Author interviewAllegations against Jews became a 'huge national scandal'

How a missing girl and an atmosphere of hate brought a blood libel to US shores

In 1928, 4-year-old Barbara Griffiths got lost in a NY town. In his new book, Edward Berenson examines how the incident became America’s first, and only, blood libel case

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Barbara Griffiths, age four (Courtesy Barbara Klemens Griffiths)
Barbara Griffiths, age four (Courtesy Barbara Klemens Griffiths)

On Saturday, September 22, 1928, a little girl named Barbara Griffiths went missing in Massena, a small industrial town in upstate New York. The four year old showed up the next day healthy and unharmed after having gotten lost in the tall grass of farmers’ fields.

“Her clothing was somewhat torn and she was pretty tired and hungry, but otherwise none the worse for her experience,” wrote the local paper, The Observer.

However, before Barbara safely returned, an accusation was made against local Jews that they had kidnapped and killed her to harvest her blood for ritual purposes. It was a blood libel — the only known one in US history.

Within hours of Barbara’s disappearance, the authorities assumed they had a murder case on their hands and summoned members of the tiny Jewish community — including the town’s rabbi, Berel Brennglass — for interrogation.

Historian Edward Berenson has written a new book about this exceptional incident titled, “The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town.” Born in Massena into an Eastern European Jewish immigrant family two decades after it occurred, Berenson has known about blood libel since he was a child.

Rabbi Berel Brennglass (Courtesy Alan Brennglass)

“I had always known about it. I can’t even remember when I first started hearing the story, but it was a long time ago. Even though I didn’t grow up in Massena — I was about two when my parents moved away — I spent every summer [there] because lots of my father’s family still lived there. The story wasn’t at the forefront of my mind, but it was always there just beneath the surface,” Berenson told The Times of Israel.

It was only recently that Berenson, 70, decided to go back to what happened two days before Yom Kippur in 1928 and apply his professional skills in understanding how and why a blood libel against Jews — an all-too-common occurrence in Europe since medieval times — could have happened in America.

Berenson, a professor of history at New York University, approached the Massena case from every possible angle. As a specialist in French history, Berenson was familiar with both historical and contemporary anti-Semitism in France and other European countries. He completed his research in a comparative fashion, comparing and contrasting the various manifestations of anti-Semitism on both sides of the Atlantic and finding links between the two.

“Doing the research was really a process of discovery. It wasn’t exactly a detective story, but in some ways it was. I really didn’t have any idea how to explain this really strange incident, and so it really did come out organically through the process of researching. And then it became clear to me that there were multiple sources,” Berenson said.

Edward Berenson (Steven Branda/NYU Photo Bureau)

Berenson lays the groundwork for his investigation by introducing Massena, a small town on the border with Canada that was the site of a large Alcoa aluminum plant. By examining Alcoa records kept by a local amateur historian, Berenson was able to get a clear picture of who the industrial operation’s workers were. Many were European immigrants who had not yet become naturalized citizens, and another large contingent was from neighboring Quebec, the Canadian province with a strong French history and culture. More than a few of these non-Americans kept close ties with their countries and communities of origin, with some traveling back and forth.

This profile of the Alcoa workers and townspeople as having come from hotbeds of anti-Semitism and countries with longstanding histories of blood libels against Jews would prove vital to understanding how someone in Massena could have started a rumor that the Jews had murdered Barbara to use her blood for a religious practice.

Barbara Griffiths’s damaged shoe (Courtesy of Ann Sloan)

Berenson traces the first blood libel against Jews back to England in the mid-12th century. The accusation was made by a monk named Thomas of Monmouth, who claimed in his “The Life and Passion of Saint William the Martyr of Norwich,” that in 1144 the Jews of Norwich “bought a Christian child [William] before Easter and tortured him with all the torture that our Lord was tortured with; and on Good Friday hanged him on a cross.” Thomas claimed he had heard this story from a disillusioned Jew named Theobald.

Berenson provides other examples of medieval blood libels, and then moves on to instances of blood libels in Europe and the Middle East in the modern era — all the way up to the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. The implication is that the inhabitants of Massena could well have harbored resentment toward Jews and been familiar with blood libels based on their or their ancestors’ countries of origin.

Berenson also takes a close look at anti-Semitic elements in American society at the time of the Massena case. He highlights Ku Klux Klan activity, as well as car manufacturing magnate Henry Ford’s spreading of the specious and odious “The International Jew” conspiracy theory.

Anti-Semitic headline in Henry Ford’s The Dearborn Independent, 1920. (public domain via wikicommons)

“One of the main things I discovered was what an awful time the decade of the 1920s was for American Jews,” Berenson said.

“I had just a vague idea that Henry Ford was an obnoxious guy. I didn’t know how bad it was. Ford published the only explicitly anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic newspaper in American history. An anti-Semitic press in Europe was common. Every major European country, including Western European ones like France and Italy, had really awful anti-Semitic newspapers and political movements, and neither of those things existed in the US with the exception of Ford’s The Dearborn Independent,” he said.

Berenson doesn’t think that it was an accident that the Massena blood libel took place in 1928. That was the year of “one of the ugliest and most intense electoral campaigns in United States history.” Old-stock Protestant Herbert Hoover of the Republican party was pitted against New York governor Al Smith, a Catholic Democrat aligned with urban immigrants. Anti-Semitism was part and parcel of the hostile anti-immigrant sentiments expressed by Smith’s opponents during this period of massive change in American society.

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (Underwood & Underwood via wikicommons)

Fortunately, when young Griffiths came home unscathed, the possible anti-Jewish violence that the “members of the Massena Jewish community huddled in the synagogue” feared, never came to pass. However, two major leaders of the American Jewish community stepped in to help — and to demand an apology from the town’s mayor and local law enforcement for believing the blood libel rumor and following through as if it were true.

American Jewish Committee president Louis Marshall and Rabbi S. Stephen Wise of the American Jewish Congress took different approaches in terms of publicizing the Massena story — and exacting an apology. In Berenson’s opinion, the intervention of Wise, who was close to presidential candidate Smith and other influential Democratic politicians, was more effective. But the weight both Jewish leaders pulled was considerable.

“The influence of these two characters was a great American story because I didn’t know of any equivalent in Europe where a Jewish leader would have such access to power and such importance,” Berenson said.

Despite the case having been largely forgotten by Massena residents over the ensuing decades, word of the blood libel spread far and wide at the time — mainly due to Wise’s efforts. Berenson was amazed to discover that small newspapers all over the country had picked up the story.

“Thanks to the digitization of all kinds of newspapers, I discovered that this had become a huge national scandal. I found that tiny little papers in Texas, Arkansas and Montana ran the story, which was fascinating to me. I think that the national resonance of this story was unknown to everybody,” Berenson said.

‘The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town’ by Edward Berenson (W.W. Norton & Company)

Barbara Griffiths is still alive. She is in her mid-90s and lives not far from Massena.

Although “The Accusation” deals with what happened to Griffiths 89 years ago, Berenson believes that the case has a great deal of resonance for America in 2019. As in 1928, the US is currently in a period of great polarization, change and uncertainty. And the internet and social media can — like Henry Ford’s 1920s newspaper — stoke and spread hatred.

The person who started the blood libel rumor in Massena was never identified, Berenson said, but that is almost besides the point.

“I think [the Massena blood libel] should encourage and Jews and non-Jews, as well, to be vigilant, to take threats against Jews and other minority groups seriously… The bigotry has been all too apparent,” Berenson said. 

“I don’t think we are in mortal danger. It doesn’t mean that we are on the verge of an explosion of anti-Semitic hatred. I think the US has a history that discourages that kind of thing. But we should not be complacent,” Berenson said.

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