The Man Who Put the Gilding on Galveston

Friday, 3 July 1896 - Galveston, Texas

Nicholas Clayton
You will probably notice that most of the buildings I show were designed by one architect: Nicholas J. Clayton. I decided to see if he was still alive. I looked in the City Directory and found a full page ad for his firm.

I hated to waste the man’s time, but I wanted to record him for the University of Texas back in the twenty-seventh century. So, I went to his office and told him I was interested in building a home. I wanted to know what his credentials were.

No time for modesty, Clayton gave me the full sales pitch. He told me he had come to this country as a poor immigrant from Ireland at the age of eight with his widowed mother. From these humble beginnings, he worked his way up. He had been a plasterer, a marble carver, and an architectural draftsman.

First Presbyterian Church
In 1872 the architectural firm Jones and Baldwin of Memphis, Tennessee sent Clayton to Galveston to supervise the building of the First Presbyterian Church. Clayton smelled opportunity, so he opened up his own architectural firm in Galveston in 1875. Galveston was the largest city in Texas and needed an architect. He bragged to me that he was one of the first professional architects in the whole state of Texas. Other cities like Houston, Austin and Dallas had come to him to design buildings for them.

Gresham's Castle (later called Bishop's Palace)
Clayton pointed around his office at the photos on the walls. The man does it all: homes, churches, businesses, hospitals--you name it. He can be conservative but I got the feeling he enjoyed most the flights of fancy the Victorians love so much. If any one man is responsible for making Galveston the beautiful city that it now is, it’s Nicholas J. Clayton.

Clayton will survive the 1900 Hurricane. Many of his buildings won’t. However he was responsible for so many structures in town, that several dozen will survive. Some will be lovingly rebuilt as close to the original as possible.

Nicholas Clayton will be sixty by then. The city finally recovered but his business will not. With all the cleanup, reconstruction and trying to make do, no one can afford a grand new structure that needs an architect. He will go bankrupt by 1903 and never recover financially. He will die in 1916 at the age of seventy-six.

His family will not be able to afford a proper headstone, but will be forced to use a block of marble he used as a sample to show customers. One could say that the historic parts of Galveston are the real memorial to one of the greatest Victorian architects of the South.

But it’s 1896 now, and Nicholas Clayton is at his peak. I thanked him for his time, and said I would be in touch. I wish I really could let him design a house for me.

Some of Nicholas Clayton’s buildings that survived into the 21st century 
Another collection of Clayton’s surviving structures
Old Postcards showing off Nicholas Clayton’s buildings

Some of Nicholas Clayton's Galveston buildings lost to time
The Beach Hotel
The Ursuline Academy
Harmony Hall
John Sealy Hospital
Masonic Lodge


First Citizen of Texas

Friday, 26 June 1896 - Galveston, Texas

Today I ran into the man Woodrow Wilson would one day call “the First Citizen of Texas.” Perhaps more accurately he nearly ran into me. I’m afraid I wasn’t paying attention when I stepped off the curb. A bicyclist smoking a cigar and wearing a dark mustache, frock coat and fedora came around the corner and nearly ran over me!

Henry Cohen
The poor fellow swerved in time and missed me. He stopped, apologizing profusely. His accent was part Southern without out the slow drawl. He spoke so quickly his tongue tripped over it in a slight stutter. There was also something very familiar about his accent.

“No please,” I said. “It was all my fault. I do apologize, my good man.”

He peered at me with those bright eyes. “I-Is that an English accent?”

“Yes, Cambridge.” I stuck out my hand.

He took it and shook it. “London, myself. Born and raised there. Name is Henry Cohen.”

“Wait a tick!” I peered at him. “I thought you looked familiar. Aren’t you the Rabbi?”

“Yes, I am.”

Temple B'nai Israel in Galveston
“I attended your service at the synagogue about two weeks ago. Erm, where is your prayer shawl and kippah?”

“I’m not presiding over a service now, am I? I’m a Reform Jew.”

“How in the world did a London Jew wind up in Galveston, Texas?”

“Now that is a long story. What do you say I buy a fellow Englishman a spot of tea?”

I followed the friendly chap to a nearby café. He had to tip his hat and say hello to almost everyone we passed. Everyone seemed to know him.

“Is this the Jewish section of town?” I asked.

He gave me an odd look. “No, I don’t know if any group of folks dominates in this neighborhood.” He tipped his hat to an African-American gentleman. As we passed by, Cohen grinned at me. “Now, I know Reverend Jefferson is not Jewish.”

“Everyone seems to know you.”

“I am a Jewish Rabbi but first I’m a citizen of Galveston. I believe it’s my duty to help out anyone where I can. And everyone seems to bring their problems to me. I believe I am what you would call a Yenta.”


“Busybody.” He chuckled. “I’m sorry, but if I see someone in trouble I just feel obliged to help them.”

Benjamin Disraeli
1st Earl of Beaconsfield
We made it to the café. I got Cohen to tell me his life story, which was anything but dull. Born is London in 1863, he was the son immigrants from Poland. While only fifteen Cohen got a job with the Board of Guardians who administered relief to the poor. At night he attended Jews College. One chap who frequented the Board was so impressed with the boy’s hard work that he nicknamed him “Little Henry.” Needless to say, Cohen was awestruck that the former Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli even noticed him.

“I grew up in a country where a Jewish boy could grow-up to become anything--even an English lord.”

“Why did you leave England?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Sense of adventure maybe. I decided to become a Rabbi, but when I was 18, I decided to take a break from my studies. So I went to Kimberly, South Africa and got a job in a dry goods store to pay my expenses. I’ve always been good with languages, so I picked up Zulu. I got so good the British army hired be as a part-time interpreter. But they insisted I learn how to use a rifle.

“Once when they troops were gone, the Zulus attacked the town. I was handed a rifle and drafted as a defender to hold off the natives until the army could return. I made a terrible soldier. I couldn’t bring myself to shoot anyone. So a Zulu warrior grabbed my rifle out of my hands and hit me over the head with it. Left a scar--see?” He pulled back his hair to show me.

“I take it you survived.”

“Yes, but unfortunately I found out I was on the list of fatalities. My parents had given me a shivah--a mourning ceremony. Needless to say my parents were overjoyed to find out I was still alive.

“Exactly two years later I returned to London and finished out my studies. I graduated a year later and got my first assignment down in Jamaica.” He shook his head. “It was there I learned what anti-Semitism was.”

“Oh dear. Was it the folks of European or African descent that were anti-Semitic?”

“Neither. It was the Jews themselves.” Cohen looked disgusted. “Kingston had just had a terrible fire that had destroyed both of it’s synagogues. The two congregations decided to pool their resources. And I wound up in the middle.”

“Were they Reform and Orthodox?”

“I think that would have been easier. They would have tried to work out their differences and respect each other. No, this was Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. I would give a service in Sephardic one Sabbath and then Ashkenazi the next. That didn’t make them happy. They both wanted it their way all the time. When I told my landlady that my parents were from Poland, she said she would kill herself if she found out she had one drop of Ashkenazi in her.”

“That’s horrible!”

“Yes, I couldn’t believe the stupidity. What is really strange it’s not religion they argued about, but slight variations in customs. I was so glad to get away from there. Problem was I really didn’t want to return home. My parents were Orthodox and I was leaning toward Reform. Then I heard a congregation in Woodville, Mississippi was looking for a rabbi--even one who was only a minister.”

“You’re not really a rabbi.”

“Not officially. England didn’t have any schools that could ordain a rabbi--a legal translator of the law. I couldn’t afford to go overseas to a school that could. In America in the South and out West, the Jewish communities are just so glad to have a teacher. Minister is close enough to a true Rabbi for them. However, they do call me rabbi anyway.”

“But Mississippi? Aren’t they prejudice there?”

“No. The Jews got along with each other and they got along with their Christian neighbors. In fact, the Christian businessmen wouldn’t open their shops on Saturday until after the Sabbath service. Some of them would even attend. They didn’t want to convert, they just liked my sermons. They were polite, so we welcomed them. I really liked Woodville, but it was a small town. They only had eighteen Jewish families. So in ‘88 when I got an offer from Congregation B’nai Israel here in Galveston, I would be a fool not to take it.

“Galveston is a very nice place, too. People accept Jews here. Did you know I was recently invited to a banquet for Cardinal Satelli to say the blessing? I did it in Latin. I think I was the only non-Catholic there. How many places would do that? I’m part of the community. They like me, I like them. I’ll probably stay here the rest of my life.”

Yes, Henry Cohen will. He will be very lucky in the 1900 hurricane. Not only will he and his wife and two children survive, but his home and synagogue will suffer minimal damage. In fact he will offer it to four ministers who had their churches destroyed, so they can have services on Sundays until they can rebuild. That will be the least of his help in rebuilding Galveston.

Galveston After the 1900 Hurricane
As soon as the storm let up, Henry Cohen was out to help the less fortunate. He found a wagon and mules and started scrounging for food and medical supplies, and headed for the hospitals. He helped Clara Barton and the Red Cross set up tents. When the Governor created an official Central Relief Committee several days later, he appointed Cohen the head. Why not? He was already the unofficial head.

As I mentioned before it will be estimated that 6,000 to 12,000 died in the 1900 hurricane. There was never an accurate count of the dead bodies. No one knows how many were swept out to sea. Also add to that those who just up and left, fleeing from the horror or just out of necessity, having lost their home and livelihood. Most buildings were smashed and the few standing were damaged. Galveston was quickly becoming a ghost town.

What Galveston needed was labor to clean up and rebuild. Poor Jews from Eastern Europe were pouring into New York, only to find crowded slums and no jobs. Cohen campaigned to bring them to Galveston. 10,000 came and he shook hands with everyone of them and helped them get settled. He helped other immigrants as well from Greece, Italy and Mexico.
Rabbi Cohen greeting immigrants
as they step off the ship
(that's him, second from the left)

Here is an example to give you an idea of the lengths Cohen would go to help out an immigrant. A ship came in from Russia full of Jews. However, they found a stow away onboard. Having no papers and coming into the country illegally, he faced immediate deportation. The poor fellow begged them not to. He was a political refuge. He would be shot for the crime of not agreeing with the government if they sent him back.

Cohen told the authorities to postpone deportation and he would get him amnesty. The rabbi, without stopping to pack, jumped on the first train to Washington, D.C. When he got there he jumped into a cab and went straight to the White House. At this point Henry Cohen was probably the most famous rabbi in America, so President Taft agreed to see him. Cohen pleaded the stowaway’s case. Taft shook his head. “If I make an exception for a Jew I will have to make it for everyone.” “Jew, hell,” Cohen responded. “The man is Greek Orthodox.” The amazed President Taft allowed the stowaway to stay in the country.

Henry Cohen
 years from now
Cohen will go on to be appointed on the state commission for prisons, bringing about many reforms. He will help raise the State’s age of consent from ten years to eighteen, making seducing ten years old statutory rape. In World War One he will join the army as a lieutenant, and help convince them of the need for Jewish Chaplains. In the 1920’s he will take on the Klu Klux Klan. (They never had a chance.)

He will work on so many committees and organizations, both locally and nationally, that he will become the most famous rabbi in America. Indeed, the U.S. Post Office will reroute all overseas mail addressed to “Rabbi Henry Cohen--United States of America” directly to Galveston.

Meanwhile he will remain rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel for 64 years, until his death in 1952 at the age of 89. He will also remain a “busybody” helping anyone who needs it, no matter their religion, race, or social station.

Rabbi Henry Cohen pulled out his watch and shook his head. “I best be going. I have to a lot to do.” And he was off and running.

I watched him jump on his bicycle and speed away. I had to smile. Yes, he does have a lot to do--and somehow he will get it all done.

Here is a lecture Rabbi Henry Cohen gave at the Medical Department, University of Texas:
Hygiene and Medicine of the Talmud
(Did I mention Cohen took it upon himself to create the medical school’s first student loan fund?)

One of the many monographs Cohen wrote on the history of Jews in Texas: The Settlement of Jews in Texas

This plaque was erected in 1980 by the State of Texas in front of the Galveston Courthouse. It reads:
Rabbi Henry Cohen (1863-1952), called the "First Citizen of Texas" by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, Rabbi Henry Cohen, an internationally known humanitarian, was born in London, England. He came to Galveston in 1888 as spiritual leader of Congregation B'Nai Israel and served for 64 years until his death.

In 1889 he married Mollie Levy (1862-1951) and they had two children. After the disastrous storm of 1900, Texas Governor Joseph D. Sayers appointed Rabbi Cohen to head the Central Relief Committee. From 1907 until World War I he helped shiploads of immigrants become settled in cities around the country. During World War I he was instrumental in influencing congress to provide Jewish Naval Chaplains. Appointed to the Texas Prison Board by Governor Dan Moody, Rabbi Cohen introduced measures for more humane treatment of prisoners. He assisted New York slum residents in Galveston today.

When Rabbi Cohen died, the Commissioners Court of Galveston County called him one of the country's greatest humanitarians and spiritual leaders.


America's Second Independence Day

Friday, 19 June 1896 - Galveston, Texas

Ashton Villa,
site of America's true Independence Day
Today is Juneteenth, the 19th of June. Some historians will tell you this is the day the Emancipation Proclamation was created and slavery ended. They are probably historians studying the Roman Period who know little about American history.

Trying to pin down the day slavery ended in the United States is a problem. On 22 September 1862 President Abraham Lincoln announced he was going to issue a formal emancipation proclamation freeing the slaves in all the Confederate states that refused to come back to the fold. He didn’t get around to actually signing it until 1 January 1863. None of the states returned. It did however make slavery a genuine issue of the war and kept Britain, who had long ago abolished slavery, from siding with the Confederacy.

If it only freed slaves in the states that were no longer in the Union, then no slaves were actually freed, right? Wrong. Any time the Union occupied Confederate lands, the slaves there were freed. As for the North, there was still slavery in the border states that stayed in the Union. They quietly, one by one, ended slavery in their state governments. Slavery wasn’t officially abolished until the 13th Amendment was ratified in all the states by December 1865. And of course there were those slaves who simply took matters into their own hands, and escaped from their masters.

Therefore the slaves were freed bit by bit, rather than all at once. So what one date would you celebrate the end to slavery?

General Gordon Granger
The African-Americans in Galveston know the exact date slavery ended. On 18 June 1865, General Gordon Granger and 2,000 Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves. Apparently Texas hadn’t heard (or simply ignored) that General Lee had already surrendered the Confederate Army two months before on 9 April 1865.

The next day, on the 19th of June, General Granger stood on the balcony of Ashton Villa and read “General Order Number Three” which said:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

Everyone is dressed up for Juneteenth
Not very poetic even rather demeaning in its content, but the slaves read between the lines. THEY WERE FREE! They no longer belonged to anyone but themselves. The now former slaves took to the streets in jubilation and had an impromptu party. They had so much fun they decided to do it again next year. Since that time, every 19th of June, they celebrate their freedom. Now the celebration is a little more organized with parades and picnics and performances. They also decided “June Nineteenth” was a mouthful and sort of scrunched it all together to create "Juneteenth."

Since that time Juneteenth has spread all over Texas and across the nation, giving all African-Americans one special day to celebrate the end of slavery. Sadly in the 20th century, when this generation who knew slavery dies out, Juneteenth will slowly fade away. Many African-Americans will be embarrassed by their slave ancestors. I know that seems odd. I would think being descended from a slave owner would be something to really be ashamed of.

Luckily a hundred years from now, the "Modern Juneteenth Movement" will begin, bringing the holiday back. State by state will make it an official holiday until it finally becomes a national holiday in the mid-21st century. It will become more of a celebration to honor and remember the victims of slavery.

One of the many Juneteenth bands
It also is a chance to celebrate African-American culture--especially music, whether jazz, gospel or blues. They are already doing that, although jazz hasn’t been invented yet. I heard a church choir singing “Let My People Go” today. If ever there was a protest song disguised as a spiritual, this is it!

the face of a former slave
It’s only been 31 years, so there are still folks alive who remember slavery all too well. They know what it was like to be whipped, or worse to watch your family being sold, never to see them again. You can see the pain etched in the faces of the older people here. But today there are smiles on those faces. Today is a day to rejoice, and even though I have never known their hardships, their joy is contagious.

Let My People Go as performed by the Harlem Gospel Singers


Isle of Doom

Friday, 12 June 1896 - Galveston, Texas, USA

For years the University of Texas has been begging me to go back and record the city of Galveston at it’s zenith. I didn’t feel I could put them off any longer. You may wonder why I balked at visiting this beautiful Victorian boomtown. I will explain, but first let me tell you something of this remarkable city.

Galveston Island is a barrier island off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. It is twenty-seven miles long and only three miles long at it’s widest spot. It is really little more than a sand bar.

Although discovered by Amerindians millennia ago, the Island was officially discovered by the Spanish explorer Juan de Grijalva, when he ran aground on it in 1528. He named it "Isla de Malhado" ("Isle of Doom").

Apparently, it wasn’t until 1785 that anyone looked behind the island and found a huge bay there. In a well thought out career move, José de Evia named it after the Count of Gálvez, the viceroy of New Spain.

Jean Lafitte the pirate & "founding father"
(at least historians think this is Lafitte)
The first European settlement here was built in 1816 by pirates. Jean Lafitte had been sent by the US military to Galveston to spy on the Spanish. Instead Lafitte started his own colony of 100 to 200 buccaneers, until the US Navy booted everyone off in 1821.

By 1825, the island was no longer Spain’s but Mexico’s, who established the Port of Galveston and built a custom’s house. Then Texas revolted against Mexico, taking over the island and making it the port of the Republic of Texas’s navy.

Finally in 1830, the city of modern Galveston was founded by Michael Menard, a Canadian. It started out as an international city. Galveston is known as the “Ellis Island of the West.” Most immigrants from Europe heading for the western states come here instead of New York City. Many go no further than Galveston, not because they are poor and can’t afford train fare, but because they smell opportunity. A large portion of the newcomers are middle class.

downtown Galveston in the 1890s
Galveston is currently the busiest port in the Gulf of Mexico, surpassing even New Orleans. Indeed the only port in the US bigger is New York City. It is one of the largest cotton processors and shippers. It is the largest city in Texas and it‘s cultural center. Texas’s first telephone, gas lights, electric lights, opera house, post office, orphanage, Masonic Lodge, medical college, cotton compress, naval base, etc. were all in Galveston.

The population in 1890 was 23,000. By 1900 it will be 37,789. Galveston is a booming commercial center where the future is limitless. There is a great optimism in the air. Victorian mansions are springing up all around, attesting to the city’s prosperity. And it will all be swept away in one night.

As I said, Galveston is little more than a sandbar. It’s highest point is only eight feet above sea level. There is currently no seawall. Even if they had built one, it would probably not be high enough.

On 8 September 1900, Galveston will hunker down for a tropical storm. Too late they learn it is in fact a category four hurricane with winds estimated at 125 miles per hour. (We don’t know the actual speed. The anemometer will be blown off the local U.S. Weather Bureau building.)

What the winds don’t knock down, the 15-foot-high storm-surge waves will. The entire city will be flooded, as people cling to floating debris. It is estimated that 6,000 to 12,000 people will die (8,000 is the official number), making it the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history!

Galveston after the 1900 hurricane
Why did it outdo stronger hurricanes? It’s 1900. There are no satellites to follow the storm. There isn’t even ship to shore radio for captains caught in hurricanes to warn those on land. Even though Isaac Cline, one of the top weathermen in the country, lives in Galveston, he only has Victorian technology to aid him. By the time Galveston realized what was coming, it was too late to evacuate the island. And outside of multi-story buildings that may or may not standup, there is no high ground to run to. Few buildings will even be left standing.

Despite this, Galveston will arise from the ashes, just as a much smaller phoenix. She will become a resort town, evoking her pirate roots during prohibition with boot-leg alcohol and prostitution. It won’t be until the 1950s before she gets cleaned up. Hardly the future her citizens now see for this shining city.

And that is why I have been putting off this project. It’s hard to look into the eyes of someone knowing they will die soon and not be able to warn them of the hurricane. It’s part of being a Temporal Anthropologist and knowing what the future brings. I will be walking about this city unable to warn anyone. Would they even listen to me if I was allowed to tell them?

University of Texas wanted me to come here in the summer of 1900, but that was too close. I gave myself a four year buffer. Instead of looking in every face and knowing that a horrible fate awaits him, I can console myself that he has at least four years of happiness and maybe won’t be here in 1900.

Still I will be looking up some of the more famous citizens, knowing their terrible future. This will not be an easy assignment.

Days after the event, Thomas Edison's film studio recorded some of the clean-up, making this some of the world's first "newsreels." video

An excellent documentary on the 1900 Galveston Hurricane:
Isaac's Storm

Although done in good taste, it is about a horrific event. You may not wish to watch.
(And yes, I know the last bit is missing on part 8.)