This Day in Jewish History

1877: A Banker Outs American anti-Semitism

When prominent banker Joseph Seligman was denied entrance to a hotel for being Jewish, he turned the rejection into a major public debate.

Wikimedia Commons

On June 13, 1877, Joseph Seligman, one of America’s most prominent bankers, showed up at the Grand Union Hotel, in the resort town of Saratoga Springs, New York, and was turned away, because, as the manager supposedly told him, “Israelites” were no longer welcome othere. Seligman (1819-1880), was a German-born banker who owned, with his brothers, banks in New York, London and Frankfurt, among other places.

Seligman had been offered the position of treasury secretary by Ulysses S. Grant when the latter was president but turned him down. When it came to the rejection at the Grand Union, he  did not slink off quietly, choosing instead  to share the details of the insult with the public.

The incident at the Grand Union did not occur in a vacuum. The hotel had been part of the estate of Alexander T. Stewart, a department-store magnate whose relations with Seligman had been strained for some years. When Stewart died, the year before, he left Judge Henry Hilton to be the executor of his $40-million estate, thought to have been the largest in American history to date. Hilton, too, had his own personal animus toward Joseph Seligman, supposedly because he had not been invited to a party given by the latter in honor of Grant when he was elected president in 1869.

In an arrangement he made with Stewart’s widow, Hilton (no relation to the Hilton hotel dynasty of later years) became owner of the 834-room Grand Union, the grandest hostelry in exclusive Saratoga Springs. He discovered that the Grand Union had suffered a recent drop-off in occupancy, and he and his managers believed that it was due to the presence of Jewish guests, who were causing Gentiles to stay elsewhere. They resolved to institute a “No Israelite” policy, and indeed, other well-bred Jewish families, with names like Goldman and Josephthal, were also turned away from the hotel that summer.

By 1877, Seligman had been coming to the hotel already for a decade. That summer, he arrived in Saratoga shortly after having signed a deal with the U.S. Treasury to refinance the national debt left over from the Civil War.

There are varying accounts of just how the Seligman family was informed that they were not welcome that June day: If they had received a mail notification, if they had simply shown up and been refused entry to the hotel, or, alternately, if they had been told they could lodge there, but just this one last time.

What is known is that Seligman decided to go public with the rejection. In fact, social historian Stephen Birmingham suggested, in his book “Our Crowd,” that Seligman had traveled to Saratoga knowing that he would be turned away and intended from the start to turn the incident into a public scandal.

He wrote an indignant letter to Judge Hilton, and sent copies to the press. Thereupon, the New York Times, on June 19, ran a story with the headline, “A Sensation at Saratoga,” followed with the subhead, “New rules for the Grand Union./ No Jews to be admitted--Mr. Seligman,/ the banker, and his family sent away--/ his letter to Mr. Hilton--/ gathering of Mr. Seligman's friends/ an indignation meeting to be held.

Clearly, it was a different age, as Hilton responded with his own letter, in which he openly admitted that “I know what had been done and am fully prepared to abide by it.”

To this he added: “As the law yet permits a man to use his property as he pleases and I propose exercising that blessed privilege, notwithstanding all Moses and his descendants may object.” In case his feelings had not been made sufficiently clear, Hilton felt the need to explain that “I don’t like this class [the Jews] as a general thing,” and “if they do not wish to trade with our house, I will be perfectly satisfied, nay gratified, as I believe we lose much more than we gain by their custom.”

The incident became one of the summer’s hot stories, with newspaper editorials and public figures across the country chiming in with commentary, most of it sympathetic to Seligman and his Israelites. A boycott of the A.T. Stewart department store was arranged, at which point Hilton must have sensed that he had misstepped, and made a pledge of $1,000 to a Jewish charity.

The humor magazine Puck responded by mocking Hilton for having ordered “the trustees of a few Hebrew charities to bend the pregnant hinges of their knees at his door and receive a few hundred dollars.” Fortunately, the weekly went on, “the Jew has stood up like a Man and refused to condone the gross and uncalled for insults of this haphazard millionaire, merely because he flings the offer of a thousand dollars in their faces.”

In the aftermath of the affair, which did not go away quickly, the boycott of the A.T. Stewart store continued, and Hilton was eventually forced to sell the store. But many hotels, and other social institutions, felt liberated to be more open about their refusal to admit Jews, even announcing their policies with signs. Boycotts of Jews continued well into the second half of the 20th century in the United States.

Stephen Birmingham suggests that Seligman came to regret the Grand Union affair, or at least the publicity surrounding it. His business judgment suffered from the stress, and so did his health. He died on March 31, 1880.