A Death in the Family
The 19th-century murder scandal that ended the reign of New York’s Sephardic aristocracy
In the early morning hours of a winter day in 1877, the blackest sheep of my family arrived at a police station on Manhattan’s West 30th Street to file a complaint. My cousin, a belligerently drunk 29-year-old named Washington Nathan, had just been kicked out of a bar on Sixth Avenue. Washington wore an elegant mustache on his face and a prostitute on his arm. Angry and offended, or perhaps just wasted, he had gone to the police to report the bar for breaking curfew. The duty officer told Washington to go police court to swear his accusation under oath. Washington told the officer to go himself and, as the newspapers later reported, “[i]ndulged in abusive language against the captain.” The men fought, and Washington’s hand went through a glass window. He spent the night in jail.
If Washington Nathan’s father had not been murdered seven years earlier, no one would have noticed that the playboy drank a bit too much. If he had not been suspected of the murder, no one would even have remembered his name. As it was, that night 132 years ago cemented a reputation that persists a century later, and it sealed the ignoble end of New York’s original Jewish aristocracy.
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CREDIT: Unidentified 19th-century newspaper, as reproduced in The Grandees, by Stephen Birmingham.
Benjamin Nathan’s body was discovered at 5:50 a.m. on July 29, 1870. A thunderstorm had torn through the city around midnight, but as dawn broke it was already hot and humid in Madison Square. Patrick McGuvin, a janitor at the elegant Fifth Avenue Hotel, was hosing down the sidewalk outside the hotel when Washington Nathan burst screaming from the brownstone at 12 West 23rd Street. McGuvin started to move toward him, then paused. He was wise to the antics of the wealthy young men who lived in the surrounding mansions, and despite the hour, Washington, dressed only in his underwear, seemed drunk. Seeing no reason to get involved, McGuvin was stooping to pick up his hose when he heard another shout. The first young man had been joined on the stoop by a second. He, too, was undressed, wearing a nightgown with two dark, wet stains. His socks were soaked with blood up to the ankles.
The bloody one was Frederick Nathan, Washington’s 26-year-old brother. Washington was only 22. Frederick had bloodstains on his chest and socks that trailed blood. It looked as though he had been stabbed, but in fact he was drenched in his father’s blood. The brothers led McGuvin and a passing patrolman inside. Benjamin’s body lay awkwardly between a private office and a reception room on the second story of the brownstone. Benjamin Nathan’s skull had been split six times. The carpet around him was matted with blood. The murder weapon was found by the front door: a two foot long iron bar with its ends flattened at right angles to the shaft. One end was caked red and flecked with gray hairs.
Five generations on, that bloody morning has been all but forgotten by my extended family. I first learned of the scandal from Studies in Murder, a 1924 true crime classic by Edmund Lester Pearson, which I found in my grandparents’ library. When I began looking through old newspapers and scant family archives, I was the first person to revisit the case in at least 40 years.
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Benjamin Nathan was 57 when he was murdered. A prominent member of a wealthy Sephardic family, he had lived a life of astounding luxury. His four-story mansion was among the largest and most extravagant private homes in the city. He wore diamond shirt studs and carried a gold Jurgensen stem-winder on a heavy gold chain. The summer of his death, he had rented a 45-acre estate on a hill in Morristown, New Jersey, complete with a private vineyard, gardens, and a commanding view of two lakes. It was a life unimaginable to most New Yorkers of his day, never mind most Jews. Benjamin Nathan, a vice president of the New York Stock Exchange, was a man who lived like the Astors when the Bronfmans were still in Bessarabia.
A famous incident at Saratoga’s Grand Union Hotel in June 1877 illustrates the gap between the Sephardic elite and the rest of the New York Jewish community at that time. After the hotel’s manager turned away Joseph Seligman, a wealthy German-Jewish banker, the proprietor explained to the New York Times that the move had nothing to do with religion, since, after all “families like the…Nathans are welcome everywhere.”
Among the earliest Jewish immigrants to New York, the Nathans and their clique of Sephardic families were seen as different from the German and Russian Ashkenazic latecomers; they were seen as less Jewish than their coreligionists. The outcome of this bit of assimilationist jujitsu was that Benjamin Nathan was able to serve as president of Shearith Israel, the city’s old Sephardic synagogue, and of Mt. Sinai Hospital, originally known as the Jews’ Hospital, while also being a member of the Union Club and the St. Nicholas Society, an organization for New Yorkers of Dutch ancestry whose forebears arrived in the city before 1785. When Benjamin Nathan died, the Albion, a business newspaper, eulogized him as a Jew who “might easily have been mistaken for a Christian.” That was clearly a compliment.
The Nathans allowed their social standing to go to their heads. In her autobiography, It’s Been Fun, Benjamin’s niece Annie Nathan Meyer, a prominent anti-suffrage feminist and a founder of Barnard College, describes the pride of the Nathans of the mid- to late-19th century as something beyond aristocratic. “Looking back on it, it seems to me that this intense pride, accompanied by a strong sense of noblesse oblige among the Sephardim was the nearest approach to royalty in the United States,” she writes. “The Nathan family possessed this distinguishing trait to a high degree.”
Like royals, Nathans could only marry their social equals—Jews from old Sephardic lines. It was a miniscule pool from which to choose a mate, and there were a few generations of marriages between relatives. At least two of Benjamin Nathan’s seven children married first cousins. So did Edgar Joshua Nathan and Sara Solis Nathan (née Sara Nathan Solis), Benjamin’s niece and nephew and my great-great-grandparents.
It’s hard to reconcile these accounts of the 19th-century Nathans with the family in which I grew up. We still live in Manhattan, and my grandfather and uncle have both served as presidents of Shearith Israel, but that’s where the resemblance stops. We intermarry, we don’t all attend Sephardic synagogues, and we don’t belong to Knickerbocker social clubs. We’re not prominent, and we haven’t seen the sort of wealth that Benjamin enjoyed in generations. There’s still a sense of history and a bit of residual pride, but we’re not Nathans in any royal sense.
If anyone is responsible for our fall, it’s Washington Nathan, the spoiled scion.
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At 22, Washington Nathan was already a notorious man-about-town. He fought regularly with his father over what Washington called his “habits of life” and what Frederick, even more euphemistically, called being “out too late nights” —his drinking, his whoring, and his profligate spending. Benjamin was so concerned about Washington that he wrote a clause into his will placing his son’s inheritance in trust. Washington would only have access to the principal when he married a Jew or turned 25, and even then his mother would have to sign a declaration stating that he was “living a life of regularity and sobriety” and that it would “be safe, proper and advisable” to give him the money.
By all accounts, Washington was also exceedingly attractive. Annie Nathan Meyer calls him “one of the handsomest men I ever saw” in her autobiography. She devotes attention to his eyes, his smile, and his “aura of mystery.” Her autobiography is also the origin of the oft-repeated rumor that the poet Emma Lazarus, another of Washington’s first cousins, was “violently” in love with him, and that this unrequited passion kept her from other men.
His beauty and his entitlement mixed dangerously. Five years after Benjamin’s murder, Washington would find himself in financial straits. At that point he took up with Birdie Bell, a tall, dark-haired woman who was the mistress of George Barnard, a judge who’d been impeached for colluding with Boss Tweed to embezzle from the city. Barnard gave Bell an allowance, which she turned over to the sweet-talking Washington. For four years, that arrangement worked well, until Washington’s mother died and he inherited $100,000. Flush with cash, he had no more need for Bell, and took up with a little-known actress, Alice Harrison. Bell found out and decided she would catch him with his new lover and kill him. Bell and a servant checked in to the New York hotel where Harrison was staying, set up a chair near her open doorway, and watched the hall. Just after 10 a.m. on Bell’s second day of stake-out, a man wearing a heavy coat walked past her into Harrison’s room. Bell sent her servant to knock on the door and confirm whether the man was Washington. He was, and Bell, pistol in hand, burst in, fired twice at Washington, and hit him behind the ear. He stood up, put on his coat, and walked to a surgeon.
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Back in 1870, Benjamin Nathan spent most of the summer at the Morristown estate with his family. His final visit to Manhattan had been made for his mother’s yartzeit, which he wished to observe at Shearith Israel. The night before the murder, his sons accompanied him to synagogue to pray ma’ariv and then to visit his sister. Afterwards, Benjamin went home while Washington and Frederick went their separate ways.
Frederick’s account of the next 12 hours is undisputed. After leaving his aunt’s house he traveled by stagecoach downtown, where he caught a ferry to Brooklyn. He walked to the home of a female friend on Carroll Street and spent a few hours there. It was raining when he left, so Frederick borrowed an umbrella and walked to a Court Street pharmacy for a glass of Vichy water. He then took a horse-drawn trolley to Fulton Ferry, a boat to Manhattan, and another stagecoach uptown. At 21st Street he stopped for a late meal of poached eggs and a brandy mash, and he arrived home around midnight. There were renovations going on at the mansion and the servants hadn’t been prepared for Benjamin’s visit, so a makeshift bed had been set up for him in the reception room on the second floor by piling four mattresses on top of each other. Frederick stuck his head into the room as he climbed up to his own third-floor bedroom. His father was still awake, and asked if he knew where Washington was. Frederick said no, and continued up to bed.
Frederick woke early the next morning, intending to attend shacharit with his father. As he was beginning to dress, Washington walked by his room and said he would go and see if their father was up. Frederick had hardly gotten his socks on when he heard his brother yell. He ran downstairs.
“When I stepped up to his body I felt my stockings grow cold as the blood came upon them,” he later testified. He bent over the body, soaking his shirt with his father’s blood, before following Washington outside to find help.
Benjamin had died around two or three in the morning. The initial theory of the murder supposed that a professional burglar had sneaked into the building the day before, when carpenters were coming and going. He had hidden himself in the cellar until late at night, when he went upstairs to Benjamin’s office, rifled through the clothes Benjamin had left there, and found the key to the safe that sat in the corner. Benjamin was awakened by the noise of the burglar dropping a tin box of papers as he searched the safe for valuables. Terribly nearsighted, Benjamin had groped his way in the dark towards the sound and lunged at the burglar’s throat. The burglar hit him in the hand with the iron bar, freeing himself, and then beat Benjamin about the head.
It was a passable explanation, but questions lingered. Why such brutality in the course of a simple burglary? Why make a robbery attempt on a day the house was occupied when it was empty so much of the summer? And, perhaps, most troublingly, why had no one in the house heard the struggle? Frederick and Washington were only one flight up, while Ann Kelly, the maid, slept on the same floor. Yet no one reported hearing anything the entire night—not the sound of a burglar breaking into the house, nor the sound of a safe being rifled, or even the sound of an iron bar breaking a man’s skull.
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On July 29, 1870, an excitable weekly called the Sunday Mercury published an unsigned article accusing Washington of murdering his father. The rest of the New York press defended Washington, with articles in the Times, the Commercial Advertiser, and the Evening Post condemning the Sunday Mercury. The Jewish Messenger’s response was particularly creative: “The revolting crime of parricide is unknown among the sins of Israel’s commission, and we feel an assurance, which amounts to certainty, that the present unhappy case will not prove an exception.”
Others were even more proactive in their response to the accusations. When a journalist named Isaac G. Reed Jr. was identified as the author of the Sunday Mercury article, Reed received violent threats from people who he said were “friends of Mr. Nathan,” and while he was crossing the Brooklyn ferry one day, he was nearly thrown overboard.
Members of the Nathan Family at the inquest
CREDIT: Unidentified 19th-century newspaper, as reproduced in The Grandees, by Stephen Birmingham.
The coroner’s inquest, begun shortly after the shiva, seemed to be designed specifically to clear Washington’s name. In his charge to the grand jury, the presiding judge made clear who the targets of the inquest were to be. “I think the time has come when every one of you, gentlemen, sworn as grand jurors, should fully realize the condition of things in this City,” Judge Bedford intoned. “The lawless class are daily becoming more daring and reckless. They must be checked in their mad career.” It was clear that he was not referring to the Nathans.
On August 12, a few days into the inquest, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle protested the disparity in treatment between Washington and Frederick, and the Irish Catholic servants of the Nathan family who had suddenly become the prime suspects.
“[T]he inquiry…[has] been marked by notable concessions to the sensibilities of wealthy parties under suspicion, and by wanton war upon the equal sensibilities of poor parties,” wrote the paper’s anonymous columnist. “The two sons of the murdered man, and his other relative, a Hebrew minister, [were] examined with tenderness, courtesy, and with supreme deference for their habits, situations and characters.” Meanwhile, the maid Ann Kelly and her son William, who lived in the attic and sometimes did odd jobs for Benjamin, were subjected to grueling questioning that seemed intended to cast aspersions on their characters. “The son was by interrogatories accused of bastardy, burglary, theft, bounty-jumping, perjury, vagrancy, fornication and murder,” according to the Eagle’s account.
Washington did his part to try to shift suspicion towards William Kelly, mentioning at a hearing on August 11 that he had heard noises upstairs where Kelly slept just before he discovered the body, as if Kelly were returning to his room. Frederick said he had heard no such noises.
Washington’s testimony about his own whereabouts the night of the murder offered an impossibly packed timeframe. Between 7:30 p.m. and 12:20 a.m., Washington claimed to have visited the bar at the St. James Hotel three times, read a magazine at Delmonico’s, visited the Fifth Avenue Hotel, taken in an open-air concert at Madison Square Park, and spent nearly three hours at a brothel. A prostitute named Clara Dale was brought in to corroborate this last claim, to the glee of the press.
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It is unlikely that Washington Nathan killed his father. He had little to gain from Benjamin’s death. After all, the man had given him three or four thousand dollars the previous month, as Washington testified at the inquest, signifying a willingness to support him financially despite concerns about the young man’s character. His inheritance would be large but not too large, given that his mother would still be alive. The theory that the murder was at attempt to hasten the inheritance’s arrival or was an accidental byproduct of an attempt at extortion falls flat.
It seems likely, however, that the inquest and the investigation were rigged.
In 1854, Benjamin Nathan’s sister Rebecca married a young lawyer named Albert Cardozo. Cardozo and Nathan were close. Benjamin used his connections and influence to launch Cardozo’s career, and, just months before the murder, Cardozo named his son Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, a boy who would grow up to be a Supreme Court Justice. Albert was headed for a more ignoble fate.
Cardozo had joined the Tammany Society in 1859 and became a judge five years later. He spent the next eight years in Boss Tweed’s pocket alongside George Barnard and Judge John McCunn, who worked together to help Tweed raid the city’s coffers. Their efforts netted more than $30 million for Tweed by the time he was deposed in the early 1870s. Plenty of stories point to Cardozo’s interference in Benjamin’s murder investigation. Annie Nathan Meyer reports in her autobiography that Robert Nathan, her father and Benjamin’s brother, thought that Cardozo had impeded the investigation.
While no direct evidence of Cardozo’s involvement survives, motive and opportunity are apparent. Cardozo was at the height of his career, but there were already reformist rumblings in the press and among the city’s lawyers, and with an election coming the following year Cardozo couldn’t afford a personal scandal. There was plenty of potential for embarrassment in the investigation of the murder, particularly with interest flowing so quickly towards Washington. If a poorly selected grand jury had indicted Cardozo’s young nephew, he could have been in for a long campaign.
As to the opportunity, as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reminded its readers in an 1875 story on the murder, “Cardozo was a Ring Judge. He was all powerful.” Through Tammany he had access to the police, the mayor, much of the press, and the courts. If he had wanted to interfere, he certainly could have.
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No one was ever indicted for Benjamin Nathan’s murder. Articles on new leads in the case appeared every few years for decades, and the entire episode was rehashed in the papers each time a principal player died. Experts on the case often name a professional safe cracker named Billy Forrester as the killer; a Sing Sing inmate named George Ellis told authorities that Forrester had shared with him his plan to rob the Nathan home. Forrester was never brought to trial for the murder. But, after Forrester’s death, his own lawyer implied in statements that he was guilty—assertions intended to clear Washington’s name once and for all.
All accounts of Washington’s later life are depressing. In the years immediately after the murder, he seemed determined to live up to the caricature of excess and disreputability promoted in the popular press. His wedding to Nina Mapleson, the divorced daughter of an opera producer, was held in Yonkers in April 1881. The couple arrived in the city on a morning train and walked to the courthouse, where they asked to be married. Nina wore black. Later, the two ate at a local restaurant. Washington wouldn’t sign the restaurant’s register, but everyone there knew who he was.
The couple lived in a London suburb and later in Paris, where Washington spent much of his time at a hotel frequented by Americans, but “never seemed to find company there,” according to his obituary in the Chicago Tribune. He was “always alone and unattended and wearing upon his face the expression of a man utterly dissolute.” Known as a gambler and a drunk, he’d burned through his large inheritances, and creditors were trying unsuccessfully to seize his last remaining assets.
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The Nathans wanted to be aristocrats, and they got everything that went along with that—prominence and social standing, hopeless sons and crooked cousins. Their place in society had been used for good by decent men like Benjamin, but in Albert’s hands it twisted until it fit alongside the kleptocratic populism of the day.
The idea of the Nathans as Jewish aristocracy declined after Washington’s generation. While his first cousins had included four or five significant political and literary figures, the following generation was less spectacular, with no notable members and no notable scandals. My great-grandfather, Edgar J. Nathan Jr. was 50 years younger than Washington. He served as Manhattan borough president in the 1940s, and his political orientation was telling. Unlike Albert Cardozo, the Tammany Democrat, Edgar entered New York City politics as a Republican anti-Tammany reformist.
The Nathans have done what we can to forget Washington. The “Nathan” entry in the Jewish Encyclopedia, which was written in part by one of Benjamin’s first cousins, mentions Benjamin and two of his sons but excludes Washington and any mention of the murder. My grandfather and his brother, born 50 years after that violent episode, didn’t know about it until middle age, when they both read about it in a book. I learned about it only a few years ago, and my 16-year-old cousin Benjamin Nathan knew nothing of the man whose name he had inherited until I brought it up.
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Washington died at age 44, thinking of his father. He was in Bologne at the time and gray by then. In his last weeks he retold the story of the murder incessantly. “No blood could ever be found on any of my clothes,” he said, according to the Tribune, “yet people say that I killed him. My poor father! My poor father!”
The Washington Post, 1911
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a journalist living in Brooklyn. He is the politics editor of The Faster Times and the former editor-in-chief of New Voices magazine.