Nothing is worse than the crushing blow of dashed expectations, especially when it comes to genealogy 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, anything — related to my fourth great-grandfather, Philip Benjamin (1779-1852). My spirits rose when a Google Maps search revealed old buildings at the addresses of his grocery store and home. But upon further inspection…Ugh.
Background, as always, is in order. My Philip Benjamin and his 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 former Senator, considered the brains of the Confederacy, held positions as Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State.
In St. Croix, 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 related to Moses Levy’s wife, Hannah Abendanone. Levy, who amassed a fortune as a trader, eventually settled in Florida, where he established an agrarian refuge for Jews suffering under repression in Europe.
Philip Benjamin didn’t do nearly as 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. After a few years, it became clear that his small store couldn’t support two families. The family moved to Charleston in about 1821.
By 1822, according to an old Charleston business directory, Philip was running a dry goods store at 165 Broad Street. The family may have lived above the store. It looks like Philip lost the property (it’s not clear whether he owned or leased it) 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 after that, Rebecca Benjamin ran a notice in the Courier stating her intention to become 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. The folks at the historical society down the street couldn’t say for sure that it was the same building. After checking a historical map, they thought it may have survived the great Charleston fire of 1861. They directed me to the city library, which keeps a file on most historic properties in town.
An article in the file revealed that the building Benjamin owned or leased, a three-story brick structure, was destroyed by the fire of 1861. It showed that the building, originally built by Dr. Tucker Harris, was sold to Bartholomew Clark for $11,000 in 1821. Clark may have owned the building when it was reduced to ashes.
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 largest concentration of Jews in America. There were only about 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. Charleston 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. According to Evans, she thought of herself as an impoverished aristocrat who had married beneath her standing. According to Evans, she ran the house and the shop with a solid organized presence. Another Judah P. Benjamin biographer, Pierce Butler, wrote that one of Rebecca’s granddaughters recalled “the stern and severe rule of the old lady, resolved to hold her head high in spite of poverty.”
According to Evans, Rebecca’s husband, Philip, spent excessive time reading books and arguing the fine points of Jewish law with his friends. Philip was one of 47 members of the Beth Elohim congregation to petition the 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 November 1824 request, Benjamin joined twelve other dissenters to form the Reformed Society of Israelites. He was ultimately expelled from the group, possibly because he couldn’t pay the dues.
“[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 a 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.”
My next order of business on the Charleston trip was to see whether the Benjamin home still stood. City directories from 1830 and 1831 listed the family’s residence as 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 200 years old. My spirits rose when I noticed a historical marker on the side of the building. They were deflated when I read that the building was constructed in 1859.
There’s still some hope of finding a Benjamin-related building in Charleston. In an 1840-41 Charleston directory, Philip is selling fruits at 29 Beaufain, and an 1849 directory lists his address as 9 Princess. 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 city’s outskirts, 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. It’s now defunct. At some point, the bodies were moved to the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Cemetery. But an internet search of the memorials in that cemetery doesn’t turn up any Benjamins.
Another mystery for another day.