Today is the first day of…

…putting my history project on the front burner.

Having just completed an excellent summer math program in Number Theory, I am now turning my attention back to my history project. I am taking on a smaller role at the math school this year with the idea that for the first time, Moses and Isaac Edrehi will get my primary attention for an extended period.

My goals are to turn my research into an academic paper and to also pursue dramatic directions for this remarkable story. Along the way, as I consolidate my research, I suspect I will reveal more connections and find intriguing tidbits to post here. Stay tuned for more on Jewish mysticism, mysterious travelers, impersonators past and present, and more!

I value your support and comments. And if you know of others who might appreciate this peculiar adventure, please send them the link to this blog. Many thanks!

 

Advertisements

Just a hunch…

Tonight I presented my research at the Wayside Inn (where else?) for the benefit of some of my coworkers at the math school. In preparation for this, I delved back into my notes and photos and realized how much material I have that I haven’t even sorted out or translated. I sometimes wonder how many unexpected connections I would make if I thoroughly sorted it all.

For example, I was just browsing through an old book of memoirs of American Jews. One of the writers had a brother–a founder of the Boston Jewish community–who would have overlapped with Isaac Edrehi in that city. The writer and his brother started a clothing business together in Boston, and all went well until:

Spitz Bail Clip

Well, no explicit mention of Edrehi here, but the arrested man is apparently well known to clothiers and other merchants, and is a swindler with a flair for the dramatic. And the author’s reticence to mention the man’s name may suggest that he is a fellow Jew. All this is slim evidence–except this is Boston around 1846, and Edrehi was apparently prospering there in 1845, then disappears and resurfaces in Cincinnati in 1847.  What happened in between?

I may find out this Wednesday when I visit the Boston City Archives. I asked them if they could trace a suspect based on who posted bail for them. They said maybe, and sounded intrigued.  They also suggested I check the tax rolls and other sources for further information about him. We’ll see what I find…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rabbit Hash, Kentucky

In 1850, Isaac Edrehi’s ad for amulets appeared in a newspaper based in Rising Sun, Indiana–a town presumably so named because of its view to the east across the Mississippi River.

Edrehi’s ad claims that his amulet, made from a berry obtained from a botanic garden in Jerusalem, is “an almost certain preventative of Cholera, Scarlet fever, and other contagious diseases…. This article is patronized… by the Queens of England, France, and Naples… and by the Congress in Washington…. which is no hum-bug.”

But what caught my eye when I viewed Rising Sun on a map was the town on the opposite side of the Mississippi River: Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. What a name! The town’s history has been obscured by the numerous floods that have damaged the town records, but the story is that those same floods flushed out the rabbits, making rabbit hash the food of choice in times of scarcity.

A town named Rabbit Hash (population 315) could hardly take itself too seriously, but these folks really do it right. They have a well-preserved country store from 1831 that sells “Tobacco, Potions, Sundries, Notions”:

history

The town is frequented by motorcyclists, whom the store’s website reminds to dispose of glass bottles properly so as not to injure barefoot children. Their rustic inn is called the Old Hashienda. And their current mayor is a border collie :

votelucylou-231x300Lucy Lou is reportedly contemplating a presidential run, claiming more political experience than Donald Trump.

The town has actually had a canine mayor for several terms, and they explored the phenomenon with their own documentary movie, Rabbit Hash, the Center of the Universe (2004). Its trailer can be viewed here:

Their previous dog mayor, “a true son of a bitch,” had to be euthanized for medical reasons–an option one town resident recommends for politicians in general.

I know I’ve just gotten back from a long trip, but Rabbit Hash, KY goes on my bucket list. It’s en route from Cincinnati–where Isaac Edrehi lived for many years–to Rising Sun, where he advertised. If he ever stopped at that country store, it would have been just one of the many oddities of Rabbit Hash.

 

Souvenirs

I’m back from my trip to Israel and England. It was a real treat to immerse myself in my research for hours on end, and it was a refreshing change to be on my own and determine my own hours and activities. It’s also great to be back, of course!

As befitting the purpose of my trip, my main souvenirs are library cards:

IMG_1060

I also bought a few polished stones that caught my eye. My favorite is the light bluish one (looks almost lavender in the photo):

Stones

 

It’s called blue chalcedony–a kind of quartz. The person running the booth said, “You don’t choose the stone; the stone chooses you.” Maybe so. It appealed to me so much that I decided to see what are its supposed properties (from  http://www.crystalvaults.com/ crystal-encyclopedia/blue-chalcedony):

Blue Chalcedony is perfect… to soothe and restore balance….  Chalcedony is known as the Speaker’s Stone, the stone of one who must measure his words. It promotes brotherhood and good will, opening the mind to new ideas…

Blue Chalcedony is a Seeker Transformer talisman. They’re pointers, directors, and compasses; the fresh start crystals. These are talismans of the scientist, the adventurer, the hunter, wanderer, and explorer. They’re also crystals of the student and the researcher… Blue Chalcedony utilizes Water energy [which] … is associated with the Career and Life Path area…

Chalcedony …is a source of protection during travel.

Chalcedony was historically the birthstone for May.

I also bought a necklace from a Moroccan shop in Canterbury. (In keeping with the ethnic affiliations of my subject, I found myself drawn to Moroccan and Turkish establishments on my trip.)  I got a kick out of the design. Here I was in a city of Christian pilgrimages, at a Muslim shop, and what does the design look like to me?

IMG_1059

Many thanks to those of you who have been following my blog through my trip. Now that I’m back, I still plan to use this blog to post updates on my Edrehi research and related endeavors now and then. Stay tuned!

For those of you who check in on my blog now and then, keep in mind that if you join WordPress, you can be notified of my posts if you “Follow” my blog. Also, if you know of anyone who might be interested in my blog, feel free to forward my site to them.

Thank you!

 

 

The impostor and the amnesiac

This week I made my own odd pilgrimage to Canterbury, hoping to meet up with a couple of charismatic figures from the 1830s. I hadn’t particularly intended to see the famed cathedral, but I must admit it’s most impressive! So even though I typically avoid the must-see sights (see last post), I must show you the cathedral at night:

IMG_0798

But back to business. I came to Canterbury because I had record of Isaac Edrehi being there in late 1832, and I was wondering whether he had encountered another notorious character of that period, John Nicholls Tom (alias Sir William Courtenay, alias Jesus Christ arisen), leader of the very short-term peasant revolt that terminated disastrously in the Battle of Bosenden Wood (1838)–known as the last armed uprising on British soil.

These two have a surprising amount in common: a variety of grandiose identities, charisma, mystique, a penchant for public appearances, and irresistible good looks. In fact, rather similar good looks–tall, imposing build, dark beard. And they both appeared on the Canterbury scene in Fall 1832. Could that town have been big enough for both of them? Or were they the same person?

Well, they were definitively not the same person: John Nicholls Tom, who was a dozen years older than Isaac Edrehi, was killed in that 1838 battle, and his surviving followers were so devoted that the British government kept his body on public display to prove that the putative messiah would not arise on the third day. Thousands came from miles to view the body of the formerly flamboyant leader. When it was abundantly clear that his corpse was going the way of all flesh, he was buried in an unmarked grave in a local cemetery. And Isaac Edrehi lived for nearly half a century more.

Their backgrounds were much different as well. John Nicholls Tom was a well-off dealer in spirits and malt from Cornwall (southwest England). Tom arrived in Canterbury five months after he disappeared from Liverpool, England while on a business trip. He was a well-educated Christian with a passionate interest in politics and religion–and a sporadic history of mental illness. Apparently his memory took a long-term vacation while he was away from home, and he would never answer to the name John Nicholls Tom again, nor would he ever recognize his wife or family. In modern terms, this might be termed “dissociative fugue”–a rare severe type of amnesia involving loss of identity and change of location. Eventually he insisted he was Sir William Courtenay, with claim to a variety of castles and estates. Years later religious delusions predominated and he became a supposedly invulnerable messiah.

But in 1832 he had just arrived in Canterbury, and history records that Tom was first known as Count Moses Rothschild. He had come from Jerusalem, or so he said, and had lately been living among the Jews of London, raising money from them to give (supposedly) to the destitute Jews of the Holy Land. He looked like an eastern potentate, with exotic garb right down to his Turkish slippers. He was rumored to be fabulously wealthy, liberally distributing coins and peppermints to his admirers–but he had actually borrowed funds from the hotel staff on promises of repaying handsomely out of future wealth. And then weeks later he became known as Sir Courtenay.

Those of you who know Isaac Edrehi might recognize his modus operandi–the eastern persona, the faux wealth, the Jewish (sometimes) backstory, the petty swindles. I did, and that’s what brought me to Canterbury–a suspicion that the historical description of John Nicholls Tom was somehow caught up with Isaac Edrehi’s life. I suspected this further because it seemed to me that the portraits of John Nicholls Tom showed some ethnic variety, from Middle Eastern to Anglo:

SupposedCourtenay16050578_130202280741

Well, after three days of examining numerous archives and period accounts, I can add the following:

  1. When the mysterious stranger arrived, he had a foreign accent, which is not mentioned later.
  2. In his first weeks in Canterbury, he attended synagogue; in later weeks he went to church.
  3. By December there was a controversy in town: Was the stranger a young man or one in middle age? People’s observations varied. Once, a number of his supporters were invited to his hotel room, and they marveled how young and handsome he was. As a speaker addressing the crowds from the balcony, he sometimes seemed older.

Therefore, at a distance of 180 years, I believe I can make an observation that occurred to nobody at the time: that two men were sharing names and most likely exotic garb as well. The elder was an amnesiac in search of an identity; the younger, a serial impostor with identities to spare.

When historians reconstructed Tom’s life following his well-publicized rebellion and death, they noted many inconsistencies in his early Canterbury years. He changed name several times, first curried favor with the rich and then devoted his attention to the poor, and did many inexplicable, self-contradictory acts. That he was a madman seemed explanation enough. That there were two people was too unlikely to be considered.

I don’t know which man used which name when in those weeks,  but one or both of them ran for Parliament in Dec. 1832 and garnered several hundred votes! Then one or both of them was accused of swindling and perjury and came to trial. But it was certainly John Nicholls Tom who served three months in prison and four years in a lunatic asylum for those crimes. He repeatedly denied doing them, but his denials were treated as the lies of a charlatan or the ravings of a madman. It could be that he was simply telling the truth.

What an odd relationship they must have had, these two strong and bizarre personalities. Presumably they shared identities to play to their strengths–Edrehi the young and handsome, Tom the talented speaker full of political  ideas and Christian inspiration. Perhaps at first Edrehi inspired the older man by providing vivid identities and backgrounds; later the relationship was symbiotic as they both inhabited the same identities for mutual gain; then Edrehi used Tom to take the blame for his own misdeeds.

By the summer Tom’s wife came into town and identified her husband. By then Isaac Edrehi was off to other times and other crimes. And though most often, in history as in the sciences, the simplest theory is the best, those previous few months are best explained by something wildly improbable–that two very peculiar men with aberrant identities and similar appearances not only crossed paths but for some weeks shared a very public road lined with adoring followers. A Canterbury tale indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Favorite Spot in Cambridge (2 photos)

You don’t need me to show you postcard-perfect photos of the classic sights of Cambridge, England; you can look them up yourself. The venerable elaborate colleges of Cambridge University are everything you’d imagine. (Think Princeton/Yale/Harvard, but really old, not just an architectural imitation.)

I found my favorite spot as I looked for an antiquarian bookstore. The alley is hidden amid the flashy tourist shops across the street from King’s College, the most imposing college of Cambridge.  I passed the alley several times, though it had been described to me accurately–and then I didn’t think at first to venture further than its fork and dim bend, to a second leg where the well-lit bookstore was situated.

Across the alley from the bookstore was a tiny overgrown churchyard–no more than an irregular scrap of land next to a church wall obscured by foliage:

Cambridge UK St Edwards churchyard

And here’s the churchyard from the other side, with one of the ubiquitous bicycles of Cambridge. The bookstore is on the right, and beyond that the bend of  the alley where I had come from:Cambridge UK Davids antiq books

(The church, by the way, is St. Edward King and Martyr, regarded as a birthplace of the Reformation–where the teachings of Martin Luther were first promoted in England in the 1520s. You can look it up if you want to see the front.)

My visit to Cambridge reminded me how averse I am to well-traveled standard sites and how much I am drawn to little-known byways–in my travels and also in life. To see what so many others have seen does not appeal to me, but to find something of interest where few others have gone fascinates me. Anyone who has run or hiked with me already knows this.

I took two long walks in the center of Cambridge. Though the college views and the shopping are excellent, I focused on what was modest and inconspicuous–an old leather shop, a small appealing doorway, the ramshackle open-air market avoided by most tourists. No doubt my attraction to the story of Moses and Isaac Edrehi falls into the same category of that which has fallen by the way–a tale hidden among the barely-traveled dark alleys of history, visible only to the person seeking the unusual.

The massive college buildings and ancient churches of Cambridge–however welcoming to tourists they are now–were clearly intended for upper-class Christian insiders. I tried to imagine how the Edrehis as impoverished Jews must have felt when they arrived here. As much as I deplore their unscholarly standards and Isaac’s scoundrelly behavio(u)r, I have to admire their pure chutzpah in setting up confidently in this town in the early 1830s, passing themselves off as exotic oriental scholars and attracting the support of 137 residents–some of them noted Cambridge professors–who signed on as subscribers to Moses Edrehi’s upcoming book on the Ten Lost Tribes.

I did not discover anything definitive on my walk–though the bookstore owner said that Cambridge of the 1830s was so much smaller that the Edrehis likely lived close to that very alley. My project appealed to the bookstore owner, who dug through some old memoirs in search of any clues. I drew his attention to a customer, a woman who was waiting for him at the counter, but she replied, “Oh, no, I can wait–I hope you don’t mind, I was listening–your project is far more interesting.”

Apparently even in these days of international tourism, the prospect of an exotic serial impersonator is still intriguing.

Isaac Edrehi and Benjamin II–two mysterious men?

Two weeks ago in London, I encountered the noted Jewish traveler Benjamin the Second. Not personally: He lived in the 1800s. But as I scanned the archives of the Board of Deputies of British Jews for more evidence of Isaac Edrehi’s fraudulent financial appeals, I found mention of Benjamin II having applied to that body for funding a future trip. They turned him down…and I looked him up (see Wikipedia–JJ Benjamin if you’re curious).

Benjamin of Tudela–the first Benjamin–by Jose Serrano

When I read that Benjamin II (otherwise known as Israel ben Joseph, or JJ Benjamin) claimed in the mid-1800s to follow in the footsteps of the renowned medieval traveler Benjamin of Tudela in search of the Ten Lost Tribes, my suspicions were aroused. And when I read further that Benjamin II was criticized for a naive and unscholarly narrative that at times borrowed too heavily on other travelers’ accounts, I felt that here was Isaac Edrehi in one more clever guise.

If the two men were the same, this would be momentous, as Benjamin II’s works have been both widely quoted and broadly criticized. Further, Benjamin II interacted with many Jewish notables, including Reform movement giant Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati. Benjamin II provoked a controversy in New Orleans over a proposed memorial or statue to Judah Touro (see Jonathan Sarna’s article on the Touro Monument Controversy). He also circulated widely through the Jewish communities of the US and Britain collecting funds for a future trip. If Benjamin II were an attention-seeking impostor and con man, this would shed a different light on all these encounters.

Benjamin II: Possibly Isaac Edrehi?

Of course, a historical claim cannot be based merely on visceral feelings, so I’ve been looking through JJ Benjamin’s books and researching his life. I have found many things suspicious in his background and writings, including a Hebrew poem that spells his name (Moses Edrehi did that too) and his claim that he translated “Maasei Nissim” into Judeo-Arabic in Algeria (Maasei Nissim was one of Moses Edrehi’s books)–an unlikely endeavor for a Romanian Jew who would probably have been Ashkenazic. But I have found no smoking gun…yet.

If my suspicion is true, Isaac Edrehi would have:

  1. traveled widely in the period 1840-45 (a period of his life I have not yet documented)
  2. written his travelogues in subsequent years and  published them in various languages under the name Benjamin II (Israel Joseph Benjamin)
  3. traveled further in England and the USA the early 1860s soliciting money for future travels
  4. fabricated the sudden death of Benjamin II in 1864 in London in order to keep the money he had collected without traveling further, and
  5. set up a collection for Benjamin II’s (fictional) wife and child–the proceeds of which he also would have kept.

It’s brilliant. But is it true? I don’t have proof that would meet historical standards. But you can bet that I’ll be ordering a copy of Benjamin II’s death certificate in London and scrutinizing it for irregularities.