This Day in Jewish History / A Woman Unafraid to Treat Tuberculosis Dies Tragically Young

Frances Jacobs didn't think that tossing the indigent ill in jail was much of a solution to anything, and she established works of charity in Denver.

MattWright / Wikimedia Commons

On November 3, 1892, Frances Wisebart Jacobs, still remembered more than a century later as the Mother of Denver Charities, died at the tragically young age of 49.

As a member of one of Colorado’s pioneering families, she had both the vision to recognize social and public-health problems as they developed in the rapidly growing territory and the practical skills and selflessness to create organizations and institutions that provided answers to those problems.

Frances Wisebart was born March 29, 1843, in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Her parents, Leon and Rosetta Wisebart, were Jewish immigrants from Bavaria; Frances was the second of their seven children. When she was a young child, the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Leon found work as a tailor.

In 1857, Frances was betrothed to Abraham Jacobs, one of the first Jews to travel to Colorado in search of opportunity, after gold had been found there. Jacobs had gone together with Frances’s brother Benjamin. (Generally, the Jews followed in the wake of the miners, selling them goods and services.)

Six years later, in 1863, Jacobs returned to Ohio to marry Frances, with whom he then returned to Colorado.

Abraham Jacobs opened businesses and lived in both Denver and Central City, about 65 kilometers (39 miles) west of Denver. After a fire destroyed his O.K. Clothing Store in Central City, he and Frances settled permanently in Denver.

Abraham became one of Denver’s leading citizens, serving on the city council and helping facilitate the merger of the town with nearby Auraria. His businesses included a general store and the operation of a stagecoach line from Denver to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

An influx of sick immigrants

By the 1880s, a new wave of immigrants was pouring into Denver, among them tuberculosis sufferers drawn to the clean air of the Mile High City. They included large numbers of Jews, who came from Eastern Europe rather than Germany, where the earlier generation of Jews had their origins.

Often impoverished and lacking general education, these Eastern European Jews strained their new communities, causing resentment even among their more well-off German-Jewish brethren.

At the time the standard treatment for TB patients who couldn’t provide for themselves was to throw them in jail.

An effective speaker, Frances Wisebart Jacobs told her fellow Denverites that they had to face up more constructively to the needs of their new population, and she set an example in her own behavior. Undeterred by poverty or illness, Wisebart ventured into the areas in West Denver where the new immigrants lived, bringing them food, medicine and even doctors.

The relief organizations that Frances Jacobs created included the Hebrew Ladies’ Benevolent Society, in 1872; the Denver Ladies’ Relief Society, two years later, to assist women who were homeless or in prison; the Free Kindergarten Association (1885); and, in 1887, the Charity Organization Society.

The last organization was a joint project undertaken together with Catholic, Episcopal and Congregationalist clerics, and the money it raised was distributed to a number of different community charities. The society evolved into the Community Chest, and eventually the United Way, which in the next century became the prototype for charitable fundraising and distribution nationwide.

Jacobs’s last big project, begun with Rabbi William Friedman of Denver’s Reform Temple Emanuel, was to create a Jewish organization to build a hospital for destitute TB patients. The cornerstone for National Jewish Medical and Research Center, whose motto was “None may enter who can pay, and none can pay who enter,” was laid on October 9, 1892.

Less than a month later, on November 3, 1892, Jacobs died of pneumonia, which she is said to have contracted after venturing out one rainy night to deliver medicine to a sick child. Her funeral at Temple Emanuel drew some 4,000 mourners.

Construction on the hospital was completed the next year, but an economic depression left it standing empty until 1899. That year, the local Bnai Brith chapter adopted the hospital and opened it, calling it the Frances Jacobs Hospital for Consumptives.