Looking for Cohens in All the Wrong Places

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

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.

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