Seven years ago, I wrote an essay about the time I accidentally threw away my Great Grandmother’s cherished engagement ring in the garbage and how I luckily found it in the dump before it got sent out to sea. It was a miracle of sorts and an episode that I revisit from time to time when I think about what I would have done if I hadn’t found it. That ring conjures up so many memories of my growing up in Pittsburgh with my loving, but oh-so-domineering, Grandmother. Who would have thought that some old jewelry could do that to you?
The other morning, I was thinking about how little I knew about my Great Grandmother, the original owner of that ring. She died the year I was born and nobody really talked about her. I kind of remember my Dad telling me things like, “She wasn’t very nice” and my Mother’s recollection which was a little more descriptive: “She was ten times meaner than your Grandmother, and that’s sugar coating it.” But for the most part, she remained a mystery. My Grandmother never spoke much about her except to tell me that she was extremely smart, followed by a knowing wink. It was almost if she was letting me in on a secret, without telling me what it was.
There was one unusual thing that she did mention to me back then, but I never really followed up on that because I thought it fell into the pool of my Grandmother’s other expert exaggerations like, If you cross your eyeballs they’ll freeze, Your Dad could have been a professional tap dancer, Sit up straight or you’ll be a hunchback by the time your 20, My podiatrist is madly in love with me, and so on. But today, in this easy age of Google, I felt like this story was worth looking into.
When I was ten years old, and practicing my memorization of the Gettysburg address, my Grandmother told me that during the Civil War, her mother’s family was kicked out of Kentucky by Ulysses S. Grant because they were Jewish. Why this came to my mind now, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s all this immigration talk in the news or maybe it’s because I don’t sleep and have many early mornings to sit and think about life.
It took more than a few hours on the Internet and a couple of phone calls to Paducah, Kentucky to find out that THIS WAS TRUE!
My Great Grandmother, Bertha Livingston Newman, was born in Paducah, Kentucky on June 18th, 1877. Her father, Mangold Livingston came from Germany around 1850 and settled briefly in Smithland, Kentucky. When the railroad came to Paducah in 1850, he relocated there and set up a wholesale dry goods and fruit operation, the M. Livingston Co. (think early Costco). He married his wife, Amelia Friedberg, also from Germany, around 1861. During the Civil War, Paducah was a Union stronghold but it became the place of smuggling and illegal trading with the Confederate South. Apparently, Ulysses S. Grant was super pissed about that. Some reported that Union soldiers were the ones doing the illegal trading, but somehow the Jews got blamed for it and Ulysses S. Grant issued his infamous, anti-Semitic General Order No. 11 in 1862, which expelled all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. Given 24 hours to leave, Jewish families had to pack-up and head north. Bertha wasn’t born yet, but her parents and older siblings began to make their way toward Ohio. A Paducah man by the name of Cesar Kaskel, immediately traveled to Washington to meet with Abraham Lincoln and report this unconstitutional decree. Upon hearing this, Lincoln ordered Grant to revoke the order. Within a week, the Jewish families returned to Paducah and resumed their lives. My Great Grandmother was born there 12 years later. She grew up in Paducah, met her husband, Sam Newman, a businessman from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Enter the ring…hello, 1895) They relocated there (that’s where my Grandmother was born) and eventually moved to Pittsburgh in the early 1900’s, where my Great Grandfather started the Keystone Grinder & Manufacturing Company, an outfit that made gadgets, which fixed busted Railroad Tracks. Old documents, county certificates and voting registries enable you to track movements, but without primary sources or saved correspondence, it is impossible to investigate “intelligence”. All this great history and my Great Grandmother didn’t leave a trail. What made her “smart”? Why didn’t I follow up on that with my Grandmother while she was still alive? The only thing that I can surmise is that Bertha had something to do with my Great Grandfather’s successful business, but I have no way of fact checking that one. We all know that behind-the-scenes women were seldom recognized in those days. Is that what the knowing wink meant?
I have to believe it was. Bertha deserves a story.
The photo I’ve attached to this essay is Bertha’s wedding picture. To think that she was wearing the ring that I tossed in the garbage in this beautiful shot, gives me eternal chills…especially when I envision her supervising the repair of broken railroad tracks.