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Highlights from the Museum: The Almost Assassins

Originally posted on FORD'S THEATRE | BLOG:

Life-size figures of John Wilkes Booth and assassination conspirators Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt, as well as some of their belongings, can be seen on display at the Ford’s Theatre Museum. In this month’s Museum post, learn more about Powell and Atzerodt.

If all had gone according to plan, John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices would have committed three murders on the evening of Abraham Lincoln’s shooting. Unknowingly, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward had become targets in the conspirators’ larger plan to cut off United States leadership at the head in the single night of April 14, 1865.

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Secretary Seward, who had broken his jaw in a carriage accident only a few weeks earlier, was confined to his bed when a man named Lewis Powell arrived outside his home. Six-foot-one with dark hair, Powell had joined the Confederate army at age 17. After wounding…

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Hebron Hoover

Hoover and Hebron

Writing about any aspect of the Jewish-Arab conflict inevitably exposes the writer to charges of political leanings. While historians strive for objectivity, the readers of a blog typically are also interested in the blogger’s personal perspective. I hope that this post, and others I write, will inspire you to go learn more about a topic; to challenge my ideas, and be challenged by them in turn.


Where should a discussion of the 1929 Hebron attack against the Jews begin? I find it often useful to focus on individuals who trigger change and shape events.

Amin al Husseini, 1929.
Amin al Husseini, 1929.

In 1921, Haj Amin al-Husseini was appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and he rallied Arab nationalism against nascent Zionism. In 1924, the Moslem Wakf began shedding doubt on the Jewish connection to the Western Wall, and in 1928 the Mufti claimed that the Jews were trying to take control of the mosques on the Temple Mount.

One week before the Hebron Massacre in August, 1929, a demonstration was held by the Jews to affirm their connection to the Western Wall. On Friday, August 23, inflamed by rumors that Jews were planning to attack al-Aqsa Mosque, Arabs attacked Jews in the Old City of Jerusalem. Rioting spread to the cities of Safed and Hebron, which both had a small Jewish minority.

Jewish residents fleeing the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1929 Riots.
Jewish residents fleeing the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1929 Riots.
The Jewish Ghetto in Hebron, 1921.
The Jewish Ghetto in Hebron, 1921.

On August 24, Arabs mobs attacked the Jews of Hebron. Armed with axes, knives and iron bars, they screamed “Kill the Jews!” They broke into homes and stabbed and mutilated the Jews they found. The mob included respected Arab merchants who killed their friends, clients, and business associates. Torah scrolls were burned. And while it is often stressed that many Arabs hid their Jewish neighbors, reliable accounts placed the number of such cases at 19.

Here you can read survivor testimonies; more details about the riots can be found here.

Sixty-eight Jews were killed, including a dozen yeshiva students from New York and Chicago; scores were wounded or maimed. Soon after, all of Hebron’s Jews were evacuated by the British authorities. Both Jews and non-Jews across the world were horrified by the massacre. The Shaw Commission was a British enquiry that investigated the riots; here is their description:

“About 9 o’clock on the morning of the 24th of August, Arabs in Hebron made a most ferocious attack on the Jewish ghetto and on isolated Jewish houses lying outside the crowded quarters of the town. More than 60 Jews – including many women and children – were murdered and more than 50 were wounded. This savage attack, of which no condemnation could be too severe, was accompanied by wanton destruction and looting. Jewish synagogues were desecrated, a Jewish hospital, which had provided treatment for Arabs, was attacked and ransacked, and only the exceptional personal courage displayed by Mr. Cafferata – the one British Police Officer in the town – prevented the outbreak from developing into a general massacre of the Jews in Hebron.”

President Herbert Hoover
President Herbert Hoover

President Hoover sent a message of condolence to the Jewish community; yet his personal correspondence on this matter was much cooler:

“I wish to thank you,” he writes, “for sending your very interesting observations on the situation in Palestine.”

 I could end with observations on the shock of Hebron’s Jews who had maintained close relations with their neighbors for many years; on the fallacy of treating the Arab-Israel conflict as political and not theological, or on the obvious falsehood that the root of the conflict is in Israel’s occupation of Arab lands. Yet I prefer to leave you, the reader, to explore this topic, and draw your own conclusions.


Harding Phillips Love Letters

Harding’s Love Letters

“I am not fit for this office and should never have been here,” President Warren Harding once conceded.

Harding served from 1921 to 1923 before he died in office. Perhaps his most memorable achievement was coming in last in popular polls ranking presidents, his administration was ineffectual and corrupt, culminating in the Teapot Dome scandal. On the personal front, he was far from a paragon of virtue.

In 1905, Harding was editing a newspaper in Marion, Ohio. One of his best friends was James Phillips, who owned a dry-goods store. In August of 1905, Harding began an affair with James’s wife – Carrie Fulton Phillips – an affair that would last more than 15 years.

Carrie Phillips kept all the correspondence between her and Harding – more than 1000 pages! Following her death, in 1964 the historian Francis Russell gained access to the letters, but the Harding family sued to halt their publication. A settlement was reached in which the Harding family donated them to the Library of Congress, but they remained sealed for 50 years.

50 years later, on July 29, 2014, the Library of Congress made the letters available to the public. They make for some pretty steamy reading:

“I love you more than all the world and have no hope of reward on earth or hereafter, so precious as that in your dear arms, in your thrilling lips, in your matchless breasts, in your incomparable embrace.”

They also shed some light on the rapidly evolving political landscape of the period; I strongly recommend you read the New York Times Magazine article on the subject.

Harding was long suspected of additional affairs; notably one with Nan Britton. Here you can see a personal letter from Harding, on White House stationery, on her behalf – rare documentation of their relationship.



Truman on the Bomb

On May 8, 1945, the Nazi surrender ended the war in Europe, but the United States was still heavily engaged in what promised to be yet another protracted and painful conflict with Japan in the Pacific. Internal estimates of projected U.S. casualties predicted that some 400,000-800,000 American soldiers would be killed in the war with Japan. On July 26, 1945, in the Potsdam Declaration, the United States called for Japan’s unconditional surrender, threatening “prompt and utter destruction.”

On August 6, a mere 12 days later, the U.S. bombed Hiroshima – an industrial center with a large military headquarters – using a uranium atomic bomb; the first nuclear attack in history. 70,000-80,000 Japanese, including 20,000 soldiers, were killed in the attack; one third of the city’s population was annihilated. And as is the nature of nuclear warfare, within the first months after the bombing its effects ultimately killed approximately 150,000 people.

Following the bombing, President Truman declared:

“If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.”

On August 9th the Soviet Union declared war against Japan, and launched the Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation.

Japan showed no signs of surrender.

The U.S. then dropped a plutonium bomb on the city of Nagasaki – a city with major war production industries; 60,000–80,000 were killed from the effects of the bombing.

Emperor Hirohito ordered his generals to “quickly control the situation… because the Soviet Union has declared war against us.” He authorized minister Togo to accept the terms of surrender, on the condition that he keep his position. In his declaration to the Japanese people, he added:

“Moreover, the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.

“Such being the case, how are we to save the millions of our subjects, or to atone ourselves before the hallowed spirits of our imperial ancestors? This is the reason why we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers.”

Historians and laypersons alike have debated the morality of the use of nuclear weapons, as well as the specific necessity of their use in the war against Japan – particularly after the Soviet attack. President Truman was adamant that it was the correct choice; in a letter he wrote the very day of the bombing of Nagasaki, he says:

“Nobody is more disturbed over the use of atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.”

I do not wish to express judgment – the U.S. had just ended years of fighting against the Nazis, and faced another painful struggle with Japan.

Yet I wonder if the horror of war makes it inevitable that we dehumanize the enemy…

Ferdinand Linz Feature

1st Lieutenant Ferdinand Linz: Honoring His Contribution to Our Society

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Caitlin Eichner, Shapell Roster Researcher.

Some days, working on the Shapell Roster Project is difficult.  The lives of Civil War soldiers were very often short and tragic.  Reading accounts of young men cut down in their prime, or left with permanent, grave disabilities, all day long can be emotionally draining.  So sometimes, we separate ourselves from our subjects.  We remind ourselves that these men died a long time ago, and we look at their stories like one would a character on a television show; digging for facts with a morbid, detached fascination.  On the difficult days, it is the armor necessary to get through the research.

I spent a long time with 1st Lieutenant Ferdinand Linz, after he was added to the database from a short newspaper article one of my fellow researchers stumbled upon. He was a odd omission from Simon Wolf’s roster, because Wolf in fact represented Linz’s widow for her pension claim.

Linz Widow's Pension Declaration, naming Simon Wolf as her counsel, and stating that they were married by a "Jewish Minister"
Linz Widow’s Pension Declaration, naming Simon Wolf as her counsel, and stating that they were married by a “Jewish Minister.” Click to view full-size image.

Ferdinand (or Fernando) Linz, born in Darmstadt, Germany, served in the 103rd NY Infantry Co. K.  He died, less than a year after enlisting, on September 17, 1862.  At first glance, one would very naturally assume that Linz was killed in the Battle of Antietam- “the bloodiest single day in American military history”- which took place that day.  But instead, Linz was killed at an encampment in DC by one of his own privates while trying to quash a late night scuffle.

The chief witness for the prosecution at the trial of John Kessler, the private in question, was Sergeant Bernhard Zimmerman.  Zimmerman was Linz’s bunkmate, and the first officer to arrive at the scene of the argument.  He described the incident as follows:

“It was about 1 o’clock in the morning when I was aroused by an alarm in our Co. I heard loud talking and knew the voice of Private Kessler[,] the prisoner.  Lt. Linz slept the same time in one tent with me.   As soon as I heard the noise I got up and outside the tent to see what it was about.  I heard Kessler cursing, swearing and quarreling with a Private of Co. K whose name is Conrad Finger.  I ordered both to go to their tents and keep quiet which Kessler refused to do.  I had no shoes on at the time and I went back to put on my shoes.  Lt. Linz just raised up at that time and asked me what the noise was about.  I told him it was only a quarrel between Kessler and Finger and that I wanted to put on my shoes to go out and settle it[,] but he went out before I did.  I followed him right afterwards.  When I came out I saw the prisoner having a rifle in his hand with fixed bayonet.  He ha[d] long been talking at the same time with Conrad Finger.  Lt. Linz got out his watch and said ‘Kessler it is near 2 o’clock.  Everybody ought to be quiet at this time.  You ought to be in your tent long ago.’  [Kessler] said that he couldn’t get in any tent- his comrades did not want him there.  Lt. Linz said that if he behaved himself he could get in a tent well enough.  The prisoner said ‘I don’t want to go in no tent: you haven’t got no sentries here and I want to be sentry.’  Lt. Linz told him that he did not want a sentry.  After this Finger commenced to talk with the prisoner again[,] then the prisoner moved up towards Finger and told him to get out his rifle and he would fight him.  Finger said he would not fight him with a rifle[,] but if he laid down his rifle he would fight him with his fists.  Then I ordered the prisoner to put down his piece[,] where at he moved up towards me.  I though he wanted to stab me.  I said “Kessler[!]  What are you doing?  Do you charge bayonet against your Sergt.?’  He said ‘No I won’t do it.  I respect you and you are the best man in the Co.’  I told him if he respected me he should go in a tent or in a barrack near that place which was empty[,] which he also refused to do.  Then Lt. Linz told him again ‘Kessler lay down your piece[,] if you don’t I [will] have you tied and sent to the Guard House.’  He did not obey.  Lt. Linz called me and Corporal Wolf.  Then Private Kessler[,] who was at this time about seven paces in front of Lt. Linz[,] jumped forward and run the bayonet in his (Linz) right breast[,] saying at the same time ‘then I have to defend myself.’  Lieut. Linz groaned 3 or 4 times and fell down on the ground.  I ran at once to Lt. Linz who held both hands tight together on his breast.  I took his hands off and seeing little blood ran back towards Kessler[,] who was held by three men[,] and took the Rifle from his hands.  Then I turned round to Lt. Linz[,] who lying on the ground at that time[,] looked at him and ran for a Doctor[,] but I soon found out that I could find no Doctor around that place and returned.  After which I found Lt. Linz lying in his tent motionless.  I sat alongside of him and found him but one minute afterwards dead.”

Court Martial Envelope for Murderer's Case (Left third of document is Judge Advocate Joseph Holt's report on the case to President Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln's signature and approval of the sentence of the murderer - that he be condemned to death).
Court Martial Envelope for Murderer’s Case (Left third of document is Judge Advocate Joseph Holt’s report on the case to President Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln’s signature and approval of the sentence of the murderer – that he be condemned to death). Click to view full-size image.

Linz became known around the research table as my “murder vic,” and I gobbled up any information I could find relating to him and his murderer.  A crazy anecdote about a poor man killed in his pajamas, or a cautionary tale about giving the mentally unstable bayonets.

Then, last week, we took our field trip to the Washington Hebrew Cemetery, and I stumbled across the grave of 1st Lieutenant Ferdinand Linz.  And all of the sorrow and pity I had buried down for Linz came rushing to the surface.  Just how unnecessary and tragic was Linz’s death was even acknowledged by his gravestone, which notes that he was “Murdered by a Private in the same company.” All he did was roll out of bed and try to break up an argument in the middle of the night.  It seems unfathomable that this would be Linz’s last act.

Fernando Linz's Tombstone. Click to view full-size image.
Ferdinand “Fernando” Linz’s Tombstone

It is so crucial for us not to lose sight that the men of the Roster are not merely entries in a database, or soap operas for us to follow. Sitting next to the grave of Ferdinand Linz, it became crushingly clear how little time has passed since these soldiers lived, fought, and sacrificed.  At the end of our visit, I returned to his grave to place several stones atop his headstone- a sign of respect and remembrance in the Jewish faith. And I thanked him for reminding me of the most important aspect of our project: keeping the memory of these soldiers alive and honoring their contributions to our society.

Fernando Linz Muster Roll Abstract. Click to view full-size image.
Fernando Linz Muster Roll Abstract
olim ben-gurion

David Ben-Gurion on “Aliyah”

The story of Jewish immigration to the State of Israel (“Aliyah” in Hebrew) is unparalleled in history. When Israel declared independence in 1948, its Jewish population numbered 650,000; within three and a half years this number more than doubled by a huge influx of 690,000 immigrants. From 1948 to today, more than 3.5 million Jews immigrated to Israel.

For thousands of years Jews living in all corners of the globe dreamed of returning to their national homeland, and when the opportunity arose, they responded – albeit in varying degree. Broadly speaking, Jews living in Arab countries left en masse, while Jews from more democratic countries immigrated in smaller numbers.

Jews from North America tend to immigrate to Israel more for religious or ideological reasons, and less for financial or security ones. During the early decades of Israel’s existence a few thousand North American Jews immigrated and stayed, but this number leaped following the Six-Day-War. Between 1967 and 1973, 60,000 North American Jews immigrated to Israel.

Today, an organization called Nefesh B’Nefesh promotes Aliyah from English-speaking countries by providing financial assistance, employment services and streamlined governmental procedures. Their flagship events are charter flights full of immigrants (Olim) every summer, which are greeted by IDF soldiers, friends, and family, and are widely broadcast in Israeli media.

Aliyah has always been a big deal in Israel, and from the early days of the State, Israelis would ask Jews the world over – Nu, so when are you coming?

A month after the Six-Day-War, a well-known David writes to a lesser-known Ruth:

     “Our country was built by three generations of pioneers, and it is not yet finished – it is only a beginning.  We must get a large immigration from the free countries, mainly from the United States, to take part in its building – it will take at least another generation or more.

     “When are you coming to Israel?”



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