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1840: Cleveland's Jews petition City Council for a burial ground

 
 

INTRODUCTION

Early in 1839 there were only a few Jews in Cleveland, notably Simson Thorman from Unsleben, Bavaria. On July 12, 1839, when the ship Howard arrived in New York with 19 from his home town, Thorman met them and led 15 of them to Cleveland. Now the city had a Jewish community.

They formed the Israelitic Society, with Thorman, then only 28 years old, as its leader. On April 1, 1840, when there were perhaps 30 Jews in a city of 6,000. they petitioned City Council for a half-acre section of the city's Erie Street Cemetery. It was an unusual request, for Jewish custom has been to have separate cemeteries. Perhaps they knew of the plan to expand the cemetery, opened in 1826, from two acres to ten. They may have asked because they lived near the cemetery in what we now call the Gateway area.

For 177 years the petition remained safe but unnoticed in the Archives of Cleveland City Council. Then on the morning of August 1, 2017 Archivist Martin Hauserman sent an email to me and to Jeffrey Morris, with the two images below. Now, to tell the story of that petition which might be summarized as petition failed. community thrived.

Arnold Berger     August 24, 2017


Erie Street is now East Ninth Street in downtown Cleveland.
This main entrance was erected in 1870.

To read the text of this handwritten petition, click here.

The above web-resolution images are displayed with permission of the Clerk of Cleveland City Council.
The left and right ends of the lower image are blank and are not shown.
 

THE TEXT OF THE PETITION

To the Hon, The City Council

The undersigned respectfully represent that they are citizens of Cleveland, of German birth, and of that class of persons denominated Jews. That the number of that class now resident in the City of Cleveland is about thirty and will be further augmented by immigration from Germany.

They would further represent that their religious customs do not permit the burial of their dead promiscuously with those of other persuasions, but require them to have separate burial grounds. They have therefore sought in both Cleveland and Ohio City, to obtain by gift or purchase, ground for such purpose but without success - objection being made to the multiplication of burial grounds as injurious to the value of grounds adjacent. It has, however, been kindly suggested by citizens of other persuasions that the City burial ground is extensive and, if requested, the City Council would apart a portion to the Jews.

The undersigned venture therefore to pray Your Honorable Body to take the subject into consideration and if consistent to apportion and set apart one half acre of the City burial ground to be used by the Jews of this city and vicinity, as burial ground, in accordance with their religious customs.

And your petitioners will ever more pray to Cleveland.

April 1, 1840


TIMELINE

  • 1837 - Simson Thorman from Unsleben, Bavaria, after spending two years fur trading in Missouri, makes his home in Cleveland.

  • June 1839 - A party of 19 Jews, led by Moses Alsbacher, leaves Unsleben. As they leave they are given a farewell letter: the Alsbacher Document.

  • July 12, 1839 - The 19 arrive in New York on the steamship Howard. Thorman is there to meet them and lead 15 of them, including his bride-to-be Raichel (or Rachel, later Regina) Klein to Cleveland. They travel from New York to Albany, then on the Erie Canal to Lake Erie, and continue on a ship to Cleveland. In late August 1839 they arrived at the Merwin Street dock. Now the city has a minyan (the ten adult Jewish males needed for communal worship).

  • Later in 1839 - Cleveland's Jewish community, which now includes several other Jews from Central Europe, organized as the Israelitic Society. Thorman, only 28 years old, became its leader.

  • April 1, 1840 - Israelitic Society members signed a petition to Cleveland City Council asking for a section of the city's Erie Street Cemetery. Its unknown author may have been someone who knew the City Council's procedures, possibly an attorney. Its last line is a sign of the times, for early in the 19th century a prayer for the government began to appear in the liturgy of German-speaking Jews.

  • April 7, 1840 - An entry in City Council's Journal says the petition was referred to the Committee on Public Grounds. A note on the title (see image above) tells of the rejection: "The committee to whom this petition was referred Report that it is inexpedient to grant the prayer of the petitioners."
     

WHY DID CITY COUNCIL REJECT THE PETITION?

To understand the rejection of the petition it helps to know that at the time of the petition only two of Erie Street Cemetery's ten acres had been laid out into burial plots. Though most family plots may have been nearly empty, there were few new plots for sale.

The city code for its cemetery reflected the shortage of plots. The largest plots for sale had room for only six graves, at $2.50 each. Further, the law limited one person or family to buying only one plot. Thus, City Council could not grant the petition. There was no provision for selling a half-acre section.

Perhaps the petitioners knew that the eight unused acres of Erie Street Cemetery would soon be divided into burial plots. They may have thought their request was well timed.

Yet City Council, an elected body, could not grant this request without inviting the established churches and societies to make their own requests for space.

Council may have thought that the size of the request was unreasonable: 30 immigrants asking for room to bury 500 of their persuasion. How could they allot so much space to a small group? Further, how could 30 newcomers, some of them peddlers, pay more than $1,000 for burial plots?

Was there a reluctance to have Jews buried there? Note that the cemetery entrance (see photo at the top of this page) built in 1870 had a cross at its top. Would City Council members have explained this by quoting the petition, "Jews must have separate burial grounds?"

 

AFTER THE PETITION WAS REJECTED

  • Four months later, on Thursday August 6, 1840, the Israelitic Society bought one acre on the west side for $100 for the Willet Street Cemetery.
     
  • One year later the Israelitic Society became Anshe Chesed, today Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple.
     
  • Three years later on August 13, 1843, any doubts that Cleveland's first Jews had about being welcome in their city ended. They were given land for their first synagogue, which they built in 1846. Learn more about what we call The Great Gift.
     
  • Twenty-five years later, in 1865, Simson Thorman, who led the petitioners, became the first Jewish member of Cleveland's City Council.

Willet Street Cemetery - 2014 Photo A. Berger  

 

THANK YOU

To Martin Hauserman, Chief Archivist of the Cleveland City Council and Deputy Chief Archivist Charles Mocsarin who, when they found this 1840 petition, copied it and emailed it to us on August 1, 2017, thinking we would be interested

They were right. This petition from the Israelitic Society, only eight months after the Alsbacher group arrived here, is a precious discovery. It may be the oldest document signed by the founders of Jewish Cleveland.

Arnold Berger, editor www.Cleveland JewishHistory.net
Jeffrey Morris, author, Haymarket to the Heights

 
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