International Man of Mystery – Colonel Frederick George d’Utassy

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

Working on The Shapell Roster Project, I have the great good fortune of getting to dig through the military records of Civil War soldiers every day at the National Archives.  Some soldiers only have a page or two to indicate their small but important part in this turning point of our nation’s history; others leave a long paper trail.  But few soldiers leave their mark or raise as many questions as Colonel Frederick George d’Utassy of the 39th NY Infantry.

Frederick George d'Utassy
Frederick George d’Utassy. U.S. Civil War Photos, 1860-1865. Original data: Brady Civil War Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. In Provo, UT: Operations Inc., 2011-2012.

Colonel d’Utassy was not included in Simon Wolf’s roster of Jewish Civil War soldiers; we came across his name in a not particularly flattering article published in the New York Tribune.  Amongst many other allegations, the paper claimed that d’Utassy changed his name to hide his former identity, and most importantly for the Roster Project, that he was Jewish. Generally presented in a negative context— was this contention that d’Utassy was Jewish a fact, or merely another attempt at tarnishing his already spotty reputation?

Much has been written on the infamous service of Colonel d’Utassy.  If he lived today, his name would be splashed across the covers of US Weekly and the National Enquirer, and we would peruse his supposed exploits as we stood in line at the grocery store.  But much like those who serve as tabloid fodder nowadays, the true story of his life remains elusive. An alleged Hungarian aristocrat, d’Utassy was said to have worked as a dancing master, secretary to the Governor of Nova Scotia, and a professor of languages after fleeing his homeland.  He claimed in statements given to the War Department that he left Hungary after the failed Revolutions of 1848, where he deserted the Austrian army to serve with his father for his mother country.  Perhaps because of this former experience, d’Utassy helped to form the 39th NY Infantry, or “Garibaldi Guard” shortly after the Civil War broke out.  The unit quickly became known for their lavish uniforms and colorful Colonel.  But, after two years of commanding the regiment, and a multitude of complaints and scandals, d’Utassy was finally cashiered in 1863 and sentenced to one year of hard labor at Sing-Sing Prison for “[u]nlawfully selling and disposing of Government horses for his own benefit” and “[c]onduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline” — namely opening private mail, selling appointments in his regiment, and altering and padding muster rolls before submitting them to the Pay Department.

It was during his trial that the New York Tribune published the story that lead us to d’Utassy, including the following account on d’Utassy’s origins:

“We have been at the trouble of collecting, from the published accounts of the D’Utassy court-martial and among his personal acquaintances in this city, the materials for a personal sketch, which, although necessarily meager, will be found not uninteresting even to the general reader. It seems that in 1848, when the Hungarian revolution broke out, the officers of the huzzar regiments, on arriving at the city of Pesth, found in the Jews’ quarter a man of the name of Strasser, who kept a second-hand clothing store, and who seemed to be in confidential relations with the horsekeepers of the Hungarian plains which surround that city, and with whom he had an extensive business connection. Strasser, upon being applied to, furnished a number of horses, obtained from his friends, to the troopers of the patriot army, and ultimately formed a connection with the quartermaster’s department in the capacity of a clerk. The person who gives us this information was in one of the regiments, and was personally acquainted with Strasser at that time. He lost sight of him for some years, but finally, in the spring of 1861, when the Garibaldi Guard was being formed in New York, recognized in the elegant and influential D’Utassy, Strasser, the Jewish clothes-dealer of Pesth.”

"D'Utassy's Career." New York Tribune. Vol. XXIII. No. 6923. June 12. 1863. p. 2.
“D’Utassy’s Career.” New York Tribune. Vol. XXIII. No. 6923. June 12. 1863. p. 2.

In the many varying accounts of his life, some acknowledge d’Utassy as formerly being Strasser, and some claim the story was merely an attempt to discredit d’Utassy.  According to The Thorny Rose: The Americanization of an Urban, Immigrant, Working Class Regiment in the Civil War. A Social History of the 39th New York Volunteer Infantry, the Colonel’s powerful friends “begged him to set the record straight, to refute the charges, to act swiftly to neutralize the scandal… [but] D’Utassy refused to answer what he considered to be ridiculous and insulting calumny.”  Even with the accounts that identify d’Utassy as Strasser, most do not address the issue of the Colonel’s religion; and those that do provide no source. Was d’Utassy’s silence really due to principles, or because there was some truth to the stories?

These accounts of his past were believed by men in d’Utassy’s regiment.  While amassing its case against d’Utassy, the Army interviewed the Chaplain for his regiment, Antony P. Zyla, on d’Utassy’s dealings.  Along with some of the crimes d’Utassy was eventually convicted of, Zyla also accused d’Utassy of blackmailing inferior officers into purchasing horses from him, carrying on affairs with other officers’ wives, having “an excessive thirst for gold” and manipulating the system to get his brothers commissions; “one of his brothers, like him, bearing an assumed name and well known in the streets of Washington as a professional gambler[.]

In addition to alleging some very serious breaches of conduct, Zyla’s statement referenced d’Utassy’s supposed double identity, and showed the Chaplain’s rather un-Christian view of his Jewish comrades. He claimed d’Utassy required Zyla to pay him a portion of his salary every month- “$30, for the maintenance as he said, of a due splendor of his household as a Colonel, born a noble-man, while, even at that early epoch [he] had already heard from [d’Utassy’s] own countrymen that he was a Jew.”  Zyla voiced his objection to this taking, seemingly not because of the impropriety of an officer requiring his men to support his extravagances, but because he believed d’Utassy to be in actuality a Jew.  This sentiment got worse when Zyla recounted the Colonel’s dealings with Stonewall Jackson at the surrender of Harpers Ferry:

“Col. D’Utassy, although a perfect coward in adversity, but proud and crass in prosperity, told Stonewall Jackson, when asked what his officers said to the conditions of the Harper’s Ferry surrender, that he was never wont to ask his officers their opinions at all, but he himself was the embodiment of the supreme will in his regiment….  His sophistry is a cake, baked of Jewish covetousness, gipsy eccentricity, and the sensual proneness of the beast.”

The Chaplain’s words do not merely evidence a great dislike for his former commander, but show deep-seated hatred and distrust of a people as a whole.  Simon Wolf’s The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier, and Citizen was written in response to a great wave of anti-Semitism in the late 19th century; and Jewish historians have often described— in generalizations, but rarely with specificity— great prejudice against the Jews in the ranks during the Civil War.  But, my colleagues and I have run into relatively few examples of this bigotry in the primary source records from this period.  The case of d’Utassy is one of those few.

Zyla’s statement proved helpful to us, however, because his references to d’Utassy gaining commissions for his two brothers led to us tracking them down as well.  A search through the New York Compiled Military Service Indexes and rosters for the 39th NY Infantry, with corroboration from contemporary newspapers, presented us with Anthony d’Utassy and Carl von Utassy.

Carl von Utassy U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles. Original data compiled by Historical Data Systems of Kingston, MA from the following list of works: ( (online database). Provo, UT: Operations Inc., 2011-2012.
Carl von Utassy
U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles. Original data compiled by Historical Data Systems of Kingston, MA from the following list of works: ( (online database). Provo, UT: Operations Inc., 2011-2012.

Anthony or Anton d’Utassy served as a Captain in the 39th NY Infantry and Carl von Utassy served as 1st Lieutenant under their older brother.  And by a stroke of luck, Carl’s widow applied for a pension- providing us, a century and a half later, with proof that the three Utassy boys were really the Jewish Strassers.  Bertha Utassy applied for a pension in 1892, twenty one years after Carl’s death.  To prove her status as Carl’s widow, she contacted the US Consulate to Austria-Hungary in Vienna for help gaining official records. The record of Carl and Bertha’s marriage was found in the Marriage Record of the Civil Recorder’s Office “of the Jewish Confession, of the 10th Ward of the City of Warsaw,” stating that a ceremony was performed by the “Rabbi of the District and City Warsaw Cheim Davidsohn” on October 26, 1852.  The names given of the two united were Carl Strass and Bertha Nelken, however— no form of the name Utassy was present.  The final page of the marriage transcript submitted by the US Consulate is actually a deposition taken from two residents of Vienna— an attorney and a journalist— swearing “that the Carl Strass or Strasser mentioned in the herewith annexed Certificate of Marriage, is identical with Carl von Utassy late Lieut 39 N.Y. Vols., and who with the sanction of the R. Hungarian Government has changed his name of Carl Strass or Strasser into that of Carl von Utassy.

Based on this evidence, Bertha Utassy was granted her pension, and we were finally able to learn at least part of the truth about Frederick George d’Utassy and his storied past.  Frederick, Carl, and Anton were most certainly brothers, so this primary source evidence is enough to show that all three left different identities behind in Hungary.  Whether, when still living as the Jewish Strasser, d’Utassy also acted as horse trader and second-hand clothes dealer remains to be seen.  Unfortunately our search is limited by geographical and language barriers, but it would be fascinating if d’Utassy/Strasser’s military career could be traced, or found in Hungary.  What is clear is that through a change of name and scenery, d’Utassy built himself a quite a colorful and exciting life. To date, most of the names included in The Shapell Roster come from Simon Wolf, but he missed the three Utassy brothers in his count.  As notorious a figure as Colonel d’Utassy was at the height of his US military career, Wolf would surely have known of him.  Whether Wolf was unaware of the d’Utassy brothers’ past and Jewish faith and missed them from his list, or whether Wolf intentionally omitted the controversial figure and his siblings to avoid the negative stereotypes he was trying to combat remains a mystery.

Interested in staying updated with the latest research news and discoveries?  You can follow the research team’s progress as it’s made at the Shapell Manuscript Foundation Facebook Page and Roster Project Album, or by following @ShapellManu on Twitter,#ShapellRoster, or check back at our blog for more interviews and news from the archives.

Behind the Scenes on the Shapell Roster Project: Alex Skerry & Adrienne Usher on Soldiers Justinian Alman & Jacob Hyneman

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Alexandra Skerry, Shapell Roster Researcher, and Adrienne Usher, Head Researcher – Shapell Roster.

This is the first in a series of “Behind the Scenes” reports on the Shapell Roster Project Team’s collaborative research process. Adrienne Usher and Alex Skerry explain how instincts, attention to detail and team work can transform two names in a database into a story about a post-war death and the woman who connected two soldiers, illustrated with beautiful historical documents.

PART I: Adrienne 

As the Lead Researcher for the Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s Roster Project, my responsibilities include administrative duties, database management, and research. While our primary goal at this stage of the project is to confirm the Civil War service of the names included in Simon Wolf’s 1895 The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen, we are constantly adding new names. Periodically, I discover new resources, and when I do – it’s like winning the lottery! Such was the case in March of 2014, when I realized that the New York based newspaper, the Jewish Messenger, was included in our subscription to GenealogyBank – a subscription database of searchable historic newspapers. I stopped what I was doing and immediately began searching for the names of soldiers appearing in the newspaper. My assumption was that if they were written about in the Jewish Messenger, they were, presumably, Jewish, and all I needed to do was figure out their Civil War service to be able to add them to our roster. For every name I found, I had to cross-check the information in the article (if there was any) against and Once I was able to confirm his Civil War service, I then checked the database to see if we already had him. Most of the time, they were in Wolf’s roster, and so not a new name. But, here and there, I struck gold. Such was the case with Justinian Alman.

A search of the Jewish Messenger for the keyword “Cavalry” from 1861-1865 yielded 31 results. #2 in the list was an article dated January 23, 1863 entitled “Virginia.”

Luckily, Captain Alman had a unique first name, which always makes things easier, so I went to the CMSRIs (the Compiled Military Service Record Indexes) on The good news was that I found only one hit – the bad news was that it wasn’t for a New York regiment, as the newspaper article stated. Next stop was to check for a Pension Record Index, and there it was, confirming that there was only one Justinian Alman (or any variation thereof) who served in the Civil War and that his widow applied for and received a Pension on the basis of her late husband’s service. Best news of all, the Pension file was already scanned and online at fold3!

A secondary search of the Jewish Messenger resulted in 3 additional mentions of Alman, including the news of his untimely death. I was confident that Justinian Alman was Jewish and served in the Civil War, so I created what we call a “shell record” for him into the database, including his name, regiment, and links to the supporting documentation. We have two very dedicated researchers who spend Monday through Friday at the National Archives in Washington, DC, reviewing the military records for each name in our database. I knew that at some point, one of them would turn their attention to Justinian Alman, so I moved on to the next discovery…


My favorite aspect of the Roster Project is watching the soldiers’ stories unfold and begin to fit into greater, more comprehensive narratives.  Not only were these soldiers men with individual personal life stories, but they were part of a company and a regiment during the war, and a larger community before and after.  When two lives connect, we usually find that these soldiers directly influenced each other in some way.  We often find soldiers that were brothers, friends, coworkers or even neighbors but sometimes it takes some digging in the records at the National Archives (NARA) and some additional online research to discover more complicated connections.

Justinian Alman is a soldier who I keep coming back to over and over again.  His story continues to intrigue me as it has evolved through a small connection from a seemingly singular history to an expanded, wider narrative.  Every time I think our team has exhausted our knowledge of Alman—learning of his tragic death, reviewing his interesting documents, and finding out about his connection with another soldier in our database—additional bits and pieces of his story seem to emerge.

When I began my research on Alman, all I had to go off of was what Adrienne had entered into the “shell record” she had created for him.  I had his name, his Compiled Military Service Record Index (CMSRI), his Pension Record Index (PRI) and the article she had found in the Jewish Messenger.  I was able to fill out a “Request for Military Records” pull slip based off of the information on Alman’s CMSRI and submit it in order to receive Alman’s files at NARA.

Pull Slip submitted to NARA
Request for Military Records pull slip submitted to NARA.

With this pull slip, Alman’s Compiled Military Service Record (CMSR) was retrieved for me to review.  Each volunteer soldier has a CMSR for each regiment in which they served during the war.  The CMSR generally contains basic information that was taken from original muster rolls about the soldier’s military service.  A CMSR will usually contain dates such as enlistment and discharge, record if the soldier was wounded in action or became a prisoner of war, and may report on a soldier’s age or place of birth.  Some CMSRs contain more information than others, depending upon the thoroughness of the original record-keeper.

By reviewing Alman’s CMSR at NARA, I was able to confirm that Alman enlisted in the 1st PA Cavalry on September 9, 1861 as a 2nd Lieutenant, transferred to the 2nd PA Cavalry Co. K, which subsequently became the 5th PA Cavalry Co. K.  Transfers, detachments, and re-enlistments were very common during the Civil War. Luckily for us, all of Alman’s records were compiled into one envelope, his record for the 5th PA Cavalry.

Alman was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and was mustered out as such on December 16, 1862 to accept a commission as a Captain in the 5th PA Cavalry.  He was commissioned as a Major on April 4, 1865.  Alman served in the 5th PA Cavalry until the end of the War when he was discharged on June 6, 1865.

Many soldiers and their widows, minor children, and parents applied for a pension after the Civil War. Pension files often contain additional information about what the soldier did during and after the war which could include information such as specifics on the soldier’s military service, medical history, place of residence, dates of birth and death, proof of marriage, etc.  The extent or the amount and kind of information available varies greatly from case to case and depends on the relationship of the person who is applying to the soldier.

According to Alman’s PRI, his wife Augusta applied for a pension.

Justinian Alman Pension Record Index (PRI)
Justinian Alman Pension Record Index (PRI)

A widow’s pension file often includes proof of marriage (such as a marriage certificate) as well as information about family and children. Since the pension record was online, there was no need to submit a second pull slip at NARA.

Justinian Alman Pension Record at
Justinian Alman Pension Record at

From Augusta’s pension, I discovered Justinian’s additional military service after the Civil War, details concerning the circumstances of his death, information about family, and some very fascinating newspaper articles submitted by the soldier’s mother, Alicia Marks (formerly, Alman).

According to the PR, Alman continued his military service after the Civil War by enlisting in the 4th US Cavalry.  While on duty with his regiment, Alman was killed on March 17, 1868, while on board a small boat crossing the Black Cypress Bayou in Texas.  He was struck by the wheel of the steamboat “J.M. Sharp” when his boat collided with the vessel, and drowned.

Justinian Alman Obituaries
Justinian Alman Obituaries

Despite the pension being a “Widow’s Pension,” the bulk of the documents included were from and about the soldier’s mother.  Included in Alman’s pension record was an inquiry from Alicia asking the Pension Bureau if she was also eligible to receive benefits.  Alicia’s letter included dates and locations from Alman’s letters home, as well as transcriptions from newspaper clippings she kept concerning her son.

Letter from Alicia Alman on Justinian Alman’s service. Click to view full-size image.

Two of the clippings are from the Jewish Messenger.  Alicia writes: “I have framed & hung near his full length likeness in uniform.  It was copied from the Jewish Messengerof New York by a communal paper dated Feb 20, 1863.” The article she transcribes states that Alman received a promotion for bravery.

An article from the Jewish Messenger reads: “One of the most gallant achievements of the present campaign was the recent capture of prisoners, commissary stores, &, at the White House on the Pamunkey River.  The affair has been warmly commended by the Press.  We learn that the officer who captured the train loaded with stores, &, was a young coreligionist, Justinian Alman a Captain in one of out New York Calvary RegimentsCapt Alman entered the service as a private and won his way by simple merit to his present position.  He was highly complimented for his handsome conduct on the White House expedition.  His command [sic] were out for two days and nights, and penetrated to within fifteen miles of Richmond.  Capt. Alman will make his mark promoted from the ranks he has already distinguished himself on occasions demanding the exercise of true courage and presence of mind.


In the death of Major Alman the service has lost a most useful and efficient officer and his many friends a warm hearted and true companion.  Although Major Alman had been with us for a short time he had made hosts of friends by his high toned conduct and was the life of the social circle.

At the conclusion of her letter, Alicia discusses a drawing she includes in the packet she mails to the Secretary of War that depicts a colored lithograph of a soldier’s memorial.  She writes:

Should it be necessary to substantiate any statement to any member of the American Legation in this country I shall be most pleased and ready to submit to their inspection the originals of what I have herein copied as well as letters and the beautiful colored lithograph of the Soldier’s Memorial presented to my son of which I have endeavored to give some idea whilst at the same time particularising [sic] individuals in the regiment.

Alicia painstakingly recreates the lithograph in order to send it to the Pension Bureau so she could keep the original. This is by far the most interesting document I have ever discovered in a PR at the National Archives!

Justinian Alman "Soldier's Memorial"
Justinian Alman “Soldier’s Memorial”

Each week I write up any interesting stories, significant findings, and questions I have to Adrienne, who reads over and responds to my reports.  So, on May 31, 2014, I reported on Justinian Alman and all of the really cool documents in his Pension record, and his tragic story.

PART III: Adrienne

Upon reading Alex’s update about Justinian Alman two months later, I admit, I’d forgotten all about finding him in the first place. I was particularly excited about Alicia’s painstaking facsimile of the memorial she submitted, and asked Alex to inquire if NARA would permit her to access the original to scan it in color. Once pension records are digitized and available online, the records themselves are closed, to preserve these 100+ year old documents.  NARA only permits access to the originals if a special need is shown. She was granted permission, but once she saw the condition and size of the document, she felt that attempting to scan it in color would cause additional damage, so she did not.

Alex Skerry, Researcher, with "Soldier's Memorial" document submitted by Alicia Alman, mother of Justinin Alman.
Alex Skerry, Researcher, with “Soldier’s Memorial” document submitted by Alicia Alman, mother of Justinin Alman.

As I reviewed Alman’s record, something was bothering me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Nothing bad, mind you, just something odd. But, the record was more complete than most in the database, so I moved on to the next item in my to do list. Sometimes, history reveals itself when we least expect it.

Fast forward to October, 2014: Alex and our other researcher at NARA, Caitlin, were finishing the review of the Pennsylvania soldiers, while Adam, our Pennsylvania-based researcher, and I were focusing on a soldier from Wolf named “Ullman,” no first name. According to Wolf, he supposedly served in the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry, but we had not yet found evidence of him doing so. As I tried to find evidence of anyone named anything even close to Ullman in the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry, Justinian Alman’s name appeared in one of my searches. I wondered, was “Ullman” Alman? I studied the details of Alman’s life closely and nothing about him matched what we knew about the mythical Ullman, so that was a dead end, but in doing so, I realized what was bothering me about his record! When a soldier dies, his wife or mother can collect a pension, but not both. Why would Alman’s mother attempt to collect a pension when it was already granted to his widow? I re-examined the Pension Record and realized that the Pension Bureau dropped Augusta Alman from their rolls as “unclaimed.” Had she died? I ran her name through my usual gauntlet of searches and no, Augusta Alman hadn’t died, she just kind of disappeared… However, an Augusta Davidson, with the same information as Alman’s widow, re-appeared in the historical record. Strange, but not really germane to the project, or was it?

Per the copy of the marriage certificate in his Pension record,

Justinian Alman Marriage Certificate copy
Justinian Alman Marriage Certificate copy

Justinian Alman married Augusta Davidson at the residence of the bride’s father, Dr. J. Davidson. Augusta’s application for a Pension was witnessed by Esther A. Davidson. In 1870, two years after Alman died, Augusta is back living with her family in Philadelphia, including father, Dr. Julius Davidson and sister Esther. My next stop was to look for the Davidson and Alman families in the most comprehensive published Jewish genealogical resource: Malcolm Stern’s First American Jewish Families. The only result I found was in one of the Hyneman family trees which had Civil War soldier Jacob Ezekiel Hyneman listed with two marriages: first to “Alman” and then to “Augusta Davidson.” What, I wondered, were the chances that there were two, unrelated Augusta Davidsons in Philadelphia, born circa 1846? Even though Hyneman’s Pension record had been previously reviewed, I asked Alex to request it again and see if there was any mention of Justinian Alman in it – if so, what started out as a sense that something was odd would turn into a connection between two seemingly unrelated Civil War soldiers! I couldn’t wait to hear what Alex would discover…


There was the proof of the hunch!  Included in Hyneman’s PR is a Questionnaire provided by the Pension Bureau asking the soldier to fill out information such as: “State your wife’s full name and her maiden name” and “If your present wife was married before her marriage to you, state the name of her former husband, the date of such marriage, and the date and place of his death or divorce, and state whether he ever rendered any military or naval service, and, if you, give the name of the organization in which he served….” Hyneman lists “Justinian Alman,” that he was a Lieutenant in the 4th US Cavalry, and that he drowned while in the service.  We also see from this document that Augusta was married to Hyneman on May 7, 1877, three days after the Pension Bureau dropped her from the rolls of receiving the widow’s pension for Alman.  Augusta died on January 15, 1912.

Jacob Hyneman Pension Bureau Questionnaire
Jacob Hyneman Pension Bureau Questionnaire

This discovery lead me to equally interesting documents in Hyneman’s Pension Record.  Hyneman received an inquiry from the pension department about his date of birth on file.  Apparently, the pension department claimed that Hyneman listed both August 5, 1843 and August 15, 1843 as his date of birth on different forms.

Jacob Hyneman letter regarding date of birth.
Jacob Hyneman letter regarding date of birth.

To clear up the error, Hyneman writes: “I know my birthday to be August 5th, 1843 as that day is impressed on my mind for many years.  I am enclosing birthday cards mailed principally August 4th, received August 5th.” There are seven beautiful, brightly colored birthday cards included in Hynman’s PR.

Jacob Hyneman Birthday Postcard Collection. Click to view full-size image.

The discovery of the connection between these two soldiers untimely lead to stumbling upon some of the most interesting and colorful (literally) documents I have reviewed thus far during the roster project!

Part V: Adrienne

The Shapell Roster Project’s database is full of amazing stories just like this one, and for every story we’ve uncovered, we know there are many, many more. If you have a Jewish ancestor who fought in the Civil War, we’d love to hear from you! Please contact us via the Shapell Manuscript Foundation and share your stories!

As of October 2014, of the 7100 Union soldiers in our database, we have identified and confirmed the service for 6000 of those men. To date, our team has added 646 new names to Simon Wolf’s original roster and continue to add new names every week.

Interested in staying updated with the latest research news and discoveries?  You can follow the research team’s progress as it’s made at the Shapell Manuscript Foundation Facebook Page and Roster Project Album, or by following @ShapellManu on Twitter,#ShapellRoster, or check back at our blog for more interviews and news from the archives.

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.

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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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’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…


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