would love if you know of a small institution that has collections about these. Absolutely, if you want to go there, then get in touch with us and let us know what they have. I just actually was in Richmond, Virginia, and went to the, let’s see, I’m trying to remember, so it’s the Virginia Museum of Culture and History, which now has a lot of the Confederate records there. And I had the opportunity to go through some records that it was like, wow, there’s all our guys. So yeah, and so I wasn’t able to scan anything at that time but we’ll definitely go back. So the answer is, yes, please reach out to Eliza and let us know where you live and what you want to do. And we will absolutely put you to work at our regiment, 100%.

Adrienne Usher:
Okay, I see one from Megan, my grandfather immigrated in 1864 to Chicago. I think he served in the Civil War, but I’m not sure.

Caitlin Eichner:
So again, definitely email us. Like we said Eliza, E-L-I-Z-A at We will 100% look into it. So tell us everything you got, we’re pumped.

Adrienne Usher:
Peggy had a question about do you have any tips for identifying men with the same name? You know what? I think we should do an entire webinar now that we figured this out about that very topic, because-

Caitlin Eichner:
We deal with this all the time. I was doing it yesterday. And honestly, the biggest suggestion I can say about that is don’t think resources won’t be useful. I had a set of brothers who were in Louisiana and I was trying to confirm if the fourth brother was this Jewish gentleman living in New York City by 1868. And I was digging around and I couldn’t find any reference to family. And suddenly, his naturalization papers had a reference to his earlier application for citizenship in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and it’s signed by one of his brothers once I find Louisiana papers.

Caitlin Eichner:
So it’s a lot of digging. It’s a lot of census work. It’s a lot of directories, which are Adrienne’s favorite reference. She’s the queen of finding people on them. Newspapers are great. Wills are an amazing source for finding family trees. People always think about wills. But a lot of the time, people would lay out their entire family to make sure that their assets would be disposed of to someone related to them no matter when they died. So you’ll get nephews, nieces, brothers, cousins, et cetera. But yeah, we could definitely teach an entire seminar on this.

Alexandra Apito:
And that being said, if you are having trouble identifying someone in your family that has a very common name, reach out to us to help you. So again, definitely email us because we do it a lot. So we’ve had a lot of practice. So definitely let us help you, we would love to help you figure it out.

Adrienne Usher:
And I have confirmed that there are no extant copies of the city directory for New Orleans in Louisiana from 1861 to 1864. And so if anybody finds one, call me. Don’t even-

Caitlin Eichner:
Call Adrienne now, please.

Adrienne Usher:
Looks like Dana asked, have you come across any soldiers from Tuscaloosa, Alabama? Her hometown.

Caitlin Eichner:
I’m going to be honest with you, we have not done a ton of work in Alabama right now. I’m currently in Louisiana. Alex is in South Carolina. So I think yes.

Alexandra Apito:
I would be surprised if we don’t have.

Caitlin Eichner:
I would be shocked if we didn’t have because that was already like a trade town.

Adrienne Usher:
Let’s just say yes. But then don’t ask us who.

Caitlin Eichner:
Come back for that answer.

Alexandra Apito:
Oh, Adrienne, there’s a question Jay had was what was the name of the archive you mentioned in Richmond?

Adrienne Usher:
Okay. So the reason I was kind of stuttering about it is, so there are, so there’s three institutions in Richmond. There’s the newly opened, and I hope I’m getting these names exactly right. I believe it’s the American Civil War Museum. And they have two locations. Then there’s the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. And then there’s the Daughters of the Confederacy Museum. So when I went to Richmond, I contacted all of them. And in the process of setting up the American Civil War Museum, they were trying to figure out what was the best place for the records to reside. And by that, I mean that had the best security, the best place for people to view them.

Adrienne Usher:
And I believe, if I’m correct, it was determined that they would be best held at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. They have a large part of the collections are still being processed. And so I was allowed to look at some of them, which was quite gracious of them. But like I said, I wasn’t able to scan anything. But those records aren’t available to the public, because they’re still being processed to make them available to the public.

Adrienne Usher:
Now, I had been in touch with the Daughters of the Confederacy Museum for when we first reached out to them, like six years ago, something like that. And so they had all these records that they said they were processing to make available to the public. And I would check back periodically, and they were never available. What I found out a couple of months ago is that their records are from the origin of the Daughters of the Confederacy. So they don’t actually include Confederate soldier records. So there was no reason for me to go there and look at their stuff. So I actually, a lot of what I was looking at at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture were actually sitting directories of Richmond, and I was just taking iPhone pictures, because then that gives me an idea of who was living in the city. So when we get to Virginia, we’ll have an idea.

Adrienne Usher:
One of the things we might want to mention about the Confederate records is the whole naming convention for the soldiers and the whole IJ issue. Do you guys want to talk about that? How if you see somebody named Jay Levi.

Caitlin Eichner:
It might be I Levi really.

Adrienne Usher:

Alexandra Apito:
It’s the handwriting at the time. It was mixed up a lot of Is and Js. I just had a soldier I was working on last week, actually, whose name I think his name was Isaac Moses and was listed as J. Moses in many documents and I was able to find that it was actually this Isaac Moses.

Caitlin Eichner:
Yeah. And unfortunately, in the Confederates a lot more than with the Union records, they love initials. And it’s like, could you just write his name? Please tell me his full first name. And I don’t know why. But we definitely see that a lot more with the Confederates than the Union, you rarely see just initials. So yeah, it can be tricky. You have to get a little creative. You have to know a cursive F could look like a cursive S that kind of thing.

Adrienne Usher:
Olson S-es.

Caitlin Eichner:
Olson S-es. So we do a lot of work trying to decipher that. German handwriting keys, if you’re working with recent immigrants can be amazing deciphering especially signatures and stuff. We’ve done a lot of that work. So yeah.

Adrienne Usher:
Absolutely. Bert asked a question about what have we found in synagogue archives. It’s interesting. Some synagogues have made their collections available online. I’ve talked to some registrars and some sextons at their synagogues, where their marriage and burial and birth records are in warehouses. And so there’s only six of us, so we’re kind of limited. So, if you happen to know of a synagogue that has-

Caitlin Eichner:
Yeah, if you’re a member of a synagogue that you know has archives or collections, and you want to go look around for us or introduce us to who’s in charge of their archives, that would be amazing. We’ve worked with a synagogue in Richmond so far, a synagogue in Philadelphia. That is definitely one of our major outreach points. Eliza’s been working, contacting a lot of synagogues, because we know they have such rich resources, especially for these guys we can’t find a lot of documentation. Generally, obviously, if they’re hanging out in a synagogue, they’re Jewish, and that’s amazing.

Adrienne Usher:
But yeah, again we can use your help, absolutely.

Alexandra Apito:
We have a question from Howard about South Carolina soldiers and how many that we found in Greenville in particular. So I am currently working in South Carolina, and the names, I can’t give you an exact number yet. It changes literally every day. At least hundreds of soldiers from South Carolina, maybe more. We’re not sure yet. Greenville, I can’t look right now while I’m sitting here, but we have at least a few soldiers from Greenville.

Adrienne Usher:
Is that Tuscaloosa?

Alexandra Apito:
Yeah, exactly. Yes, we have soldiers from South Carolina. And since I’ve been working in the state with the names that we already had, I’ve been able to add tons of new soldiers that Wolf missed in his roster. We have a lot of families that had maybe one brother listed by Wolf, and he had four or five other brothers that also served with him that were missed by Wolf. So we’re adding every day. And we love to see new names. So if you know of anyone else in South Carolina-

Caitlin Eichner:
Yeah, let us know.

Adrienne Usher:
One of the resources that gave me a really good understanding of how it was in the south was there was a diary account and I don’t remember, I don’t believe it was by a Jewish soldier. But they talked about in fact, I know it was a Union non Jewish soldier. And he talked about his regiment coming into Savannah. And how the only males in Savannah at that moment were old, blind and crippled men and males in short pants, i.e. children. And what that visually created for me, was this idea of did you really want to be the only able bodied man in your town who wasn’t in a regiment? And I’m pretty sure that answer is no. So if you have these really large families, and so we’re seeing in families all the brothers, all the fathers, all the uncles, all the cousins, my expectation in the south is within a family that’s going off to work, I would be surprised to find an able bodied male who wasn’t in a regiment. That would surprise me more.

Caitlin Eichner:
The Confederacy had a hefty draft as well. The Union had a draft. It happened. And then it kind of flowed, the Confederate had multiple waves of drafting people. They kept expanding the age limits or the age range of people they were pulling in. And even if you weren’t able bodied to serve, once they figured out you had potentially skills they still want to use, like we have a guy who was in his 40s, he gets drafted, they find out he’s a shoemaker. It’s like he can’t march, he’s not able bodied enough to actually fight. They send him to Richmond to make shoes. So a lot more guys end up getting pulled in to the Confederacy that way than we have on the Union side as well.

Adrienne Usher:
Right, right.

Alexandra Apito:
Are you including men in your list who served during the war in a position other than being a soldier in a regiment? My great grandfather, David Mayer served as a supply officer for the governor of Georgia.

Adrienne Usher:

Caitlin Eichner:
So I’ve read about David Mayer, very cool guy. That’s awesome. We are currently kind of figuring out how we want to include people like that, if they were officially enlisted into the Confederate Army as a supply officer, so like they worked with the Department of Subsistence, or the Quartermaster Department, and they’re actually officers within those, they definitely are in the database, there’s no question about that. We also have guys like sutlers, whose names we are collecting. We’re really interested in them. We’re in the process of determining how to display them in our database, how to make that information available. We need to do more in the process of researching David Mayer. So if you have more information, and you want to talk to us, we’d love to talk to you about him, because we’re figuring out which of those categories he fits into now.

Adrienne Usher:
And this is purely on a technical level. So we’ve added people like David to our sutler list, so we have sutlers, we have businesses-

Caitlin Eichner:
Blockade runners.

Adrienne Usher:
Blockade runners, exactly. And so again, this also addresses how do we put in soldiers who have no service records into our database. So the way our database is structured is we have to have information about the regiment to fill out the record. So it’s also kind of a technical issue. But what I’m confident of is that David Mayer being a perfect example, we absolutely would love to have the information, and we will, we may turn it into a related to soldier stories kind of thing. We’ve got a lot of ideas about how to share what we’ve collected in terms of stories, not just straight up data. So while we may not have them in our database, we may do a whole treatment of them on the website as the story. So that’s a possibility in the future.

Caitlin Eichner:
Yeah, yeah, we recognize these are important contributions to acknowledge as well. And we definitely want to include them. Like Adrienne said, we’re just in process.

Alexandra Apito:
We have one last question from Jeremy. Did the South have substitutes, as did the Yankees? Yes, the north and the south both had substitutions as something that they practiced.

Adrienne Usher:
Yeah, 100%

Alexandra Apito:
Or to be able to get a little more bounty to serve for someone else.

Adrienne Usher:
Exactly. So, yeah. Okay all right. Thank you, everybody. Have a lovely day. Stay safe. Stay inside. Okay?

Caitlin Eichner:
[inaudible 00:53:40] and contact Eliza and you all talking directly to us. So that would be amazing. We want to hear from everybody.

Alexandra Apito:
We’d love to do more research. Thank you so much, everybody.

Adrienne Usher:
Bye bye, stay safe.

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Detail: Lieutenant Archibald Butt in 1909. Image: Library of Congress.
April 12, 2020

Archibald Willingham Butt: Presidential Aide And Friend, Lost On The Titanic

If the presidential election of 1912 was not the most dramatic in American history, it was certainly one of the most personal. President William Taft, the incumbent Republican, sought reelection against the Democratic Woodrow Wilson, as well as Theodore Roosevelt who freshly formed the Progressive/Bull Moose party. Roosevelt had mentored Taft and chose him as his presidential successor, only to become displeased when Taft began to assert himself. By the middle of Taft’s term in office, the relationship between Roosevelt and Taft was rapidly deteriorating, with both men publicly attacking the other’s character as well as policies. In 1912, Roosevelt put the nail in the coffin of the friendship, and ran against Taft.

Archibald Willingham Butt, known as Archie Butt, a man who served as an aide to both Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, and whom both considered a dear friend, bore the brunt of much of the row between the two men. Both Taft and Roosevelt confided in him about the souring of their friendship. By 1910, Butt was exasperated, and confided to his sister-in-law that the tension between Roosevelt and Taft caused him to throw up his hands. “They are now apart and how they will keep from wrecking the country between them I scarcely see. Possibly, it may land a good Democrat in the White House which may bring back sanity to the people….Damn politics anyhow.”[1] Ultimately, Roosevelt’s party split the Republican vote and handed the White House to Wilson – the first Democrat since Grover Cleveland had won his second non-consecutive term nineteen years earlier, in 1893. In other words, Archie’s prediction had been spot-on. 

Butt had worked his way up from a poor, unprivileged life in Augusta, Georgia, to become one of the most beloved figures in Washington, D.C. Born in 1865, less than half a year after the Civil War ended, Butt had the military in his blood. His grandfather (also Archibald Butt) had served in the Revolutionary War, during which Archie’s great-grandfather also served as a lieutenant. His uncle was Confederate General William R. Boggs. When Archie was fourteen, his father passed away, and Archie had to work to support his family. Butt eventually became a journalist, and in 1895 was appointed as the first Secretary to the US Ambassador to Mexico, where he continued to write for several American newspapers. At the height of his journalistic career, the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898. Feeling duty-bound and proud of his military pedigree, Butt enlisted in the US Volunteers and was commissioned as a lieutenant. Butt was a quartermaster and established himself as a capable logistician, eventually joining the US Army and serving in the Philippines, Washington, D.C., and Cuba.

President Theodore Roosevelt had also served in the Spanish-American War, and his exploits as head of the Rough Riders had practically catapulted him into the presidency. Roosevelt had read several of Butt’s military reports concerning the husbandry of animals in the tropics and had been so impressed that he asked Butt to become his military aide in 1908.[2]

Butt managed to keep up with Roosevelt’s rigorous physical activities, and became not only a valued adviser, but a cherished friend. The following year, Taft succeeded Roosevelt, and Archie was asked to stay on as an aide to the President. In 1911, Butt was promoted to Major in the Quartermaster Corps.

Seven months before that fateful election, on March 3, 1912, Archie Butt, at the behest of President Taft, traveled to Europe for a few weeks. According to some, Taft was concerned for Butt’s health. According to others, Archie had needed a break to decide between which of his two friends he would support for president in a few short months. Butt’s sense of duty compelled him to cancel the plans, and only at Taft’s insistence that he go, did he depart. Archie, cognizant of the impending elections wrote that he was “hesitating about the wisdom of going,” and that he couldn’t “bear to leave him just now. I can see he hates to see me go and I feel like a quitter in going.” Less than a week after he expressed his hesitations, Archie set off with his companion, the artist Frances Millet, with whom he shared a mansion in DC’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood.

After six weeks in Europe, Butt boarded the Titanic in Southampton and Millet met him aboard in Cherbourg later that day. The pair planned to return to their Washington home, where Butt had political business waiting for him, and Millet, as the Vice Chairman of the American Commission of Fine Arts, was due to help finalize the Lincoln Memorial design phase.  Both Butt and Millet perished on the ship, the only known US officials among the Titanic victims to do so. Butt was probably the single most widely mourned victim on the Titanic, as he was one of the most beloved political figures in the US at the time. The 1997 film Titanic, which received critical acclaim for its painstaking historical accuracy, depicted numerous famous people, such as John Jacob Astor, but Archie Butt is nowhere to be seen. Indeed, some accounts have Astor and Butt last seen together before the ship went down. 

Roosevelt mourned Archie’s death, saying “Major Butt was the highest type of officer and gentleman. He met his end as an officer and gentleman should, giving up his own life that others might be saved. I and my family all loved him sincerely.”[5] President Taft was devastated. He felt Butt’s loss as if he had lost a younger brother. The following month, at Butt’s memorial service in Augusta, Taft nearly broke down twice, cutting his remarks short. 

In October of 1913, a fountain was dedicated to both Butt and Millet – an unusual and progressive monument in the “don’t ask don’t tell” Gilded Age. As neither of Archie’s friends were elected president the year before, the fountain was dedicated without ceremony. 

Two years to the day of the Titanic disaster, in April of 1914, Taft dedicated the Archie Butt Memorial Bridge in Butt’s hometown of Augusta. The bridge was the first memorial for the Titanic disaster, and it remains the only one in the state of Georgia. Taft, who used to golf with Butt regularly, stayed at a golf resort in Augusta ahead of the ceremony. He eulogized Butt as a hero (see image and transcription below.)

Taft’s remarks certainly encapsulated Butt’s gallant side, and the way nineteenth century historical figures tend to be remembered. And indeed, there can be very little remembering of Roosevelt or Taft without remembering their Presidential aide Butt: every definitive biography of either president relies heavily on Archie Butt’s letters.[6] Departing from Taft’s rather formulaic description of Butt, Ross Snellings, founder of the The Butt Memorial Bridge Legal Defense Fund, reminds us how Archie’s friends would have remembered him:  “When they turned on the lights [on the Butt Memorial Bridge] for the first time, they remarked ‘Well, it’s going to be just like old Archie: lit every night.’”


Taft’s Tribute to Butt.

Welcomed Hero’s Death on Titanic, Ex-President Says at Memorial.

Augusta. Ga. April 15. – Simple but impressive exercises attended the dedication here to-day of the Butt Memorial Bridge, erected as a tribute to the memory of the late Archibald Willingham Butt, aid to Presidents Taft and Roosevelt, who perished in the Titanic disaster on April 14, 1912. Ex-President Taft, a delegation of Masons, and member of the Butt Memorial association participated in the services. Mr. Taft, the first speaker said:

“I like to think of him as the best type of the new South. Archie went to his death in a great disaster. We do not know the details, but we know that women and children were rescued and he went down with the ship. When I heard that many were lost I know that Archie would never return. He would have selected no other death has he been given a choice.”

Learn More About Archie Butt

Learn More about Archie Butt and other important historical figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Anne Frank Family Album at the Anne Frank Fonds, George Cortelyou, and Harry Truman Post Presidency.


[1] Skipper, John C. Roosevelt’s Revolt: The 1912 Republican Convention and the Launch of the Bull Moose Party. McFarland, 2018, p. 6


[3] Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Military Aide, Vol. 1, Doubleday Doran and Co., 1930, p. 851


[5] Buffalo Evening News Buffalo, New York 20 Apr 1912, Sat  • Page 8

[6] Wilkes, Jr., Donald E. “On the Titanic: Archie Butt.” The Athens Observer. April 28-May 4, 1994, p. 6. Accessed on 9 March, 2020

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Detail: President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1961. AP.
April 17, 2020

“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Most Americans know three of them by heart; short phrases that have come to define an age and a speaker. “Nothing to fear but fear itself” spoke Franklin D. Roosevelt, and “with malice toward none,” Lincoln said in his second inaugural address. John F. Kennedy, born just one year before the Great Influenza plague of 1918, uttered the third such phrase at his only inauguration, and it is, in popular memory: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Today, Americans are hearing an echo of Kennedy’s words. They are being asked, once again, to do something for their country. Facing a deadly infectious disease sweeping the globe – one without, yet, a cure – medical personnel are being asked to leave their homes and travel to hotspots to help. Everyone else is being asked to not travel, and to help by simply staying put. It hardly sounds like a clarion cry, but edicts not to leave home, or engage with others – except masked, and at a distance – are in fact calls for patriotic sacrifice, poignant for a culture that so prizes personal freedom. If one does not live a normal life today, then others may live a normal life later. Mundanity and tedium are now the difference between life and death, for oneself and others; for a neighbor, and fellow citizens across the entire country. This terrible moment is felt by many, to be just a little akin to the days when JFK announced those most famous words. Read more here.

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Chief Collections Curator Sara Willen.
March 29, 2020

A Reading by Chief Curator Sara Willen: Abraham Lincoln’s Condolence Letter

One of the greatest letters of consolation ever written. Chief Curator Sara Willen narrates the story of Abraham Lincoln’s many personal losses and of his condolence letter to young Fanny McCullough. The original manuscript and transcript can be viewed here.



Lincoln said that all that he was or ever hoped to be he got from his mother. Now, his mother died when he was nine years old. Lincoln never talked about the loss of his mother. There’s a poem in which he refers to it at one point, and then there is this letter, which is probably one of the great letters ever written of consolation, especially to a young person. It’s called the Fanny McCullough letter.

Dear Fanny, it is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave father, and especially that is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all, and to the young it comes with bitterest agony because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet, it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say, and you need only believe it to feel better at once. The memory of your dear father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad, sweet feeling in your heart of a purer and holier sort than you have known before. Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother. Your sincere friend, A. Lincoln.

It’s important to Lincoln Scholars because he mentions his own deep grief, which just less than a year before had been compounded again by the death of his second son. Meanwhile, of course, men are dying around him day and night, in terrible, terrible battles. He is wallowing in death. It tells us how Lincoln survived in the past and at that particular moment.

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Detail: Mark Twain reading and lounging, circa 1905. Wikimedia Commons.
March 23, 2020

Historical Reads for Self-Isolation | COVID-19

With the outbreak of the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, the world currently finds itself in a pandemic of proportions rarely seen before. Our daily lives have altered to the point where some day, this will be taught as a history lesson. Most of us find ourselves social distancing, if not in self-isolation or quarantine. Amidst the isolation, many are turning to books as a form of comfort, engagement, and growth not offered to us by TV. As these are historic times, perhaps some historic figures from our Collection can offer some guidance on what to read.

Mark Twain struggled to narrow down his favorite authors at the request of a correspondent. For those embarking on the daunting task of homeschooling, Twain recommended the same books for boys and girls (with the exception of substituting Tennyson for Crusoe for girls.) Third on Twain’s list is a book written by a friend of his which Twain himself published a few years earlier, and to this day has never gone out of print: Grant’s memoirs

Upon leaving the White House in 1909, Theodore Roosevelt embarked on an African safari. He could not leave without packing some reading material, and brought no less than 59 books, weighing in at nearly 60 pounds. Roosevelt had the volumes bound in pigskin to protect them from the inevitable “blood, sweat, gun oil, dust, and ashes” to be expected on a hunting expedition in the African wilderness – and which did, indeed, stain Roosevelt’s now-famous portable library. Though Twain didn’t think much of Roosevelt (he called him a bully and a ruffian, to be precise), the feeling was not mutual, and in addition to the predictable classics, the former president made sure to pack some Twain for his journey.

Twain was also Harry Truman’s “patron saint” in literature.” In 1911, when he was twenty-seven years old and running his family farm, Truman used his own money to purchase a twenty-five volume set of Mark Twain’s works for the princely sum of $25 – roughly $680 in 2020. Though Truman was the only 20th century president without a college education, he read (by his estimation) all of the books in his local library, and the Old and New Testaments three times before he was fifteen years old. He even read Cato’s agricultural treatises and implemented the Roman senator’s methods on his 20th century Missouri farm, with much success and even acclaim from neighboring farmers. Truman was particularly drawn to biographies of famous generals (Robert E. Lee and Hannibal were favorites) and world leaders (especially Andrew Jackson.) His preference was prescient, and when he unexpectedly found himself at the helm of the most powerful military in history amidst the biggest war known to man, his reading, he said, prepared him for his “terrible trial.” 

If you would like to read some of the books mentioned here by Twain, Roosevelt, and Truman, the following is a partial list (the entire list of books for Roosevelt’s pigskin library is available here). Luckily, most of these titles are available online:


Historic Reading List

The Bible (Roosevelt, Truman)

John Milton, Paradise Lost (Roosevelt)

Shakespeare (Twain, Roosevelt, Truman)

Samuel McChord Crothers, Gentle Reader (Roosevelt)

Grant’s Memoirs (Twain) 

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer (Roosevelt, Truman)

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Ralph Waldo Emerson (detail.) Ralph Waldo Emerson / L. Grozelier 1859 ; lith. by L. Grozelier Boston. Library of Congress.
March 1, 2020

National Grammar Day: Mark Twain on Ralph Waldo Emerson: His Grammar is Like Gravel in Bread

What could be more appropriate to read on National Grammar Day (March 4th) than Mark Twain criticizing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grammar? Though Twain was a little harsh writing about Emerson (who had been dead for four years,) Twain did respect Emerson, and had occasion to visit him a few times. Emerson, for his part, found Twain entertaining, and especially enjoyed The Innocents Abroad.

Excerpted from Twain’s original manuscript:

Dear Mrs. Benjamin :

You are right — it is from Emerson, grammar & all : a selection of my wife’s, who has been an Emersonian devotee all her life.  I do not mean that the grammar is not correct, I merely mean that in one place it all at once arrests the flow of your serenity for a moment, like gravel in the bread.

To read the complete original manuscript: Mark Twain on Ralph Waldo Emerson: His Grammar is Like Gravel in Bread

More on Twain and Emerson’s history: Mark Twain bombs in history’s first roast


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Details, from left: Willie Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge Jr., Benny Pierce.
February 24, 2020

Tragedy in the White House: U.S. Presidents Who Lost Children

On February 24th, President Abraham Lincoln sent word to his wife Mary’s friend, Senator Charles Sumner, requesting his presence. Mary was inconsolable; only four days earlier, on February 20th, 1862, the Lincolns’ son, Willie Lincoln, age 11, passed away in the White House. The 24th was the day of Willie’s funeral.

While a surprising number of presidential families have suffered the loss of a child, those who went through this tragedy while serving in office is much smaller. This collection explores how presidents and their families endured this pain while serving the country, and after.

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Camille Pissarro. Self-portrait. 1898. Sammlung Vogel Collection, New York. The Yorck Project, Wikimedia Commons.
January 21, 2020

Camille Pissarro and the Dreyfus Affair

The French Impressionists were a tight-knit group of artists centered in Paris in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Though there were other factors which contributed to their parting of ways, the Dreyfus Affair seemed to signal a point of no return for this once-intimate group of painters. Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was the only Jewish artist in this small circle of Impressionists. Like many assimilated French Jews, Pissarro did not attribute much importance to his Jewish identity; his mother, though, was of a different opinion, and refused to speak to Pissarro’s non-Jewish wife.[1] The Pissarro family was traditional enough that a letter survives from Pissarro’s father asking him to join the family for the meal before the High Holiday of Yom Kippur, and when his father died, Pissarro expressed himself in traditional Jewish mourning liturgy.[2]

It wasn’t just Pissarro’s parents who tried to remind him of his Jewish identity. In an 1882 letter, Pissarro observed that despite the lack of any Biblical themes in his work, critics insisted on comparing him with the deeply Catholic Jean-François Millet, whose work was influenced by the Old Testament: “For the Hebrew that I am, there is very little of that in me; isn’t that funny?”[3]

Long before the Dreyfus Affair – in which a Jewish army captain was framed for treason – fractured French society to the point where even artists and writers were divided amongst themselves, Pissarro’s colleagues and friends exhibited  tinges of anti-Semitism. In 1882, Pierre-Auguste Renoir refused to be part of an exhibition because he didn’t care for the socialist politics of his fellow-exhibitors. He wrote to the organizer saying that he did not want to be a “revolutionary. To stick by the Israelite Pissarro, that’s Revolution.”[4] 

A decade later, and about three years before the Dreyfus Affair rocked France, there was an Impressionist exhibition in 1892, at which Pissarro was on the receiving end of some anti-Semitic bile from none other than Renoir’s younger brother. Pissarro wrote to Monet of the abuse, mentioning the allegations that he was “a prime schemer without talent, a mercenary Jew, playing underhanded tricks.” Though Pissarro assured Monet that he would ignore the absurd comments, and that his main concern was the discord being sown amongst the Impressionists, he clearly cared enough to mention it. He even went so far as to ask Monet, “Is it because I am an intruder in the group?”[5]

A few years after Pissarro’s letter to Monet, in September of 1896, Pissarro wrote a letter of thanks and encouragement to a young literary critic and anarchist named Bernard Lazare, also an assimilated Jew, who had just written a pamphlet on anti-Semitism.[6] Lazare was one of the first to recognize not only the widespread anti-Semitism in French culture, but also that Dreyfus was innocent. By November of 1897, two months before Émile Zola published  J’Accuse, Pissarro was already convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence.[7] 

In January of 1898, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, who had sold military secrets to the Germans and framed Dreyfus for treason, was found innocent in a closed military court. It was in response to this miscarriage of justice, that Émile Zola dropped the bombshell known simply as “J’Accuse,” published in Georges Clemenceau’s L’Aurore on the 13th of that month. In his full page open letter to the French government, Zola accused the army of framing Dreyfus and of a massive coverup. Zola called for the case to be reopened. Though he was found guilty of criminal libel and forced to flee France to avoid jail time, Zola’s article galvanized the pro-Dreyfus camp (known as the Dreyfusards), mobilizing them as a political force to be reckoned with. Monet, who had been acquainted with Zola for nearly thirty years, immediately signed the “Manifesto of the Intellectuals” petition in support of Dreyfus. Days after Zola’s letter appeared in L’Aurore, Pissarro asked that his name be added to the petition, as well. Two months later, Pissarro agreed to be part of a committee to award Zola with a medal. When Renoir was asked to sign a pro-Dreyfus petition, he promptly refused, and disparaged Zola.

In January of 1898, the same month in which Pissarro requested to join the petition, he had his last encounter with Degas, who had remained cordial, if not distant from Pissarro for much of that decade. By the time Degas stopped speaking to Pissarro, Degas had become wildly anti-Semitic, and that January, famously threw a model out of his studio for expressing doubts as to Dreyfus’s guilt. That year, Degas and Renoir began to refuse to greet Pissarro on the street.[8]

The relationship between the artists never improved. When Pissarro died in 1903 at the age of 73, Degas did not attend the funeral, telling Pissarro’s son that it was due to illness. Privately, he wrote something entirely different to his fellow anti-Dreyfusard friend, the painter Henri Rouart:

So he has died, the poor old wandering Jew. He will walk no more, and if one had been warned, one would certainly have walked a little behind him. What has he been thinking, since the nasty affair, what did he think of the embarrassment one felt, in spite of oneself, in his company? Did he ever say a word to you? What went on inside that old Israelite head of his? Did he think only of going back to the old times when we were pretty nearly unaware of his terrible race?[9]

Here, Degas pinpoints the Dreyfus Affair as the turning point for Pissarro’s colleagues becoming more conscious of Pissarro’s Jewish identity, and in turn the rupture the Affair caused amongst the group. Overall, this was emblematic of most of French society, which was split between Dreyfusards and Anti-Dreyfusards. Sadly, Pissarro died three years before Dreyfus was reinstated to the army in 1906, under George Picquart, the Minister of War. Picquart was notably the anti-Semitic colonel who, nevertheless, bravely uncovered the scandal against Dreyfus and went to prison for following the evidence. Picquart had been appointed by the new prime minister, the publisher of Zola’s “J’Accuse”: Georges Clemenceau. In a sense, Pissarro had just missed his Dreyfusard colleagues’ victory in the battle for justice.

[1] Stephanie Rachum, Camille Pissarro’s Jewish Identity, p.11

[2] Ibid, p. 10

[3] Ibid, p. 12

[4] Nord, Philip. “The New Painting and the Dreyfus Affair.” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, vol. 24, no. 1, 1998, pp. 115–136. JSTOR, Accessed 21 Jan. 2020, p.126

[5] Rachum, p. 12

[6] Ibid, p. 18

[7] Rachum, p.21

[8 ] Rachum, p.24

[9] Ibid, p.24

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Quaker City passengers, August 1867. (Photo by William E. James, courtesy of Randolph James.)
January 16, 2020

“Not So Innocent Abroad” – Jewish Review of Books

Diane Cole describes her experience visiting “the remarkable exhibit ‘ark Twain and the Holy Land, on display at the New-York Historical Society until February 2, 2020. It celebrates the 150th anniversary of the 1869 publication of Twain’s second book, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress, the author’s wry-eyed travelogue of the five-and-a-half-month luxury steamship cruise that would carry him and his fellow shipmates across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Mediterranean Sea, and on to its ultimate destination, the Holy Land.”

“Although relatively few readers today would rank this volume [Innocents Abroad] as their favorite among Twain’s works—that honor would more likely go to The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnLife on the Mississippi, or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer—it was, in fact, his bestselling book over the course of his lifetime and remains one of the bestselling travel books of all time. In achieving literary fame so early in his career—his only previous book was The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches—Twain jumped onto his own trajectory of authorial celebrity, his name (or pen name, his birth name being Samuel Langhorne Clemens) recognized throughout the world.” – Diane Cole, Jewish Review of Books

Click here to read the full article.

View the digital exhibition here.

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View of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives in 1841. Courtesy of Dahesh Museum of Art.
December 25, 2019

“The Twain Shall Meet” – The New York Jewish Week

“The artistic pursuits of Mark Twain, the great American writer and humorist, and Emma Lazarus, the first important Jewish American poet, are celebrated, respectively, at the New-York Historical Society (NYHS) and the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS). Both exhibitions creatively bring archival materials to the public.

While I haven’t been able to verify whether Lazarus and Twain actually met in person, it’s clear they moved in similar 19th-century New York social circles, and they shared an interest in Palestine.” – Sandee Brawarsky, The New York Jewish Times

Click here to read the full article.

View the Twain exhibition here.

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Joe Rubinfine and John Sellers.
December 11, 2019

SMF Mourns the Passing of John Sellers and Joe Rubinfine

This fall we sadly lost two people who were influential to the Shapell Manuscript Foundation.


A great Lincoln scholar is gone. Our colleague John R. Sellers, long the Historical Specialist on the American Civil War and the Lincoln Curator at the Library of Congress and, for over a decade, the Director of the Shapell Roster Project of Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War, died this Fall, at age 85.

The enormity of his loss is only magnified by the modesty of his nature. In his own eyes, he was simply “the reference person for Lincoln.” In the eyes of everyone else, he was a leading expert on all facets of the most popular and compelling president in US history.

As the Library of Congress’s Lincoln Curator, John was responsible for its 2009 landmark exhibition “With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition”, featuring the greatest assemblage of objects from the  LOC’s Lincoln collections in history. The Shapell Manuscript Foundation was honored to have been invited by John to add to the exhibit some 18 of its own Lincoln treasures.

John was also a renowned authority on the Civil War, the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Congress, 18th and 19th century military history, and 14 U.S. presidents from 1848 to 1900. With all that he knew, he was generous and welcoming. Generations of historians, biographers, collectors and curators, are yet grateful for his remarkable collegiality.

And, too, on a very personal note: we know that gentlemen exist, because John Sellers existed.

The Shapell Manuscript Foundation

John Sellers. Photo by Alex Wong.



The Shapell Manuscript Foundation mourns the passing of Joe Rubinfine, a quiet and dignified individual who was known throughout the autograph world as one of its leading dealers. Joe handled some truly exceptional material over the years, both privately and through his always wonderful and highly anticipated catalogs. His integrity, too, was unmatched. It was my good fortune to have benefited from his great taste in manuscripts and his gifted knowledge of history.

Benjamin Shapell.

Joe Rubinfine

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General Lew Wallace. Photo taken by Matthew Brady between 1861 and 1865. Library of Congress.
December 5, 2019

The Author of Ben-Hur, the Book that Healed a Nation

General Lew Wallace had a long and storied career, though few people outside the circle of Civil War scholars might have heard his name in our era. He is perhaps best known as the author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ; a novel, though seldom read in our time, was the most popular book of the nineteenth century, second only to the Bible. Today, at best, it evokes a vague sense of a 1950s film adaptation and a remake in 2016. 

Born in 1827 to the future Governor of Indiana (his mother would die when he was seven), Wallace led a life that saw him cross paths with Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, James Garfield, William T. Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Billy the Kid, and numerous other luminaries of the nineteenth century. He was at various times a copyist, a lawyer, a senator, a soldier, an artist, a musician, a luthier, an ambassador, and, most famously, a general, and an author. 

Ben-Hur, Wallace’s second book, was the most widely read novel of the nineteenth-century, dethroning Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It has been argued that it acted as a national salve after the Civil War. Whereas Uncle Tom’s Cabin divided the nation, Ben-Hur united it.[1] Ben-Hur helped form a cultural bond in the Reconstruction era between the North and the South, between the modernization of America and its traditional values, and between the ever-widening gap between the sacred and secular in America. Wallace himself, in his journey from disgraced Civil War general to popular novelist, embodied his book’s message of redemption, as well as the American dream of rags to riches.

Grant, who was Wallace’s commanding officer during the Civil War and was responsible for scapegoating Wallace for the heavy casualties at the Battle of Shiloh, devoured the novel in a thirty-hour sitting. Jefferson Davis, the former Confederate president, had his daughter Varina read the Tale of the Christ to him from 10pm until daybreak, both of them so enraptured by the story as to be oblivious to the passage of time.[2]

Like Grant and Davis, President Garfield could not get enough of Wallace’s writing, and woke up at 5:30 one morning to finish it in bed. That same afternoon, Garfield, a former professor of literature and fellow Civil War veteran, wrote a letter to Wallace expressing his appreciation for Ben-Hur, and soon after asked Wallace to be ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Garfield’s  motivation was literary, rather than political: he wanted Wallace to be able to research a sequel in the Levant when his duties as ambassador weren’t pressing. Wallace served in this capacity from 1881-1885. Garfield’s sequel came in the form of Wallace’s The Prince of India, published in 1893, but sadly, twelve years after Garfield’s assassination.[3]

During his time as Minister to the Ottoman Empire, Wallace did take the opportunity to travel extensively in the Levant and the Holy Land. He was quite pleased with his initial geographic and topographic research on the Holy Land, which he had undertaken in various American libraries; so much so, that he wrote that he didn’t feel he had to change any details in Ben-Hur.[4] During his appointment, Wallace also worked to help Jewish refugees who were fleeing pogroms in Russia and Romania resettle in Syria, which he achieved due to his friendship with Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Grant, who had traveled to Constantinople in 1878, was also struck by the number of refugees, many of them Jews fleeing Bulgaria. Wallace was in turn, a celebrated figure in nineteenth-century Jerusalem, whose Jewish inhabitants compared him to David, and called him “the Nobleman and Prince,” in this “Song of Praise” written to welcome Wallace to the city.

Though Wallace enjoyed much success as a writer, he was still haunted by his unfair legacy at Shiloh until he died in 1905. Wallace’s Ben-Hur continues to have a lasting impact on American culture, in the form of inspiring biblical epics that are perennially produced in Hollywood. The phenomenon of Biblical Blockbusters, ranging from The Prince of Egypt to Noah, to The Passion of the Christ is a quintessentially American phenomenon, and has its roots in Wallace’s Ben-Hur.[5]

[1] MILLER, HOWARD. “The Charioteer and the Christ: Ben-Hur in America from the Gilded Age to the Culture Wars.” Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 104, no. 2, 2008, pp. 153–175. JSTOR, p. 155, Miller also discusses how Ben-Hur

[2] The Passion of Lew Wallace

[3]  The book has nothing to do with India, but it is based on the old anti-Semitic  trope of the Wandering Jew. An odd choice for a man who helped Jewish immigrants.


[5]  Miller, p. 175

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George J. Adams, member of the Latter Day Saint movement's Council of Fifty and founder of the Church of the Messiah. c. 1841. Library of Congress.
November 12, 2019

Mark Twain and the Adams Colony

American colonists followed preacher George J. Adams from New England to Ottoman-ruled Palestine on a messianic mission to prepare the Holy Land for the return of the Jews. “We are going to become practical benefactors of the land and the people,” Adams stated, “to take the lead in developing its great resources.” A year after arriving, some of these impoverished colonists wanted a ticket home. It was at that moment that author Mark Twain came to town while on a five-month pleasure trip through Europe and the Middle East. Read more

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October 25, 2019

Exhibition Opening: “Mark Twain and the Holy”

On display until February 2, 2020

The Shapell Manuscript Foundation and the New-York Historical Society celebrates the 150th anniversary of one of the best-selling travelogues of all time with a new exhibition in New York, Mark Twain and the Holy Land, on view October 25, 2019 – February 2, 2020. This exhibition traces the legendary American humorist’s 1867 voyage to the Mediterranean and his subsequent 1869 book—The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress—through original documents, photographs, artwork, and costumes, as well as an interactive media experience.

In 1867, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910)—known professionally as Mark Twain—departed New York harbor on the steamship Quaker City for a five-and-a-half-month excursion, with stops in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Holy Land. Known at that point for his biting satire and humorous short pieces on California and the West, Clemens had serendipitously discovered a “pleasure cruise” to Europe and the Near East, and successfully inveigled his way onto the journey with an assignment from the San Francisco newspaper Alta California. Twain was to supply the paper with weekly columns about the trip and his fellow passengers. When he returned to New York and then to Washington, D.C., he began reshaping those columns and other notes made during the trip into a book, The Innocents Abroad (1869). It was this work that catapulted Twain to national fame, selling more copies during his lifetime than any other book he ever wrote.

Benjamin Shapell, President of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, remarked that “musing about the voyage in a passage later published in Innocents Abroad, Twain so aptly noted: ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindednes.’ That his travelogue espoused such a liberal sentiment while at the very same time also exposing the deep closed-mindedness of his fellow shipmates is the very reason why Twain’s biting perspective comes across as so fresh to us even today. We are pleased that the New-York Historical Society has brought together these rare manuscripts and artifacts, bringing Twain’s lively, influential, and singular experience to life.”

It took Mark Twain and his publisher a good two years to bring Innocents to fruition in 1869, but once in print, its success was immediate. Twain’s scabrous humor found an eager and receptive audience, well documented in contemporary reviews on display in the show. Innocents undoubtedly contributed to the vogue for traveling to the Holy Land, and the exhibit features letters by such notables as President Ulysses Grant, Gen. William T. Sherman, and Theodore Roosevelt, each of whom journeyed to Palestine. 

Mark Twain and the Holy Land introduces visitors both to a young Mark Twain on the eve of celebrity and to Palestine in the 19th century, captured by artists, writers, and photographers.

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Mark Twain, circa 1872, from American Portraits. Wikimedia Commons.
September 29, 2019

Mark Twain’s Journeys in the Holy Land – Days 13,14,15; September 29th-October 1

(skip to Journal entry)

Mark Twain’s travel journal entries for his last few days in the Holy Land are rather brief, and so we’ve transcribed the full text below.  The time was spent in Jerusalem, Ramle, and Jaffa. It’s two days before he departs that he notices a discrepancy in his dating of the entries. From the Holy Land, Twain would continue onto Egypt, and ultimately return to New York by way of Bermuda.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this journey with us through Twain’s travel notes. Check back soon, as we’ll be sharing more great Twain articles in anticipation of the opening of the exhibition, Mark Twain and the Holy Land, at the end of October.

Regarding the date listed in the journal, see here.

Excerpted from Mark Twain’s Notebook 9:

Sept 28 – Went all through the Holy Sepulchre again.

Saw the rock faces in a wall on Via Dolorosa that cried Hosanna! when Jesus passed.

Visited the Fountain of Hezekiah, where David saw the mother of Solomon bathing.

Went to the Pool of Bethesda again for water.

Got a branch from the Cedar of Lebanon planted by Godfrey de Bouillon, first King of Jerusalem about 1085 to 1099.

28 or 29

Went out by the Damascus Gate 3 PM & left for Ramleh – reached there at 8 PM. or 9. Tall, handsome Crusader’s tower. This is the valley of Ajalon, where the moon stood still.

Next morning – Sep. 30 – rode 3 hours in a gallop to Joppa – where timber for Solomon’s temple was landed

Jonah sailed from here on his mission.

Visited house of Simon the Tanner where Peter had the vision of unclean beasts.

Napoleon took this place once.

Oct. 1. – Sailed for Egypt.

Go to previous entry

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Aerial photograph of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Andrew Shiva, Wikimedia Commons.
September 28, 2019

Mark Twain’s Journeys in the Holy Land – Day 12, September 28th

(skip to Journal entry)

Mark Twain and his Quaker City companions spent another full day touring Jerusalem, recalling many biblical events and stories from the old and new testaments, and from Muslim tradition as well. There is also mention in his journal of the crusades, in referring to Godfrey of Bouillon. The group enjoyed vast views across the land when they reached the top of the Mount of Olives and were able to take in the Jordan valley, the Dead Sea, the Mountains of Moab, and many more landmarks. Read excerpts below.

Regarding the date listed in the journal, see here.

Excerpted from Mark Twain’s Notebook 9:


Sept. 27 – …passed Jaffa gate… crossed Hinnom Valley…. climbed the Hill of Evil Council.

….Saw where the altar of Moloch stood…. drank at Job’s well (near Sultana’s).

….The King’s Gardens all along – & the King’s well. Passed by he curious old Village of Siloam….

Virgin Mary’s Fountain.

Proceeded to the Garden of Gethsemane….

Turned up to left, past St Agnes & Virgin Mary’s Tombs & ascended to top of Mount of Olives

….saw plainly the Jordan, its valley, the Dead Sea & the Mountains of Moab.

….abreast of the Damascus gate (north), came to the noblest stateliest tree in Palestine – Godfrey de Bulloigne’s tree where he camped….

Went through the Via Dolorosa.

This video shows aerial views from the Old City of Jerusalem. Check out youtube for some great 4K and drone videos across the city and the country:

Go to previous entry

Go to next entry

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Church of Nativity, Bethlehem. Mohammada Atta, Wikimedia Commons.
September 27, 2019

Mark Twain’s Journeys in the Holy Land – Day 11, September 27th

(skip to Journal entry)

On this day, the Quaker City group returned to Jerusalem, via Bethlehem, stopping at the Milk Grotto, Convent of the Nativity, and Rachel’s Tomb. The rest of the day was spent back in Jerusalem, a two hour journey north from Bethlehem. Once there, Twain stopped in at the Mediterranean Hotel and then visited the Western Wall. A day filled with major historic and biblical sites.

Regarding the date listed in the journal, see here.

Excerpted from Mark Twain’s Notebook 9:


Sept. 26 – Got up at 3 AM & traveled 2 1/2 hours… got to the enclosure of olive trees where the angels announced the birth of the Saviour to the Shepherds…..

Milk Grotto.

Then to the convent of the Nativity…. Lunched there & left. – 2 hours to Jerusalem. On the way, visited Rachel’s Tomb (authentic.)

In Jerusalem breakfasted at noon at the Mediterranean Hotel…

….Went to the Jew’s wailing place alongside the old wall of Solomon’s Temple… Many Pharisees, with a curl forward of ear.

Another part of the Temple wall, where Dr. Robinson discovered the spring of the arch which Solomon built to connect Zion Hill with the Temple…. stones are 20 feet long & 5 or 6 thick. How did they haul them with camels & jacks.

Retired to our tents outside the Damascus Gate.

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Dead Sea, Israel, 2017. Ido Avramasko, Wikimedia Commons.
September 26, 2019

Mark Twain’s Journeys in the Holy Land – Day 10, September 26th

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Twain’s Quaker City group traveled south along the Jordan River, arriving at the Dead Sea. His horse apparently knew better than him; Twain upset the animal when he tried to bring it into the Dead Sea water, while he himself ended up with a blistered face and salt covered hair.

The water of the Dead Sea is not drinkable, being more than 9 times as salty as the ocean. With a high mineral content, the water can be beneficial for the skin, and the sea has been the site of health resorts reaching as far back as the time of Herod the Great. The area is also sunny year round with dry air. Having formed as part of a rift, the surface of the sea and its shores are over 1,400ft below sea level, the lowest land elevation on Earth. It’s a must-see natural wonder if you’re ever in the area.

Regarding the date listed in the journal, see here.

Excerpted from Mark Twain’s Notebook 9:

Dead Sea.

Sept. 25 – Visited ancient Jericho & the Foundation of Elisha.

…. As usual, got up 2 hours too soon (at 2 AM) & at 4 had traversed the plain of Jericho & arrived at the

River Jordan,

….Then rode 2 hours to the Dead Sea, & took a long bath. Face blistered and hair filled with crystalized salt. – Took a horse in & he upset.

….Rode 5 1/2 hours through frightful heat, over the roughest mountain scenery, and arrived at last, brimming with gratitude, at the prodigious Covenant of Mar Saber.

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Quarantal Monastery of Jericho, 2012. Tamar Hayardeni, Wikimedia Commons.
September 25, 2019

Mark Twain’s Journeys in the Holy Land – Day 9, September 25th

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Leaving Jerusalem and heading toward the Jordan Valley, the landscape became more bleak and the temperature rose. From his journal, it seems Twain was continuing to become more disenchanted with the region as he wrote, “No Second Advent – Christ been here once – will never come again… I have only one pleasant reminiscence of the Palestine excursion -time I had the cholera in Damascus.”

Regarding the date listed in the journal, see here.

Excerpted from Mark Twain’s Notebook 9:

Sept. 24 – Left Jerusalem at 8 AM….

Village of Bethany.

….Over mountain saw Jordan Valley, Mountains of Moab & Dead Sea

Modern 2d Jericho.

8 Arched aqueduct…

Ancient Jericho.

Many ruins still there (arches, of course), & mosaics in the brook.

….Priest only entered Holy of Holies once a year & then sent a scape goat through Golden Gate to wilderness…

….God protect the relics of Jerusalem when our tribe get there.

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Via Dolorosa, American Colony Jerusalem, 1919. Hand-colored photographs were created by the photographers of the American Colony Photo Department, located in Jerusalem. Founded in the late 1890s by Elijah Meyers, the photo agency was headed during its heyday (ca. 1903-1933) by Lewis Larsson, whose staff photographers included Erik Lind, Lars Lind, Furman Baldwin, and G. Eric Matson.
Taken from the American Colony Jerusalem Collection at the U.S. Library of Congress.
September 24, 2019

Mark Twain’s Journeys in the Holy Land – Day 8, September 24th

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A day full of visiting the most enviable and coveted sites to see in Jerusalem. The list of the places Mark Twain and the Quaker City travelers encountered surely speaks for itself.

Regarding the date listed in the journal, see here.

Excerpted from Mark Twain’s Notebook 9:

Sept. 23. – Visited the Mosque of Omar….

Great Rock of Abraham’s Sacrifice (authentic) Cords of pillars & sculptures from Solomon’s Temple (authentic)….

Got some pieces of the old Temple.

….Place where they tie rags to let Mahomet know they have been there.

Mosque El Aksa.

….Walls full of relics of Solomon’s Temple plastered in for preservation – Christians would steal & take home. Thank the Mohammedans.

Beautiful old inverted pillars.

Underneath are the old monstrous arched pillars & foundations of Solomon’s Temple, preserved excellently by the ruins that lay upon them so long…. and the subterranean way of the Pool of Siloam discovered by Dr. Robinson.

Palace of Caiaphas

Pool of Bethesda.

The Gate Beautiful


Seat of Judgement

…. Doorway to Pilate’s House.

Place where Christ sat when people said His blood be upon us & upon our children….

Via Dolorosa….

Dives House

Lazarus House

House of Dog Moreover

Tombs of the Kings

Quarries under the City.


Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

…. Place where Helena found the Cross

….Navel of the world in the Greek Chapel, where Adam’s dust came from.

….Crown of thorns.

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Jerusalem Old City Walls. Eitain Ferman, Wikimedia Commons.
September 23, 2019

Mark Twain’s Journeys in the Holy Land – Day 7, September 23th

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Having woken the previous day at 1:00am to spend it traveling across northern Samaria, and only reaching camp at 7:00pm, it’s understandable that there is some confusion of dates, per what Twain has recorded, in his travel journal. It appears, that waking at 2:30am, Twain mistakenly recorded the day again as “Sept 22.” Toward the end of his stay in the Holy Land, he noticed the discrepancy and adjusted the date accordingly before setting sail to Egypt on October 1st.

Excerpted from Mark Twain’s Notebook 9:

Sept. 22….


where the ark of the Covenant rested 300 years…


(House of God) Scene of Jacob’s Ladder Dream – nothing left now but a shapeless mass of ruins.

Villages of


Beroth & Mount Nebo-Samuel

where Prophet Samuel is buried….

Fountain of Beirah.

– very ancient….

All the way to Jerusalem, rocks -rocks – rocks. Roads infernal. Thought we never would get there.

Arrived at last…

bits of ruin scattered everywhere, and the ground thick with Mosaics.

Could recognize the Tower of Hippicus

Tower of Antonio

Mosque of Omar

Damascus Gate

Mount Olivet

Valley of Jehoshaphat

Garden of Gethsemane

Mount Moriah

….Loafed all afternoon in the Mediterranean Hotel.

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A view from Wadi Kana, Samaria; Israel National Parks and Nature Reserve. Jamie Levavi, March 2018.
September 22, 2019

Mark Twain’s Journeys in the Holy Land – Day 6, September 22th

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From 1:00am to 7:00pm, Twain and his Quaker City companions found themselves traveling through northern Samaria. He notes its distinct terraced hills, which can be traced back to biblical times, and where then farmers and vintners continued to use and maintain these agricultural tracts through the millennia to today.

Like much of the Holy Land, Samaria is home to many notable biblical sites and filled with archaeological treasures. It is not uncommon that when ground is broken, builders come upon ancient olive and wine presses, or the remains of ancient villages and homes. Careful steps are then taken to preserve these discoveries either by the archaeological or nature authorities.

Excerpted from Mark Twain’s Notebook 9:

Sept. 22 –
Left Genin at 1AM. Some time before daylight, passed near another place where Joseph’s brethren pitted him.


About noon after passing over a succession of mountain tops (saw Mediterranean Sea 40 miles distant) & many Biblical cities (in which the inhabitants looked savage & would have liked to throw stones (women & babies with elaborate coin headdresses,) we came to the singularly terraced hills which shewed that we were out of Galilee & into


Climbed a hill… where the good Samaritan (the only one that ever lived there) dwelt…
….It is rough stone mud hovels & camel dung, as usual.

Tomb of St John

Or Shechem. Lunched there at 2 P.M.
Ebal on the left (hill of cursing) & Gherison on the right (hill of blessing)…
Ebal is cultivated with grapes – scattering olives on the other- disproves the enthusiasts who say the accursed mountain is barren & the other blooming.

Joseph’s Tomb
Jacob’s Well

Both well authenticate…

Camped at 7PM at an Arab Village – Lubia (Libonia of the Bible). Tents behind. Slept on the ground in front of an Arab house.

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Ein Dor. Ein Dor Museum of Archaeology.
September 21, 2019

Mark Twain’s Journeys in the Holy Land – Day 5, September 21th

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Today’s entry from Twain might find Star Wars fans momentarily confused and smiling. At 7:30am, the Quaker City group broke camp and “galloped across the Plain of Esdraelon to Endor…. the fierce, ragged, dirty inhabitants swarmed.”

The Plains of Esdraelon are today more commonly called the Jezreel Valley, and the local pronunciation and modern spelling of Endor, is Ein Dor, now a kibbutz. Biblical references to the Jezreel Valley, where Ein Dor is located, include major battle scenes. In Christian eschatology, part of this valley is to be the site of a great end of days battle between good and evil – perhaps another similarity to not be lost on Star Wars fans, as Endor was the location of the great battle between the light and dark sides of the Force.

But returning to Twain’s own epic adventures, he cannot help but repeatedly note how “rusty” and “nasty” the local conditions are throughout his journal. Though familiar through the bible, The Holy Land seemed to appear like another world to Twain, with it’s drastically foreign culture, extreme topography, and unusual customs; including women with tattooed faces, which he also notes more than once in his notes.

Excerpted from Mark Twain’s Notebook 9:

Sept. 21 – …galloped across the Plain of Esdraelon to Endor

the rustiest of all, almost – a few nasty mud cabins, – many caves & holes in the hill from which the fierce, ragged, dirty inhabitants swarmed. Pop. 250.

The Witch’s Cave

…. Endor is a fit place for a witch…. Next, to Nain… still smaller town…. place shown where corpse was passing through city wall when Chirst resurrected it.

Shunem,… where woman built shanty on wall for Elisha & he raised her dead son.

Next to Ancient Ruined Castle

celebrated in the Crusades… where Napoleon won a splendid victory over the Syrians (Turks).

City of Jezreel,

on the hill, where Ahab King of Judah lived in splendor with his awful heifer Jezebel…

Fountain of Jezreel,

Where Gideon slipped up on the Midianites & Amalekites with his 300 who lapped like dogs….

This Esdraelon is called the battle-field of the nations. 11 separate and distinct nations have fought in it…. Assyrians & Persians, the Jews & Gentiles, Crusaders & Saracens, Egyptians, Turks, Arabs, and Franks….

Next to

El Genin, where we are camped.

Women tattooed on arms, hands, chins, lips, & sometimes cheeks.

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View of the Church of the Annunciation as seen from the Salesian Church, Nazareth. Wikimedia Commons.
September 20, 2019

Mark Twain’s Journeys in the Holy Land – Day 4, September 20th

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This day, Twain’s traveling group was accompanied by a man whom Twain described as “a pirate… if ever a pirate dwelt upon land.” This tall Arab man armed with a large silver scimitar was hired to guard the group from Bedouins who allegedly took pleasure in killing Christians.

Together the caravan rode to Mount Tabor, a green landmark that Twain enjoyed after trotting through what he considered monotonous desert landscape. The group climbed to the summit of the mountain with sweeping views of the region while they discussed Christ’s transfiguration that took place on the mount. After, they took a two-hour ride to Nazareth via narrow and rocky roads. “All distances in the East are measured by hours, not miles,” Twain observed.

Excerpted from Mark Twain’s Notebook 9:

Sept. 20 – Bathed in Galilee before breakfast. Passed through the strange old town (beautiful porphyry columns with flutings almost worn away. ) Had a wretched looking scalliwag imposed upon us for a guard by the shiek…

Mount Tabor.


….New convent & ruins of an old one built by the Crusaders. Saw XX* in it. Also ruins of Joshua’s time.


Then came to Nazareth, where Christ lived & carpentered till 30 of age (not allowed by Jewish law to teach sooner.

Glass windows, – some 2-story – many shops – many cone-shaped mud hovels; – camels & fantastic Arabs & dirty children – all around, the hills that were familiar to the eyes of Jesus -…. Saw the grotto of the Annunciation…. Grotto where lived Joseph Mary & infant Christ –

Workshop of Joseph & Jesus….

Synagogue where Jesus taught & from which Jews took him to throw him down the mountain, when he “passed from their presence”.

Fountain of the Virgin.

*This is Mark Twain’s usual symbol for crosses.

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Sea of Galilee, 2014. Zachi Evenor, Wikimedia Commons.
September 19, 2019

Mark Twain’s Journeys in the Holy Land – Day 3, September 19th

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September 19th was a busy and full day for Mark Twain in the Holy Land. Rising at 7:00am, he and his travel companions arrived to Joseph’s Pit by 10:00am. This site is fabled to be that where Joseph’s brother’s stripped him of his multicolored coat and sold him to merchants;

“And there it will remain until the next detachment of image-breakers and tomb-desecrators arrives from the Quaker City excursion, and they will infallibly dig it up and carry it away with them,” Twain lamented in Innocents Abroad. The same pit still serves as a tourist destination in Emek Dotan.

It’s notable that in his journal, Twain sums up the group’s experience of attempting to sail the Sea of Galilee as “Tried to get a boat and didn’t.” This incident is later developed in Innocents Abroad, describing the pious Quaker City excursionists attempting to haggle with a sailor, who, offended at being rebuffed for his asking price, sailed off and did not return;

“Well, there was nothing to do but just submit and forego the privilege of voyaging on Gennesaret,” Twain lamented, “after coming half around the globe to taste that pleasure.” With no other boats nearby, the pilgrims mounted their horses and road to Magdala (near the present-day town of Migdal). “Magdala is not a beautiful place,” Twain observed. “It is thoroughly ugly, and cramped, squalid, uncomfortable, and filthy.” There, they visited one notable dwelling: a ruin that was rumored to be the home of St. Mary Magdalene. After Twain’s companions collected parts of the front wall as souvenirs, they continued to Tiberias where they spent the night.

Excerpted from Mark Twain’s Notebook 9:

Sept. 19 – Left our cap by he Waters of Merom at 7AM. The Arabs threw stones into the camp last night and tried to stampede the horses.

…came in site of the

Sea of Galilee

Lake Genessareth,

Sea of Tiberias.

….examined the arched pit called

Joseph’s Well,

where his brethren threw him. Then over a horrible rocky, barren desert (like Nevada,) skulls with scattering goats & shepherds… & past



from which Christ sent his disciples in a boat, after the miracle of 5 loaves & 2 fishes….

We descended to the sea at


Christ’s dwelling-place….

Tried to get a boat and didn’t.

Took a bath.

….crossed a long, rich, oleander plain… to the birth-place of Mary Magdalene – the rattiest, rustiest dirtiest little collection of mud hovels, tattooed women & sore-eyed children in Palestine.


…another nasty mud hovel village full of Arabs, Jews & Negroes.

…. for 300 years it was the metropolis of the Jews in Palestine. It has been the abiding place of many famous and learned Jewish rabbins.


Warm Baths

2 miles below are mentioned by Pliny.


Splendid stars – when blue wave rolls nightly on Galilee.

We have seen no country between here & Damascus capable of supporting any such populations as one gathers from the Bible. The people of this region in the Bible were just as they are now – ignorant, depraved, susperstitious, dirty, lousy, thieving vagabonds.

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Image: Tel-el-Kadi; site of Dan, source of the Jordan River, between 1890 and 1900. Library of Congress.
September 18, 2019

Mark Twain’s Journeys in the Holy Land – Day 2, September 18th

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While Twain’s descriptions of his Holy Land travels on September 18th start at “the largest fountain in Syria…. the banks of the stream are bordered thick with oleanders…” they quickly become more stark. The group continues on to rocky roads, encounters some local living conditions, a swamp, and finally “Lake Hula, or the Waters of Merom of bible fame.”

Excerpted from Mark Twain’s Notebook 9:

“Sept. 18. – Broke Camp at 7.15am… came to the Hill ruins & fountain of Tel’ el Kadi (Dan.)

“Dan. …a lot of Danites from Sodom, 600, came over, like a pack of adventureers… & lived there… till Abraham hazed them in after times.

We traveled a long stretch (4 miles) of miserable rocky road… over half-green half-rusty country full of fine sheep, bulls of Bashan, and Bedouin Shepherds. The Bed’s… scorn to live in houses. Saw their tents…. riding 2 hours along a vast green swamp that occupies the whole width of the Valley, we camped at last at a fountain & mill well down abreast of Lake Hula…

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View at the remnants of the Tempel of Pan with Pan's cave at the background. The building at the slope of the cliff is the grave of Nebi Khader. Image: Gugganij, Wikimedia Commons.
September 17, 2019

Mark Twain’s Journeys in Palestine – Day 1, September 17th

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On September 17th, Mark Twain rode into the Holy Land with a caravan of eight Quaker City passengers.

“The scenery of the Bible is about you – the customs of the patriarch are around you – the same people, in the same flowing robes, and in sandals, cross your path,” Twain described in The Innocents Abroad. “And behold, intruding upon a scene like this, comes this fantastic mob of green-spectacled Yanks, with their flapping elbows and bobbing umbrellas!”

Some of the “incorrigible pilgrims” that were his travel mates, he sadly reported, vandalized sites in order to bring home some Holy Land souvenirs. “They have been hacking and chipping these old arches here that Jesus looked upon in the flesh,” Twain verbally scolded. “Heaven protect the Sepulchre when this tribe invades Jerusalem!”

All snark aside, Twain was aware that he was entering the Holy Land and the experience moved even this highly sarcastic writer. “It seems curious enough to us to be standing on ground that was once actually pressed by the feet of the Saviour,” he concluded that day. “I cannot comprehend yet that I am sitting where a god has stood, and looking upon the brook and the mountain which that god looked upon, and am surrounded by dusky men and women whose ancestors saw him, and even talked with him, face to face, and carelessly, just as they would have done with any other stranger.”

Excerpted from Mark Twain’s Notebook 9:

“Holy Land.”

“Sept. 17. – Edged in to the Holy Land proper, to-day….”

“climbed… 1,000 feet high, which overlooks the ancient city of Cesarea Phillippi, Dan, & the great plain wherein are visible some little stream – sources of the Jordan. The mountain is in the Bashan & is covered with olives groves & the oaks…. It is crowned with the grandest old ruined castle… 1,000 feet long by 200 wide… walls and turrets have been from 30 to 60 feet high… dressed stone masonry with beveled edges… grand portcutllis… vaults, arches, dungeons… goatherd lives there now.”


“This place – where we are encamped, is beautiful with olive groves, & the fountain which is the main source of the Jordan – we washed in it & drank of its waters. The fountain comes from a great grotto where the Greeks (& the Romans after them), worshiped the god Pan (hence the name, Panias)… At the same place, Herod the Great erected a marble temple to commemorate the visit of Caesar Augustus…”

“Cesarea Phillippi”

“This and Banias are one….Hoof-prints deep in old rocks. This is the first place we have ever seen, whose pavements were trodden by Jesus Christ. Here he asked… Peter who he took him to be… & Peter’s confident answer elicited that famous sentence upon which all the vast power & importance the Church of Rome arrogates to itself is founded: “Thou art Peter & upon the Rock… what thou shalt bind upon the earth shall be bound in heaven….” and near here… some caim that the Savior’s Ascension/Transfig took place.”

“Lake Hula – or the Waters of Meron.”

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“Kefr Hauwar” Howard Crosby Butler Archive, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.
September 16, 2019

Mark Twain’s Journeys in Palestine – September 16th

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In 1867, Mark Twain was on assignment from a San Francisco newspaper. He would depart New York Harbor on the steamship Quaker City for a five-and-a-half-month excursion, with stops in Europe and around the Mediterranean. This would be the first organized tourism trip of its kind in American history. During this time, he would send back humorous, revealing, and opinionated weekly reports to be published in the newspaper’s columns, documenting his travels, famous sites he visited, and the local inhabitants. The columns and notes from his travel journals would soon after be published as The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrims’ Progress. The book was an instant success, catapulting Twain to national fame.

As part of our celebration of the 150th anniversary of the success of his 1869 publication, we’ll be sharing daily excerpts from his travel journal – “Notebook 9” – documenting Twain’s time spent in the Holy Land. Soon to follow, the exhibition Mark Twain and the Holy Land will open at New-York Historical Society; you’ll be able to view the Shapell Manuscript Foundation items from the exhibition here.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or right here to get a daily dose of Twain in the Holy Land.

Excerpted from Mark Twain’s Notebook 9:

SEP 16…

Nimrod’s Tomb. 4,000 years old. The first King.

Camped at an Arab village (Kafir Something),* where Nimrod he Mighty Hunter, the builder of Babylon & the Tower of Babel lies buried. He was a fine old Sport & a great linguist.

*Kefr Hauwar

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Mark Twain Signed Photo by Abdullah Frères in Constantinople, c. 1867. Shapell Manuscript Collection.
September 15, 2019

Forbes: Mark Twain’s ‘The Innocents Abroad’ Celebrated In New York

“A new exhibition that will celebrate the 150th anniversary of ‘one of the best-selling travelogues of all time’ is set to open at the New-York Historical Society in New York.

“Mark Twain and the Holy Land will highlight American humorist Mark Twain’s 1867 voyage to Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Holy Land, and his subsequent book—The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress.  The show will introduce visitors to a young Twain on the eve of his celebrity and to Palestine in the 19th century, according to the New-York Historical Society, which organized it in partnership with the Shapell Manuscript Foundation.

“Original documents, including manuscripts, journal entries and letters by Twain, will be on view from October 25, 2019 through February 2, 2020.”

Read the full article by Tanya Mohn in Forbes here.

Shapell Manuscript Collection documents, items, and objects from the exhibition will be displayed online with the opening of the exhibition in New York, so check back soon. In the meantime, the Mark Twain Collection can be viewed here.

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Adrienne Usher, Director of Shapell Roster Research.
September 15, 2019

Director of Roster Research, Adrienne Usher, Presents: Mining Civil War Pension Records for Jewish Soldiers

Director of Shapell Roster Research, Adrienne Usher, will be presenting a selection of beautiful, unique and exciting genealogical treasures her team has discovered in the Civil War Union Pension Records from Jewish soldiers. These include dates and locations for births, marriages, and deaths; addresses, occupations, photographs, maps, drawings, letters, certificates and physical descriptions. Learn how to access these rich resources, find out more about the Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s endeavors, and discover how you can participate in the project.

The presentation will take place at Congregation Beth Emeth, Herndon, VA. Click here for more details.

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Image: Zvi Hirsh Heller (aged 15) of Petach Tikva studied at the Hebron Yeshiva. He was a victim of the 1929 Hebron Massacre and died of his wounds in hospital in Jerusalem. Rechavam Zeevy, Wikimedia.
August 29, 2019

A Presidential Response to the 1929 Hebron Massacres

In August 1929, following inflammatory sermons and inciting rumors, pogroms were instigated in which Arabs slaughtered Jews in British Mandate Palestine. The Hebron Riots of 1929 – part of the Palestine Riots of 1929 – sent shock-waves around the world, and ended centuries of continued Jewish presence in Hebron. Americans were particularly aghast as newspapers reported that a number of those massacred were students from New York and Chicago. Americans campaigned for the government to intervene on behalf of the Jewish Americans and their property in Palestine.

This letter from President Herbert Hoover is in answer to one such missive, where he manages to respond, yet says very little.


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Netanyahu holding a cabinet meeting commemorating Ben-Gurion's passing Image: Koby Gideon, Government Press Office.
July 15, 2019

Netanyahu to Make History as Longest-Serving Israeli Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu made history in the past when he became the youngest Israeli prime minister, and the first to be born in the independent State of Israel. This week, on July 20, 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu will make history yet again by becoming Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister. Until the 19th of July, Israel’s first prime minister and founding father, David Ben-Gurion, will have held the record, serving a cumulative total of thirteen years and twenty-seven days. Like Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu was also elected to four terms, three of them consecutive.

In this summer of 1963 letter, written after resigning as prime minister for the second time, Ben-Gurion –  gifting himself an additional two years on top of his thirteen served – shares his insights about the appropriate length for a prime minister to remain in power. 

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Prisoner of war tents run right up to the deadline demarked by the low fencing. Image: Library of Congress.
July 8, 2019

The Word ‘Deadline’ has a Horrible Origin in Civil War Prisons. Via: We Are The Mighty


“…the original deadlines existed in Civil War prisons…. officers would build rough wooden fences 10-20 feet high to contain the prisoners.

But, of course, a healthy man can typically climb a 10-foot fence. And, working as teams, troops could fairly easily clamber over 20-foot fences as well. So prison commanders built positions for sentries to watch the prisoner population, and the sentries typically had orders to kill any man attempting to escape.

Well, to ensure that the sentry would have time to shoot a man or raise the alarm before the prisoner got away, the camps put in something called a ‘deadline.’ This was a line, usually literally made on the ground with fencing or some type of marking, that prisoners would be killed for crossing.”

Read the full article here.

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Council of Four at the WWI Paris peace conference, May 27, 1919. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Image: U.S. Signal Corps, Wikimedia Commons.
June 28, 2019

Treaty of Versailles Centennial: June 28, 2019

Exactly 100 years ago today, on June 28, 1919, the Treaty of Versailles, the primary treaty which officially ended World War I, was signed by Germany and the Allies. President Woodrow Wilson was instrumental in negotiating the treaty, as well as in conceiving of the League of Nations, the intergovernmental organization meant to maintain world peace. The United States Congress, which was growing increasingly isolationist, had no interest in ceding power to join the League of Nations, and ultimately refused to ratify the treaty. 

These two letters by Wilson, just a few years apart, are strikingly different in tone. In the first, Wilson is desperately mounting the campaign to garner Republican votes in favor of the treaty. In the second, an ailing former President Wilson, explains that he cannot read or speak too much of the war because he is “too much affected and upset by it.”

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April 18, 2019

1865-1956: The Emotional Aftermath on Witnesses of Lincoln’s Assassination

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln left deep scars on the American psyche and people, who had just been traumatised by four years of Civil War. The devastation also left Mary Todd Lincoln a widow, scarcely three years after the death of their second son, Willie. Mary, who had been holding hands with the president when he was shot, was never the same. But what about the other people present and witnesses to the assassination? What emotional wake did it leave in their lives?

There were only four people in the presidential box at Ford’s theatre on the night of the assassination; Abraham Lincoln, Mary Lincoln, Major Henry Reed Rathbone, and his fiance, Clara Harris. Well known is the fate of the President and the First Lady, but what of their companions?

Rathbone, who tried to apprehend Booth, was stabbed in his arm to the bone by the assassin. Despite sustaining a serious injury, Rathbone managed to pull Booth’s coat, as the latter escaped by jumping twelve feet from the box to the stage. Rathbone’s persistence may have caused Booth to break his leg when he landed awkwardly on the stage. By the time the numerous physicians who were tending to Lincoln got to Rathbone, he had lost a lot of blood due to a severed artery. Although Rathbone did physically recover, his mental health deteriorated over the years. He and Clara Harris married, and in 1882, President Chester Arthur appointed Rathbone the US Consul to Hannover, where his mental health deteriorated even further. The following year, Rathbone tried to attack his three children, and fatally shot his wife in the head as she protected them. The children were sent to live with Clara’s brother, William Harris, in the USA. Their father died in an insane asylum 28 years later, in Hildesheim, Germany.

Many of the physicians who cared for Lincoln left eyewitness reports and medical summaries of the events of the night, including his personal physician, Dr. Robert King Stone.  

The youngest eyewitness to the assassination was a five-year-old Samuel J. Seymour, who sat on his godmother’s lap in the balcony across from the presidential box. He recalls Lincoln slumping over, as well as Booth jumping to the stage. That night, “I was shot at 50 times, at least in my dreams–” and, Seymour goes on, “I sometimes still relive the horror of Lincoln’s assassination, dozing in my rocker, as an old codger like me is bound to do.”

You can see Seymour appearing on a a game show called I Have a Secret in February of 1956, less than two months before he passed away at the age of 96.

Video Transcript

…I’ve Got A Secret. I would like to go over and personally escort our next guest on the show tonight.


There you go. Now then sir, will you tell our panel, please… Let’s get in a little closer. Do you mind if I pull you in, sir? There we go. Will you tell our panel, please, what your name is and where you’re from?

Samuel J. Seymour
I am Samuel J. Seymour. I’m from Maryland.


This is Mr. Seymour from Maryland. And we brought Mr. Seymour all the way up from Maryland and by golly, he got in the hotel and fell down the steps and gave himself a shiner. And we urged him not to come on the show tonight, as a matter of fact, and finally got in touch with his doctor and the doctor said it was up to Mr. Seymour. Mr. Seymour said he wouldn’t miss it, so here he is and feeling [inaudible 00:01:05].

[inaudible 00:01:07].

Now then Mr. Seymour, how old are you by the way, sir?

Samuel J. Seymour

96 years old.

[inaudible 00:01:21].

Now Sir, if you’ll whisper your secret to me, I’m sure the folks at home would like to know what it is.

Well, now to help classify his secret I will tell you it concerns something that he witnessed. And Bill Cullen, we’ll start with you. Something that he saw, something he saw happen.

This thing that Mr. Seymour saw, does it have historical significance?

Does this have historical significance, Mr. Seymour? I would say yes, wouldn’t you, sir?

Yeah. I can’t hear him very good. You’re going to have to tell-

Yeah, sir. There’s quite a distance between our desks here. Let’s all speak up. Huh?

Bill Cullen
Does it have have political significance?

It had political significance at the time.

Samuel J. Seymour


Bill Cullen
Well, if you’re 96, that would make the Mr. Seymour born in-


Bill Cullen

That Henry, he’s such a mathematician.

Bill Cullen
Yeah. He’s been writing over there all the time. This thing that didn’t have anything to do with the Civil War, Mr. Seymour?

No. It had not to do with the Civil… Well, let’s say indirectly it was concerned with the Civil War. All right in answering?

Samuel J. Seymour
Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Samuel J. Seymour
Did it concern a famous person in American history, a very well-known person?

Did it concern a famous person, Mr. Seymour?

Samuel J. Seymour


Bill Cullen
Would it help me to know who this person was?

Samuel J. Seymour
What’d he say?

He wants to know if it would help him to know who this person was, and he has to know who that is, yes.

Bill Cullen
Did this man hold political office?

Did this man hold political officer, sir?

Samuel J. Seymour

Yes. $20 down and $60 to go. And we go to Jane Meadows.

Samuel J. Seymour
You’re killing me.

Jane Meadows
Mr. Seymour, would-

Henry is being his usual helpful self by whispering to Jane, “McKinley.”

Jane Meadows
And I’m not listening. Mr. Seymour, would this person have ever been president of the United States?

Was he ever president, this man?

Samuel J. Seymour
I think he was once.

He was.

Jane Meadows
Would it have been Abraham Lincoln?

It was Abraham Lincoln. Yes.

Jane Meadows
You witnessed something to do with Abraham Lincoln. Was this a pleasant thing?

Was it a pleasant thing you saw, sir?

Samuel J. Seymour
Not very pleasant I don’t think.


Samuel J. Seymour
I was scared to death over it.

He said, “No. He was scared to death.”

Jane Meadows
Would it have had anything to do with the President Lincoln’s death by any chance?

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Unfortunately, yes.

Jane Meadows
Did Mr. Seymour witness the shooting of President Lincoln?

We found out about Mr. Seymour through a recent article in the American Weekly, and it said, “I saw Lincoln shot.” And this article is by Samuel J. Seymour. And it goes on to say that Mr. Seymour was five-years-old at the time. He had been taken to Ford’s Theater by some good friends. And the curious thing was that when he was his youth, five years of age, when he saw Booth jump from the box to the stage, at which time he broke his leg, his only concern was not for the president because he didn’t realize that the president had been shot, but the poor man who fell out of the balcony. And that’s all of his memory is of going to the theater and seeing a man fall out of the balcony.

Sir, it’s been a great joy and you might say an honor to have… You are by the way, the only living witness of that tragic event. And we are certainly going to forfeit the complete $80 to you just for your courage in coming here to see us tonight.


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The image of a black hole captured by the Event Horizon Telescope. Photograph: EHT Collaboration.
April 11, 2019

Historic Week for Space Exploration

This will be an epic week to remember for space and science enthusiasts. In the past 7 days, three monumental events have taken place:

On April 5th, the Japanese space probe Hayabusa2 dropped explosives on asteroid Ryugu. “Mission scientists plan to execute the final major step of the mission. They will lower the probe right into the crater and collect a sample. This will be the second sample collected from Ryugu: Hayabusa2 already touched down on 22 February, and collected some of its space dirt after kicking it up with a bullet.” (Scientific American)

On Wednesday, Aprill 10, the first images of a black hole were released. The magnificent international coordination and success centered on the “Event Horizon telescope (EHT), a network of eight radio telescopes spanning locations from Antarctica to Spain and Chile, in an effort involving more than 200 scientists.” (The Guardian)

Today, April 11, Israel is expected to join the United States, Russia, and China as one of the only countries to land a spacecraft on the moon. The Beresheet spacecraft is scheduled to land at 10:30pm Jerusalem time. “Once it lands safely on the Moon, the spacecraft will photograph the landing site and snap a selfie. Its key scientific mission, however, is to measure the Moon’s magnetic field as part of an experiment carried out in collaboration with Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute of Science.” (Jerusalem Post)

These inspiring efforts to extend humanity’s reach into space remind us of how far we’ve come. These manuscripts from those brave enough to be sent into space, and the leadership behind them, reveal part of the history and sacrifice that’s been made to come so far.

Left: MIT computer scientist Katie Bouman with stacks of hard drives of black hole image data. Right: MIT computer scientist Margaret Hamilton with the code she wrote that helped put a man on the moon.
(image credit: @floragraham, twitter.)

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Image: Theodor Herzl on the ship-deck as it arrives at the shores of Jaffa at dawn. October 26, 1898. The Herzl Museum, Wikimedia Commons.
April 8, 2019

National Library of Israel Features Theodor Herzl Postcards

In October 1898, Theodor Herzl arrived in Jerusalem, to work toward furthering his initiatives to create a Jewish state. While in Palestine, he met with the German Emperor, Wilhelm II, twice; once near Holon, and a second time in Jerusalem. During his journey, he regularly sent letters and postcards home. The National Library of Israel houses this collection, and highlighted here are the postcards Herzl sent to his daughter, Paulina.

You can view more of Herzl’s postcards and photographs here, and read his letters about creating a Jewish state in our Theodor Herzl Collection.


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Image: detail, by Sally Deng
February 5, 2019

The New York Times: Why You Should Dig Up Your Family’s History – and How to Do It

Jaya Saxena describes the experience of  tracing her family history as more than just digging up facts – but as uncovering “the myths that are a part of the story of yourself, whether you like them or not. Learning your history is forced reckoning, asking you to consider whose stories you carry with you and which ones you want to carry forward.” Teresa Koch-Bostic, the vice president of the National Genealogical Society explains, “I think it appeals to people who love an intellectual pursuit, because that’s really what it is…. It’s solving a puzzle at the highest level, and the benefit is that you get to find out about your family.”

Read more in the New York Times article “Why You Should Dig Up Your Family’s History – and How to Do It” by Jaya Saxena



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Harold Holzer, Historian and Lincoln Expert.
January 31, 2019

Historians Explain Why We Collect Manuscripts

People who are interested in history collect manuscripts because they want to know what somebody was really like. When you look at a letter, you’re looking at what was going on in a person’s life – what did this feel like to the person experiencing it at that time – and before you know it, you have a whole world coming alive.

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Northridge earthquake. United States Geological Survey.
January 17, 2019

25 Years Since the Northridge, California, Earthquake

Natural disasters do not discriminate. These letters about the impact of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake are recalled today on the 25th anniversary of the more recent Northridge earthquake, and following this exceptionally difficult year for Californians.

“We have the dreadful news that an earthquake has almost destroyed San Francisco.  The wires are down, and it is difficult to get accurate information…. It is impossible, however, to hear anything, and we are in the dark.” – William Howard Taft, Secretary of War. April 18, 1906.

Secretary of War William H. Taft Reports That San Francisco is Almost Destroyed in the Earthquake

Mark Twain on the San Francisco Earthquake and a Picture He Cannot Get Out of His Mind

Jack London, Hit Hard By the San Francisco Earthquake

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Image: Alfred Dreyfus. Circa 1894. Aaron Gerschel, Wikimedia Commons.
January 14, 2019

Inspirational Letter from the Wrongly Imprisoned Alfred Dreyfus

This shockingly inspirational letter from Alfred Dreyfus was written shortly after he was wrongly convicted of treason and degradated in a public military ceremony. Writing to his sister and brother-in-law, he tells them of his suffering; not of the conditions he is subjected to, but the suffering and pain in being so powerless to prove his innocence. Despite this weighing heavily on him, he tells them his “pure and clean conscience will give [him] superhuman strength,” and he will clean his name “from the stain that has been inflicted upon it unjustly.” He exhorts them to “not bow your head, but to keep it higher than ever” as he will also do.

Not losing faith, he is sure that “with all of our combined efforts, our wills focused into a single one, we will succeed” in revealing the truth and clearing his name. Read the full transcript of this stirring letter and view the original papers here.

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December 31, 2018

The President’s Bodyguard: Mick McElkenny

Mick McElkenny was a bodyguard to JFK during the president’s visit to Ireland in 1963, just months before his assassination in Dallas, Texas. Mr. McElkenny is the subject of the documentary, “The President’s Bodyguard.”

“Mr McElkenny recalled a story JFK told about how life could have taken a very different path if his Irish ancestors had not set sail for America. ‘He told one about if his grandfather hadn’t left New Ross in Co Wexford that he would have been working over in the factory in New Ross,’ he laughed.” – Read more:

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Director of Digital Projects, Jamie Levavi.
December 9, 2018

Welcome to the New Home of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation

We’re excited to welcome you to the new online home of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation. We’ve added multiple features and tools that will facilitate educators, researchers, and history enthusiasts in discovering and organizing their resources and interests.

In preserving, researching, and digitizing thousands of original manuscripts, we look forward to sharing this collection with you.

The Shapell Manuscript Collection is a private holding of primary source documents relating to various events and historic figures in American, Jewish, and Holy Land history from the 19th and 20th centuries. Included in the collection are signed documents, photographs, rare books, and other artifacts. It is particularly rich with items from the American Civil War era, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Israeli leaders.

In addition to a focus on world-renowned individuals, the collection frequently relates to the history of Jewish American life. These manuscripts explore such topics as the lives of Jewish soldiers during the American Civil War, and reveal aspects of American Jewish influence and contribution to society.

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Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
September 2, 2018

The 2018 Mid-Term Elections: Where the Debates all Started

It is to be supposed that the 2018 mid-term elections will be fraught with controversy, and
some anguish. The recent past will be raked over; accusations lobbed; the word
“unprecedented” exhaled as commonly as breath. None of this, however, is new to American
elections. In 2016, so much candidate verbiage was expelled and expounded
in so many primary and general election debates, that any reasonable person might well have
assumed “Debate” was a weekly television series. Now, with the advent of the Labor Day
holiday, traditionally marking the “official” start of the campaign season, that live program,
after a two year hiatus, is back. But how it came to be made, and become as much a part of
the American election cycle as ballots themselves, is the story told here. It began, humbly, with
Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates – In a Prelude, Lincoln Shadows Douglas Around Illinois

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U.S. President Ronald Reagan waves just before the attempted assassination on Monday, March 30, 1981. In raincoat is secret service agent Jerry Parr, who pushed Reagan into the limousine. Wikimedia Commons.
August 22, 2018

Jerry Parr: The Secret Service, Ronald Reagan, & More

At 2:35 pm on March 30, 1981, seventy days into his presidency, Ronald Reagan exited the presidential limousine, buttoned his suit jacket, walked 45 feet towards the George Washington Hospital Emergency Room, and promptly collapsed. Five minutes earlier, six shots had rung out, and unbeknownst to himself nor his security detail, one bullet had ricocheted off the limousine, flattening into a disc, and then entered Reagan’s chest as he had lifted his arms instinctively upon hearing the shots. The bullet had lodged itself in Reagan’s lung, less than an inch away from his heart, in the moment that the Special Agent in Charge threw him into the limousine. In the tumult after the shooting outside the Washington Hilton Hotel, the seemingly unscathed Reagan was set to head back to the White House. Yet within 80 seconds of the shooting, one man overrode that decision; making Reagan the fifth president to be shot and the only to survive it. That man’s name was Jerry Parr, and the story of his journey to becoming the head of the Secret Service and saving Ronald Reagan’s life is as cinematic as it was serendipitous.

Jerry Parr & The Secret Service

Jerry Parr’s interest in a career in the secret service was ignited, when, as a boy, he saw the 1939 film Code of the Secret Service several times. The nine-year-old Parr knew he wanted to be just like agent “Brass” Bancroft, played in the film by Ronald Reagan. Reagan called the film the “worst picture I ever made,” even remarking that “never had an egg of such dimensions been laid.”  Amazingly, forty-two years later, Parr, now Special Agent in Charge, would find himself saving the life of the man who had inspired that dream: the President of the United States.

Parr was born in 1930, and grew up during the Depression with an unemployed alcoholic father (who took him to the movies), and a life further interrupted by his mother’s subsequent two marriages to abusive men. Though born in Alabama, he spent most of his turbulent childhood in Florida, and after struggling through high school, Parr took a job with Florida Power and Light, becoming a lineman. This job was highly dangerous and required quick-thinking; Parr, who survived several near-death incidents on the job, served as pallbearer for eight of his colleagues.

Parr became the first member of his family to attend university when he moved to Nashville in 1959 and enrolled at Vanderbilt. It was the same year he married Carolyn Miller, who would later become a judge. By the time Parr graduated in 1962 with a degree in philosophy, he was a father. Later that year, a recruiter for the Secret Service came to town, and Parr, having experienced serious occupational hazards as a lineman, was undeterred by the risk involved in becoming an agent; at 32, he was the oldest rookie in his class.

Parr served in the Secret Service for twenty-three years, protecting presidents, vice presidents, and over fifty foreign heads of state. At the time of John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, Parr, fifty at the time, was Special Agent in Charge and Head of the White House Detail, and supervised over 100 agents a day. For some inexplicable reason, on March 30, 1981, Parr decided to ride with the president.

Jerry Parr Cause Of Death

During his tenure as Assistant Director of the Secret Service, Parr began a Master’s program in Pastoral Counseling, and eventually founded the Festival Church after his ordination in 1989. In his written statement of the assassination attack, Parr wrote “while I went in with a Democrat and out with a Republican, it didn’t make much difference to me—they were both Presidents of the United States.” In a twist of Reagan being Parr’s boyhood hero, written at the top of  Parr’s accounting of the Reagan assassination attempt, Reagan inscribed “Jerry Parr is my hero!” Parr died in October of 2015 of heart congestion in a hospice near his home.

Read more about presidents and other political figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Rags To Riches Presidents, Has The US Ever Had A Woman President, Napoleon in Jaffa, and more!

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President Ulysses S. Grant. U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Wikimedia Commons.
August 14, 2018

The 150th Anniversary of Ulysses Grant’s 1868 Election Year

It’s hard to keep up these days with who is shouting what. Not gone entirely unnoticed, however, is the disquieting rise of an old contagion thought, in the United States at least, long extinct. Whether chanted in torch-lit marches, argued on college campuses, or broadcast by fringe candidates in local political races, antisemitism is back in the news.  That “It Could Happen Here”, and did, is the subject of this letter about the worst blemish in the life of the Union’s greatest commander. When, in an 1862 order, General Ulysses S. Grant ordered that all Jews living in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi ,and parts of Southern Illinois, vacate, within 24-hours, their homes and businesses and leave, forever,  the area of his command, he promulgated the most sweeping, and shocking, anti-Jewish regulation in American history. Here, writing six years later – and eagerly pursuing the presidency – Grant sought to explain his notorious “Jew Order” to the man, in fact, who inspired it: his father.

Running for President, Ulysses S. Grant Tries to Lose the Antisemite Label Engendered to Him During the Civil War By His Infamous “Jew Order”

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Nirit Shalev Khalifa
August 21, 2017

When Did The US First Get Involved In The Middle East

U.S. presence and diplomacy in the Middle East, specifically the Holy Land, goes back much farther than you’d expect. You can listen to curator Nirit Shalev Khalifa and Dr. Ron Bartour discuss this topic with Gilad Halpern. Discover more on this topic at our online exhibition, Dreams and Diplomacy in the Holy Land: American Consuls in Jerusalem in the 19th Century.


You’re listening to a TLV 1. This is The Tel Aviv review. And I’m a now joined here in the studio by Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa, the curator of the exhibition Dreams and diplomacy in the Holy Land, American consuls in Jerusalem in the 19th century. That’s currently showing at the national library in Jerusalem. Also, here in the studio is Dr. Ron Bartour, a historian specializing in American attitudes towards the Holy Land, as well as a former broadcaster on Israel Radio and a rhetorician. Welcome both to the studio. Hello.

Dr. Ron Bartour:
Thank you.

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
Thank you.

Nirit, we’ll start with you. There are a few striking things about the history of American consuls in Jerusalem in the 19th century. One of them is the great proactiveness and political involvement at a time when Washington’s official foreign policy was isolationists and non-interventionist. Why is that? What motivated them to be so active?

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
This is one of the most amazing things, that all those consuls came to Jerusalem. And if you see the motivation they had, it was mainly because they really wanted to come. They wanted so hardly that their friends colleagues tried the best they can do. They convinced the minister in Washington. And that even sent us to the first consul or almost consul in Jerusalem Warder Cresson. Warder Cresson-

Speaker 1:
Almost consul because he was [crosstalk 00:01:49] officially appointed.

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
Almost consul… He appoin and then it was canceled even before he came to Jerusalem.


Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
The journey took about a month. And that time, the people in the government in a Washington, they found out who is the person, but it was-

[crosstalk 00:02:06] Yeah.

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
The reason- Yes, the reason that they appointed him, because he was very religious person and he wanted to come to Jerusalem. He had no idea about the real Jerusalem.


Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
He thought about Jerusalem in the-

[crosstalk 00:02:22] He had the Jerusalem syndrome.

Dr. Ron Bartour:
The biblical Jerusalem.

Host 1:

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
And some kind of. And I think that was a, you mentioned the Jerusalem syndrome, maybe you can say that the American diplomacy, that time was some kind of Jerusalem syndrome. Because, they came with ambitions. And also, we say, all the thinking of American about liberty, about freedom, but what you think in America, the new world, the new zion [crosstalk 00:02:50] they wanted to create. They came to Jerusalem and they found it.

Sometimes it went over the top because Warder Cresson, for example, the reason his appointment was revoked was that he was mentally unstable and his ex-wife even tried to institutionalize him.

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
Yes. But you see, the reason was religion. Some of them came, if we say Warder Cresson was very dramatic and extreme-

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
…example, but we can say about many other consuls. They won because the help of them or some relatives. They wanted to come. And when they came to Jerusalem, they came as the new guy in the neighborhood.


Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
And then, was no support, no policy from Washington. And then they had to deal with two main subjects. One of them was the American settlers-


Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
…who is the American colonies and the other was the Jewish communities.

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Ron. What’s the thing that led the American policy in the land of Israel in Palestinian, in the Holy land. Was it just a Christian Zionism or were there other interests involved?

Dr. Ron Bartour:
In one word, Geopiety. Namely, if you look at this map, which was produced for the bicentennial, by my professor, Moshe Davis, the head of the Hebrew University, Institute of Contemporary Jewry, with his wife, you can see Moses and other distinguished guests from the Bible running around in the American map. And as a matter of fact, there were like 340 settlements, American, Puritan, Colonial settlements, and from the national [inaudible 00:04:41] period named after the Bible. So, geopiety speaking, Zion in America was in that nature. Furthermore, American students at Harvard in the 17th century had to study biblical Hebrew and they claimed it’s difficult. So, this led the government to appoint religious, mostly, people as consuls in the Holy land.

Because, in many ways the American Ethos is very similar to the Zionist Ethos. It mentioned the new Jerusalem, the new Zion, this whole thing about going back to the roots while discovering the new land. And some of those people that are covered in the exhibition were, you could say pro to Zionist, Zionist even before Herzl.

Dr. Ron Bartour:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Even though some of them had some hesitations, for example, the side of Cresson, who tend to be Jewish who became a Rabbi and married this- [crosstalk 00:05:50].


Dr. Ron Bartour:
…as far as the wife and recently his tomb in Mt. Olives was found-

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
Thanks to the exhibition we found the- [crosstalk 00:05:59]

Oh, really?

Dr. Ron Bartour:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And so in his book, you can see this Magen David with his soul, his Jewish soul. And he’s saying in his book, the key of David, one true God, who was blessed forever and underneath his Hebrew name, Michoel Boaz Israel, which he shortened for my Mccovey. That’s the first-


Dr. Ron Bartour:
…Mccovey, modern Mccovey.

And he’s the one who actually converted to Judaism, but others who were practicing Christians. So, the mission primarily, but I don’t know if primarily, but you know, a big part of the mission, to establish good relations with the Jewish communities in Jerusalem and in many ways to give them the patronage.

Dr. Ron Bartour:
Yes. Especially extraterritorial rights, which was the core of the American capitulations in this regime with the Ottoman Empire in which foreigners could have acquired land, houses and outside of the Ottoman, Texas.

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Ron Bartour:
So, this was very important for Jews who came in growing number to the Holy land, because Europeans usually [inaudible 00:07:17] for their rights and between them and the Turkish, the Ottoman Empire. And the Jews were afraid of losing their extraterritorial rights, they’re privileges. There were proteges. And from Russian protection, British protection, they were led to America. Now American had the Monroe Doctrine since 1823, this isolation [crosstalk 00:07:44].


Dr. Ron Bartour:
So, the question is why the Turks were so eager or agreed to- [crosstalk 00:07:48]

That’s what I was going to ask. How was it received by the Ottoman authorities, who ruled this piece of land? It was part of the empire at the time.

Dr. Ron Bartour:
And why America? Because, American official non-involvement was liked by the Ottomans, but specifically they liked American know-how, technologically speaking, of building ships, which the European destroyed in 1823 in Navarino where Greece was fighting for its independence. This was the real reason why in 1830, this- [crosstalk 00:08:21]

Basically it’s a cross-atlantic Alliance, even before it-

Dr. Ron Bartour:
[crosstalk 00:08:27] The consul was established.


Dr. Ron Bartour:
Yeah. Right.

So, basically they were looking towards America as a potential potential ally. While the British, the French and the Russians were gradually becoming their enemies. That’s what you’re saying.

Dr. Ron Bartour:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Nirit, we’ll go back to you. This Friday, on the 10th of January, there’s a gallery tour at the National Library where the exhibition is. And it will be dedicated to a specific consul, Victor Beauboucher, who’s actually a Frenchman.

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
Yes. And one of the amazing thing is about all those characters that we see during… We’re talking about 16 consuls, because they couldn’t survive many years in Jerusalem. They just had to ask for another job after a few years and even after some months. And Victor Beauboucher was another very important consul, because he was involved in few major affairs, like, first day American colony in Jaffa.

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
And we are going to talk about the American colony in Jaffa, and also to see a film made by professor Yael Katzir, who documented the story. I guess most of the people knows now where the nice wooden building in Jaffa Tel-Aviv-


Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
-street. But…

And also Jerusalem, the famous hotel.

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
No. But this is another American colony.

Oh, right. Okay.

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
That was with another consul that had made them a lot of problems [inaudible 00:10:15]. But Victor Beauboucher actually was… He came and he had to help them to go back to America because they came here and [crosstalk 00:10:27]

Yeah. Who are these people? I mean, we know that the American colonies exists to this very day, like you said, in Tel Aviv near Jaffa and in Jerusalem and other places in the country.

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
And another American colony, which was actually the first one that we are talking about in Mt. Hope-

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
Which is [crosstalk 00:10:45]

Yeah. That never survived. It existed for a few years and… Yeah.

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
All of them, I think-

Dr. Ron Bartour:
The forefather John Steinbeck, the famous American writer was murdered there.


Dr. Ron Bartour:
And I had [inaudible 00:10:57] back in 1855, and you can find it in the Senate document.

Okay. That’s really fascinating anecdote, but who were these people who established the American colonies here?

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
In 1866, this American colony in Jaffa. Their leader was the preacher, George Adams. And he convinced them to come again to, to the Bible and to be farmers here. And they came with their wooden houses. This is an amazing thing that just came from Maine and they came with everything with them. But of course they came to nothing and they couldn’t survive. And after a while, they needed a real help just to help them to go back to America and to build their life. Only few families stay here. And one of them is the Floyd family.

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
And Rolla Floyd, he was the first tour guide. He actually invented the tour guide in the Holy land.

Mm-hmm (affirmative) When was that? What the decade of 19th century?

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
We are talking in the ’60s.

Okay, 1860s.

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
It was between ’66 and ’67.


Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
And they had to leave. And one of the things that maybe to mention about this exhibition, because we have so many firsts, we tried to look for every consul. What’s happened during staying here?

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
And some of them said it was very boring and asked to leave.

Yeah. Exactly. That was going… Yeah.

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
But it wasn’t so boring. I guess, for most of them, it was too much interesting. [Crosstalk 00:12:35]

Exactly. That’s my question to you, Ron, now. Another thing that struck me is that we were talking about, I don’t know, maybe a dozen consuls in just over half a century. And all of them asked to be transferred prematurely. [crosstalk 00:12:54] I don’t know all of them, but a great majority of them. And some of them, like Nirit said, found it boring. Others just couldn’t handle the network of pressures that was applied on them from the Turkish authorities, from the Department of State, in Washington, and from the Jewish community here. Many of them were embroiled in controversies that hit the very few newspapers that were here. All of this, of course you can see at the exhibition, but what do you think brought them to this situation?

Dr. Ron Bartour:
First of all, you have to remember that the settlers and most of the consul came from the geopietic feeling. Not just them, Edward Robinson, the famous American archeologist who found the Robinson’s Arch in Jerusalem and there was the wall.

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Near the Western Wall. [crosstalk 00:13:56]

Dr. Ron Bartour:
It said that he remembered his grandfather’s Bible, which led him to this profession, which led him to come to the Holy land. And so, under the Spoils system, this was the name of the department of States system until 1906, people were chosen because of personal reasons. Other missionary, like this Beauboucher for example, who actually was involved with his deputy Jewish wants before it was converted to Christianity named Finkelstein who became the private secretary later of Sewald, the famous secretary of state.


Dr. Ron Bartour:
Okay. And this Sara Steinberg affair, where Beauboucher went Friday night to a Rabbi’s house to take out a small child rose so much fear. [crosstalk 00:14:52]

Why did he do that?

Dr. Ron Bartour:
Because he was, in his heart-


Dr. Ron Bartour:
…a religious missionary.

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Okay. So, he wanted to protect her from-

Dr. Ron Bartour:
So to speak.

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
Yeah. Her family was converted when-


Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
…their parents died and only sister was a Christian, already.


Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
And then there was a fight, who’s going to get the-

So, they were all-

Dr. Ron Bartour:
And this guy went to President Grant.

Who’s that?

Dr. Ron Bartour:
It’s Rabbi Schneersohn.


Dr. Ron Bartour:
Grandson of the famous Schneersohn, who established Chabad. And he, as you see, speaking about geopiety, spoke to President Grant about this missionary consul, that should go home-


Dr. Ron Bartour:
…so to speak. And as you can see, he was dressed like a prophet. This Rabbi said-

So this-

Dr. Ron Bartour:
As a matter of fact, he was the one who, for himself asked to become an American diplomat in Tiberia.

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Dr. Ron Bartour:

But it was denied.

Dr. Ron Bartour:
It was denied because it was involved in the scandal in which he was beaten up by extreme Jews in the Galilee who didn’t want to go for modern agriculture and beaten him. But he succeeded in removing this consul Beauboucher from his office.

Right. Okay.

Dr. Ron Bartour:
And he died in diaspora dreaming about a Tiberian-


Dr. Ron Bartour:
…colony, [crosstalk 00:16:13] which was established.

So, like-

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
And that’s why we don’t have [inaudible 00:16:16] American Consulate in Tiberia [crosstalk 00:16:18].

Yeah, because his mission failed. A lot like-

Dr. Ron Bartour:
But President Grant came to the Holy land, maybe as a result of this.

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Ron Bartour:
And wrote about it, a diary, which we have.

Okay. Like we see, those many, many dreams that penetrated diplomacy and vice versa, which makes the name of the exhibition so apt, Dreams and diplomacy and the Holy land, American Consuls in Jerusalem in the 19th century. Thank you very much for coming into the studio, Dr. Nirit Shalve Khalifa, the curator and Dr. Ron Bartour, a historian specializing in American attitudes towards the Holy land. And I encourage our listeners to come on Friday, the 10th of January at 11 o’clock in the morning?

Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa:
At 10:30 in the morning.

10:30 o’clock in the morning. 10:30 in the morning, to the National Gallery in Jerusalem for a gallery tour dedicated to Victor Beauboucher. Thank you very much and we’ll be right back.

Read more about US history, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Teddy Roosevelt’s Grandchild, Leopold Rothchild, President Jefferson and the First Vaccine, and more!

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April 30, 2017

Mary Benjamin – Famous Autograph Authority

Mary Benjamin is known as perhaps the most famous manuscript dealer of the twentieth century. That she’s the only woman on (and at the top of) the list of foremost autograph dealers is dwarfed by her widely respected authority. For decades, Benjamin practically singularly set the market value of autographs of presidents, poets, and prominent figures. Famously, she once snorted with disdain when a supposed autograph of George Washington was announced at an auction. With her photographic memory, she could tell instantly if a signature was real or forged. The auctioneer wasted no time and immediately withdrew the item from the sale. Mary Benjamin, who died in 1998, is certainly a personality worth reading more about for those interested in collecting. For her detailed obituary in the New York Times, click here.

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January 16, 2017

Lincoln and the Jews – Book and Exhibition Reviews

Lincoln and the Jews: A History illustrates how President Abraham Lincoln – perhaps best known for his efforts in abolishing slavery – intended to secure equality and freedom for all Americans, including another growing minority group in Civil War-era America: the Jews. Read the reviews and discover the story at our online exhibition or purchase a copy of the book.


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