The Blood Libel That Rocked America

A new book examines how, nearly a century ago, a small town in upstate New York saw an actual blood libel, where the residents were ready to entertain the notion that their Jewish neighbors had kidnapped a young child for a ritual sacrifice

the Ku Klux Klan in their regalia parading through the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma, September 21, 1923,
AP

“The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town,” by Edward Berenson; W.W. Norton, 271 pages, $26.95

A little girl, all of 4 years old, is sent out by her mother one Saturday afternoon in 1928 to find her older brother, Bobby, who has been out playing with friends. The Griffiths family lives in a small town in upstate New York, which is apparently so safe that the mother has no qualms about dispatching her daughter, Barbara, into the adjacent woods. At 6 P.M., however, when Bobby comes home for dinner, his sister is not with him. Now it is he who is sent out to search for her.

As the hours pass and Barbara still doesn’t turn up, more people join the hunt — until some 300 residents of Massena, including police and volunteer firemen, are involved in the effort, which continues through the night.

"The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town."
W. W. Norton & Company

But it isn’t until Sunday afternoon that Barbara is found — unharmed, but a full day after her disappearance. She explains that she had gotten lost the previous day, and when darkness and the temperature both began to fall, she decided to curl up in the grass to sleep. Then on Sunday morning, she awoke and made her way into a field less than a mile from her home, where she was spotted by some teenage girls who realized she was the child everyone was searching for.

This is the type of event that, while clearly a cause of great distress for family and neighbors at the time, would likely have passed into Griffiths family lore and no further, to be recounted over the years with laughter and maybe some exaggeration.

When an aged Barbara Griffiths was interviewed by Edward Berenson about the incident 90 years later, she said she had no direct memory of her night in the woods. And probably the same could be said about the collective memory of Massena, not to mention the annals of American Jewish history, had not a bizarre set of circumstances occurred in the hours following the young girl’s disappearance on September 22, 1928.

Unfortunately, someone in Massena, a town of nearly 11,000 on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, recalled having heard that the Jews had an ancient custom of kidnapping Christian children and sacrificing them ritually for their blood. (The best-known version of the centuries-old allegation claimed the blood was an ingredient in the baking of Passover matza.)

Even more unfortunate was the fact that both the mayor of Massena, W. Gilbert Hawes —the very model of an ignorant, bigoted, small-town politician — and the state trooper called in to lead the search, H.M. McCann, thought that was a good working theory.

They quickly decided to call in the town’s lone rabbi, Berel Brennglass, “to question him about Jews and human sacrifice,” as Berenson recounts in “The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town.” Sounds reasonable, no? (That Sunday, by the way, was the eve of Yom Kippur, although the author does not dwell on the significance of this.)

Berenson, a professor of history at New York University, has the added distinction of having been born in Massena, and he believes that two of his great-grandparents — who emigrated to the United States from Europe in the late 19th century and moved to Massena in 1898 — were the first Jews to settle there.

Barbara Griffiths at age 4.
Barbara Klemens Griffiths

Several years ago, he decided to apply his professional skills to unraveling just how it was that his hometown became the venue of the only known incident in U.S. history of a blood libel (aka ritual murder libel) against American Jews.

Nineteen of Massena’s families at the time were Jewish, and they ran many of the town’s retail businesses. A large percentage of the non-Jewish majority, on the other hand, was employed by Alcoa Aluminum, which had a large smelting plant in town.

With the safe return of Barbara Griffiths, the suspicions of ritual murder were quickly quashed. No Jews were arrested on suspicion of kidnapping the young girl, no Jewish-owned stores had their windows smashed, and no Jews were lynched. (At the time, there were, on average, two racially motivated murders of black Americans a week.) But Ed Berenson’s father, who grew up in the town in the decades following the incident, was raised on the story of the Massena blood libel, and some other old-timers recalled their memories of being called “Christ-killers” on the playground — additional evidence that Jews were not completely accepted in the town.

Understanding anti-Semitism

Berenson’s tone in “The Accusation” is calm and straightforward. He clearly understands that the history he is recounting is so bizarre that he doesn’t need to add his own outrage to the tale. But also he isn’t fatalistic about the inevitability of anti-Semitism. Rather, he is curious to parse the social and religious conditions that made it possible for this incident — and thousands of others over the past millennium, many with far graver consequences — to take place. Not to excuse, of course, but to understand where they came from.

If Massena of 1928, for example, had had a more enlightened and decent-minded mayor, he would have rejected immediately the obscene suggestion that maybe Barbara Griffith had been kidnapped by Jews for her Christian blood. Less clear-cut is what would have happened if Rabbi Brennglass, following his questioning by the police, had not immediately been in touch with the leaders of two of America’s principal Jewish advocacy organizations: Rabbi Stephen Wise of the American Jewish Congress; and attorney Louis Marshall of the American Jewish Committee.

These two ambitious and mutually competitive men pressed Mayor Hawes to issue a public apology for his behavior, and also made sure that the case received widespread national press coverage — nearly all of which quite properly condemned the blood libel.

W. Gilbert Hawes, Mayor of Massena, 1922-31.
Celine Philibert Cultural Center

Berenson also suggests that the fact the United States was in the final six weeks before a presidential election helped keep the viciously anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan, which was then at the peak of its strength, from picking up and running with the ritual murder theme.

The Klan was too busy trying to ensure that New York’s Democratic governor, the Roman Catholic Al Smith, would not defeat the Republican (and Protestant) Herbert Hoover to focus on the nefarious Jews.

Though sometimes that temptation was hard to resist. Not atypical of the hatred spread in the lead-up to the election, for instance, was a KKK publication warning that “This fight is not only a battle against Rome, but against all the evil forces in America: cutthroats, thugs, the scum from the cesspools of Europe,” and in particular “the great Hebrew syndicates that have acquired a monopoly of the motion picture industry.”

I was aware that, at least up until the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, many Protestant Americans harbored intense anti-Catholic prejudices, resting in large part on the suspicion that if the U.S. president were a Catholic, he would owe his first loyalty to the pope and might even attempt to impose canon law on America.

The irony in the case of Massena is that while Protestant groups like the KKK were never susceptible to believing the blood libel (if only because most Protestants don’t believe in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist), just across the St. Lawrence River, among the Roman Catholics of French Quebec, “There had been a surge of talk about ritual murder in the first three decades of the 20th century,” Berenson writes. Because of the aluminum plant’s huge demand for laborers and loose U.S. immigration laws, thousands of French-speaking Quebecers lived and worked in Massena, and they brought with them some of the anti-Jewish prejudices they grew up with.

Added value

The tale of Barbara Griffiths’ disappearance is a minor curiosity, and Berenson’s telling of it takes up barely more than a quarter of the 270-plus pages of “The Accusation.” The book’s added value, however, comes from the fact that the author packs its final three-quarters with surprisingly thorough histories of both the ritual murder myth and of anti-Semitism in the United States, together with a section on the intricacies and intrigues of the 1928 presidential election eventually won by Hoover.

Rabbi Berel Brennglass.
Alan Brennglass

In reading about so much history, it’s hard at times to know when the Protestants will lead the crusade against the Jews and when it will be the Catholics at the barricades, and whether the danger attributed to the Hebrews will be principally theological, economic or the fear of literal sanguineous contamination. Although the ritual murder accusation apparently dates back to 12th century England with the myth of the killing of the child William of Norwich, a blood libel disseminated by the monk Thomas of Monmouth, it was alive and well not only in 1920s Quebec and ’30s Nazi Germany, but also in post-Holocaust Poland and in permutations throughout much of the lifespan of the Soviet Union. Even today, notes Berenson, “it is alive and well in the Palestinian territories, Iran, and elsewhere in the Arab world.”

In this age of perpetual outrage and indignation —when everyone is set on a hair-trigger to respond to slights against their particular identity group — the low-key tone of Berenson’s book is especially worthy of appreciation. With a minimum of generalization and a maximum of specifics, he helps us understand how bizarre accusations like the ritual murder myth are bred and spread among “normal” people. And can be fought with facts delivered in calm tones.

I came away from reading “The Accusation” convinced more than ever that xenophobia is a natural human trait, one that feeds on authentic conditions, though they may vary according to place and time: economic distress, ignorance and superstition, and the presence of self-serving demagogues, among other things. Jew hatred is not inevitable, and it can and must be fought with vigilance. However, the fact that it’s the Jews who have generally been the victims does not mean they are naturally immune to the sins of intolerance, racism and even group violence. It’s part of human nature.