Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Seligman Scandal, Antisemitism in Saratoga Springs

Yesterday, I noted the newly released details of Fish Rock Camp, believed to be the first Great Camp built on Upper Saranac Lake. The camp was built for Isaac Newton Seligman, the son of banking giant Joseph Seligman. Today I’ll provide some background to the antisemitism that is believed to have inspired many Jewish Americans, like the Seligmans, to create their own camps and resorts in the Adirondacks.

The story includes one of Saratoga’s most prestigious hotels, the Grand Union, luminaries like Ulysses S. Grant, the robber baron Jay Gould, and Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. But it starts with America’s first department store mogul – Alexander T. Stewart.
When A.T. Stewart, the man some say is largely responsible for emergence of the department store, died in 1876 worth an estimated $40 million, he was one of the wealthiest men in New York just behind an John Jacob Astor and a Cornelius Vanderbilt. Stewart’s fortune was largely willed to his wife with Judge Henry Hilton (unrelated to those Hiltons) serving as trustee.

In a controversial move Alexander Stewart’s wife quickly transferred over the A.T. Stewart dry goods business to Hilton in exchange for the one million dollars Stewart had willed the judge (who continued to operate the company). Mrs. Stewart continued to live in New York City and at the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs, which she also received from her husband and which was also turned over to Judge Hilton.

Hilton, a raging anti-Semite who owned the million-dollar Saratoga Springs estate Woodlawn and who was a leader in the corrupt Tweed Ring of Tammany Hall, excluded Jews from his own businesses and properties on principle. As executor of the Stewart estate he took charge of the Grand Union Hotel (built in 1802 by Gideon Putnam and torn down in 1952 to make way for a supermarket) and promptly excluded Jewish patrons.

The first summer under Hilton’s proprietorship it’s said that Moses Thompson “had no sooner written the second s in Moses than the registration book was snatched from him by a horrified clerk.” Thompson may have been the first excluded but he wasn’t the most important – that was the role of Joseph Seligman, the father of Fish Rock Camp’s Isaac Newton Seligman.

The elder Seligman was a German immigrant when he started J. & W. Seligman & Co., a bank with branches in New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, London, Paris and Frankfurt. The company was heavily invested railroad finance (among many other businesses) and served as broker of the schemes of the robber baron Jay Gould, a financial backer of Boss Tweed. In 1877, the same year he was denied admittance to the Grand Union Hotel, Seligman’s plan to refinance the Civil War debt was accepted by the Secretary of the Treasury.

Seligman and Alexander had had a difficult relationship. During the 1870s, Alexander Stewart and Joseph Seligman served together on the board of the New York Railway Company (whose president was Judge Henry Hilton). President Ulysses S. Grant offered Joseph Seligman the position of Secretary of Treasury (Grant had met Jesse Seligman in Watertown during the war), but Seligman declined the position. It was then offered to Stewart, but Stewart’s appointment was rejected by the Senate in part because of his connection to Judge Hilton and the Tweed Ring.

The Tweed Ring and Tammany Hall (The Society of St. Tammany, created in 1789 as a patriotic and fraternal club) is believed to have stolen somewhere between 75 to 200 million dollars from the city between 1865 and 1871. The Tammany Hall machine, generally said to have begun with the election of Fernando Wood in 1854, controlled New York City politics for some 70 years.

When Seligman joined the Committee of Seventy, a group of New York City’s reformers who came together to fight the Tweed Ring, Stewart’s company stopped doing business with Seligman in retaliation. For his part, Judge Hilton was himself angry at Seligman after the latter failed to invite Hilton to a dinner given for Grant when he was elected president.

The Seligmans had stayed in Saratoga for the ten years previous to 1877, when Hilton took control of Stewart’s Grand Union Hotel. After he provided the plan to refinance the Civil War debt, Seligman hoped to vacation with his family at the Grand Union, where he had stayed before. What happened next is still up for debate, so I’ll let the collaborative Wikipedia tell the story:

Historians disagree as to whether the Seligman family were physically turned away from the hotel, told not to come to the hotel, or advised that they could stay only one final time. However, it is clear that the Seligmans were made to feel that their presence at the hotel was not desired and would not be tolerated long, if at all.

Barring the Seglimans created a national scandal after it was reported in the New York Times [pdf]. In response Hilton issued a statement that “As [yet] the law . . . permits a man to use his property as he pleases, and I propose exercising that blessed privilege, notwithstanding Moses and all his descendants object.”

Both Seligman and Hilton received death threats and a boycott of A. T. Stewart’s department store was organized (it’s believed this boycott led to the business’s failure and its sale to John Wanamaker, considered the father of modern advertising – Wannamaker’s was eventually absorbed by Macy’s). The fallout prompted Hilton to donate a thousand dollars to Jewish charities, in a gesture that was mocked by the satirical magazine Puck.

In 1879, Puck also published a satirical series titled “The Story of the Great Advertising Dodge” in which Judge Hilton led the pliable Alexander Stewart through a series of events in the men’s lives all geared to selling more goods (the cartoon above is from the series).

Even the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher (who knew Seligman) got into the act during a sermon entitled “Gentile and Jew,” in which he said “When I heard of the unnecessary offense that has been cast upon Mr. Seligman, I felt no other person could have been singled out that would have brought home to me the injustice more sensibly than he.”

According the seminal book about prominent New York City Jewish families in the 19th century, Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York, the Saratoga Seligman scandal shed light on the growing antisemitism in America and emboldened many hoteliers to exclude Jews. As late as the 1890s, according to Manhattan socialite Elizabeth Wharton Drexel Lehr, signs were posted at Saratoga reading “No Jews or Dogs Admitted Here.”

The wave of antisemitism across the nation is believed to have “emboldened Adirondack
resort owners to begin barring Jews” and to have lead to the establishment of great camps and resorts by a number of wealthy Jewish families.


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Community news stories come from press releases and other notices from organizations, businesses, state agencies and other groups. Submit your contributions to Almanack Editor Melissa Hart at

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