The Blochs: Crypto-Jews or Just Goyish?
Second in intrigue to the family stories of Albert Alberti descending from the Italian aristocracy, are the stories surrounding the Blochs of Saint Louis. The most popular and interesting story is that Aaron Bloch, the father of Albert's first wife, Charlotte Sarah Alberti (Bloch) was Jewish and a Rabbi. This information was written down in Great-grandma Godfrey's journal many years ago and the tale has lived on all these years. But is it true?
As the unofficial family historian, I try to investigate each story and shed more light and truth on the lives of our ancestors. Why seek the truth? I feel that knowing about our history, roots us deeper in our identity today. When it comes to this particular line of research, the results and how I found them are complicated. Part of this old family story is true and part of it, as they say in Yiddish, is Mishegas (craziness).
So to peak your interest and hopefully convince you to read this mini novel I wrote about Aaron Bloch, I will begin with the most shocking find. A newspaper clip from an 1856 Indiana newspaper...
The Secrets in Our Genes
To begin to unwind this somewhat shocking information, let's begin with unwinding our ancestral DNA. Genetic genealogy is a passion of mine. It has been an invaluable tool for me to be able to compare historical records with genetic test results. So are you ready for your 7th grade science refresher?
A man has one X chromosome. He gets his single X chromosome from his mother. The X chromosome is NOT passed from father to son. A woman has two X chromosomes - one from her father and one from her mother. The X chromosome a woman gets from her father is an exact copy of his X chromosome (which, as noted above, he got from his mother).
The X chromosome men and women get from their mother is typically some combination of their mother's two X chromosomes. This establishes a pattern that can be helpful in X-DNA genealogical research.
Because an X-chromosome is passed exactly from father to daughter (in our case from Aaron Block to his daughter Charlotte), it will remain unchanged for that generation. This means that X chromosomes change less often along father-daughter pedigree lines. Stronger X-DNA matches are more likely to share a common ancestor on father-daughter lines than on mother-daughter lines.
As a woman, the results of my DNA test only reflect the genetic information (X chromosomes) of my female ancestors. I inherited a sampling of X chromosomes from my maternal ancestors as well as a sampling of the X chromosomes that my father inherited from his female ancestors. I don't get to see any of the male genetic information (Y chromosomes) for the males in my maternal ancestral line because I lack a Y chromosome. Still with me?
What is so cool about DNA is that women inherit unchanged X genetic information from every women in their direct ancestral line going back to basically forever, and the same thing for men with their Y genetic information. This is known as mitochondrial (mtdna) for women. Men also inherit unchanged paternal dna, but they lose their unchanged mtdna during fertilization.
Our mt and pt DNA offer a clear unchanged path back to our original ancestors. My maternal haplogroup is K1b1. Anyone else in the world who shares this code with me is directly related to me somewhere in my direct maternal line (my mother's mother, her mother's mother and on and on). Why did I explain all of this to you?
We can use genetic genealogy to determine which of our ancestors was German Jewish (Ashkenazi). If we go back four generations in our ancestral line we arrive at Aaron Bloch (a native German from historical records) and his second wife Sarah Purdy (ancestry unknown). Aaron and Sarah had three daughters together, the youngest of which, was my 3rd great-grandmother Charlotte Sarah Bloch.
Let's pause to apply what we learned about inherited DNA here. Aaron and Sarah had ONLY daughters. That means the ability to trace Aaron Bloch's direct genetic male line is impossible. None of his Y information was passed to them. One of those daughters, our direct ancestor, Charlotte inherited only X chromosomes from her parents. Because she wasn't male, she was only able to pass the genetic information from her female ancestors to her own children. Her eldest son was Albert Wilford Alberti, father of our Charlotte Alberti aka "Grandma Godfrey," and I think you can sort out the pedigree from there. I created a VERY basic graphic to help you visualize this recombination of the Block X chromosome. Follow the blue blocks to "track" how the Ashkenazi genes might have moved through the generations.
Head spinning yet? Okay, okay, translation time! Thanks to 23 and Me and to Uncle Danny and my Grandmother for taking tests, we can see inside those inherited Bloch X chromosomes, compare them to historical records and make some educated determinations about our European Jewish ancestry.
Our family test results tell us that we have not only German ancestors, but also Ashkenazi Jewish Ancestors. According to 23 and Me, our German ancestry is even narrowed to the region of Bavaria (this will prove interesting later on in the story). Most of the Alberti/Bloch descendants who have complete 23 and Me DNA tests, carry between 1% and 7% Ashkenazi Jewish DNA. These percentages (depending in where you fall generationally) accurately represent that we all have a genetically European Jewish ancestor who lived around 150-200 years ago. For me specifically, a 1% result translates to a 4th generation grandparent on my maternal side. It means, that thanks to the magic of DNA results, and our knowledge of the family history, we can say with certainty, that our ancestor Aaron Block was German (which we know from records) and that his mother was Ashkenazi Jewish (which we can assess through our X chromosomes). Making Aaron Bloch genetically German Jewish. Whew!!
The Early Life of Aaron Bloch
Now for the research side of things. Here's where it gets more interesting and a little crazy...at no point in ANY historical records is Aaron Bloch ever listed as Jewish. The earliest record I have located for Aaron Bloch comes from 1854 Rock Island County Illinois Court records. On April 23rd, 1851 Aaron Block of Wurttemburg, Germany declared his intent to became an American citizen. Almost five years later he was naturalized.
One year later, on July 2nd, 1855 he married his first wife, Kezia Stevens. They were married by Rev A. Curtis of the 2nd Presbyterian church. A little less than a year later, on May 15th, 1856 their first child Kezia Bloch was born in Ft. Wayne Indiana.
Three months later, on the 26th of August, Kezia Stevens died at the young age of 23. The obituary in the Fort Wayne Weekly Times holds an interesting bit of information. Kezia Stevens is listed as the wife of Reverend A. Bloch. I don't know anything about her death, but I can imagine it was related to the birth of their daughter. Childbed fever was a common cause of death for many young mothers in the 1800s.
A year after the death of Kezia, an article in the 1857 Fort Wayne Sentinel announces his second marriage. The article announces three marriages conducted by Rev J.M. Lowrie, pastor of the 1st Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana. One of those marriages took place on September 14th, Mr. Aaron Bloch to his second wife Miss Sarah Purdy. At just 24 years old Sarah became a new bride and the mother of one year old Kezia. One year after their marriage, she gave birth to a daughter named Rosalie.
I hope a few questions just popped in your head. First, why was my Jewish ancestor married twice in a Presbyterian church? Second, what is he doing living in Fort Wayne, Indiana? Third, what kind of a Reverend was he?
Our family stories only involve the Blochs living in Saint Louis. But it turns out that Aaron Bloch's story has its roots in a rapidly developing Fort Wayne, Indiana. Based on census and immigration records, Aaron was somewhere between age 17-20 when he immigrated to the United States. His exact date of birth is unknown as is his exact date of immigration. What we do know is that in the 1850s Fort Wayne was actively encouraging German immigrants to settle and start businesses in their growing town.
Tschüss Germany! (that's goodbye in German)
Why would Aaron want to leave Germany? (At that time called Prussia..Germany wasn't Germany until 1871). The Napoleonic wars that also affected our Italian ancestors made an equal if not more severe impact on our German Jewish ancestors for decades. In the 1840s, German Jews faced extreme persecution and political oppression in Europe. They needed special letters of protection from their governments and were barred from practicing their normal professions. This gave rise to communities of Crypto-Jews all over Europe. Jewish people who publicly practiced an acceptable religion like Catholicism and secretly observed their Jewish faith. To a researcher like me this presents a challenge as I would never see a record of our ancestors being Jewish.
To make all of this even more interesting, the region of Prussia where some of our DNA originates is called Bavaria. Remember that name from earlier? Bavaria was extra special in the 1840-50s as they enforced some of the strictest rules on Jewish males. If a Jewish young man wanted to get married in Prussia he had to purchase a "matrikel." This was a registration certificate that cost around $1,000 gulden. On top of the cost, the young man also had to prove that he had a "respectable" trade. But remember, Jews were barred from practicing professional trades. These strict rules left German Jewish men with two options. Live a life of poverty and bachelorhood or leave home and try to make a new life in America. Which would you choose?
Aaron Bloch chose to leave his homeland, abandon his Jewish culture and possibly faith, find a Presbyterian wife and start a successful Clothing, Dry Goods and Millinery business in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In the 1858 Fort Wayne city directory, Aaron Bloch (who is aka Block in many documents) is listed as a Broker (A dry goods broker) with his business partner Mortiz Newburger. Aaron, Sarah, Kezia and Rosalie appear to be living a very good life. Well known in the community and financially able to support themselves and their neighbors with small loans to start businesses and build new homes.
Convicted of Usery
In January of 1859, Aaron Block was charged with Usury in the State of Indiana Supreme Court by a man named Hermann Engleu. Usury was the illegal action or practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest. When I originally discovered these court records, I thought I had stumbled upon an early loan shark in the family. The actual version of events is very different.
The court records state:
- Aaron Block loaned Herman Engleu $300 dollars for a mortgage with the agreement that he would pay the money back over a period of one year with interest of $6 a year per $100 loaned, as the law allowed at that time.
- Mr. Engleu accused Aaron and his former father-in-law William Stevens of charging him usurious interest of $27 dollars at the end of one year.
- Aaron appeared in court under the custody of the Allen County Sheriff, pled not guilty and was bonded out until his sentencing for $200.
- Aaron was found guilty by a jury of 12 of his peers and sentenced to pay a fine of 185 dollars and 27 cents. He immediately asked for a retrial based on false information used in the trial testimony, but was denied and stood convicted of usury.
The local paper came to his rescue about a week after the trail saying that, "Mr. B was scrupulously exact and prompt in all his business engagements...that his business transactions since he has resided among us have been marked by the strictest integrity..and that such a man should be made the subject of abuse and ridicule is a reflection of the taste and good temper of the people who made them."
The Outbreak of Civil War
The shame of what happened to Aaron's reputation after being convicted of Usury in Fort Wayne, Indiana was perhaps too much to bear so he packed up his family and relocated 300 miles west to Davenport City, Iowa in 1860. The very next year, the Civil War breaks out and Fort Wayne conscripted over 4,000 men to serve in the Union forces. Maybe Aaron also had a nose for avoiding further conflict in his life and got out of town while the gettin was good.
Over the next few years, Block & Newburger Dry Goods expands west to multiple Mississippi River border towns in Illinois and Iowa and eventually down into Missouri. The business likely benefited from the expansion of the railroad and as well as the construction of the first bridge to span the Mississippi, in 1861. This bridge connected Davenport City to Rock Island, where a large military base was located. I don't have any proof of this yet, but I suspect Aaron and his partner might have been supplying the Union Army with uniforms and dry goods during the Civil War.
In 1862, his third daughter Ida was born in Missouri. One year later, Aaron was wrapped up in another legal case, again being falsely accused of mishandling money. This one is particularly interesting for two reasons. One, because he had a pistol drawn on him by a Captain of the Union Army and two, his business has expanded from money lending to currency exchange. Specifically the exchange of federally issued Civil War "greenbacks" for "Missouri money" or Union money.
It's kind of crazy to think that during the Civil War our county had its own currency exchange based on the fluctuating value of the newly printed green paper money against hard money (gold and silver coins). I won't bore you to death with the details of this currency history, but if you want to nerd out, pause here and Google it. I think it's pretty cool that our ancestor was a part of the history of what would eventually become the U.S dollar.
This feels like a good stopping place. In part two of this research, we will further explore Aaron Bloch's involvement with The American Society for the Conversion of Jews as well as look deeper into how he avoided service in the Union Army. We will also track the relocation of his family to Saint Louis, MO, the birth of two more daughters and the Cholera epidemic of 1866.