This Day in Jewish History |

1663: Maryland's First Jew Goes to Town

The life and opinions of Jacob Lumbrozo, gentleman (of sorts) - who spent most of his time in colonial court.

David Green
David B. Green
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The Dove, part of St. Mary's City reconstructed historic district.
The Dove, part of St. Mary's City reconstructed historic district.Credit: Wikipedia
David Green
David B. Green

On September 10, 1663, Jacob Lumbrozo became the first Jew to receive “letters of denization” in Maryland, a status akin to, but slightly less than, citizenship in this British colony. As the first-documented Jewish resident of this mid-Atlantic territory, founded in 1634 as a refuge for Catholics from England, Lumbrozo had a tumultuous life in the New World, and found himself at the center of a number of legal proceedings, including one trial that almost resulted in his being executed for the crime of blasphemy.

Jacob Lumbrozo was apparently born in Lisbon, Portugal, on a date that remains unknown, and raised there as a New Christian. He is believed to have emigrated to North America by way of the Netherlands. What is documented is that on January 24, 1656, he arrived in Maryland, where he lived openly as a Jew.

Although the 1649 “Act Concerning Religion” guaranteed that any believer in Jesus Christ could live and practice his religion freely in Maryland, there was significant tension between Catholics and Protestants. (Although the colony was founded for the former, the latter eventually became the majority.) And although Jews were not barred from the colony, they were far from welcomed there. The Act Concerning Religion, for example, stipulated that anyone who would “blaspheme God . . . or deny our Saviour Jesus Christ to be the sonne of God, or shall deny the Holy Trinity,” could be put to death for that iniquity.

One of the first people to be tried under the Act was Jacob Lumbrozo. That happened in 1658, when two witnesses testified to having heard him assert, on two different occasions, that Jesus was a mortal, not a deity. In one case, a man named John Fossett reported that Lumbrozo had postulated that Jesus’ absence from his tomb three days after his crucifixion was not the result of his resurrection but could be explained by the fact that, as Fossett said the defendant suggested, “his disciples stole him away.” Another witness, Richard Preston, testified to having heard Lumbrozo telling a third person that Jesus had accomplished his apparent miracles through sorcery, which he then taught to his disciples.

In his defense, Lumbrozo did not deny making the comments, but said that he was just expressing his opinion, and that he in no way intended for his words to be “in derogation of him, whom the Christians acknowledge for their Messiah,” as he told the provincial court in St. Mary’s (at the time the capital of Maryland).

Lloyd Street Synagogue, left. Part of the Jewish Museum of Maryland.Credit: Wikipedia

The judges hearing Lumbrozo’s case ordered his detention until an additional hearing could be held. Before that could take place, however, several developments got Lumbrozo off the hook, and seem to have saved his life. Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, died and was succeeded by his son Richard, in March 1659. In honor of Richard Cromwell’s appointment, the governor of Maryland, Josias Fendall, proclaimed a pardon and acquittal of anyone in the colony who “stood indicted, convicted, or condemned to die” of any criminal offense. There is no further record of the proceedings against Lumbrozo.

Lumbrozo made his living as a medical doctor, and he also had a license to do business with local Indians. He hunted wolves, owned a farm and was involved in export trade with London. He became very wealthy, but the record suggests that he was not the most morally scrupulous of men. (It also suggests that colonial Maryland was a highly litigious place.)

In 1669, for example, Lumbrozo was called as a witness in a defamation suit brought by one couple, John and Margery Gould, against another couple, Giles and Elizabeth Glover, both of whom were accused of having sullied Margery Gould’s reputation by calling her a “whore.” Describing himself as a “trusty and well-beloved friend,” Lumbrozo offered to represent the Goulds, neither of whom could read or write, in court.

In the case of Elizabeth Glover, Lumbrozo’s petition claimed that she had suggested to Margery Gould that she go and “play the whore in the cornfield again.” The petition, parts of which are composed in rhyme, went on to declare that, “though the speech be near so false an ill/ That one believes it not, another will/ And so their malice very seldom fails / But one way, or another, still prevails.” (The transcript of the trial is reported in detail in the book “Crime and Punishment in Early Maryland,” by Raphael Semmes, first published in 1938.)

No decision was ever reached in that case, because in the interim, Lumbrozo brought a second defamation case against none others than his “friends” the Goulds. According to the second lawsuit, the couple had been telling others that Lumbrozo had repeatedly asked Margery Gould to have sex with him, and promised her that if she would do so, he would give her and her husband half of his plantation and half of his hogs. Not only that, but the Goulds, claimed Lumbrozo, had even been telling people that the “Jew doctor” had thrown Margery on a bed and tried to force himself upon her.

This defamation suit too went nowhere, in this case because the defendants’ attorney, Daniel Johnson, explained that John and Margery Gould were actually servants in the employ of Jacob Lumbrozo. In the wake of the employer’s repeated attempts to bed Mrs. Gould, they had decided to ask the county commissioners to release them from their service to him. Having placed the case in context, Johnson, according to historian Raphael Semmes, “now dared the doctor to pursue his case of defamation against his clients,” and Lumbrozo, “his bluff called, ‘withdrew himself.’ The county justices immediately withdrew the case.”

A year earlier, we learn from the record, Lumbrozo had lost a defamation suit brought against him by a man, John Hammond, who claimed that the doctor had been spreading reports that Hammond had offered his wife for sex with Lumbrozo if the latter would excuse a debt owed him by the plaintiff.

There are other, similar cases in which Lumbrozo was involved, including an accusation of having performed an abortion, a criminal act. Although he was tried on the charge, here again there is no record of a verdict in the case, which may be explained by the fact that Lumbrozo ended up marrying the woman, Elizabeth Weale. After his death, Elizabeth did bear a son, who seems to have been Lumbrozo’s but she soon remarried and she and her son took the name of her new husband, so that the Lumbrozo line in Maryland came to an end within one generation.

Jacob Lumbrozo died somewhere between November 1665 and May 1666, the date on which his will was probated. Because of the difficulties faced by Jews in Maryland, there is no record of any other Jews living there for another century.

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