This Day in Jewish History MP Who Instigated Fatal Riots in U.K. Is Born

Nobody knows why Lord George Gordon converted to Judaism, but he died in prison rather than remove his hat.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

December 26, 1751, is the birthdate of Lord George Gordon -- member of British Parliament, instigator of some of the worst public unrest ever seen in England – the “Gordon Riots” – and a convert to Judaism who died in prison living the life of an Orthodox Jew.

George Gordon was the third and youngest son of Cosmo George Gordon, the third Duke of Gordon. His godfather was King George III.

As a young man, his family bought a commission for him in the Royal Navy. He reached the rank of lieutenant, but when he was not awarded command of a ship, he resigned from the service, in 1772.

Even then, Gordon’s tendency to identify with the underdog and to speak his mind about it was evident: When sailing in the Caribbean, he met the governor of Jamaica and expressed his disapproval of the slavery he encountered there.

Gordon entered Parliament in 1774. He had intended to run in a district in Inverness-shire, Scotland, but the incumbent, fearing defeat by Gordon, prevailed upon the newcomer to allow him to buy him another district, in Ludgershall, Wiltshire, in the country's southwest.

A party unto himself

He served in the House until 1780, earning the reputation of being a party unto himself. He was, for example, a strong critic of the British war against the American colonies, and in general, spoke out fearlessly on issues related to human rights. Yet, in 1778, the same Gordon became a leading opponent of the Papists Act, which overturned existing laws that denied Roman Catholics equal status in society.

The government’s motive for the legislation was largely a desire to encourage Catholics to enlist in the military, to serve in the American War, but nonetheless, it reversed a strong trend of institutional anti-Catholicism in the country.

On May 29, 1779, Gordon, as president of the “London Protestant Association,” led a demonstration of an estimated 60,000 citizens opposed to the Papists Act in a march from St. George’s Fields in London to Parliament. The protest went on for a week, and turned violent, with 15,000 troops called in to quell it. In the end, some 300 people were killed.

Gordon was imprisoned in the Tower of London for six months, while waiting for trial on charges of treason, for his part in the rioting, but in the end was acquitted when his defense counsel successfully argued that he had not acted out of traitorous motives.

Defaming Marie Antoinette from the Froggery?

There are varying versions regarding when and why George Gordon converted to Judaism. What is definite is that Yisrael bar Avraham Gordon, as he renamed himself, was living as an Orthodox Jew in the Birmingham neighborhood called the Froggery when he was arrested in 1788 and tried and convicted on charges of defaming Queen Marie Antoinette of France, and several lesser figures. He was sentenced to five years in Newgate prison.

The prison authorities were very accommodating of Gordon's religious needs: He was supplied with kosher food and wine, was permitted to organize a Shabbat minyan and to pray daily with tallit and tefillin. And a mezuzah hung on the doorpost of the large chamber that served as his cell.

His conversion seems to have left his fellow Englishmen both bemused and amused.

At the end of his sentence, in January 1793, Gordon was brought before the court and expected to make a pledge regarding his intention to behave well in the future. But he refused to remove his hat, for religious reasons, and the testimony of the two Orthodox Jews he brought to vouch for him as character witnesses was not admitted by the court. Hence, Gordon remained in prison.

That's where Lord Gordon was when, on November 1, 1793, he died of typhoid fever, at the age of 41. He was buried in the St. James' burial grounds in London, an Anglican cemetery.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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