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History, Herstory, Ourstory: Twelve Jewish Jurors

October 30, 2013
by Leo Hershkowitz Cohen+HandsIN EARLY AUGUST, 1816, AARON MOSES, ORIGINALLY FROM LONDON, COMMITTED SUICIDE — the first such instance by a Jewish resident of New York in which there was an inquest conducted by the Coroner and a jury. Interestingly, in this case all twelve members of the jury were Jewish, the only such instance on record. There are three obvious questions: who was Aaron Moses, what led him to take his life, and why summon only Jews to attend the inquest? On Thursday, August 8th, 1816, Coroner John Bedient and a requisite jury of twelve men were at the house of Mrs. Jesse Atkinson (widow), 124 Chambers Street to view the body of one Aaron Moses, “then and there lying dead.” The jury, upon their “oaths and affirmations,” reported with careful wording on a commonly used form
That the said Aaron on the day of the taking of this inquest and at the time of his death, was a lunatick & a person of insane mind & that the said Aaron being of insane mind as aforesaid, at the house aforesaid in the City & County aforesaid then & there being alone, with a certain razor of the value of one Dollar, which he then and there held in his right hand, upon his throat one mortal wound of the breadth of four inches & depth of one inch did give of which mortal wound the said Aaron then & there instantly died; And so the jurors aforesaid on their oaths aforesaid do say that in manner & by the means aforesaid, the said Aaron came to his death & not otherwise. In Witness Whereof, We, the said Jurors, as well as the Coroner aforesaid, have to this Inquest set our Hands & Seals, on the day and year, and at the place aforesaid.
MRS. ATKINSON SURELY WAS THE FIRST TO DISCOVER THE BODY, and quickly informed police and the Coroner, who then summoned his jury. All this could have been done without too much trouble, as the City was small and compact. In 1816, New York’s population was about ninety thousand, there were some four hundred Jews. Coroner Bedient was also a merchant at 69 John Street, a short distance from Chambers Street, while jury members also lived within no more than a half-mile or so from John Street and the boarding house. The Coroner, like most city officials, conducted duties part-time, usually in the evening. He was not a physician, that being required only after 1878. In 1819 he earned five dollars for each inquest. He was appointed annually and could serve no more than four years. Jurymen served without pay as part of their civic duty. This service exempted them from the military or other more time-consuming tasks. The Coroner was to investigate causes of unusual or sudden death and report those that might require criminal investigation. What surely concerned Bedient was that this instance was different: Moses was Jewish. How should this case be reported? Here he surely sought advice from members of the small but influential Jewish community, and so his call for Jewish jurymen. Tears happyPERHAPS THE MOST INTRIGUING PART OF THE INQUEST, especially since so little is now known of Moses, is again the odd fact that all twelve making up the Coroner’s jury were Jewish. There is no other such like instance in the records, although Jews, in fact, did so serve in the past. At the inquest of the body of Caty Leonard, for example, who “killed herself using six cents of laudanum, on May 20th, 1805, was Naphtali Judah (1774-1855) well-known publisher, merchant, member of Tammany Society. On June 19th, 1795, Simon Adler, of whom nothing more seems known, viewed the body of Joseph Totten, a driver of the Albany stage, accidentally killed when he fell beneath the wheels of the wagon as it came down Harlem Hill. Nothing too unusual here, except that Adler signed his name in Hebrew, a unique circumstance, the first such found in Coroner’s inquests. William Baldwin, also a driver of the Albany stage, was similarly killed in the same manner at the same accident, and his inquest held that day also had Adler signing his name in Hebrew. On May 9th, 1793, Eleazar Hart and eleven others viewed the body of an unknown man found drowned, floating in the North (Hudson) River at the Corporation dock. Hart, of 27 Reed Street, is also a seemingly unknown, probably related to the noted Hart family. His signature is in English. Simon Adler was not finished as a juryman. On October 26th, 1795, together with Coroner Ellsworth, he saw the body of Simon Day, accidentally drowned while coming from “Elizabeth Town,” New Jersey. It was at 12 noon, October 25th, in Kil Van Kull when a “heavy squall of wind” overturned the vessel, drowning Day. In this instance, Adler was joined by David Jacobs (perhaps Jewish), grocer, 20 Augustus (Centre) Street, again of whom little more seems known. The same accident also took the lives of John Gillespie and Thomas Lane, both viewed also on October 26th by the same jury. Adler, again signing in Hebrew, was also a member of a jury who viewed the body of James Hutchison, “lately from Ireland,” whose corpse was found floating in North River under “one of the bridges at Swarthout’s Wharf (now part of Albany Street). Cause of death was uncertain, but the jury thought he had accidentally fallen off the wharf while intoxicated “and then and there drowned.” AMONG THE JEWISH JURORS WHO SERVED ON OTHER INQUESTS were Jacob Hays, David and Abraham Jacobs. Ephraim Hart, one of the wealthiest of New Yorkers, was, among other accomplishments, one of the original members of the New York Board of Stockholders, and a land speculator. In 1810 he was elected as a Democrat to the State Senate. In 1816 he lived at 268 Greenwich Street. A commission merchant, his business was at 123 Water Street. Isaac Levi was possibly Isaac H. Levy (1763-1854), son of Hayman Levy, a noted leather dealer. Moses Gomez is possibly Moses Mordecai Gomez (1744-1826), a chocolate manufacturer. In Longworth’s Directory of 1816, he is listed at Washington (Street), opposite Duane Market. Isaac Gomez, Jr., was a commission merchant at 52 Broome Street. He may have been Isaac Moses Gomez, Jr., born 1769, very active in Shearith Israel affairs. Abraham Seixas is surely Abraham M. Seixas (1786-1834), son of Benjamin M. Seixas (1775-1843), an auctioneer at Greenwich Street near Amos. The next two jurors, M. (Mordecai) Frois, 83 Pearl Street, and Myer Levy, are not listed in the Longworth Directory, are not found in the records of Shearith Israel. Abraham Morris, another juror, is listed as a mason at Ridge and Stanton Street. But there seems little of any other record. David Levy, a peddler at 17 Thomas Street, and Solomon Netling are also largely absent from the record. Netling in 1792 provided money to build a mortuary chapel in the cemetery. Jews, though small in number during this period, were, in fact, to be found in most facets of New York life — why not as members of a Coroner’s jury? They were New Yorkers. Their attendance at the Aaron Moses Inquest illustrates how little is known of early Jewish history of the City, and how much more needs to be researched. Leo Hershkowitz is professor emeritus of history at Queens College. He is the author of Tweed’s New York: Another Look (Anchor Press) and the co-editor of Wills of Early New York Jews, 1704-1799 (American Jewish Historical Society).