Looking for Cohens in All the Wrong Places

Posted on December 23rd, 2013 by

Last week Joseph Abell, our professional researcher, shared some of his adventures in pursuit of the life of Mendes Cohen, defender of Fort McHenry.  But even amateur detectives, like me, can get in on the hunt:

It was a cold morning early this November.  I woke up and realized that this would probably be the last day I could really see fall foliage in all its glory.  After making my way through morning chores, I pointed the car towards Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia…my absolutely favorite autumn view.

The autumn view

The autumn view

On the shuttle bus from the parking lot to the town, an image flashed through my mind – a rather odd connection.  Just before I had left work for the weekend, I had been perusing a genealogical chart of the Cohen family.  Israel Cohen, the founder of the clan arrived in America on September 21, 1787 (four days after the completion of the US Constitution).  In addition to Mendes, Israel had eight sons and one daughter.  In the middle of the chart I had glimpsed the childhood deaths of two of Mendes’ great-nephews:  Solomon Etting Cohen and Benjamin Denny Cohen.  It now occurred to me that the place of death was listed as “Harper’s Ferry”.  I decided that as long as I was here I would go the ranger station and ask if anyone had knowledge of a Cohen family living in Harper’s Ferry in the 1840’s.

Now this was my tenth or eleventh trip to Harper’s Ferry so I knew that the ranger station was across the street from the 1850s clothing store.  I had never paid much attention to the name on the store, “Phillip Frankel”, but in light of my current search it took on a new meaning.  The Cohens it was clear weren’t the only Jews in historic Harper’s Ferry.  The ranger had no information on the Cohens but directed me over to the bookstore where he said there was a guide to regional cemeteries.  I opened up the guide – I found the Cohen Boys were buried at Harper’s Cemetery up the hill.  But another listing sparked my curiosity…there was a Ella Harper Cohen buried at the cemetery in nearby Shepherdstown, WV.  The date of death was 1920.  Was it just a coincidence that there was another Cohen in the neighborhood?  After all, it’s a pretty common name.

Now I was hooked.  The clerk in the bookstore said that if I wanted to find out more about the Cohens, I might try the Jefferson County (WV) Historical Society.  The organization was housed in the library in Charles Town just 15 minutes up the road.  It was past 3:30 – I might just make it before the library closed.  What started as a casual search that afternoon became an obsession.  I caught the shuttle bus back to my car and made a bee line for Charles Town.  I ran towards the library and went through the open door.  But I was too late, the library had already shut its doors – but off to the side I noticed an opening to something called the Jefferson County Museum and one docent was still inside preparing for end of day.  I told him my whole story.  He searched a database and found obituaries for the kids and for Ella Harper Cohen.

It appeared that the children had died within weeks of each other.  He speculated that this was probably the result of an epidemic that swept the town in 1847.  Diseases like Typhus were still a problem in this part of the country then.

Ella Harper Cohen, known as Sally, was the wife of Benjamin I. Cohen, a first cousin to the boys.  She had her body shipped back from Portland, OR to West Virginia when she died.  With a little more on-line research at the National Archives, I was able to determine that Sally was a direct descendant of Richard Harper – the man who created the ferry.  She converted to Judaism in 1876 and married Benjamin in Portland in 1881 in a ceremony officiated by a rabbi.  Their marriage lasted 34 years until Benjamin passed away.  This new data raised so many more questions than it answered.  How did this Jewish boy from Baltimore meet and fall in love with this girl with roots in Harper’s Ferry?  What pushed/pulled them out to Portland, OR?  Why did she send her body back to a home she hadn’t lived near in at least forty years?

That’s the great thing about exploring history, every mystery you unwrap leads to another one to be revealed.

We have not yet found any living descendants of Israel Cohen and his ten children.  The last name on the genealogical chart passes away in the 1990s.  If any reader of this blog post has a clue to a descendant we might have missed I invite you to contact us.

Civil War cropped 1A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more post by Marvin, click here. 


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

“Mendes I. Cohen and the Travails of Travel in the 19th Century”

Posted on December 19th, 2013 by

Maryland Historical Society  Source:  Luce, W. Ray, "The Cohen Brothers of Baltimore:  from Lotteries to Banking," Maryland Historical Magazine, 68 (1973), 288-308.

Maryland Historical Society
Source: Luce, W. Ray, “The Cohen Brothers of Baltimore: from Lotteries to Banking,” Maryland Historical Magazine, 68 (1973), 288-308.

Whether the purpose is to see friends and family or enjoy a relaxing vacation, many people associate the holiday season with travel. Of course, for the millions of Americans who take to the roads and skies this month, holiday travel is rarely without its headaches: lengthy security lines, flight delays, and traffic jams seem to be ever-present this time of year. Yet the modern sojourner should take heart, for as difficult as travel is in the 21st century, it is exponentially easier, quicker, and safer than it was for 19th century adventurer Mendes I. Cohen.

Born in 1796 into what became one of the most prominent Jewish banking families in Baltimore, Cohen retired from business in 1829 and used his wealth to embark on a seven-year-long tour of Europe, the Middle East, and Egypt. During his time abroad, Cohen wrote over three hundred letters to his mother and brothers back home in Maryland. From the historian’s standpoint, this extensive correspondence represents a treasure trove of information detailing not only the sites and people Cohen visited, but also the manner in which he traveled and the challenges faced by trans-Atlantic voyagers in the early 1800s.

Though the breadth of his correspondence would seem to suggest otherwise, one of the first problems Cohen ran into was the logistics of sending and receiving mail. For the modern traveler, communication is often as easy as picking up a phone or updating one’s status on social media, but for Cohen maintaining contact with home involved a complicated series of steps in which the arrival of letters depended upon the willingness of individual strangers to assume responsibility for their delivery. Consider the following instructions Cohen provided to his brother Jacob before setting sail from New York:

This will be to inform you of my route and how and where to direct your letters to me with further orders. I sail for Liverpool and have a letter of introduction to our consul there, Francis B. Ogden, to whose care you will direct and after the 30th of December you will please direct to the care of Messrs. Wells & Co., Paris….Whilst in Bristol and London my letters will be forwarded to me by Mr. Ogden and I will take care after I leave London that they will follow me to Paris. Your letters to Paris, Messrs. Wells will forward to me wherever I direct him. 

Beyond the need to depend upon others for his communications with home, Cohen also had to deal with the fact that mail simply moved much more slowly in the early 1800s. Most of Cohen’s letters from England and Western Europe took upwards of six weeks to reach their recipients in Baltimore and even this lengthy period of time was subject to extension if the weather failed to cooperate.

Important as his letters may have been for combating homesickness and boosting morale, the troubles Cohen had corresponding with family could have been avoided by simply limiting his communications. Doing without was not an option, however, when it came to such necessities as food, and here again Cohen faced challenges unknown to the modern traveler. To begin with, in contrast to the all-you-can-eat buffets that typically greet cruise ship passengers today, Cohen had to provide his own provisions for the nineteen-day trip across the Atlantic. In his first letter from New York, Cohen mentions bringing onboard “pickles, onions, etc., anchovies in [salt], lemons, oranges, limes, [and mineral] water,” a menu that was expanded in a later letter to include salted herring, smoked tongue, green tea, and rice. Aside from the hassle and expense of bringing these supplies onboard, Cohen’s choice of provisions also points to another set of problems: the need to pack food that will not only resist spoiling but also provide nutritional protection against the maladies associated with ocean voyages. Due to their long shelf life, heavily salted and pickled foods were staples of trans-Atlantic travel, while citrus fruits were an essential ingredient in the fight against scurvy.

Unfortunately for the modern tourist, the subject of Cohen’s victuals on the Atlantic also points to an unpleasant element of travel that has remained constant across time: seasickness. Although he had previously travelled by steamboat to attend to the family’s business in the United States, Cohen was afflicted by seasickness throughout his voyages. Less than a week after setting sail from New York, for example, a presumably green-faced Cohen wryly observed that he “must not talk about rolling” while drafting a letter at sea. This same gallows humor was also in evidence when Cohen recounted the misery of a steamboat trip across the English Channel:

Though the day was fine and [there was] but little wind, many had their drooping heads,

and the high and low paid their tribute to Old Neptune, and I among the rest. 

As any smart traveler will do, Cohen recognized the likelihood of the ailment and took precautions by bringing along palliatives such as gingerbread (ginger being a well-known remedy for nausea) and laudanum (an opiate used to treat all manner of illnesses in the 1800s). Nevertheless, these were poor substitutes for the sure footing and clear-headedness that comes from being on land.

So, as we set forth over the river and through the woods for that three-hour-long car ride or plane trip to grandmother’s house this season, let us all take a moment to count our blessings. After all, if Mendes Cohen’s voyages demonstrate nothing else, it is that modern travelers have relatively little to complain about in comparison to those who came before us.

A blog post by JMM Researcher Joseph Abel. To read more posts about the Amazing Mendes Cohen, click here.

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Drawing from History

Posted on June 27th, 2012 by

A blog post by Education Intern Lisa Perrin.

Paper dolls are very dear to my heart. I collected them obsessively as a child and fretted endlessly about whether or not to cut them out. I loved the costumes and the potential for storytelling in each paper doll book. And I did not realize it at the time, but I was learning. Paper dolls shaped my sense of history. When I think of the Civil War era I envision hoop skirts and mutton chops. I can picture the straight silhouettes of the 1920s and the flared, tailored dresses of the 1950s. Knowing about the styles of those eras has helped me better understand them in a grander sense.

An example of a paper doll I was commissioned to make for the Mutter Museum gift store in Philadelphia, PA of Dr. Mutter, for whom the museum is named.

It will come as no surprise that I began to make my own paper dolls inspired by history and literature. I also sold them through an online Etsy shop and discovered that many people feel a special connection to this simple toy. During my education department internship interview with the Jewish Museum of Maryland I mentioned my passion for making paper dolls. I was met with a great sense of enthusiasm and an idea for a project. I was asked to create a series of paper dolls representing famous Maryland Jews to be used as learning tools. I am very excited because I know of very few paper dolls depicting Jewish people.

A working sketch of my first paper doll: Mendes Cohen, a Jewish man who served in the war of 1812.

My hope is to make paper dolls that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds as a unique and fun way to educate them about the history of the Jewish people in this state.

Stay tuned for updated posted on my progress!

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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