Esor Ben-Sorek

Murder in Massena

Prior to major Jewish holidays, Jews in Austria-Hungary, particularly in Poland and in Hungary, were often accused by Christian peasants and the Catholic church since medieval times for the killing of a Christian child.

It was said that Jews required blood to bake their Pesach matzot and in order to do it they would find a Christian child, commit murder and use the victim’s blood. These horrible accusations continued for centuries, supported by the local bishops, and became known as the blood libel.

The last time I heard of a blood libel murder was in Russia in the early 1920s. But the very first recorded instance of a Jew being murdered by Christian mobs for accusations of slaying of a Christian child for his blood took place in England in the 12th century.

In 1144 William of Norwich was found dead. The Jews were blamed and were executed. The same blood libel accusations against Jews was made in Gloucester in 1188, in Bristol in 1183 and in London in 1190. Jews were brutally murdered by the angry mobs who pursued them and killed hundreds of them.

On July 31, 1255 eight-year-old Hugh of Lincoln disappeared and his body was found a month later. The Jews of Lincoln were rounded up and were executed. This story is mentioned in the works of Chaucer.

In 1290 by orders of the king, all Jews were expelled from England and were not permitted to return until 1657.

From England, blood libels were reported in several countries on the European continent. The first blood libel trial out of England took place in Blois, France in 1171. The entire Jewish community of Blois were arrested and were burned to death.

Further blood libel cases occurred in 1267 in Germany, 1270 in Alsace, 1287 in Germany. 1293 in Bern, Switzerland, 1670 in Metz, France, 1823 in Russia, 1840 in Damascus and in Rhodes, 1844 in Paris, 1879 in Russian Georgia, 1882 in Hungary, 1899 in Czechoslovakia, the 1903 infamous Kishinev pogrom which took the lives of hundreds of Jews, 1910 in Shiraz, Iran and in 1913 the infamous trial of Mendel Beilis in Russia. He was tried by a Russian jury in a Russian court and was found not guilty. Many books have been written about the Beilis case.

The last known blood libel trial in which a Jew had been accused took place in 1928 in the city of Massena, in the upper part of the State of New York in the United States of America. Unbelievable but historically true.

The story is well recorded in a book by Edward Berenson, who was born in Massena. In his book, “The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town” he writes about a four-year-old Christian girl, Barbara Griffiths,who strayed into a nearby forest and disappeared.

More than 300 people joined the search to find the child. Many people suggested that she was probably murdered by a Jew for religious ritual of killing a Christian child for their blood.

The child was found alive and unharmed but the mayor of Massena, Gilbert Hawes, insisted that she had been kidnapped by Jews since it was only two days before Yom Kippur. He invoked his belief that Jews kill Christian children prior to their holy days to obtain the blood.

In a hearing, the mayor and the chief of the state police apologized to the Jewish community. This was the first and only false accusation of Jewish ritual murders in America.

Berenson, in his book, asks the question “Why Massena, New York? Why there but nowhere else in America?”

In 1928 the infamous Ku Klux Klan revived its activities mainly in the southern states of America. But why did the blood libel, which proved to be false, take place in Massena in the very northern state of New York?

I think today nobody really understands why a blood libel charge took place in the United States despite the rising anti-Semitism. Was it perhaps in some way a prolegomena to the economy and the impending Great Depression?

But thankfully, America has not followed in the treacherous footsteps of England and Europe.

Now we Jews no longer have blood libel accusations. Instead we have lack of tolerance of the “other” among us.

Regrettably, racism and besmirching reputations are unhappily our resurgence of blood libel accusations.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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