Nothing is worse than the crushing blow of dashed expectations, especially when it comes to ancestral research. I had high hopes that a recent visit to Charleston, S.C., would turn up something — a gravestone, a house, a place of business — related to my fourth great grandfather, Philip Benjamin (1779-1852). My spirits rose further when a Google Maps search revealed old buildings standing at the address of his grocery store and home. But on further inspection….Ugh.
Background, as always, is in order. My Philip Benjamin and wife Rebecca DeMendes (1790-1847), both Sephardic Jews, met in London, where they lived among wealthy Jewish merchants. In 1808, shortly after marrying, they moved to the West Indies, where Rebecca’s wealthy sisters lived — they had married West Indian planters. Their son, Judah P., was born in St. Croix three years later. Judah P. Benjamin, a Senator from Louisiana, was considered the brains of the Confederacy, holding positions as Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State.
Philip Benjamin was a partner in a trading company with his first cousin — Moses Elias Levy. The firm of Levy and Benjamin traded throughout the Caribbean, with customers in England, Europe, and the Americas. Philip was somehow related to Moses Levy’s wife, Hannah Abendanone. Levy amassed a fortune a trader and eventually settled in Florida, where he established an agrarian refuge for Jews suffering under repression in Europe.
Benjamin apparently didn’t do a well. The family was unable to make a good living in the West Indies, according to Judah P.’s biographers. So in 1813 they sailed for Fayetteville, North Carolina, where they stayed with Rebecca’s brother, Jacob. But his small store couldn’t support two families. The family moved to Charleston in about 1821.
By 1822, according to an old business directory, Phillip was running a dry goods store at 165 Broad Street; the family may have lived above it. He probably leased (and didn’t buy) the property in 1825, the same year fourteen-year-old Judah departed for Yale. It looks like he lost the property in 1827, based on difficult-to-decipher newspaper reports. In an August 12, 1827 edition of the Charleston Courier, the Sheriff’s office is offering a seven-year lease on the property to recoup $2,043 in taxes owed by Benjamin. A week later the Sheriff is selling “sundry articles” from Philip Benjamin’s grocery store.
Shortly thereafter, Rebecca Benjamin ran a notice in the Charleston Courier, stating her intention of becoming a “sole trader,” presumably unobligated by her husband’s debts. The couple ultimately separated in 1838.
The building that stands today at 165 Broad Street looks old enough to be the one that housed Benjamin’s store. But the folks at the historical society down the street weren’t sure. After checking an historical map, they thought it may have survived the great Charleston fire of 1861. But they weren’t sure. They recommended that I check with the city library, which keeps a file on most of the historic properties in town.
An article in the file revealed that the building Benjamin owned, a three-story brick structure, was destroyed by fire the 1861. The building, built by Dr. Tucker Harris, was sold to Bartholomew Clark for $11,000 in 1821.
What about the failure of Benjamin’s business? Could the librarians shed any light on that?
Antisemitism probably didn’t figure into the equation. By 1800, 500 Jews lived in Charleston, the large Jewish congregation in America. There were only 2,500 Jews in the entire country at the time, including 400 in New York. Charleston was the first community in the New World to grant Jews the right to vote. It was a tolerant city where Jews could worship freely, trade openly, own land, leave property in wills, and generally prosper.
“Though the Jewish community prospered in Charleston, Phillip Benjamin was unsuccessful at everything he tried in business,” according to Eli Evans, one of Judah P. Benjamin’s biographers. “Judah’s mother, Rebecca, industrious and hardworking, held the family together financially by running a small fruit shop on King Street near the docks.”
Rebecca, whose gravestone I discovered one ghoulish night in New Orleans, descended from a distinguished Jewish family known for its scholars, physicians, and international traders. Rebecca considered herself an impoverished aristocrat. Feeling like she had married beneath herself, she ran the house, and the shop, with a strong organized presence, according to Evans. One grand daughter, Butler wrote, recalled “the stern and severe rule of the old lady, resolved to hold her head high in spite of poverty.”
Philip spent an inordinate amount of time reading books and arguing the fine points of Jewish law with his friends, according to Evans. He was an original member of the Reformed Society of Israelites but was expelled from that group, possibly because he couldn’t pay the dues. In November 1824, Philip was one of 47 people at Beth Elohim to petition their trustees to shorten the service, pray in English rather than Hebrew or Spanish, and require a sermon or “an English discourse” at each service. When the trustees tabled the request, Benjamin joined twelve other dissenters to form the “Reformed Society of Israelites.”
“[T]he Benjamins were not strict Jews,” according to Barnett Elza’s Scrapbook, a memoir of Charleston, written at the turn of the century. “The mother kept her little shop open on the Sabbath and that at time when strict Sabbath observance was general in Charleston. This was told to me by the late Sally Lopez, who died here in 1902 at the age of ninety-six…This trading on the Sabbath on the part of Mr. Benjamin was much resented by the old-time Jews of Charleston.”
The next order of business during my trip to Charleston was to see whether the Benjamin’s home still stood. City directories from 1830 and 1831 listed the family’s residence at 15 St. Philip Street. My first impression as I approached the building, which now houses the Sigma Delta Tau Sorority on the Charleston College campus, was that it might be old enough. I noticed an historical marker on the side of the building. My spirits were deflated when I read that the building was constructed in 1859.
There’s still some hope to find a Benjamin-related building in Charleston on a future trip. A 1837 directory lists him as a “fruiterer.” In a 1840-41 Charleston directory, Philip is still selling fruits — this time at 29 Beaufain. An 1849 directory lists his address as 9 Princess. Later directories don’t mention his name.
Philip Benjamin died of cholera in Charleston at 73 on June 15, 1852. He had been living on Nassau Street, an obscure neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, since giving up his small business several years before. This is according to one of his son’s biographers.
What about his grave? Could that be found. According to a directory of Jewish cemeteries, he was buried at the Jewish Cemetery at Hanover Street, which is now defunct. The bodies were moved to the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Cemetery. Unfortunately, a search of the memorials in that cemetery doesn’t turn up any Benjamins.
Another mystery for another day.