And the Mendes Questions Continue…

Posted on March 18th, 2015 by

If you’d thought we were finished with answering the questions that pile up inside the Question Box at the end of The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen exhibit, you would be wrong.  In fact, we have a particularly juicy set of questions and answers for you this time. In this edition of Questions About Mendes Cohen, our topics range from the sartorial to the existential, and with plenty of other deep subjects in between!

47.22.2 Mendes I. Cohen Artist Unkown

47.22.2 Mendes I. Cohen
Artist Unkown

1) Did he know how to daven?

We believe that the Cohen family were observant Jews and, therefore, would have known how to daven. Because there were no established Jewish synagogues at the time of their move to Baltimore, they most likely worshiped in private homes. The family was involved, however, in the establishment of Baltimore’s first Sephardi congregation, Beth Israel, in 1856.

2) What did he wear on his first journey?

Unfortunately, we don’t know what he wore on his first journey.  In one of his letters home, he did provide a detailed list of what he brought with him to prevent sea sickness (gingerbread, mint drops, mint lozenges, lemons, limes, pickles, and a medicine package of powders!). The one article of clothing that we do know about is the ornate Middle Eastern style jacket that he’s seen wearing in his portrait. He purchased the jacket during his travels, so he most likely wore it during his travels in the Middle East. We have this particular jacket in our collections, and it’s on display in the room with with the Egyptian antiquities he brought back.

Mendes' jacket

Mendes’ jacket

3) Was Mendes educated? If so, how did Mendes Cohen becomes educated? Who taught him, etc.?

We can tell from Mendes’ writing style that he was highly educated, but we don’t know how he was educated. Since public schools did not yet exist, children of wealthy families (like the Cohens) would have been taught either in religious schools or at home. Mendes’ younger brother, Joshua, attended a religious school run by an Episcopalian minister.

Mendes' travel writing desk.

Mendes’ travel writing desk.

4) What happened after he died?

Since he had no children, Mendes left most of his belongings and estate to his nieces and nephews. One nephew, also named Mendes, received his collection of Egyptian antiquities which he donated to Johns Hopkins University and is now a part of the university’s Archeological Museum. The younger Mendes Cohen also served as president of the Maryland Historical Society where he donated his uncle’s papers, including the many letters he wrote home during his travels. This is how we know so much about Mendes Cohen!

Selections from Mendes' archaeological collection.

Selections from Mendes’ archaeological collection.

5) Why was Mendes a “Family Man”?

Mendes spent the majority of his life living with or in close proximity to family members. According to the 1850 and 1860 censuses, he lived with his brothers Jacob and Joshua. Even when he lived on his own in 1870s, he lived nearby his other siblings in Mount Vernon. And while he was away from his family traveling, he wrote many letters home keeping them updated about his adventures.

A letter home from Mendes.

A letter home from Mendes.

Are there still questions percolating in your mind? Let us know!


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Yet More Responses From The Mendes Question Box!

Posted on January 7th, 2015 by

The fantastic and thoughtful questions about Mendes and his life continue to pour in through our little question box at the end of the exhibit. Some of the questions have even stumped our Mendes experts!

Without further ado, I present our best answers to your burning questions about the Amazing Mendes Cohen…


1)  To how many places in total did he travel?

This is a very tricky question to answer! First of all, if we are talking about countries, a world map from the 1830s looks very different from a world map today. Second, we don’t have all of his travel journals, so we can’t know for sure exactly how many cities he visited. Going by modern day national borders, and looking just at the travel journal we do have, Mendes visited 10 countries, but this is not a complete count.


World Map

2) What did he die of?

We don’t know exactly what Mendes died of, but he lived a long life and was suffering from blindness towards the end of his life.

Entrance to the Cohen Family Plot at Baltimore  Hebrew Congregation Cemetery, 2100 Belair Road.

Entrance to the Cohen Family Plot at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Cemetery, 2100 Belair Road.

3)  What drove Mendes to do all the things he did?

From what we can tell, Mendes was driven by a sense of adventure and a desire to experience new things.  He was also driven by his deep belief in American democratic principles and seeing how his beliefs contrasted with the ways that people lived in other parts of the world.

Panel 44.Raise Flag on Nile

Sailing Down the Nile

4)  Where was Mendes Cohen’s bar mitzvah held?

Great question! Mendes turned 13 shortly after moving to Baltimore. There were no formal synagogues in Baltimore at this time, so he most likely would have celebrated the occasion at his home.

drake bar mitzvah

Even celebrities have Bar Mitzvah parties!

5)            One of the travel documents on display is written in Russian, but the map doesn’t show him going to Russia. Where did he go that he needed a Russian travel document?

We have travel permits and customs documents that would put Mendes in Russian cities such as Odessa and St. Petersburg during the summer of 1833. However, we do not have all of his travel journals, so we don’t have much detail about his journeys in that region. Our map is based upon the travel journal that we do have, which is why Russia is not included.

European Russia 1833: Stieler, via.

European Russia 1833: Stieler, via.

6)  Are the current movie-making Cohen’s related?

Perhaps you mean the Coen brothers? Apparently there are about 100,000 people currently living in the United States with the last name “Cohen,” so I doubt that Mendes is related. We are also pretty certain (though not 100% certain) that there are no living descendants of his family tree.


The Coen Brothers


What questions were still burning in your mind when you got to the end of the maze?

Let us know!

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More from the Mendes Cohen Question Box…

Posted on December 24th, 2014 by

We’ve collected the questions our visitors have submitted to the question box at the end of The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen exhibit. We hope these answers satisfy your curiosity!


1. Even though he did not marry, did Mendes Cohen have an active social life?

Mendes certainly attended many social events both at home in Baltimore and during his travels abroad. We don’t have any evidence that Mendes “dated” anyone beyond a single reference to going out with a young woman he met in Europe whom he mentioned in a letter home.

Panel 22.Being Mendes

2. What was his middle name?

His middle initial I is for Israel which was his father’s name. His other brothers had the same middle name.


3. Why did he go to all these places?

Mendes traveled to some places for business (including London and France where he conducted business with the Rothschilds), other places to meet family (Bristol, England), but for the most part, he visited places because of an interest in what was happening (e.g. the student revolts in Paris) or a sense of adventure (Egypt). His visit to Palestine was motivated by a fascination with exploring places that he had learned about through his studies of the Bible.

Panel 13.Travel


4. Did he have kids?

He did not have any children.

Family Tree

5. What languages did Mendes speak besides English and Hebrew?

We know from references in his letters that Mendes had some command of French and German and possibly Italian, but we don’t know how fluent he was in any of them. We are also unsure of how Mendes communicated when he traveled through the Ottoman Empire. Did he use a translator exclusively? Did he pick up some Turkish or Arabic?


6. How many people survived in the shipwreck?

Everyone survived the shipwreck that he mentions in his letter to his mother.

Panel 42.Shipwrecked

What questions were still burning in your mind when you got to the end of the maze?

Let us know!



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