Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Fire at the Masonic Hall, 1819

John Lewis Krimmel, a Philadelphia artist whose work has been previously reproduced on this blog (Sleigh Bells Ring), recorded a spectacular city disaster of 1819, the destruction by fire of the Masonic Hall.

Rebecca Gratz, whose house was on the same block of Chestnut Street (between 8th and 9th Sts.) as the Hall gives her own account of the blaze:

"The weather was so fine during the months of January and February that walking was more agreeable than dancing -- and the evening appointed for the last Cotillion party -- the Masonic Hall took fire and was entirely destroyed. We were in some peril but thank God were preserved and no other building was injured. The Girls [her nieces] were already dressed for the Ball -- indeed some ladies had already arrived in the room when the fire was discovered -- you may imagine what a night of consternation it was here. Those who watched the progress of the destroying element say it exhibited a most beautiful spectacle -- the most splendid part of it involved too much anxiety to be enjoyed by us, the falling of the cupola on which the safety of our house depended and we were told it would most probably crush our back buildings, but it happened otherwise (do not think I attribute it to chance) it fell in on its own roof and the lodge alone was consumed....Seeing pretty soon that we should escape, we set about making those comfortable to whose exertion we were indebted and had the house open all night to give refreshments to the firemen. Many a merry fellow whose loquacity was assisted by a dram made enquiries for you -- some of the Niagaras [a volunteer fire company] I suppose, or your old soldiers who thought to fare better by naming you as their acquaintance."

Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell if the Gratz house is one of those pictured in Krimmel's painting, but it must have been very close to have been threatened by the collapse of the cupola. It must also have had enough grounds around it so that the fire could threaten its outbuildings, without necessarily threatening the house itself.

Rebecca's account gives us a clear idea of the way in which she saw God at work in the world. Her remark that it was not by chance that their house survived indicates that she, like most other Americans of the time, thought that His providence was responsible for such fortunate outcomes. She also felt an immediate duty to those human agents of this providence, demonstrating her gratitude through hospitality to the firemen.

However, she is rather curt about the firefighters who have asked about Ben. Despite her description of "merry" fellows, she makes it clear that the men were drunk. They probably had become so due (at least in part) to the Gratz's hospitality, but the volunteer fire companies were already acquiring a reputation as social (drinking) clubs for post-adolescent men. Over the next three decades as the nation divided (nativists vs. immigrants, Protestants vs. Catholics, whites vs. blacks) fire companies became identified with different ethnicities, political parties and religions. Fueled by alcohol and idle talk the various companies were more like rival gangs than public servants and were often involved in the riots and other disorders which plagued cities during this period. By midcentury, the city fathers must have been breathing a sigh of relief as more complex and efficient firefighting equipment was invented. The new technology required the recruitment and training of professional firefighters and led to the eventual disbandment of the volunteer companies in the 1870's.

(Rebecca's letter is in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, accessible through Google Books. For more about volunteer fire companies, see Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, edited by Russell F. Weigley, also accessible through Google Books. You can see Krimmel's painting, Conflagration of the Masonic Hall, Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1819, at the Art Institute of Chicago.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tall Tales about Rebecca

Several generations of Jewish women in Philadelphia have been brought up on stories about Rebecca Gratz. I know because I have spoken to audiences who could cue me if I faltered in my narration. However, some of these old, beloved stories are not quite true.

The inaccuracies survive because Rebecca is not a major historical figure -- scholars have not been swarming over the Gratz papers for decades to verify or debunk every anecdote about her. In the decades following her death, the first stories to be printed were from family and friends. The newspaper and magazine writers who popularized Rebecca during these years accepted the memories as true since they had no way to verify the facts. Some of them must have suspected though that people may simply misremember events long past and that relatives may have their own agendas.

In 1929 Letters of Rebecca Gratz was published. Covering her correspondence with her family in Kentucky between 1819 and 1866, it gave readers, for the first time, Rebecca in her own words. The book demonstrated that behind the romantic stories was a woman of substance. It also inspired in 1935 the most insubstantial of biographies, Rollin G. Osterweis's Rebecca Gratz: a study in charm.

Although Osterweis would go on to a long career as a professor of history and oratory at his alma mater Yale, his book on Rebecca was the work of an enthusiast, not a scholar. He made use of the correspondence found in Letters as well as some other material which had become available, but he did not have access to most of the family papers which were still in private hands. For the many years not covered by his sources, he fell back on the old family stories -- and to fill out the book he used his imagination to create scenes and dialog.

I think that most readers realized that it was unlikely that anyone was sitting there taking notes as Rebecca and Samuel Ewing had their final painful conversation. However, Osterweis did more than put words in the mouths of his subjects. Places and dates, which readers might be more likely to assume were based on primary documents, often turn out to be as bogus as the conversations.

Other enthusiasts have taken up the subject of Rebecca in articles and histories over the years. Their most common mistake is not understanding that her opinions were private ones expressed in personal letters. Their work often gives readers the impression that she was a public figure fighting against the many social ills of the time, up on the platform beside Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Angelina Grimke. This "activist" version of Rebecca might have also been an attempt to make her seem more like the twentieth century's idea of a heroine. Ironically, it was her determination to keep to her private life which contributed to the nineteenth-century's admiration for her.

In the 1970's some anecdotes about Rebecca's life appeared in Stephen Birmingham's The Grandees: America's Sephardic Elite. Birmingham differed from other Rebecca enthusiasts in that his main interest was not in her, but in the great story he could craft around her, even if he had to fabricate much of it himself. For instance, he used an erroneous Spanish derivation for "Gratz" to shoehorn her Ashkenazic (northern European Jewish) family into a book about American Sephardim (Jews from the Mediterranean area). The problem with Birmingham is that his stories are so good as stories, people still cannot resist repeating them despite the disservice they do to Rebecca Gratz. His baroque embroideries deserve and will get a post of their own.

And then there are the simple mistakes, which, once made, are picked up and used repeatedly until everyone takes for granted they are true. For instance, somewhere along the way someone got the idea that Samuel Ewing was two years younger than Rebecca. If this were so, he would have graduated from the University of Pennsylvania at the age of nine. Since there is no mention of his being a child prodigy and since the Ewing genealogies and a family history indicate Ewing was born in 1776, it seems that he was five years older than Rebecca, in those days the appropriate age difference for courtship. A recent mistake was in Cokie Roberts' Ladies of Liberty in which Samuel Ewing was referred to throughout as Samuel Erving.

In the early 1990's a large cache of Gratz family letters and other documents became available, making possible the first real biography: Diane Ashton's Rebecca Gratz: women and Judaism in antebellum America. Ms. Ashton, unlike earlier researchers, had an embarrassment of riches from which to sculpt her biography. The Gratz material now accessible is a collection so large that I have been writing this blog for a year and have repeated very little which is in the Ashton book. This is in part due to the fact that my interests are slightly different from hers: where Ashton keeps Rebecca in the steady middle distance, I zoom in on the human interest and go to wide angle for the societal context. The difference illustrates what works in different media: linear biography for a printed book, a collage of posts on the internet to build up a picture of a person and an era.

Having brought up others' errors, it is only right that I confess my own. About three years ago I wrote a brief biography of Rebecca for a study group at the Rosenbach Museum and Library. I recently reread it and cringed -- I had made my share of false assumptions and outright mistakes of fact. My research has been a constant revision -- every time I read a new letter there is the possibility that much I think I know is going to change.

The most recent of such moments came when I read a friend's description of Sarah Gratz's illness. (See Sarah Gratz's Mysterious Malady.) Although I had been aware that Sarah had some kind of health problem from the few family letters written during the period 1812-1817, I had had no suspicion she might have bipolar disorder. I felt profound pity for her (I have read so many of her letters, that rightly or wrongly, I feel like I know her) and astonished respect for Rebecca for her devotion to her sister under the most difficult of circumstances. This period must have been one of the greatest trials of Rebecca's character and her faith and no one had known it had ever occurred.

Fortunately when I read this letter, I had not written a post about the "quiet family years, 1812-1817." I may not always be so lucky. At least with a blog I can readily correct posts in which I have erred, an option not so easy for those who have committed themselves in print. Although I have gone back and tidied up my writing from time to time, I have made no substantive changes -- yet. When I do, I will post a notice of the revision.

(Letters of Rebecca Gratz is accessible on Google Books. One caution: the editor, Rabbi David Philipson, states in his introductory remarks that he has excised material which the family found too sensitive. The result is that Rebecca seems to have had a somewhat more serene life than is true.)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

An Unaccountable Wedding Fad

Shortly after the Fenno family moved to New York in June 1800, Harriet Fenno, Rachel Gratz's best friend, met or renewed an acquaintanceship with John Rodman, a young lawyer with literary interests. As his name started appearing regularly in letters, Rachel, who had been so desperate at the loss of her friends, made a quick trip to New York in August and was able to report that Harriet was in love. There was much suspense among the Gratz sisters which was heightened by a peculiar fad of the time (it seems to have lasted several years) for secret engagements and surprise weddings. (More accurately, these engagements were "private," known and approved by the families involved, but not formally announced and even denied to everyone else until the couple appeared as husband and wife.) Washington Irving commented on the phenomenon in 1802:

"There is nothing that seems more strange and preposterous to me than the manner in which modern marriages are conducted. The parties keep the matter as secret as if there was something disgraceful about the connexion...they sneak into matrimony as quietly as possible, and seem to pride themselves on the cunning and ingenuity they have displayed in their maneuvers."

Rachel returned to the Fenno's in November, eager to find out what was going on. Rebecca in Philadelphia had to wait for the mail, not knowing if she would be taken into the small circle who were to be told of the engagement once it was a fact. Since the Fenno's wanted Rachel to remain in New York for the wedding, Maria conveyed the good news to Rebecca, vowing her to secrecy, but permitting her to tell her mother so that Rachel might be given permission to extend her visit till the first of the year.

Meanwhile, Harriet Fenno's other friends in Philadelphia had heard rumors of a possible engagement and asked about it. Rebecca felt awkward dodging their questions, but fortunately did not have to keep them at bay for too long. Short engagements were the norm at this period. John Rodman and Harriet Fenno were married before the end of the year and Rebecca was free to announce the marriage.

(Irving's remarks appeared in The Morning Chronicle (New York City), November 20, 1802.)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rebecca Rejects Authorship

(This story from the 1830's only makes sense if you know that by that time Rebecca was famously identified with the character of the same name in Scott's novel Ivanhoe.)

Always pious, Rebecca, probably influenced by the fact that she was now the symbol of her religion in the eyes of the public, read all that she could about her faith. She probably discussed religious questions with Isaac Leeser, the scholarly young man who had become the hazzan ("reader": the man who led religious services) at Mikveh Israel, her synagogue. Since there were no rabbis in the United States at this time, Leeser's was the most authoritative opinion readily available to her.

In 1833-34, Rebecca met another young man who, like her, was interested in their religion. Solomon Cohen, from Georgetown, South Carolina, shared with her his concern about the ignorance and misrepresentation of Judaism among Christians, even among those who were well-disposed towards Jews.

After their meeting, Cohen wrote Rebecca "to offer a suggestion. Would it not be well to give to the public a work explaining our doctrine...? Such a work...would be of immense advantage in removing the mist of ignorance and prejudice which hang heavy and thick upon us and our faith--and permit me to add that I know of no one in America more admirably calculated than you are to perform this sacred task."

This may be a first in the history of world religion: a man suggesting a woman write a book on the subject of their religion. Cohen might have been driven to it by his excellent instincts for marketing. He probably was visualizing the author line on the title page as reading "by Rebecca Gratz (the Inspiration for the Character of Rebecca in Ivanhoe)".

Rebecca of course had no interest in this venture. She was rightly modest about her knowledge, and would have been distressed by any attempt to link her publicly to Scott's novel.

And yet--. It's hard not to think that if she had had more confidence in her understanding of her religion and was willing to use her celebrity in a good cause, such a book, attractive to both Jews and Christians, might have done a measure of good.

Cohen continued to look for and encourage books on Judaism in English; he would be instrumental in arranging for the publication of works by Grace Aguilar, the Anglo-Jewish author, in the United States in the 1840's. He also remained close to Rebecca, marrying Miriam Moses, one of her nieces, in 1836.

(Cohen's letter is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)

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