I was watching an episode of “My Family Secrets” which is a UK-based show sponsored by Ancestry.com that helps ordinary people uncover things in their family tree (as opposed to many similar shows which concentrate on celebrities). Since I haven’t written one of these genealogy stories for a while, I thought I’d do some further investigation about my Jewish roots, i.e. the ancestors of my grandmother, Vera [Levy] [Russell] Rogers. It’s been a fascinating day, and I’ve uncovered much more than I expected – so the below is broken up into four roughly related parts, all centering about my great-great-grandmother, Phoebe Isaacs.
Names the Same
I’ve written several times about my Jewish ancestors (*1, *2, *3, *4). But these have focused on my grandmother’s paternal line (Levy). I knew a lot about them. But my great-grandfather mother was Phoebe Isaacs and I didn’t know much about her. Thus, I started by looking at what I had captured in my previous research.
Phoebe was born in 1842 in England. Most of the family trees that others have built have her father as being Samuel Isaacs, and indeed Samuel did have a daughter by that name who was born in 1842 (see more on Samuel below). But was this the right person, or someone else by the same name? I had noted an inconsistency in my research because in the US census of 1900 Phoebe had said that she had been in the US for 48 years, meaning that she would have immigrated in 1852 when she was about 10 years old. But the 1861 UK census showed her still living in the UK with her father Samuel. Phoebe didn’t marry until about 1862, so that didn’t help. There seemed to be so much that pointed to Samuel being her father as only that one fact in the 1900 census was inconsistent. Could I resolve the inconsistency?
I then noted that Samuel’s daughter was sometimes listed as Phoebe Grace Isaacs, but in reading through Phoebe’s will (written by her), she has her name as Phoebe A. Isaacs. Yet another inconsistency. Finally, I was able to locate an entry in the 1855 New York Census which showed a 13yo Phoebe living with her family in NY. Thus, it appears that there are two Phoebe Isaacs, and all the other trees in ancestry.com have their facts wrong. By trying to find other of Phebe’s relatives from the 1855 census, I was able to build out a “correct” tree for her and I deleted all the erroneous information in my tree. I’ve had other instances of two individuals with the same name and similar dates of birth, but never before in my research in English records.
In exploring all the information about Phoebe, I read through all the details in her probated will. Phoebe died in 1910, just a few months before her son, my great-grandfather, Maurice Levy. She left everything to her husband, Alexander Levy, who did not pass on until 1918. However, while she and her husband had raised their children in Brooklyn, they had moved to Bridgeport, CT in their later years as both of them died in CT.
In Phoebe’s will, she listed herself as owner of three pieces of property. I used Google maps to see where these properties were located. As I pulled up the first, on Hanover St, I noted that that street was only a few blocks long and one of the intersecting streets was Norman Street. But that street name rang a bell as that was where my grandparents were living in the early years of their marriage when my father and his sister were born. Surely that could not be a coincidence!
I had noted in the story of my grandparents (*5), that they had met in New Milford, where they were both living at the time, but after their marriage they had moved to Bridgeport in 1914. In checking all the locations where they lived (at various rental properties on Norman St), the three pieces of property that Phoebe owned (Hanover St, Olive St, and Maplewood St), they were all in the same part of Bridgeport. In fact, my father spent several years attending the Maplewood Elementary School.
Thus, it may not have been a coincidence that this is where my grandparents decided to make their home in 1914. While they were leaving New Milford, where their families were living, they were moving to the same neighborhood where my grandmother’s aging grandfather was living. In addition, one of my grandmother’s uncles and two of her aunts were also living in the same several block area. With all those family members around them, it is not at all surprising that my grandparents made their home in Bridgeport. Even when the marriage broke up a few years later, my grandmother continued living in Bridgeport until she remarried and the family moved to Danbury. While Phoebe had passed away in 1910 and Alexander in 1918, the presence of three of my grandmother’s aunts/uncles meant that they were still closely connected to her family and my father was not as isolated as I previously thought.
PT Barnum Connection
In looking at Phoebe’s will, I noted that one of the boundaries of her property on Hanover St was “in part on the land of Estate of P.T.Barnum…” While this property may not have been the primary home of Levy family, nor the primary home of Barnum, the fact that they had neighboring properties was interesting. Barnum had passed away in 1891, and I’m not certain when Phoebe purchased this property, so it may not have even been contemporaneous.
Many of are, of course, familiar with Barnum being a noted showman and the owner of both many sideshow characters like Tom Thumb, but in doing my investigation into his Bridgeport connections (where he also died), I learned two new things about him that I did not know before (*6). First, he also served in the CT House of Representatives from 1866-1869. He also served as the Mayor of Bridgeport. A few of his non-showman accomplishments are: (1) he hired spies to get insider information on the New York and New Haven Railroads and foiled a secret that would have raised commutation fares by 20%; (2) he was the sponsor of the 1879 CT anti-contraception law; and (3) he founded the Bridgeport Hospital in 1878 and was its first president.
Jewish Support of the Confederacy
During my investigation into the true ancestry of Phoebe, I of course also looked at the individual who many had considered to be her father, Samuel Isaac. While I have now confirmed that he is NOT one of my ancestors, I learned some very interesting things about him.
Samuel was a Jewish entrepreneur. In the 1850s he founded the “commission house” of Isaac, Campbell & Co. in London. While initially they set up a shoe factory, then they became the main supplier of military goods to the British army. But when the US Civil War broke out in 1861, a Captain Caleb Huse, the Chief Purchasing Agent for the newly formed Ordnance Department for the Confederacy approached them. Isaac became the primary supplier of all kinds of military items for them – including uniforms, armament, etc (*7). Samuel, with his brother Saul, were the largest European supporters of the Confederacy (*8). Their ships, outward bound with military stores and freighted home with cotton, were the most enterprising of blockade-runners between 1861 and 1865.
This is an interesting note of history and makes me happy that I have now found that Samuel is not among my ancestors.