Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On Napoleon's restoration of the Jews, and the Simchat Torah that holiday firecrackers led to a boy's being shot by a blunderbuss

Below are a couple of lines from a very interesting poem - okay, let's face it, these are the only interesting lines - from 1799. The poem is called Buonaparte. It begins -

Good courteous reader, I am sure the name
Of Buonaparte must have reach'd thine ear;
But, lest thou be deceived in his fame,
E'en from my Muse his glories shalt thou hear.

- and appended to it is a note which says "The verses upon this renowned chief were written before he had assumed the new part which he is not playing in the political drama of the French Revolution; and if our readers should relish his past history, as we have given it, we do not absolutely despair of his supplying them with further amusement."

Oh, and how Napoleon was about to "supply [readers] with further amusement." No one could have dreamed.

The poem is in a periodical called The Meteors (Vol. 12). The other noteworthy thing about this book is that it contains a drama with characters called Tom Paragraph and Zoilus Dogsear, which I have to say are pretty fantastic names. In any case, here is the verse from the Napoleon poem to which I wanted to call attention:

This is a reference to Napoleon's campaign in Egypt and Syria in which it was thought that he was somehow going to bring about the liberation of the Jews and establish them in Palestine. (Somehow=a thought deliberately encouraged by Napoleon himself.) Being that these are British verses, the reference to "In ev'ry Syrian town to raise Duke's Place" referring to the Great Synagogue in London, and several smaller synagogues, at Duke's Place. You know, a way of saying that Syria (Palestine) would be Jewified.

Speaking of Duke's Place, I came across several accounts of an astonishing incident which occurred on October 7, 1784, which was Shemini Atzeret (the first day of Simchat Torah). Although there are conflicting accounts, so we cannot say for sure if this involved adults and children as some say, or only children, but the basic idea is that near Duke's Place a crowd was letting off various kinds of firecrackers in celebration (simchas yontef). A neighbor who owned a distillery, named Joseph Pridhouse, was very upset. Apparently he had been dealing with this annual disturbance for twenty years. While the exact details are subject to dispute (was he just annoyed by the noise, or did he fear his establishment would catch fire? after the chastised the crowd, did they beat him up and did he fear for his life?) but what happened is not in dispute. He grabbed his carbine and shot into the crowd, killing a 13 year old boy named Moses Lazarus (and wounding others).

Here is a news account from the monthly Gentleman's Magazine:

The accounts of the indictment and court proceedings were printed in the annual Proceedings of the Old Bailey (which are online). Here is how it begins:
PORTER RIDOUT was indicted for that he, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the 7th of October , in the 24th year of his Majesty's reign, with force and arms, at London, in the parish of St. James's, Duke's-place, upon Moses Lazarus, in the peace of God and our Lord the King then and there being, did make an assault, and with a certain gun, value 1 s. then and there loaded with gun-powder and leaden shot, which he held in both his hands, to, at and against the said Moses, feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, did shoot and discharge, and him the said Moses in and upon the right breast, and in and upon the right side of the body, near the upper part of the belly, did then and there feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, strike and wound giving to him the said Moses in and upon the said right side of the breast, one mortal wound of the depth of four inches and of the width of one half quarter of an inch, and in and upon the right side of the body near the upper part of the belly, another mortal wound of the depth of three inches and of the width of one half quarter of an inch, of which he instantly died: and the Jurors say that the said Porter Ridout, him the said Moses Lazarus did kill and murder. He was likewise charged on the coroner's inquisition with the like murder.
Following this, the prosecutor got up, informed the jury the facts of the case and instructed them to keep in mind that firing a gun indiscriminately into a crowd without intent to kill any specific person also can constiute murder. Here are his words to the jury:
The Jews have an annual festivity religiously observed on their part, some time in the month of October; the prisoner lives in the neighbourhood, where that festivity creates necessarily some little disorder, he has lived there I believe twenty years, and has been constantly a witness of the return of it. In this festivity some persons unquestionably had exceeded the strict bounds of propriety, squibs and crackers had been thrown, and it seems Mr. Ridout in this last month on the last return of that festivity endeavoured to apprehend some persons who had fired those squibs, in doing so a little scuffle ensued, several fell, and among others Mr. Ridout, they arose however from the ground seemingly without injury, and Mr. Ridout returned to his house and shut the door; some few minutes afterwards he appeared at the window of the room on the first floor, and from thence discharged a gun loaded with shot among the crowd, several were wounded and some fell; and one unfortunate youth of the age of thirteen instantly expired: you will hear the law much more accurately delivered from the learned Judge after you are possessed of the evidence, and therefore can with more correctness apply it; it is however my duty just to observe, that it is not necessary to constitute the crime of murder that there should be a malignity directed against an individual; if a man commits an act from which death may ensue, which from the nature of it marks a wanton disregard of the safety of others, that is equally immoral, and the public safety requires it should be classed in an equal degree of guilt with the premeditated destruction of an individual; I fear it will be difficult for the prisoner to extenuate this case: some expressions will be given in evidence that seemed to shew a deliberate purpose of longer duration than the day; but as these expressions ought not to make any impression upon your mind till you have them in proof, I shall not mention them, but wish you to hear them only from the witnesses.
The first witness was called, a Jew named Jonas Levy. Here is what he was asked, and said, about the venerable minhag of Simchat Torah firecrackers:
Pros.: I shall not ask you unless I think it necessary any other question, but state yourself what you saw pass on that day?
Levy: I was going to synagogue the 7th of October between five and six in the evening and I saw a parcel of boys as usual, setting off squibs and crackers.
Pros:. I believe I must desire you will explain that expression as usual?
Levy: As they do among our people once a year, that is at the feast of Tabernacles, and I stood there a little time to see them.
Pros.: Is this a customary annual sport?
Levy: Yes
The next witness, Moses Israel, related what he heard the dying boy say:
I saw Mr. Ridout open the window gradually, and fire a piece, the little boy, Moses Lazarus , stood by me, and said, O Lord! he has killed me! those were the three words that he said.
The next witness, Elias Aaron, quotes the dying boy this way:
I saw Mr. Ridout go into his house, he was waving his hands, and he went in doors and shut the door, and went up stairs, and in about a minute or two after, he opened the window, and a blunderbuss or firelock, I cannot tell which, he fired, and the boy fell down by me, and cried out, O Lord! O Lord! I am dead!
Every person testifying, incidentally - including the Jews who knew Ridout - up to this point, said he was a gentle and peaceable person, and this was surprising to them. Then follows some really interesting an odd testimony, from Saul Mordecai. He says that he and Ridout spoke in Hebrew! - which requires some interpretation. But before I do, a note about surnames. Except for Jonas Levy, every Jew thus far has a first name for a last name. The dead boy, Moses Lazarus (Elazar), Moses Israel, Elias Aaron, and Saul Mordecai. The reason for this is that the most Ashkenazic English Jews in the 18th century adopted their father's first name as a surname. Thus, Moses Lazarus's father was probably named Lazarus, Moses Israel's father was most certainly Israel, and so on. Since this was 1784 it is possible that for some of them these names were already used for more than one generation - but in all cases, an ancestor's first name was the name these people used for their last. Back to Saul Mordecai:

Here is what he said:
I have known [Ridout] these twenty years, and upwards; about a fortnight or three weeks before this affair happened, I happened to go into Mr. Ridout's house for some liquors, the discorse fell out about some holliday, he asked me in Hebrew, what I meant to make Skoke yanck of, that is, we always preserve fruit, a fruit which we never eat till that time comes, it being the new year, to make a blessing off; I told him, your time is coming on, that you think so troublesome, that is, Simka sacra we call it in Hebrew, it is the Rejoicing of the Lord, in English; I asked him, if he remembered the time that he run after a boy into the Synagogue, with either a sword or cutlass, he said, he was better provided for them now, for he had a piece that would carry a ball or two now nicely; and he would take care some of them should have it among them.
The Hebrew. This is from the published transcripts of the trial, which were obviously written by a court stenographer, or whatever they were then. So clearly Saul Mordecai did not say "Skoke yanck" - which is exactly how it is printed - but he said "Shehechiyanu." So he said that Ridout asked him what he was using to make a Shehechiyanu on a new fruit for the New Year. Secondly, Mordecai very likely did not say "Simka sacra" but he said "Simchas Torah" and he probably said "Rejoicing of the Law," and not "Rejoicing of the Lord." It's interesting to note. In any case, the point is that Mordecai says he talked about the upcoming Simchat Torah, and he knew that Ridout really did not like it. He also says that he mentioned that one time when Ridout chased a boy into the synagogue with a sword! And Ridout said he had a firearm now.

Another testimony, from a man called David Levy - apparently a constable, which is interesting - also claimed that Ridout had made a threat of violence:
About five or six weeks ago, Mr. Ridout says to me, as you are a constable now, I hope you will take care of the boys, and prevent them from firing squibs, and take some of them into custody; says I, go to the Lord Mayor and get a warrant, and I will summon all the constables and do all I can, says he, no, I shall not, I shall provide myself, and if they fire I will fire too, that is all that I know about it.
A note about Jewish constables. Apparently there were - Jewish constables. It isn't entirely clear to me if they were regular constables (=lowest ranked police officers) or specially appointed to keep the peace in Jewish areas. In about 1833 we find the following:
On Saturday last, the Lord Mayor having observed two men taking the oaths of constables with their hats on, inquired the reason, and was informed that they were Jews. 
The Lord Mayor asked how it was that they took a Christian oath! 
The officer replied, that they converted the oath into a Jewish one, by using at the end of it, "So help me God, as a true Jew!" instead of "true Christian!" 
The Lord Mayor—" I am not satisfied, by any means, with the validity of such an oath, and shall not allow it to be taken. How can the words of an oath, officially administered, be changed!" 
The officer said, the Jew constables were in the habit of taking the oath according to the form just mentioned, and the Recorder had considered it quite sufficient. The Jews who presented themselves were beadles of the Synagogue, appointed to prevent the peace from being broken there.
So while this was fully 50 years later...

Next testified a man named John Chapman:
I was, by Mr. Ridout at near six o'clock; when I came, he desired me to get the mob dispersed, I found it was impossible with all I could do, I then went to look for some Jew constables, knowing their people could disperse them better than ours, but I found none.
He and others testified about the disturbance and violence meted out by the mob of firecracker throwing Jews against Ridout. His servant girl, named Ann Hebditch, produced his torn clothing and said that she heard the crowd, who chased him into his home say "Damn their eyes, they would have his life." Several other witnesses were produced who testified that Ridout was beaten badly. And a number of character witnesses were called who said that he was a gentle person. When all was said and done:
(The prisoner shewed his leg.) 
Prisoner. While I was down they robbed me of fourteen pounds six shillings, they stamped upon my leg and wanted to break it. 
Court. If the prisoner wishes to say anything, I am ready to hear it.  
Prisoner. I was in danger of my life, and they tore my pockets open, and took out all my money, fourteen pounds six shillings; it was with a great deal of trouble I got to my door, and they knew I had a great deal of property in the house, and they wanted to get it from me; they threatened my life while I was down in the kennel.  
Not Guilty on the Coroner's Inquisition.


  1. I posted Napoleon's declaration of a new jewish state -

  2. Joe in Australia7:58 PM, March 13, 2013

    Constables in London at the time weren't the junior officers of a general police force: they were generally appointed or employed by a local Justice of the Peace or Magistrate and they would have reported to him. The first reference to "Jew Constables" that I recall mentioned that they had been employed for some time in the main Jewish areas; but it was clear that they were employed because of their familiarity with the residents rather than because they filled some sort of distinct position.

    Incidentally, the term comes from comes stable, the chief officer of a stable. This somehow became the chief of a household or of an army; and from there to the person appointed to keep order in a neighbourhood; and hence a local police officer. They're not junior: that would be a sub-constable. Detectives generally take precedence, but that's because they're from a different branch of the police force and their role is to investigate crimes more widely. The head of London's police force, for instance, is the Chief Constable.

    1. Very useful clarification! Thank you.

  3. "Except for Jonas Levy, every Jew thus far has a first name for a last name. "
    I guess Levy isn't close enough to Levi to count as a first name?

    "A neighbor who owned a distillery, named Joseph Pridhouse".
    I'm curious why you didn't keep the original spelling, Ridout.
    Also, was his first name Joseph, or Porter?

    Finally, you reported on the case so neutrally, we're unable to figure out whose side you lean towards.

  4. I must have been distracted, not sure about the Pridhouse. I meant Ridout. As for Porter, I am also not sure about the distinction in names in the accounts. It is certainly the same incident though.

    I didn't examine it long enough to come to my own determination about the facts - I certainly think there could have been no justification to fire into the crowd unless he feared for his life. Even then, to fire indiscriminately? However, I was not in that situation.

  5. A number of years ago, the streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan were filled with young Jewish men and women every year on Simchas Torah evening. The din became so onerous that the crowds were asked to disperse and move the festivities indoors. Glad none of the neighbors resorted to the blunderbus.

  6. You don't make a shehecheyanu on preserved fruit.

    1. There may have been no way of getting a new fruit. No one ever accused the common Jew in 18th century England of being very learned. And, in fact, while everyone was lighting firecrackers outside on Yom Tov, where was R. Tevele Schiff?



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