Thursday, December 22, 2011

"Inquiring Minds" at the Rosenbach

Most visitors to the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, where I am a docent, think of it as a house museum with galleries of changing exhibitions showcasing books, art and artifacts from its collections. But the Rosenbach also functions as a resource for researchers. A new exhibition, curated by Rosenbach registrar Karen E. Schoenewaldt, spotlights the ways in which researchers have recently delved into the collections.

Fifteen projects are represented. Here are a few:

An author of a recent Dracula novel studied the Rosenbach's notes for Dracula, composed by Bram Stoker over seven years, for characters and plot threads not used in the final version.

The assistant general manager of a local gourmet foods store is using the Rosenbach's "Mr. Allen's method of curing bacon" to reproduce a 19th-century version of the food.

A student at the Moore School of Art, who came to the Rosenbach to research Maurice Sendak and music for an art history class, ended up using his illustrations from Outside Over There as inspiration for her final fashion collection. A dress from her show is on display and is a major crowd-pleaser.

A biographer, using the Rosenbach's extensive Marianne Moore collection, discovered that Moore's interest in the philosophy of William James and the novels of his brother Henry may have had its roots in her college crush on William's daughter Peggy at Bryn Mawr.

And so on.

For each project, the exhibit provides the Rosenbach source material, a description of the research and the final work. This gives visitors unusual insight into scholarly and creative inspiration and process. For those works which cannot be fit into a glass case, there is a computer terminal-- where, for instance, you can see the fashion show mentioned above or read my blog, "Rebecca Gratz & 19th-Century America," which is among the projects covered.

The examples I have chosen highlight a Rosenbach policy: although many academics use its collections, you need not be one to gain access to them. Click here for more information about research at the Rosenbach.

The exhibition will run through March 25, 2012.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Visitors at the Hebrew Sunday School

In the summer of 1840, Rebecca wrote to a niece about an occurrence at a recent session of her Sunday School. Just as school was beginning, two men entered the classroom. They said that the children outside had invited them in and asked if they might stay. Rebecca gave her permission.

As the classes ended the older of the two men stood up and asked if he might speak. He and his companion, he said, were Seventh-Day Baptists (a Protestant denomination, in general agreement with other Baptists except for the proper day for the Sabbath which they observe on Saturday).

The man told how he had been ridiculed since his youth for keeping Saturday "like the Jews." Now he "felt happy there were communities of Israelites spread over the land...he deemed it a privilege to keep their holy Sabbath [and] prayed God would bless them." His words, Rebecca wrote, impressed the children. The two men then quietly left.

(For an anecdote about a Jewish visitor to the Sunday School, click here.)

(This letter is in the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Papers, No. 02639, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Theater in America, circa 1800

When Rebecca was a young woman, going to the theater was a popular pastime among those in her social set. The theater provided variety, with a mixture of Shakespeare, other favorites from the past and recent London hits. People went even though productions could be very uneven. Maria Fenno, Rebecca's best friend, reported to Rebecca from New York that she would be going to see King Lear, as performed by a "band of butchers," with a Cordelia "who has frequently been obliged to go to bed in the middle of a play in consequence of intoxication." On the other hand, America in 1800 had begun to attract young English actors whose stars rose much more quickly here than on the London stage. They would be the first matinee idols in the new nation.

Most of the social elite, as devotees of the English literary heritage, attended regularly. Others, like the Quakers, stayed away on principle. The middle classes generally avoided the theater, believing it to be a den of vice, and it can be argued that they were correct. Nearly every theater had its infamous third tier, the highest balcony where prostitutes displayed themselves and booked assignations. Theater owners early realized that this secondary attraction brought in a regular clientele, whose tickets provided the profit necessary to keep the dramatic arts alive in America.

The third tier was a frequent source of noise and disruption, but the prostitutes and their johns were not alone in impropriety. Wealthy young men felt entitled to exercise their wit in voices loud enough for the whole theater to hear. Rebecca's sister Rachel found their conduct disgusting on at least one occasion:

"We had several of them in our box at the theatre [who] annoyed me almost to death. Every word that [the leading actor] uttered was repeated by them with some comments."

Despite the rowdiness of the third tier and the "arrogance and affectation" (Rachel's words) of some young men, respectable men and women, safe in their theater boxes, continued to attend, and even to bring their adolescent children. In 1805 Rebecca wrote of taking 14-year-old Matilda Hoffman to see a play.

(Maria's letter is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. Rachel's is from the Gulian C. Verplanck Papers at the New York Historical Society, and the information about Rebecca and Matilda's theater-going is from a letter written by Rebecca in the Gratz Papers at the American Jewish Historical Society.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Rebecca and the "Little Butlers"

(This narrative thread begins here.)

When Fanny Kemble realized that her estranged husband never intended to let her see her daughters, she left the United States. During her absence, Rebecca continued to be a good friend. The two women began a correspondence which survives only in part (so far as I have been able to discover): some of Fanny's letters are among the Gratz papers at the American Philosophical Society, but Rebecca's have been lost. However, it is easy to discern the letters' most important purpose -- to provide Fanny with news of her children. In an undated letter to Rebecca, Fanny wrote, "A thousand thanks for the accounts of my girls. How right, how wise, how good, how kind you are to tell me everything that you can about them, from Fanny's French studies to Sarah's brisk bonnet."

Given the rancor between the parents, it is surprising that Pierce Butler would permit his daughters to visit a woman who was very much their mother's friend. Butler could not accuse Rebecca, as he did other of Fanny's friends, of helping to destroy his marriage; she didn't meet his wife until their relationship was all but over. And here was an instance where Rebecca's reputation as a "good woman" and the inspiration for Rebecca in Scott's Ivanhoe probably stood her in good stead.

Rebecca invited Fanny's daughters to her house, and also seems to have taken them on excursions. In 1847, she wrote her niece Miriam Cohen after a trip to a charity bazaar, "The little Butlers seem entirely delighted and I go again to see them enjoy themselves." Rebecca's pleasure in the companionship of children as well as her keen observations must have made her ideal for communicating the girls' behavior and interests to their mother. To her own relatives, Rebecca wrote of her concern for the development of the children without a mother's influence.

After Fanny's return to America in 1848, her husband permitted her to see her daughters. She wrote to Rebecca about her older girl: "Sarah's mode of speaking of you pleased me extremely, not because it was affectionate, but because it was respectful and enthusiastic and bespoke in her some appreciation of that moral dignity & beauty which I would have her respect and admire and love above all things."

The affection between Rebecca and the little Butlers may have grown out of their peculiar situation but it endured. In 1856, when the girls had reached womanhood, Rebecca reported: "I have just had a visit from my young friends the Butlers -- Sarah came to tell me of her engagement to Mr. Sandford of New York...." (The engagement was not as enduring as their friendship. In 1859 Sarah married Dr. Owen Jones Wister of Philadelphia; her son was the novelist Owen Wister.)

Even at the beginning of the Civil War, in which Pierce Butler was a vocal southern sympathizer, Rebecca continued her concern. The younger daughter, Fanny Butler, who took her
father's side, had gone with him to Georgia in February of 1861. In March Rebecca was already asking her niece in Savannah for any news of the young woman. (She and her father were fine. They returned North for the war, during which Pierce Butler was in and out of trouble for his views, and went back to Georgia after to try to renew the prosperity of the family holdings.)

(As mentioned above, Fanny's letters are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. Rebecca's are in the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Collection, No. 02639, the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I also used Malcolm Bell, Jr.'s Major Butler's Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family, for more information about the Butler's.)










Saturday, October 15, 2011

Rebecca Meets Fanny Kemble

(For the beginning of this story, see "Fanny Kemble Comes to Philadelphia.")

Charles Greville, an English friend of Fanny's, wrote of her early in her marriage: "She has discovered she has married a weak, dawdling, ignorant, violent tempered man...." His further description of her shows a woman ill-equipped to handle such a husband: "With all her prodigious talents, her fine feelings, noble sentiments, and lively imagination, she has no tact, no judgment, no discretion."

Fanny and Pierce Butler were not going to have an easy time of it, and their estrangement was further exacerbated by their disagreement over the most important moral and social issue of the day: Fanny despised slavery while Pierce, who derived his income from family holdings in the South, not only supported it but owned slaves.

For a decade after their marriage, which saw the birth of two daughters, the Butler's spent their time at either Butler Place, their estate outside Philadelphia, or in England, taking time for one long visit in 1838-39 to the Butler plantations in Georgia.

In 1844, having overspent in England on their recent stay, Butler rented out their estate for the income and the family was living in a boardinghouse in Philadelphia. But the couple was hardly united although they were under one roof. Pierce and the children were living in separate quarters from Fanny, and he was permitting her only the briefest contact with her daughters.

Their situation was made worse when in April 1843 Pierce was challenged by an irate husband and fought a duel. (Both men survived it unharmed.) Fanny seems to have been aware of some of her husband's previous infidelities but was now subjected to public humiliation.

It was later that year that Sarah Moses, the niece whom Rebecca had raised, suggested that her aunt should call on Fanny. Rebecca at first refused, feeling that since Fanny's "uncomfortable" affairs were the talk of the town, it would be "impertinent" for a stranger to seek her out.

Shortly thereafter, in January 1844, Rebecca came home to find that Fanny had left her visiting card. The two women then began the tedious exchange of cards required by etiquette and eventually met by early February. On the 6th, Rebecca wrote to her nephew-in-law Solomon Cohen that Fanny had "some noble traits of character and great talents." She also noted that Catharine Sedgwick, a popular novelist and a mutual friend of hers and Fanny's, was now in town and would be coming with Fanny for tea that Saturday.

Rebecca did not mention Fanny often in her letters, but Julia Hoffman, who was staying with the Gratz's that spring of 1845 reported to her brother George that he would have enjoyed hearing "Mrs. Butler sing some Scotch ballads which she did most beautifully without any accompaniment -- just sitting sewing by the table with us." This quiet domestic picture indicates that in the year since they had met Rebecca and Fanny had developed an intimate and relaxed friendship far removed from the formalities of visiting cards.

By this time the Butler marriage was over. Fanny was living apart from Pierce, driven away by his ill-treatment and his refusal to let her see her daughters. In September, Rebecca wrote:

"Poor Fanny Butler at last finds that she cannot longer sustain her painful & useless efforts to remain with her children, and leaves this city tomorrow....Mr. B. has found so many ways of thwarting her and rendering her miserable, that even her own sense of right now determines her to give up & depart....We shall feel her loss deeply and sorrowfully, for we love her very much, and the thought of her unhappiness is even more painful than the loss of her society. She has endeared herself to us by her noble qualities, her brilliant talents, and ardent love and practice of rare virtues...."

Although they would be separated for several years, Rebecca would continue to be a good friend to Fanny.

(Charles Greville's comments are from Major Butler's Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family, by Malcolm Bell, Jr. Other books about Fanny Kemble consulted include Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars, by Catherine Clinton, and Fanny and Adelaide, by Ann Blainey.
Julia Hoffman's letter is in the Fenno-Hoffman Papers at the University of Michigan. The quotations from Rebecca are from letters in the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Collection, No. 02639, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)













Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fanny Kemble Comes to Philadelphia


In 1829, Charles Kemble, the scion of a famous English acting dynasty, was losing money as one of the proprietors of the Covent Garden Theatre in London. His solution: send his reluctant 20-year-old daughter Frances (called Fanny) out on stage and hope she came back a star. And that's what she did.

Fanny Kemble was blessed with a natural stage presence and great expressiveness of face and voice. Despite her lack of enthusiasm for acting, audiences adored her. After two seasons in London and two tours of the provinces (all artistically and financially successful), her father brought Fanny to America in the fall of 1832.

In December of that year, Rebecca wrote her sister-in-law Maria Gratz in Kentucky about the effect the young actress had had on Gratz family life:

"While Miss Kemble is in town I spend a great many lone evenings. Hyman & Jo [two of the brothers who lived with her] go to the theatre. She is really charming. I have seen her three times and more wonderful still Jac went once." (Jac, the third brother for whom Rebecca kept house, was suffering from depression.)

In February 1833, Maria received a letter from her brother-in-law (and Rebecca's good friend) Francis Preston Blair in Washington, DC. Fanny Kemble was then on stage in the capital, and Blair wrote at length about her dramatic skills. Here is a portion of his description:

"I never saw the passions of your sex portrayed so divinely as in the acting of this fine woman [Fanny Kemble]. Her very utterance in grief is absolutely contagious. Her intonations are so natural and yet so beautiful that while one's eyes swell with tears and the throat is choked with the heart, the greatest pleasures derived and the tenderest affection is felt...."

The rest of America agreed with Gratz and Blair about the merits of Miss Kemble. Among her greatest admirers was a wealthy young Philadelphian named Pierce Butler who devoted himself to Fanny throughout her stay in America, following her from city to city and showering her with attention and flowers. In 1834, as the tour came to an end , Fanny Kemble married Butler in Philadelphia before leaving for New York for her final American performance. Her intention seems to have been to return then to England for one last season, thereby ensuring her parents' financial security. (She was, after all, the family breadwinner at this juncture.)

Rebecca Gratz, however, wrote that these plans did not work out: according to what she had heard, Butler insisted on marriage before Fanny left the country "and when married, would not consent to the separation or her continuing on the stage. Her father was angry at losing the aid of her professional talents, considered himself wronged & deceived and made the poor girl very sad...." A settlement with Charles Kemble enabled him to return home without immediate financial worries. It also left Fanny with a husband who thought he could control a diva.

To be continued here.


(Rebecca's letters are in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson; Blair's letter is reproduced in B. & M. Gratz: Merchants in Philadelphia, 1754-1798, by Vincent Byars. The portrait of Fanny Kemble, shown above, was painted in 1834 by Thomas Sully. It is at the White House, Washington, DC.)

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Grief of Benjamin Gratz

By August 14, 1861, the news of Cary Gratz's death had reached Philadelphia. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Blair Lee, Cary's cousin, was staying at the time with Rebecca, and wrote to her husband:

"Aunt Becky is very much overcome by Cary's death. She says it will be a crushing blow to Uncle Ben to whom he was the dearest of all his children...."

This is not just posthumous exaggeration about how well loved the deceased was. In 1846, when Ben brought Cary east to attend prep school, Rebecca had written that the boy "retains the lovely characteristics and appearance of his childhood with many good talents and promise....His father seems to love him as the apple of his eye...."

Ben had adored his eldest son, also named Benjamin, whom he and the family saw as one destined for distinction. When the child died at age 10, the grief of both his parents was profound and enduring. Yet Ben dared to love again, and the loss of a second favorite must have cost him much.

In the first days of their grief, the family also had to contend with the horror of not knowing where Cary's body lay. His cousin Frank Blair travelled to the battle site and was able to locate Cary's remains. Bernard Gratz, Cary's older brother, went to Missouri to accompany the coffin home. It must have been with a certain amount of relief that Ben was able to bury his son in September 1861. Cary Gratz was the first Civil War soldier to be interred in Lexington Cemetery.

Rebecca tried to console Ben, "whose grief I share, but cannot measure even by that which fills my heart -- all human sympathy are but drops of comfort, in his great sorrow..." She hoped that his wife and daughters might"win from the indulgence of feelings which have so overwhelm'd him -- and I trust restore his peace....we live on, cherishing those that are taken from us, as tho they were only removed from sight -- with the hope of reunion in another world...."

In early October Lizzie Blair Lee received a letter from her sister-in-law, Frank Blair's wife. Lizzie reported to her husband on what it contained. According to her correspondent, a soldier who had participated in the Battle of Wilson's Creek visited them. The man had said he and Cary Gratz had been hit at the same time although he had sustained only a leg wound. Cary, despite his five wounds (if the official account is correct), lingered on the battlefield for six hours before dying. The soldier said he was with Cary the whole time, gave him water and made some shade for his face. There was no mention in Lizzie's account if Cary was capable during his last hours of sending a message to his family.

This story must have brought as much pain as solace to the family. In late December 1861 Rebecca wrote that Ben "writes to Horace [the nephew who lived with her] more calmly than he does to me -- I do not crave his letters."

Ben was calmer when he visited Philadelphia in April 1862. Rebecca reported to Lizzie Lee that "his countenance is unaltered by his loss. He is resigned to giving up his noble boy to his Country['s] cause -- tho he says it yet with quivering lips." This visit seems to have been good for both brother and sister: Rebecca was able to offer what comfort she could and Ben was ready to receive it.

Ben had customarily left much of the Kentucky correspondence with Rebecca to his wife, but after this visit he wrote regularly his sister, a change which gave her great joy. In June 1862 she wrote, "Your letters My beloved Brother, are the day spring of my life and make me feel young again -- through the warmth of the affection they express...."

(Elizabeth Blair Lee's letters appear in Wartime Washington, edited by Virginia Jeans Laas. Two of Rebecca's letters may be found in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson; the third, from December 1861, is in the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Collection, No. 02639, the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Cary Gratz Killed in Action: August 10, 1861

From the obituary in the New York Times, August 18, 1861:

"Capt. CARY GRATZ, who has been for about five years a citizen of St. Louis, is youngest son of BEN. GRATZ, of Lexington, Ky., one of the oldest and most honored citizens of that State, and intimately connected for a quarter of a century with the banking institutions of Kentucky. The family is a branch of the Philadelphia family of the same name. Capt. CARY GRATZ was first cousin of HON. F. P. BLAIR [member of the U.S. House of Representatives], and from the first outbreak of the war has been in the public service; and in his last battle he died with great gallantry. His father has hundreds of friends in this City and in Philadelphia who will be pained by his misfortune."

Cary Gratz died in the second battle of the Civil War, at Wilson's Creek, near Springfield, Missouri, on August 10, 1861. He had turned 32 the day before.

An earlier post, A Civil War Tragedy, focused on Cary and his stepbrother/cousin Jo Shelby who both fought in the battle but on opposite sides. This one and the next will deal with Cary's death and its repercussions in military and political circles as well as its aftermath for his family.

The official account of Cary's death reports that he was advancing at the head of his men (Company E), when they discovered the enemy led by an officer carrying a Union flag. Gratz drew his revolver, fired "and knocked [the Confederate officer] off his horse, but upon reaching the ground he immediately arose and rushed through his lines, at which instant Captain Gratz fired a second shot pitching him headlong out of sight. The enemy now opened fire, and Captain Gratz fell, pierced by five shots."

The first member of the family to learn of his death was probably Frank Blair, his cousin in St. Louis, who took the loss of Cary and other friends to heart. The Blair's had political clout: Frank, of course, was a Congressman, his father, Francis Preston Blair of Blair House, Washington, DC, was a founder of the Republican Party and an advisor to President Lincoln and his brother Montgomery was Postmaster General in Lincoln's Cabinet. They had used their influence to help their old friend John C. Fremont, a soldier, explorer and the first anti-slavery Republican candidate for president in 1856. He was appointed to head the Army of the West in the summer of 1861, and it was Fremont who denied reinforcements to the outnumbered Union troops at Wilson's Creek. The Blair's faith in the general was shaken and in the following weeks Fremont's rash decisions and poor organizational skills seemed to form, for many observers, a pattern of bad judgment. The Blairs lent their support to Fremont's other critics, and the general was relieved of his command in November 1861.

John Fremont -- and his formidable wife Jessie, the daughter of a United States senator, who had devoted her life to her husband's career -- were ambitious and used to controversy. The couple battled back against the Blair's, their former patrons. Rebecca Gratz wrote at the end of October 1861: "[T]he great mortification they [the Blair family] suffer, is having assisted to place [the Fremont's] in power to do so much mischief. It seems to me that our friends [the Blair's] are deficient in knowledge of human character -- like other sanguine people they act from feeling -- and misjudge those they love, who they think are as guileless as themselves...."

Fremont would be courtmartialed and later pardoned by Lincoln, but he never received another command during the Civil War. (See the comment for a correction to this last statement.) The long friendship between the Fremont's and the Blair's was over.

Concerned as Rebecca was with the Blairs' grief and their troubles with the Fremont's, her main concern was closer -- her brother Ben's reaction to the death of his son.

To be continued.

(The report of Cary Gratz's death is taken from The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Record..., U.S. War Department, 1881. Rebecca's letter is in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson.)


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ben & Maria Choose Their Babies' Names

(The discussion of Benjamin and Maria Gratz's difficulties in choosing names for their sons began here.)

Like other ethnic groups, Jews had naming traditions which arose in different regions. Despite their northern European origins, the Gratz family, like many other Jewish families in the United States at that time, seems to have followed the southern European customs. Rebecca Gratz gave this explanation of one of the family's traditions for naming babies:

"It is not customary among pious Jews to name a child after a living parent -- it does not occur in Scriptures from whence we take our customs as well as laws...." Although this tradition permitted naming for most relatives, both living and dead, it forbade the name which Maria Gratz wanted for her child, Benjamin.

Beyond that, Benjamin Gratz probably wished to follow another of his family's naming traditions: the first son would be named for the paternal grandfather, living or dead. Jewish children were given two names, a Hebrew one for use in the synagogue and an "English" version, in sound or meaning. The more important of the two in naming was the Hebrew one, but since his children would be Episcopalians, Benjamin did not have the opportunity to bestow his father's Hebrew name, Yechiel. He therefore chose Michael, his father's English name.

"Michael," a very popular in the 21st century, was not so popular with Americans in the 1820's. The only group which favored the name were the Irish, which gave it ethnic and class connotations which Maria would have found unappealing. She and Ben must have finally agreed to add as a second name "Bernard," after Michael Gratz's older brother and business partner, and to call their son by that name.

And so Maria got her way finally with her oldest son Benjamin (although the family, which had called him Gratz before, continued to use that name) and Ben was able to honor his father and uncle by naming their second son Michael Bernard.

After their first two sons, the naming seems to have gone more easily. Their third son, Henry Howard, bore two names from Maria's family. Then came Hyman Cecil, with a first name in honor of Ben's brother Hyman and a second name from Maria's side. Cary Gist, the fifth son, was given both names from the maternal family. There is no recorded name for their sixth son who lived only four days.

(Rebecca's letter is from Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson.)




Thursday, June 30, 2011

Difficulties in Naming Babies

Rebecca delighted in the happy marriage of her brother Benjamin and Maria Cecil Gist. After the couple's first visit to Philadelphia from their home in Kentucky, she wrote:

"[I]ndeed, Maria, separation from him [Ben] is a severe conflict -- which the conviction that he is happy, would alone reconcile me to -- and that you, dearest, make him so is a source of never failing gratitude to your sister's heart -- may you long enjoy every felicity together."

But even the happiest of couples do not agree on everything, and after their second visit to Philadelphia in 1823 with a 2-year-old and a new baby in tow, Rebecca records a serious disagreement: Maria and Ben had not yet settled on a given name for either of their two sons. In her usual diplomatic fashion, Rebecca comments on the situation:

"I like your idea of combining an agreeable association with the denomination of a child and that is the reason family names are so constantly perpetuated from one generation to another -- but then fashion and fancy are so various and our children not feeling the dignity of bearing a title down to posterity which sounded well to antedeluvean ears and in ancient tongues may not sympathize with our taste...hence the difficulty I have witnessed in other parents before you though I must confess it has continued longer with you than most others --....pray seek out from among your or our relations some well sounding as well as good name or else let the dear little fellows be the first of the Gratzes to bring a handsome name into the family for their grandchildren to carry forward."

So what was going on here? because two years is an excessive wait for a given name. If we look at what the final name choices are, it is possible to make an educated guess as to what was at the root of the problem. The older boy would shortly become officially "Benjamin Gratz," the second son "Michael Bernard Gratz," and this suggests a difference over what was an appropriate name for the first son.

If you have read Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Hackett Fischer's study of customs brought by colonists from four different sections of Britain, you know that naming traditions can vary even within one ethnic group. But by 1820, many of the older English naming customs were weakening. The Gist's had no tradition of naming an eldest son for his father, nor was it usual among the old Virginia families from which Maria's mother came. The choice of "Benjamin" must have been Maria's own, an instance of American individualism, a token of her love for her husband, and perhaps an unconscious effort to bind him more closely to her and her child. We can be sure it was Maria's choice, and not Ben's, because it goes counter to the Gratz family's naming traditions.

To be continued.

(The quotations are from Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson.)


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

More about Boys' Dresses & "Breeching"

In January of 2010, I posted "Boys' Dresses & 'Breeching,'" which became the single most popular entry in my Rebecca Gratz blog for that year. Its source was a letter Rebecca's sister Richea Hays had written in 1799, in which she crowed about her three-year-old son's initiation into trousers and jacket.

Now I have found a comment by Rebecca herself from many years later (1847). This time it is a great-nephew who has been breeched around the time of his third birthday. Rebecca had received a visit from her niece Miriam and her family, from Savannah, a few months previous to the letter. Miriam's son Gratz Cohen was still wearing the skirts of a baby at the time. Rebecca's response to the news that he had started wearing trousers is a mix of sentiment, good sense and sound observation:

"The infantile costume became him so well that I was unwilling to have it changed. There is so much more freedom in the motions of a child's limbs in the loose dress than when buttoned up in trousers which has neither grace nor ease, that I wonder parents do not prefer to keep them longer on -- but the [boast?] of man's prerogative is assumed with his change of dress -- and little boys fancy they are becoming men, much faster as soon as they throw off [their] frocks!"

(The letter is in the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Collection, No.02639, the Southern Historical Collection, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Lost Portraits of Mrs. Benjamin Gratz: Have You Seen Maria?

Photo of a "crayon" copy of the portrait of Mrs. Benjamin Gratz (Maria
Cecil Gist) by Thomas Sully, Philadelphia, 1831. Courtesy of the Rosenbach
Museum & Library. From the bequest of Mrs. Anderson Gratz, 1984.


Just as Rebecca Gratz was having her portrait painted by Thomas Sully in December of 1830, her brother and sister-in-law Benjamin and Maria Gratz arrived from their home in Lexington, KY, for a long visit in Philadelphia.

Sully's portrait must have been deemed successful because the family decided that he should paint portraits of Ben and Maria for the Philadelphia Gratz's. In April 1831, he produced them and, at Maria's request, then painted another portrait of Rebecca to go back to Kentucky.

Three of these four paintings reside today at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia:
Sully's first portrait of Rebecca, his portrait of Benjamin and his second painting of Rebecca, all given by or acquired from Gratz descendants. But no one knows what has become of Sully's portrait of Maria Cecil Gist Gratz, Ben's wife. Although a family member gave the Museum Matthew Jouett's portrait of Maria, done around the time of her marriage, it would certainly be nice to see her companion portrait by Sully beside that of her husband.

We are fortunate that among the materials which one Gratz descendant provided was the photograph, reproduced above, of a copy of the painting of Maria. This version is supposed to have been done in pastels, but the artist and date are unknown, as is its whereabouts.

We also know that Rebecca Gratz had the artist John Henry Brown make a miniature from Sully's original painting of Maria in 1844. The Rosenbach has a photograph of it in its collection, but Brown's portrait itself has also disappeared.

Although it is certainly possible that one of these likenesses might have been accidentally destroyed in the course of time, it seems unlikely that not a single one has survived. So look around, check the attic and friends' homes, visit your local museum. If you have seen one of these pictures of Maria, or own one of them, please contact Judith Guston, the curator at the Rosenbach, or me.


February 2012, update: For information on how two of these portraits were found, click here.










Sunday, May 22, 2011

Civil War Letters: May 22, 1861

On May 22, 1861, Rebecca wrote a thank you note to her nephew-in-law Solomon Cohen, of Savannah, an enthusiastic supporter of slavery. He had sent his condolences on the recent death of her friend and companion Julia Hoffman. Thinking of Julia's death, Rebecca begins by quoting scripture:

"'The righteous are removed from the evil to come' and thus I ponder on the destiny our unhappy country torn by evils of our own creating. How many we love may be sacrificed by the coming strife! My only comfort is that we shall love and pray for each other through all changes and chances of this life."

She was determined to preserve affectionate ties within the family, and she would succeed in this. However, her dark forbodings proved true: Cohen will lose his only son in the War; Rebecca, not only this great-nephew on the side of the South, but also a beloved nephew fighting for the Union.

(Rebecca's letter is in the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Collection, No. 02639, the Southern Historical Collection, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Benjamin Gratz, Civic Leader

Earlier this year, Mayor Jim Gray of Lexington, Kentucky, spoke in his inaugural speech of the "remarkable people who shaped and formed this city." One name he invoked was that of Benjamin Gratz, Rebecca Gratz's youngest brother. Although he was never the mayor of Lexington, Gratz was the sort of man any mayor would want in his locality.

During his long and active life in Kentucky (1819 to 1884) Gratz owned rope and bagging factories. He was an incorporator of the Lexington & Ohio Railroad, and its second president. He was also on the first Board of Directors of the Bank of Kentucky and a Director of the Northern Bank of Kentucky.

Besides the economic benefits of Gratz's business activities, Lexington also gained from his sense of civic responsibility. He was on the Board of Trustees of Transylvania University for 63 years, and participated in the successful effort to bring the University of Kentucky to Lexington. He sat on the Lexington Council which organized the city's first public library, was a founder of the Lexington Cemetery and the first president of the Kentucky Agricultural & Mechanical Association.

He was on the welcoming committees for LaFayette's visit to Lexington in 1825 and for William Henry Harrison's visit in 1840, and on the funeral and monument committees for Senator Henry Clay.

For the nation's centennial celebration in 1876, Gratz secured land for a pleasure ground for Lexington residents. Several years later, the city renamed it Gratz Park in his honor.

A description of Ben in his old age appeared in a history of the area in 1882: "Though Mr. Gratz lost his sight in 1876, he has never ceased to interest himself in the material and moral welfare of Lexington, where he has continued to reside, deeply respected by all classes of the people....The old gentleman adheres to the faith of his forefathers; takes his daily walks amid physical darkness, and has a friendly greeting for all, for all are his friends, and as he has a retentive memory and a thorough appreciation of passing events, his conversation is particularly interesting."

(The major sources for this post are the Kentucky Encyclopedia and Perrin's History of Fayette County, Kentucky.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Rebecca & Mixed Marriages

Rebecca Gratz gave up the man she loved for religious reasons: he was Presbyterian and she was Jewish. In a poem written in 1807, two years after Samuel Ewing proposed marriage, Rebecca recalled her happiness during their brief engagement and how it was ended when "interfering religion...called [her] home."

Ten years later in 1817, and two years before her brother Benjamin married Maria Cecil Gist, Rebecca spoke of her feelings on mixed marriages:

"I believe it is impossible to reconcile a matrimonial engagement between persons of so different a creed without requiring one or the other to yield. In all instances we have heard of in real life this has been the case and where a family of children are to be brought up it appears necessary that parents should agree on so important a subject. I have known many Jews marry Christian women whose wives have become strict conformists to the rites of our religion -- and Jewesses married to Christians who have entered the church as in the instance of my Aunt Schuyler [her mother's younger sister Shinah Simon who married Nicholas Schuyler]...."

Rebecca believed in one family, one religion, but you will note that in each of her examples it was the woman who converted. Given these facts, it would seem that the desire for a religiously unified family and her reluctance to convert were probably at the heart of her renunciation of Samuel Ewing.

When in 1819 Rebecca received a letter from her youngest brother Benjamin announcing that he would be marrying Maria Cecil Gist, a non-Jewish Kentucky woman whom he had met in Philadelphia the previous summer, it created conflicts for her. She had also met Maria, and had been drawn to her by their mutual interests and similar values. But Ben must have written that he and Maria would continue to follow their individual religious traditions, which she thought to be an unworkable plan. She wrote about her feelings to her friend Maria Fenno Hoffman:

"I hope mine is not a narrow creed. My most cherished friends and the companions of my choice have generally been worshipers of a different faith from mine and I have not loved them less on that account. But in a family connection I have always thought conformity of religious opinions essential and there fore could not approve my brother's election. In other respects Miss Gist is a woman any family might be proud to receive, and as they have resolved to blend their fate I most sincerely hope they may find the means to worship God faithfully and without offense to each other."

Rebecca also wrote to Ben, a letter which has gone missing, due, I would guess, to a little family editing. She must have voiced the same concerns to her brother. It would have been very interesting to see how she expressed herself on this occasion and what exactly she suggested, especially because Ben showed Rebecca's letter to Maria.

There cannot have been anything personally offensive to Maria in it, but Ben's fiancee may have felt betrayed by a woman she had taken to be her friend. She did not realize that important as religion was to Rebecca, family ties came first. Once Maria had married Ben, Rebecca would accept her wholeheartedly. However, the correspondence between the two new sisters-in-law began a bit awkwardly; once Maria and Ben visited Philadelphia in 1821 with their new baby the easy friendship the two women felt for each other when they first met reasserted itself. They would be the best of friends until Maria's untimely death in 1841. (Most of the letters in Letters of Rebecca Gratz are addressed to Maria.)

In 1825, Rebecca was able to write to Ben, "I love your dear Maria, and admire the forbearance which leaves unmolested the religious opinions she knows are sacred in your estimation. May you both continue to worship according to the dictates of your conscience and your orisons be equally acceptable to the throne of Grace...."

We know from the correspondence that the Gratz family of Lexington, Kentucky, observed Jewish holidays as well as Christian ones. The children were reared in Maria's Episcopalian faith, but Benjamin retained his Jewish identity throughout his life. In 1884, when he died in his 92nd year, a rabbi presided over his funeral service.

(Rebecca's letters from 1817 and 1819 are from the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society. The 1825 letter is published in Letters of Rebecca Gratz.)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Civil War Begins

As Confederate troops bombarded Fort Sumter, Rebecca was concerned with matters nearer at hand. Many years before, she had promised her dying friend Maria Fenno Hoffman to look after her children. Following the death of Maria's widower Josiah Ogden Hoffman in 1837, it was found that the family fortune was gone. The two sons were unmarried and working but did not have enough money to provide a home for their sister Julia. From that point on Julia spent her life as a guest in others' homes. Eventually she was able to summer with her brother George and his wife on their farm in central Pennsylvania, take extended visits with her cousins in Boston and Fishkill NY and have her winter home with Rebecca, where the Gratz's treated her as one of the family. In April of 1861, Julia, who had suffered from a digestive disorder for years, was seriously ill, and Rebecca had moved into the bedchamber closest to hers to better care for her.

By this time Rebecca's large household had shrunk to only one nephew, Horace Moses, and she had come to rely greatly on Julia's companionship. As she would later remark, at eighty she had taken for granted that Julia, nearly 30 years younger, would survive her. Anxiously caring for her friend, it was not until April 17, 1861, that Rebecca sat down to write her niece Miriam Cohen in Savannah "in anticipation" of future difficulties in communicating.

Miriam had married a Southerner and had lived in South Carolina and Georgia for nearly a quarter of a century, and it was obvious, from early in her marriage, that she had become an enthusiast, like her husband, for slavery and states' rights. From about 1840 on, Rebecca no longer brought up in her letters to Miriam anything on which they might disagree. And so Rebecca starts this April 1861 letter with family matters, but on the second page, she cannot stop herself from voicing her anguish:

"The horrors of civil war, separation from dear friends and multitudes of unknown troubles seem to hover over us in frightful array. It strikes me that there is no glory in such warfare -- whichever side succeeds, his brother fails. I have not yet learned to narrow my patriotism to a single section of my country. May God assist us to bring a right understanding about, without bloodshed in this unholy struggle."

Rebecca was a Unionist, but here she writes only of her anti-war feelings. So rational herself, she was at a loss to understand that anyone could prefer violence to some compromise which would keep the peace and the Union intact.

Particularly interesting is her statement about limiting her patriotism. Some historians have suggested that Americans were much more attached to their states than to the nation, and this may be true in some regions. (Early on in their correspondence, Rebecca commented that Miriam had become quite a Georgian.) Yet in about seventy years worth of letters Rebecca never refers to herself as a Pennsylvanian nor does she glory in her region's superiority or in the inferiority of other parts of the country. She always sees herself as an American.

Perhaps this was a legacy of being among the first generation to grow up as citizens of the United States. Rebecca and her contemporaries were very aware of the fact that they were part of a political and social experiment which Europeans were watching with interest and in some cases with the hope that the new nation would fail. When the government removed Native Americans from the East, although she opposed it, Rebecca felt a responsibility because she was an American. That identification was much more central to her than any political or regional connection. Sadly, by the time of the Civil War, Rebecca had few contemporaries left to watch with her as the nation stood on the brink of self-destruction and to speak out for their old ideals.

All unknowing of her own prescience, Rebecca also writes in her letter that whichever side wins, "his brother" loses. In less than four months this terrible fate would fall upon her own family at the Battle of Wilson's Creek. But before that tragedy, she had to face another grief: Julia Hoffman died on April 28, 1861.

(Rebecca's letter is in the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Papers, No. 02639, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)



Monday, April 11, 2011

Benjamin Gratz, Rebecca's Youngest Brother

Benjamin Gratz
by Thomas Sully. Oil on wood, Philadelphia, 1831. Courtesy of the Rosenbach Museum & Library. Gift
of Henrietta Gratz Clay. 1954.1937

(To see Sully's companion portrait of his wife Maria, click here.)

Just a few days before Ben's fifteenth birthday (Sept. 4, 1807), Rebecca reported that he was continuing to grow in "manliness, beauty and graceful manners." "He will be a gentleman," she assured Jo, another brother.

Rebecca almost never wrote of physical beauty in her letters, as seems to have been the custom of the day. Usually, that type of praise was saved for children. It may be that she still saw her baby brother as a child, but the good looks Rebecca discerned in him are reflected in Sully's portrait of Ben at 38 (above) and his gentlemanly qualities attested to by his life.

Ben attended the University of Pennsylvania and received his bachelor's degree in 1811. In 1812, at the beginning of the war, he volunteered, but was called up only in 1814 when it seemed as though the British would attack Philadelphia after burning Washington. A second lieutenant in Capt. John Swift's company of the Washington Guards, he spent several months on active duty. Rebecca worried that camp life would be too hard for him but Ben seems to have thrived on it.

Sometime during the period 1812-1815 Ben studied law in the office of a family friend William Meredith, and in 1815 was admitted to the Philadelphia bar. He received a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania the same year. In the summer of 1818 when he first met Maria Cecil Gist, he was preparing to go west to pursue a law suit for the partners (which included the Gratz family) of the Illinois & Wabash Company.

Rebecca, who liked to keep her family close, was alarmed by Ben's letters proclaiming his enthusiasm for the West. Perhaps even without Maria he would have settled in Kentucky. The period was a time of the greatest internal migration in American history: people in the south were flooding into Alabama and Mississippi to plant the rich land there with cotton; New Englanders, reeling from 1816, the year without a summer, were moving down into the Ohio Valley for a longer growing season. As new towns sprang up, each needed clergy, a doctor, a schoolmaster, a lawyer and businessmen. Even young men like Ben, from the eastern social elite, were attracted to the West where they felt they could make their mark.

Ben probably found a reason to go to Lexington in the autumn of 1818, and evidence from his correspondence shows that he wintered in Vincennes and was back in Lexington in the spring of 1819. He returned to Philadelphia and, in the fall of 1819, was in Lexington again, this time to stay. There is no information on when he proposed to Maria Cecil Gist, but he would not have done so unless he had the means to support a wife in Kentucky.

Somewhere along the way he attracted the interest of Col. James Morrison, one of the founders of Lexington. The Gratz family had long held land in Kentucky, and Morrison would have known them by reputation and perhaps had met some of the Gratz men. In any case, to a city father who hoped to make his town "the Athens of the West," a young man with a master's degree and legal and business experience would be a gift from heaven. Morrison probably facilitated what would be a lucrative business. He, John Bruce, a local Scottish immigrant who had experience in the manufacturing of rope, and Benjamin Gratz entered into a partnership to make rope in Lexington and provide it at a cheaper price to the West than that produced on the east coast. I assume that Ben, who would also be in charge of the business side of the endeavor, and Morrison provided most of the money to get their factory started.

The Gratz fortune is something of a mystery. The father, Michael Gratz, who had land holdings all over the country, died intestate in 1811. The three eldest brothers seem to have made an attempt to divide the lands among the siblings, but gave up just about the time Ben returned to Philadelphia in 1819: everything went into a family trust, and how it was administered is unknown by me. Ben would have been looking for some investment money when he was in Philadelphia and seems to have gotten it, but whether it came from the estate or a loan from a brother is another question mark.

In any case, the partnership was created and Maria accepted his proposal of marriage. All Ben had to do was to write to Rebecca, who seems to have been unaware of these events, to tell her that he would be settling in Lexington, Kentucky, with a non-Jewish wife.

To continue, click here.

(Rebecca's letter is in the Washington Irving Collection, Clifton Waller Library of American Literature, University of Virginia.)







Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Maria Cecil Gist, Rebecca's Sister-In-Law


Maria Cecil Gist (detail)
by Matthew Harris Jouett. Oil on convas, Lexington, KY, 1820-25. Courtesy of Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia. Gift of Mrs. Anderson Gratz 1984.0005.

The dearest friend and most faithful correspondent of Rebecca's middle years was her non-Jewish sister-in-law in Kentucky, Maria Cecil Gist Gratz (1797-1841). Maria's acquaintance with the Gratz family began, not with Benjamin, her future husband, but with Rebecca, whom she met when she accompanied her mother and her ailing sister to Philadelphia in 1818 in search of medical assistance.

Despite the sixteen years difference in age, Rebecca did not fall into the "aunt" role which characterized her relationships with so many younger men and women. Maria's intelligence, her literary interests, her charming personality and, as their friendship progressed, the revelation that she too was a spiritual pilgrim would serve to cement a friendship between equals.

This is Rebecca's description of Maria Gist shortly after she met her (note the use of the terms "good sense" and "sensible," which were Rebecca's highest forms of praise):

"[S]he is a girl of great good sense and has a cultivated mind. Too remote from fashionable education to be accomplished in music and dancing she has bestowed more time in reading and as her family were genteel and well-bred and her education directed by a sensible woman [Maria's mother] her manners are exceedingly frank and engaging. Indeed I have rarely met with persons more calculated to attract affection...."

Socially and economically, the two were peers. Maria's father, Nathaniel Gist, a Revolutionary War veteran, received a large land grant and moved his family from Virginia to their new estate Canewood outside of Lexington, Kentucky in the 1790's. A decade after his death, his widow had married General Charles Scott who soon after become governor of Kentucky (1808-1812). Like Rebecca, Maria had grown up as part of the local elite.

The two women had just met when Maria's sister died suddenly. Rebecca offered the hospitality of the Gratz home to Maria and her mother so that they could mourn in private among people who sympathized rather than continue at the public boardinghouse where they had been staying.

If he had not been introduced to her earlier in her visit, Benjamin Gratz, Rebecca's youngest brother, made Maria's acquaintance during the two weeks she and her mother spent in the Gratz household before they returned to Kentucky. Since he was about to go west on business Mrs. Scott and Maria invited him to Canewood when he was in the area. Ben left a few weeks after Maria started her trip home. At Baltimore, he received a letter from Rebecca saying that she had heard from Maria: "She writes charmingly & sends kind messages to you" [Rebecca's emphasis]. If Ben had not already determined to visit Canewood at his earliest opportunity, this message would have certainly encouraged him to do so. Benjamin Gratz would return to Philadelphia many times in the course of his long life, but he would never live there again: his future was in Kentucky and with Maria.

(Rebecca's description of Maria is in a letter to Maria Fenno Hoffman in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society. Her letter to Ben is published in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by David Philipson.)









Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Arcadia and History

I just saw a new production of one of my favorites, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, and I am still bedazzled. The play deals with order v. chaos, classicism v. romanticism, logic v. intuition, and that's just scraping the surface. Given its themes, I am not sure how it happens (Mr. Stoppard has famously written of the theater, "It's a mystery"), but in the course of the play, witty conversation, brilliant ideas, hilarity, tears and, if you're lucky, a moment of transcendence all ensue.

The play takes place in one room of an English country house, but at different times -- 1809-1812 and the present, with scenes alternating between the two periods. Much of the hilarity has to do with a modernday professor, armed with a few documents, who theorizes about events which occurred at the house when Lord Byron visited there in 1809 . The audience knows exactly what happened, and we delight in how very wrong the academic gets it.

This time around, this particular aspect of the play hit a little closer to home than ever before. Two weeks ago I presented my ideas at the Rosenbach Museum & Library about what happened when Washington Irving and Walter Scott had a chat at a Scottish country house in the late summer of 1817 (similar, isn't it?). I was explaining how Rebecca Gratz might have become the topic of conversation between the two literary men. It has long been a legend that Irving's description of her to Scott inspired the character Rebecca in Scott's novel Ivanhoe; I provided a historical context which lent more credence to the story.

Arcadia served as a reminder of how past the past is, how we will never really know. This can be a salutary reminder of the limits of "expertise," but it also casts the pursuit of knowledge as an often futile exercise. Fortunately, the play provides a response to this dilemma. In the second act a scholar and a scientist are arguing about the ridiculous triviality of each other's specialties, when another character breaks in with, "It's all trivial....It's wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we're going out the way we came in."

So we want to know, but we can never know. We're doomed to failure and yet we keep trying to make sense of things, sometimes discerning patterns in history and nature, sometimes creating and imposing patterns on the same. It's a human thing, and if I cannot acquire or pass on perfect knowledge, I may still see further, though through a distorted lens, than I would have done otherwise. In this blog, I'm just letting you know what I think I've found and why I think it's true. I hope it will be of some use to you.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Beautiful Betsy Bonaparte

Elizabeth (Betsy) Patterson, shown above in three views by Gilbert Stuart, was the daughter of a wealthy Baltimore businessman. In 1803 when Jerome Bonaparte, the youngest brother of Napoleon, came to the United States, he met Betsy at a ball, and despite her father's apprehensions, they were married before the end of the year by Archbishop Carroll of Baltimore.
Jerome already had celebrity status in America just by being a Bonaparte, and his beautiful bride enhanced his luster. Betsy would cultivate a celebrity of her own by wearing fashions so diaphanous they hardly hid her nakedness. (For more information about the styles of the day, see "Women's Fashions, 1800. Part 1.")

Napoleon, who had dynastic alliances planned for his relatives, was not amused by his brother's activities in America. The couple however was enjoying a honeymoon, touring a number of American cities before setting sail for France to plead with Napoleon to accept their marriage. On April 21, 1804, they rolled into Philadelphia, where they stayed for a few days across the street from the Gratz house.

A measure of the excitement they stirred: even the cool Rebecca Gratz went to the window to view their arrival. Solomon Moses, who was visiting the Gratz's, had no compunctions about gawking at the open front door. But while Rebecca was curious, she was not envious. Thinking of Mrs. Bonaparte, she wrote, "Last year she could go anywhere unnoted."

If you try to name famous women of antebellum America, you will discover not celebrated women but controversial ones: Lucretia Mott, the abolitionist; Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, feminists; Margaret Fuller, a Transcendentalist and intellectual, and of course Harriet Beecher Stowe. Only Dolley Madison achieved in the course of her long life general approbation. It is no wonder that the idea of celebrity held no allure for Rebecca.

After her initial look, Rebecca decided the Bonaparte's would just be a nuisance. She expected that "loungers" would soon appear in the street and on the sidewalks. She also noted that it was likely that the Gratz's would receive an unusual number of visitors as long as the couple was in the vicinity.

Jerome and Betsy Bonaparte sailed for France a short while after their stay in Philadelphia, but only Jerome was permitted to go ashore. Betsy went to England to give birth to a son and await her husband's return. She never saw him again. When Napoleon could not bully the Pope into annulling the marriage, he annulled it himself and married Jerome off to a German princess.
Betsy Bonaparte returned to America with her child and eventually was granted a divorce by the Maryland legislature. After the fall of Napoleon, she tried to interest the Bonapartes in granting her and her son financial support but failed completely. As an heiress herself, Betsy was not looking for money so much as recognition of her son's legitimate place in the Bonaparte family. Betsy never remarried, resumed her role in America's high society and showed that she could take care of herself: she invested her inheritance wisely, lived into her 90's and died a millionairess.

(Rebecca's letter to her sister Rachel is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)


Monday, March 7, 2011

Revision: The Rebecca Gratz Club

I have revised my earlier post on the Rebecca Gratz Club to reflect new information I recently came across. To see the revised version, click here.

Friday, March 4, 2011

March 4, 2011: Rebecca's 230th Birthday

It was the custom in Rebecca Gratz's day for family and friends to offer toasts on birthdays. So if you are lifting a glass today, kindly remember our Becky with a toast to her memory and the fine example she has set us.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ivanhoe, Rebecca & Washington Irving at the Rosenbach

At 6 p.m. on March 3, 2011, Brian Jay Jones, the award-winning biographer of Washington Irving, will be joining me at the Rosenbach Museum and Library for a speculative discussion about the origins of Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe.

According to literary legend, Irving, on a visit to Scott in 1817, told him about Rebecca Gratz, and from this conversation Scott developed the character of Rebecca, the lovely Jewish maiden who is the moral center of his medieval romance Ivanhoe.

Could the legend be true? A friendship between Irving and Gratz can be documented as can Irving's visit to Scott.
Beyond that? Brian and I will be investigating the length and depth of the Irving-Rebecca friendship, the qualities which Rebecca Gratz and the fictional Rebecca had in common, Irving's personal charm and powers of description and if an American Jewish woman could have become the focus of conversation between two literary men in Scotland in the late summer of 1817.

It should be an interesting evening for Rebecca Gratz aficionados -- and, I think, a wonderful opportunity to learn about America's first man of letters, Washington Irving. (That's him, pictured above, and I ask you, don't you want to know more?)

For more information about the event, please click here.





































Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An Insolent Servant

There is an interesting fragment in a letter from Rebecca in Baltimore in 1803, helping her eldest sister Fanny Etting with a new baby (again), to her younger sister Rachel in Philadelphia:

"Peter's insolence is insufferable. I hope Brother will take means to punish him and preventing his daring to repeat it....more advisable to send him to sea or some distant place than to imprison him....[Rachel should not have to be] molested with the sight of him."

Whatever Peter did, he certainly did not touch Rachel or he would have already been in jail. His offense was verbal, perhaps a declaration of love, which would have created an extremely awkward and probably intimidating situation for a young woman of sensibility. Or the incident might have arisen from Rachel's anxieties which sometimes led her to make rather extraordinary demands on those around her. Outsiders, even the gentle, lovable Matilda Hoffman lost patience with her; she wrote that Sally Gratz, Rebecca's older sister, had been "detained here sometime longer than she expected by Rachel's having a pain in her little finger which made it quite necessary for Sally to stay with her" [the emphasis is Matilda's]. The Gratz family as a whole was very accommodating to Rachel but a servant observing this behavior over time might have been driven to make a few choice remarks about it.

Whatever the cause, Rebecca ends the subject in her letter with a judgment that it is all "insignificant" and that Rachel should "try not to think about it."

Of course, it was significant for Peter who was an indentured servant or a redemptioner. We know this because he is not simply fired, and also by the fact that his employer can send him to prison for something which wasn't necessarily a legal offense. Instead, Simon Gratz, the eldest brother who, since his father's illness, had been head of the family, would have to find other work for him. Fortunately, the Gratz's had lands and business interests away from Philadelphia. We must assume that Peter worked out his time somewhere else.


(Rebecca's letter is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, the American Philosophical Society. Matilda Hoffman's letter is quoted in Stanley Williams's Life of Washington Irving.)


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Pregnant Servant

The reason this story survives is because the teenage Gratz sisters at home in 1798 developed a relationship with the family maid, who was probably about the same age.

In September of that year, Rebecca was in Baltimore helping out her eldest sister Fanny Etting who had a new baby. The rest of the Gratz family, along with their servants, had just moved to Lancaster to escape a yellow fever epidemic raging in Philadelphia. It must have been at this point that Alley, the maid, confided to Rachel, the youngest Gratz sister, that she had been seduced, abandoned and now found herself pregnant.

Rachel wrote to Rebecca about it, and we have her reply. While she is sympathetic, she accepts that the maid's fate has been settled: "Poor deluded Alley," she wrote, was a victim of "inexperience" and having "too good an opinion of a worthless wretch.... [Alley] bartered every prospect of comfort in life for wretchedness and self-reproach. I thought the principles of virtue were too deeply imprest in her bosom ever to be eradicated...had she been educated with a proper respect for virtue, she would have been an ornament to the society of which she was a
member -- but in that rank of life vice is the attendant of ignorance."

Rebecca then assures Rachel that "our honor'd parents' humanity will not abandon her to want in a strange place."

We learn a number of things about the maid and Rebecca from this. First, about Alley, we find that she was not an indentured servant: if she had been she would not have feared abandonment. Her employer would have kept her on but added a year or two to her term of service to make up for the labor lost due to her pregnancy and ensuing motherhood. If her employer thought that an unwed mother was not fit to be around his unmarried daughters, he could rent out her out as a maid to someone else.

Alley, then, was a free woman. She was most likely to have been African-American since African Americans comprised the second largest group (after indentured servants) in the pool of domestics in Philadelphia, circa 1800. But she could also have been from the poor white immigrant class. Because she was free, her condition and its difficulties usually led to a swift termination of her services. Would an employer heartlessly throw a servant out in a strange city? This fear may have been a product of Alley's anxiety, but it is reassuring to find that Rebecca was confident that the Gratz family would not consider such a thing. We have to hope that they did not send her back to plague-ridden Philadelphia, but kept her on as long as the family was in Lancaster.

This incident also tells us something about 17-year-old Rebecca Gratz. She was a rational young woman who thought that through education Alley could have gained an understanding of the dangers she faced and thereby avoided her plight. Like Alley, Rebecca suffered from inexperience. She had not yet encountered reason's nemesis: that complex of emotions which make up romantic love and sexual attraction. When she did, she would emerge with a greater sense of reason's and humans' limitations.


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





Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Domestic Servants in Philadelphia, 1800

No one in the 17th or 18th century came freely to the American colonies with the ambition to be a domestic servant or a farm hand. But as these immigrants prospered they wanted others to do this type of work for them. Almost from the beginning ships bringing Africans (to be slaves for life) and European indentured servants (to be slaves for a term of years) arrived to fill the colonists' needs.

Few during this period gave much thought to the morality of the practice. After all, their standard for right and wrong, the Bible, accepted slavery. Slaves and indentured servants were soon found throughout the colonies. An indication of their ubiquity: in 1691 the Rev. Samuel Parris's slave Tituba was among the first accused of witchcraft in Salem Village, Massachusetts.

In the 1760's three-quarters of all domestic servants in Philadelphia were slaves, the rest indentured servants with a sprinkling of free whites. Michael Gratz, Rebecca's father, had slaves as domestics and a slave chef running his kitchen in the 1770's, and her grandfather, Joseph Simon of Lancaster, PA, owned several slaves as well. But things were already changing as the Quakers waged their campaign (begun in the 1760's) against slavery. In 1780, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law gradually abolishing it in the state.

"Slaves for a time" were still legal and by 1800 most domestics in Philadelphia were redemptioners, immigrants who were sold into servitude on their arrival to pay for their passage. "Redemptioner" is a reference to a loophole which could save them from this fate: if someone came forward to pay the passage, the new arrival could go free. Since only a few would have a relative or friend waiting for them, most became servants, usually for a term of four years.


Redemptioners were very much aware that domestic work in the United States was equated with slavery/indentured servitude. Morceau de St. Mery, a French colonial emigrant, who lived in Philadelphia in the 1790's, reported on their desire to get away from this type of work when their term was up: "Even though one of them may have long been a servant, all the other servants in the same house urge her to leave so that she won't be considered an indenture."

The redemptioners provided a relatively small pool of potential servants, all of whom would leave at the end of their term. Free African-Americans, cut off from all but the most menial jobs, were more likely to stay. Free whites were real short-termers, looking to get out as soon as possible, and free women of either race frequently left to get married.

For Miriam Gratz, Rebecca's mother, this meant teaching and reteaching -- and since the family adhered to traditional Jewish dietary laws, an enormous amount of time must have been spent in introducing non-Jewish servants to the procedures they must follow. Given the scarcity of servants suitable for a wealthy household and the time expended on them, it is no wonder that she -- and non-Jewish matrons as well -- made do with relatively few domestics. In an early letter Rebecca sends her regards to "Nellie, Nancy and Peter," the household servants. The three must have had their hands full, caring for a large establishment and the ten Gratz family members who were living at home in 1800.

There is very little in the Gratz correspondence about these servants. While Peter was a redemptioner, the two references to "Nancy" nearly ten years apart suggest that if this was the same person she was almost certainly an African-American for whom a position in a wealthy household was the best employment a woman of her race could expect. About "Nellie" we know nothing. Later servants, with one exception -- a long-term employee, barely get a mention.

Despite the small number of servants who worked for the Gratz family, and then for Rebecca, over the years, from time to time problems arose, and they will be the focus of posts A Pregnant Servant and An Insolent Servant.


(The number of slave domestics in Philadelphia is from David Brion Davis's Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Information about Michael Gratz's slaves is from The History of the Jews of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the Age of Jackson, by Edwin Wolf 2nd and Maxwell Whiteman. Joseph Simon information is from David A. Brener's The Jews of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Moreau de St. Mery's American Journey includes his observations about indentured servants. Rebecca's letter is undated but internal evidence suggests it is from 1799. It is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)


















Friday, January 7, 2011

Rebecca Gratz & the Nullification Crisis of 1832

The Tariff of 1828 fell most heavily on the southern states. When the newly elected president, Andrew Jackson, did not move to reform or repeal the law, as expected, southern resentment grew. As an avenue to tax relief, South Carolinians developed a constitutional theory: sovereignty resided in the individual states rather than in the federal government, they argued, and therefore each state could nullify any federal law it found to be unconstitutional. The most radical of these nullifiers argued that there was no such thing as an American citizen, only state citizens.

The practical result of this interpretation would be the dismantling the United States, something the majority of Americans, looked upon with horror. Rebecca voiced these fears when she wrote, "I hope these southern Nullifiers will not break down the beautiful edifice their fathers erected to freedom...." Andrew Jackson saw nullification as treason.

In an effort to placate the nullifiers Congress passed the Tariff of 1832 which eased some of the burden and which had the support of about half of the southern states and all of the north. It was not good enough for South Carolina which in November 1832 used its new Ordinance of Nullification to nullify both the tariffs of 1828 and 1832, effective February 1, 1833. The state then began military preparations to repel federal intervention.

Rebecca's friend Washington Irving was travelling in South Carolina at this time and visited William C. Preston, an old friend and a vocal nullifier. Together they dined with the governor of the state, whom Irving had also known in his youth. In a letter to his brother Peter, Irving wrote, "It is really lamentable to see such a fine set of gallant fellows as these leading nullifiers are, so madly in the wrong."

At this point the state government was about to nullify the two tariffs, which Gov. Hamilton insisted was a "peaceable redress." As Irving was leaving, Hamilton invited him to come back soon. "Oh, yes," Irving, who had either a better grasp of reality or less reason to be hypocritical about it, replied, "I'll come with the first troops."

On Dec. 10, Andrew Jackson responded to the nullification of the tariffs by ordering naval ships to South Carolina and threatening to send in troops. A week later, Rebecca Gratz wrote to her sister-in-law in Kentucky: "Oh how I tremble lest American blood should be spilt by American hands."

In February Congress passed the bill authorizing the President to send soldiers into South Carolina and also a reform tariff, crafted to be more to the Carolinians' liking. (Jackson had rattled his saber but had also been the first to suggest the reform tariff.) At this point the nullifiers realized that they did not really want to call Jackson's bluff about military intervention, nullified their state nullification ordinance and accepted the reform tariff. The crisis was over, and for the moment everybody felt they had won.

But many Americans, like Rebecca, saw in the nullification ordeal the spectre of future civil war. Washington Irving felt that the Southerners' braggadocio-laden rhetoric during the crisis had offended those in other parts of the country who would otherwise have been sympathetic to redressing their grievances. Regionalism, already strong, was further exacerbated, and Americans in the north and west must have fearfully wondered: if the planters of South Carolina, among the wealthiest men in the country, were willing to destabilize the nation for their own gain, what would they do if they felt that slavery, the institution on which their way of life was built, might be taken from them?

(Rebecca's letter is in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by David Phillipson. Material about Washington Irving is from The Life and Letters of Washington Irving, edited by Pierre M. Irving. I synthesized information about the Crisis from many sources; as with Indian Removal, I have again squeezed a complex subject into the dimensions of a blog post. Fortunately, there is plenty of information about nullification in print and on the internet for those interested in learning more.)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Rebecca Gratz Blog in 2010

Although I have been writing this blog for a year and a half, I began to use Google Analytics to record statistical data about it only a year ago. This, then, is my first annual report.

A blog about an obscure 19th-century, Jewish-American woman, who lived her life doing good works and eschewing scandal, is not exactly a magnet for most internet devotees. However in 2010 it did receive nearly 1750 visits from about 1320 individuals who rang up 3280 pageviews.

About three quarters of the visits were from the United States, 75% of those from Pennsylvania and 75% of those from Philadelphia, which is what you might expect for a locally famous, minor historical figure. Surprisingly, at least to me, the blog received hits from more than 500 other towns and cities around the world, 46 other states and 59 other countries.

Here are the posts which were most visited in 2010:

Boys' Dresses and Breeching.* (Jan. '10) Who knew that this old custom was of such worldwide interest ?

Sully's First Portrait of Rebecca. (Nov. '09) This post, which contains an image of the painting, attracted those interested in Rebecca, but also those researching the artist, this specific painting and 19th-century American art.

Male Entitlement in Philadelphia, c. 1800.* (Apr.'10) I had not realized that "male entitlement" was such a hot topic.

Tall Tales about Rebecca.* (July '10) In which I described some of the biographical inaccuracies about Rebecca and considered why there were so many.

Washington Irving, Rebecca Gratz and an Unwanted Suitor. (Nov. '09) Rebecca's friendship with Irving greatly affected her life. This anecdote describes their first youthful meeting and how Irving helped her avoid a proposal. What's not to like?

The Gratz Sisters & Solomon Moses. (Apr. '10) Part of a five-post narrative about Rebecca's sister Rachel, the man she decided to marry and her sisters' reaction to her decision, it gives insight into the real Rebecca (without a pedestal) and the always complex relationships among siblings.

The Rebecca Gratz Club. (Aug. '10) I wrote this post in response to the many inquiries about the Club so I am not surprised by its rapid rise into the top ten posts of the year.

Rebecca Gratz & Baseball. (Oct. '10) This post was written after baseball historian John Thorn sent me some relevant material. Following its publication, Mr. Thorn alerted his baseball history buddies and they came en masse to read it. I am fond of this post, but without this generous help I doubt it would have climbed almost immediately into the most-visited list.

A Portrait of Washington Irving. (Nov. '09) A sort of coda to "Washington Irving, Rebecca Gratz and an Unwanted Suitor," the post includes an image of John Wesley Jarvis's luscious painting, making it of interest to students of art history as well as aficionados of Irving and Gratz.

The Indian Removal Act, Evangelicals and Rebecca Gratz. (Oct. '10) The Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the opposition to it did not warrant much ink in the history textbooks I read in school. Now it seems to be a lively research topic with interest split between the Act itself and the petition drive which was the first organized action by American women to influence politicians.


*Asterisks. Another way to look at the popularity of posts is not just by sheer numbers of visits but by the average amount of time readers spent at individual posts. The three asterisked posts in the list above had an average visit length of three minutes or more. Other posts which did not make the top ten but which were viewed at least 25 times and averaged three plus minutes were:

Sarah Gratz's Mysterious Malady. (Mar. '10) Bipolar disorder is with us today, and there must be some comfort to read about the difficulties of those who suffered from it in the past.

Rachel Gratz, Rachel's Romance, Rebecca Writes to Sally and What Was Wrong with Solomon Moses Anyway? (Apr. & May '10): These are the other four posts in the cycle about Rachel Gratz. (See The Gratz Sisters and Solomon Moses above.)

A Civil War Tragedy. (Sept. '09) The truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of Rebecca's brother Benjamin Gratz and his family during the conflict.

Rebecca and Matilda Hoffman. (Aug. '10) This is another "tall tale" I try to correct.

An Unaccountable Wedding Fad. (July '10) Who doesn't love a wedding? But I just wish that someone with more information about the fad in question would give me their insights.

The First Waltz. (Jan.'10) Turns out that Rebecca's report of seeing the waltz danced may be the earliest eye-witness account from Philadelphia. Dance historians were interested.

Women's Charities, Philadelphia 1800. (Dec.'09) The title says it all.

Rebecca's Favorite Poem. (Sept. '10) It's a long poem which I think helps account for the fact that people spend so much time on the post.

A special thank you to the many repeat visitors from Philadelphia and Bala Cynwyd, PA; Santa Cruz, CA; Sheboygan, WI; Corvallis, OR and elsewhere. I have met several of you through email and in person and hope to correspond with others. Another big thank you to those who subscribe to or follow this blog: you are not included in the statistical reports, but I am always aware of you and delighted that you think the blog worthy of your time.

Finally, thanks to the following websites which in the past year have mentioned or provided a link to this blog: Scandalous Women; Brian Jay Jones (author of the most recent biography of Washington Irving); Jewesses with Attitude, the blogsite of the Jewish Women's Archive; the Gilbert Stuart blog; the Library of America blog "Reader's Almanac;" Books, Inq -- The Epilogue; A Momentary Taste Of Being; the (London) Sunday Times' Book News Mattters; Civil War Blog, Gratz Historical Society, Gratz, PA; Jewish Press International's Faceshuk; the American Philosophical Society on Facebook; Yesterday...and Today. I am honored.









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