Meeting Mendes

Posted on August 27th, 2014 by

Our "real life" Mendes Cohen!

Our “real life” Mendes Cohen!

Thursday was the dress rehearsal.  I thought I would be immune to the effects of the performance.  After all, I already knew the Mendes Cohen story.  And I also knew that underneath Maggie Mason’s handsome costumes there was a fine actor, Grant Cloyd.  Yet from the moment Mendes came into the room brandishing his cane I was transfixed.  In the next thirty minutes “our” Mendes captured the spirit of the extraordinary soldier, businessman and adventurer who lies at the heart of our new maze exhibit.

Grant-as-Mendes leads the crowd in a rousing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner!

Grant-as-Mendes leads the crowd in a rousing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner!

There is an old joke in a Herb Gardner play about someone “getting the voices just right” for Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.  It is truly impossible to capture the true sound of even the most famous speakers who lived in the era before sound recording.  For someone like Mendes Cohen, who was not a public speaker, there is no record of any kind of his style, accent or intonation.  But our script writer, Scott Fuqua, drawing on Mendes’ letters and journals, produced a 19th century patter that truly mirrors our character’s own vocabulary and diction.  The fact that Mendes comes across as so plausible is a credit to the talents of Scott, Grant and Baltimore’s premier living history director, Harriet Lynn.

Flat Mendes poses with actor Grant Cloyd, director Harriet Lynn, and writer Scott Fuqua after Thursday's performance.

Flat Mendes poses with actor Grant Cloyd, director Harriet Lynn, and writer Scott Fuqua after Thursday’s performance.

Thursday was just the warm up.  This last weekend I accompanied Mendes on a trip to Bladensburg.  They marked (I think “celebrate” would be the wrong word) the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg, the ignominious defeat and rout that led to the burning of Washington.  In 1814, Mendes had seriously considered joining a unit that came to the defense of Bladensburg, but wisely decided that his talents would be better used at Fort McHenry.  So our journey to the re-enactment was actually Mendes’ first trip to this Prince Georges County town.  We were warmly received despite the rainy weather.

Mendes meets Facebook friend Ranger Abbi Wicklein-Bayne at the Battle of Bladensburg Commemoration.

Mendes meets Facebook friend Ranger Abbi Wicklein-Bayne at the Battle of Bladensburg Commemoration.

This is, of course, just the beginning of travels for our newly revived “ghost” of Mendes – for our younger readers I think I need to point out that ghosts were what people believed in before zombies (a lot cleaner).  Next Sunday, Mendes travels to North Point for the bicentennial ceremonies there.  This will also be the first full performance of Scott and Harriet’s play.  On the 14th we have Mendes hopping – opening the morning with a stop at The Associated’s Super Sunday (after all Mendes was a leading Baltimore Jewish philanthropist in his time) followed by walk-arounds at bicentennial events at Patterson Park and the Inner Harbor.  He will finish his day with a mini-performance at our exclusive members’ opening event on Sunday night.  If you are in the top three categories of membership (the Living History Circle, the Lloyd Street League and the 1845 Society) you will be invited back for the full play at its JMM premiere on October 5th – so wouldn’t this be a great time to upgrade your membership.

Mendes sports a caftan and shares his journey down the Nile.

Mendes sports a caftan and shares his journey down the Nile.

Finally, I want to offer special thanks to those who are enabling this success.  These include the Maryland Heritage Authority and Maryland Humanities Council for their specific grants for the Mendes Cohen character.  And the exceptional work of education director, Ilene Dackman-Alon in shepherding the living history project from the beginning.

The Mendes road tour will continue throughout the year.  To schedule a Mendes Cohen performance for your school or organization please contact Abby Krolik, or 410-732-6400 x234.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts related to Mendes Cohen click HERE. To read more posts by Marvin click HERE.


The Mendes Cohen Living History project was made possible in part by a grant from the Maryland Humanities Council, through support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Maryland Humanities Council. This project has been financed in part with State Funds from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, an instrumentality of the State of Maryland. However, the contents and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority.


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Getting to Know Mendes

Posted on August 21st, 2014 by

MC_Exhibit Assets_v2

Exhibit Opens September 14th!

Mendes I. Cohen was born in Richmond VA in 1796, the son of a German Jewish father and an English Jewish mother.  His family moved to Baltimore in 1807 and lived until 1879.  He was a witness to many events in history both at home and abroad and a participant in a surprising number of transformational moments.  Here are a dozen highlights:


1. Mendes is one of six Jewish defenders of Ft. McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.  When one bomb falls into the powder magazine rather than “bursting in air”, Mendes and two other artillerymen are sent in to rescue the ammunition.  (To Mendes’ great fortune, the bomb was a dud)


2. The Cohen family starts out in the lottery business.  Mendes and his brother are sent to Norfolk to sell DC lottery tickets (federal lottery tickets).  Virginia authorities arrest the Cohens for selling tickets without the authority of the state of Virginia.  The case of Cohens v. Virginia goes to the Supreme Court where Chief Justice Marshall technically rules against the Cohens, but establishes the principle that the Court has standing in resolving differences between state and federal authority.


3. The Cohen family is very active in the campaign for “The Maryland Jew Bill”.  Finally passed in 1826, the bill allows people to serve on juries, serve in the militia and serve in public office without taking an oath to the New Testament.  Mendes will later provide assistance to English Jews fighting for the same liberties in the 1830s.


4. Thanks to the success of his family’s banking enterprise, Mendes Cohen is able to “retire” at 33 and start an extensive tour of Europe and the Middle East.  His first stop is England where he combines business with pleasure, dining with Nathan Rothschild and striking up a friendship.


5. Mendes arrives at the barricades in Paris just two weeks after the Student Revolt (think “Les Miserables”) and reports some disappointment in having just missed the action.


6. When in Rome, Mendes is invited to the installation of the new pope (Pope Gregory XVI).  He writes a letter dedicated to the thorny question of whether a Jewish American democrat should kiss the feet of the pope.


7.  Mendes decides to take up Egyptology.  He sails down the Nile in a boat with an American flag of his own design, acquiring rare antiquities.  The artifacts he collects are later purchased by Johns Hopkins University and are today the core of their archeology collection.


8. Mendes heads for Palestine, becoming the first American to ever acquire a firman (permit) from the Ottoman sultan to visit the Holy Land.  Mendes spends his time trying to trace places mentioned in biblical passages.


9. After returning to the US, Mendes becomes a special assistant to Governor Veazey.  He is asked to serve as Maryland’s representative at the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837.


10. Mendes becomes one of the early directors of the B&O Railroad and Baltimore’s first Jewish charity, the Hebrew Benevolent Society.  The Cohen brothers are very involved in the development of Baltimore’s first and only Sephardic synagogue in the 1850s.


11. Mendes is elected to the State House of Delegates in 1846.  He votes for leniency in the sentencing of debtors.  But as a loyal Democrat he also votes to condemn Pennsylvania for helping Maryland’s slaves escape to freedom.


12. Mendes spent his final years near his home in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore (Mendes lived with his mother and then his brothers for his entire life).  He spent his last years in the 1870s recounting tales of his youth to passersby, intensely proud of his adventures.

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Mendes’ Star Spangled Banner

Posted on August 14th, 2014 by

There are due to be some amazing objects on display within our upcoming exhibit, The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen, one of which is the American flag Mendes made during his time in Egypt. The flag is an important part of our collection and has a great claim to fame, probably being the first American flag to be flown on the Nile. Though exciting that the flag will be on display throughout the duration of the exhibit, it was essential to undertake some conservation to ensure no damage comes to the flag.

Last week we had a visit from Michele Pagan, the textile conservator who is working on the flag. She has already done some great work, adding a new backing to the flag that is much lighter that what had been used previously. This layer will also act as a support to the fraying edges and will have a section sewn in to make display of the flag easier. Michele has also added a layer of red silk organza behind the red strips of the flag, giving back some of the color to the flag, without doing anything that could be potentially damaging.

Marvin Pinkert, Deborah Cardin and Michele Pagan with Mendes’ flag

Marvin Pinkert, Deborah Cardin and Michele Pagan with Mendes’ flag

At present the strongest area of the flag is the canton, the blue square, the fabric is in good condition and has lost little of the original color. In contrast the stars are starting to deteriorate, not surprising as they are only made with paper and attached with an adhesive. The stars are receiving some careful treatment from the conservator, a fine layer of silk organza is being sewn over the top of the stars, keeping them visible but offering a little extra support.. This approach is the simplest of the three options presented, but it is also the one which is least likely to prove problematic in the future.

The flag

The flag

One of the surprising things to hear from Michele was that this is possibly the most fragile flag on which she has ever worked, given that she worked on THE Star Spangled Banner, this is quite a statement! There are a number of reasons for this all of which relate to the conditions in which it was made. Mendes certainly didn’t plan to be making this flag prior to leaving America, it seems whilst travelling in Egypt his patriotism inspired him to create the flag. This means that unlike most flags of the time made of wool, Mendes had to make the most of what he had and so his flag is made of cotton.

The difference in the ways in which the materials have deteriorated comes from the quality of the cotton, the blue is of a higher thread count and was dyed prior to weaving helping it to retain its color. In contrast the red and white are of a lower thread count and it is probable that the dye was applied to the red after weaving resulting in its loss of color. We did wonder if perhaps Mendes had dyed the fabric himself, but based on this letter it seems not, dated May 3rd, 1832:

“10th day … Manfalout containing about 400 inhabitants – bazaars – apricots, cucumbers, apples (small) – purchased red, white and blue cotton to make a flag – returned on board and cut it out, my servant making it”

Packing the flag safely away again, ready for more conservation work.

Packing the flag safely away again, ready for more conservation work.

The flag is a stunning piece so make sure you come and see the great work that has been done on the flag in The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen, opening September 14th 2014.


A blog post by Program Manager Trillion Attwood. 


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