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Jewish World Review
David Seixas Stands Accused: 1821
Scandal has clouded David Seixas's place in American Jewish history. The first of twelve children born to Gershom Mendes Seixas (hazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York) and his second wife, David Seixas became an inventor, businessman and teacher of the deaf. Yet, none of these undertakings went smoothly. In an 1864 obituary, Isaac Leeser wrote that David Seixas's life "was as varied as the figures of a kaleidoscope, shadow and sunshine alternating with him ceaselessly. . . his biography . . . a picture remarkable for variety and strange vicissitudes."
In 1804, at age 16, David Seixas left New York to work for a family member in New Orleans. Seven years later, David moved to Philadelphia and became an agent for Harmon Hendricks, president of Shearith Israel and pioneer in the importation and manufacture of copper. David then manufactured English-style crockery, the importation of which was interrupted by the War of 1812. Seixas's innovations in the crockery field earned him the label of "father of this art in this country."
Historian Kenneth Libo notes that Seixas's inventiveness made a number of existing products more useful. Seixas created an improved sealing wax and a less costly printer's ink. He built a brewery, pioneered the daguerreotype (early photography) process in America and discovered a method for igniting anthracite coal, which to that point had been considered too dense to burn. This high-intensity coal later became a key ingredient in the mass manufacture of steel.
Like many inventors, Seixas apparently never made a substantial living from his creations. What he lacked in business acumen, however, Seixas made up for in social conscience. Libo speculates that, in 1816, Seixas heard a lecture by Thomas H. Gallaudet on the latest innovations in teaching the deaf. Inspired by Gallaudet's success with sign language, "Seixas became acquainted with a number of deaf waifs on the streets of Philadelphia whose shabby appearance and wild gestures frequently excited laughter and ridicule." Seixas brought eleven of these children to his home, which he shared with his widowed mother and two unmarried sisters. In Seixas's words, these children had been "thrown aside as useless lumber," but it was his "hope to restore [each one] to society as a useful and happy member."
Seixas gave up his businesses to teach the children a sign language he invented. Rebecca Gratz, another Jewish altruist who worked to improve the lives of Philadelphia's poor children, wrote at the time that "David Seixas is distinguishing himself among the benefactors of mankind, and is likely to reap the reward due his talent and humanity." Indeed, Seixas's efforts made such a favorable impression that, in 1820, Philadelphia's leading philanthropists gathered at the American Philosophical Society to establish the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, with Seixas as its headmaster. The school's charter promised that "indigent children, resident anywhere within the State, shall be received into the school and asylum, maintained and educated gratuitously as far as the funds of the institution shall permit."
The school was a great success. Its first graduates included Albert Newsam, who grew up to become a leading lithographer, and John Carlin, who became a successful portraitist and advocate for deaf education. In 1821, the Pennsylvania legislature, much impressed, voted to fund the annual attendance of fifty indigent students at the school.
Rebecca Gratz thought that David Seixas was "likely to reap the reward due his talent and humanity," but she was wrong. In November of 1821, Seixas was ignominiously dismissed from his position. The previous summer, the mother of one of Seixas's female students confided to Mrs. Cowgill, the school's matron, that she had dreamed her daughter was at risk of being molested. Three months later, Mrs. Cowgill somehow got the mother, who could neither read nor write, to pen a note about her dream, which Mrs. Cowgill passed to a school trustee. A committee of trustees, in the presence of Mrs. Cowgill, then met with the girl, who accused Seixas of visiting her in her sleeping quarters and hugging and kissing her. There were inconsistencies in the girl's story, and the mother admitted that she would have forgotten the dream if Mrs. Cowgill had not urged her to record it.
In his defense, Seixas wrote of his feelings toward his students:
Already, before their entrance into the Asylum, I had fed many, clothed some, and instructed all. . . I had raised them to partial habits of mental and physical industry; I beheld them elevated by my own personal sacrifices. Could I contemplate their former state of degradation . . . without experiencing a solemn responsibility . . . for them? Who cultivates a vegetable who rears an animal a brute and yet feels not a kindred like sensation?
After deliberating, the committee found against Seixas.
As in many publicized abuse cases, truth competes with allegations; and we will probably never know the facts of this incident. Some might say that the case against Seixas was based on the prompted testimony of a "suggestible" girl. Isaac Leeser labeled Seixas's removal an act of anti-Semitism. Rebecca Gratz and other prominent Philadelphians, in a vote of confidence, established Seixas as the head of newly created Philadelphia Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, which they funded.
Perhaps the final word belongs to the Pennsylvania legislature, which in 1824 voted David Seixas "the thanks of the people of this Commonwealth for his unremitting zeal and success in improving the children under his tuition."
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Michael Feldberg is the Executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2006, Michael Feldberg