1696: A New York Society Woman Who Wrote Very Frank Letters Is Born

Abigaill Levy Franks was sophisticated and worldly, but that didn’t stop her from being mortified when her daughter married a non-Jew.

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Painting of New Amsterdam, which would become New York, by Johannes Vingboons, in 1664, which was a few decades before Abigaill Levy Franks would come to the world and scathe contemporary society in her letters to her son Naphtali.
What New York looked like, roughly, in Abigaill Levy Franks' time. Painting by Johannes Vingboons, in 1664.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

November 26, 1696, is the birthdate ascribed by some sources to Abigaill Levy Franks, a London-born resident of colonial New York. Franks is remembered less for her achievements than for the letters she wrote that have been preserved, which serve as wonderful testimony to the life and times of a Jewish woman of high social standing three centuries ago in New York City.

Bilhah Abigaill Levy was the eldest of the five children of the German-born London merchant Moses Raphael Levy and his wife, Richa Asher Levy. The family moved to New York, a British colony, in or around 1703. It was then that Abigaill (she always spelled it with two “ls”) dropped her given name of “Bilhah.”

When she was 16, Abigaill married Jacob Franks, also a London-born Jew, who had arrived in New York in 1707.

Abigaill and Jacob are known to have had seven children who survived to adulthood. The oldest was Naphtali, born in 1715, and it is he who was the addressee of the 35 surviving letters written by Abigaill between 1733 and 1748, after Naphtali had moved to London to learn about the family business.

The population of New York at the turn of the 18th century was approximately 5,000, of whom an estimated 250 were Jewish. Jacob Franks was among the early leaders of the city’s Shearith Israel synagogue, established in 1654, serving a number of times as its parnas (president). The synagogue’s first fixed home, on Mill Street, in Lower Manhattan, was very close to the residence of the Franks, on Duke Street.

The family were observant of Jewish ritual: They had a kosher home and kept the Sabbath. The parents assumed their children, who attended school at the synagogue, would marry within the faith. Yet, the community was so tiny that the number of potential mates was quite small. That was another reason for sending the children to London, where, in the case of Naphtali, he married a cousin.

The Shearith Israel synagogue at Central Park West, founded in 1654.Credit: Gryffindor, Wikimedia Commons

'Idle trash'

Abigaill presents something of a paradox. Her Jewish identity is undeniably strong, but she is disdainful of her fellow female congregants at Shearith Israel, whom she describes in a letter to Naphtali as “a Stupid Set of people.” When her daughter Richa was courted by an eligible young man from the synagogue, one David Gomez, Abigaill complained to Naphtali how, “He is such a Stupid wretch that if his fortune was much more and I a beggar, Noe child of mine, and especially one of Such a good Understanding as Richa Should Never have my Consent. And I am Sure he will never git hers” (quotations from original letters are taken from “The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks,” edited by Esther B. Gilles). He didn’t.

Abigaill’s correspondence is by no means all insults and harsh judgments, but she did relish the company of worldly and cultivated people. Even if lacking in much formal education, she was an inveterate reader, always asking Naphtali to send her books.

We know that in addition to sending her titles by Alexander Pope, Montesquieu and Henry Fielding, he subscribed on her behalf to the monthly Gentleman’s Magazine, which Esther Gelles describes as an 18th-century equivalent to The New Yorker. When he sent her a light novel called “The Lady of the Gold Watch,” she requested of him, “Pray, send no more Such Idle Trash.”

With all her sophistication, though, Abigaill’s letters to her son just how mortified she was when her daughter Phila revealed that she had eloped, with a non-Jew named Oliver Delancey. Abigaill’s shock may have been due as much to Phila’s duplicity – she had continued living at home, without revealing her marriage, for six months – as it was to Delancey’s being a Christian. Either way, she confessed to her son that, since receiving Phila’s news, “My house has bin my prison I had not Heart Enough to Goe Near the Street door.”

Mother and daughter never exchanged another word.

Although only one other of her children is known to have married a non-Jew, Gelles writes that, within two generations, there were apparently no Jewish Franks left; all the grandchildren who married did so with non-Jews.

Abigaill Franks died in 1756.