Volume LVAugust 2008Number 3

Brother Israel Israel: saved by masonic sign of distress
By Andrew A. Zellers-Frederick, Executive Director, The Masonic Library and Museum of Pennsylvania

Courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

The American Revolution remarkably produced many great men who are revered for their patriotism, bravery and devotion to the glorious cause that founded our nation. The supporters of the Declaration of Independence included prominent Pennsylvania Masons such as Brothers Benjamin Franklin, Charles Willson Peale, Anthony Wayne and Haym Salomon, who each contributed their individual expertise to the war effort. One extraordinary Mason whose daring exploit is usually forgotten (and whose double name under his Grand Master's portrait in the Masonic Temple is often a mere curiosity to visitors on a tour) is Bro. Israel Israel.

The eldest of four children born to Midrach Israel and Mary Paxton, Bro. Israel was born in Pennsylvania either in 1745 or 1746. His father was Jewish and his mother was Christian, which was to cause him some trouble in his later years. Ten years prior to the outbreak of hostilities with Great Britain, at about age 21, Bro. Israel sailed for Barbados to seek his fortune. Following almost a decade of working diligently to amass a considerable amount of property, he returned to America a relatively wealthy man. He and his brother, Joseph, at that time belonged to the Mikveh Israel congregation. Soon after his homecoming, on Sept. 7, 1775, he married Hannah Erwin at Old Swede's Church in Wilmington, Del., where he acquired a nearby farm.

The onset of hostilities with Great Britain prompted Bro. Israel to join the local patriotic Committee of Safety and to support the American war effort wherever possible. This also caused him to sacrifice his fortune. These activities made him a marked man, as many of Bro. Israel's neighbors maintained their allegiance to the British Crown as Loyalists. The opportunity to capture Israel came when a British frigate, the Roebuck, anchored on the Delaware River opposite Israel's farm. The Roebuck's commanding officer, Captain Andrew Hammond, was informed that Bro. Israel reportedly declared he would sooner drive his cattle as a present to General Washington, than to receive thousands of dollars in British gold for them. The statement has probably been paraphrased as the story was told and re-told, but the essence of his patriotic spirit is undoubtedly clear. While Bro. Israel was traveling back from a visit with his mother in Philadelphia, he and his brother-in-law were seized and taken as prisoners onboard the warship to stand trial for treason.

As a prisoner on the Roebuck, Bro. Israel was harshly treated - purportedly given the worst of the ship's food and made to sleep on deck in a coil of ropes. It was decided that Bro. Israel would stand trial with the ship's officers to serve as his judge and jury. In the meantime, Captain Hammond ordered a detachment of the ship's Marines to land and seize the animals from Israel's farm. Hannah Israel witnessed the embarkation of the British party into small boats and quickly guessed the mission of the Marines. Despite the hostile musket fire directed at her, Hannah kept her wits and heroically drove the cattle away beyond the reach of the British shore party.

From the deck of the Roebuck, Bro. Israel and Hannah's brother undoubtedly witnessed the entire affair with horror, fearing for the brave young woman's safety, but proud of her courageous actions. Before the trial commenced, a kind-heated sailor privately asked Bro. Israel if he was a Freemason. Following an affirmative reply, the sailor informed Bro. Israel that a lodge was held on the warship and the officers, who were Masons, were conducting a meeting that night. The trial probably did not begin well for Bro. Israel, as his Loyalist accusers were confident he would be convicted and executed for treason against the British Crown. Given the opportunity to explain his actions and mount a defense, Bro. Israel displayed the Masonic sign of distress to the ship's officers gathered to pronounce his fate. Upon recognition of the sign, the tone of the proceedings changed dramatically and instantly, as the British officers' hardhearted demeanor transformed into those of sympathy and admiration. Bro. Israel's Loyalist accusers were rebuked for their testimony against such an honorable man and the court was subsequently dismissed. The British officers ordered transport for Bro. Israel and his brother-in-law back to land and gathered a small gift for Hannah. The records of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania bear witness to Bro. Israel's salvation from almost certain death through Freemasonry.

Bro. Israel undoubtedly gave up his farm after that incident and returned to Philadelphia, where he tried a number of vocations to re-establish himself. At some point he was an innkeeper of two different taverns-the Sign of the Blue Lion, located in Society Hill, and The Sign of the Crossed Keys (a Masonic image comes to mind of the Lodge Treasurer's jewel) located at Third and Chestnut Street. He was a shopkeeper in Cater's Alley, below Third Street from 1785-1804.

In a time when political positions were held in addition to one's usual vocation, he became politically active in support of the French Revolution in 1793 as a co-founder of the Philadelphia Democratic Society. The Federalist Party was not supportive of the Revolution, and used anti-Semitic slurs against Bro. Israel and his son, John, to try to hold onto their party members and votes. Ironically, by this time, neither were practicing Jews, having assimilated into society by marrying Christians and joining Christian congregations, but the name made them an easy target. He served one term in the Pennsylvania State Senate from 1797-1798. In 1800, he became the High Sheriff of Philadelphia and in 1816, he became Justice of the Peace for Philadelphia's 5th District.

It is not known when Bro. Israel was made a Mason, although it is recorded he was admitted in May 1794 to Lodge No. 3 in Philadelphia, where he later served as Master for five six-month terms. From 1799 until 1801 he served as Deputy Grand Master and from 1803 through 1805 as Grand Master of the Grand Lodge. He became a member of Royal Arch Chapter No. 3 in 1796, and he served as Grand High Priest while also serving as Grand Master. As a loyal Mason, Bro. Israel regularly attended meetings and participated in a number of Grand Lodge committees, including one established in 1800 to arrange for meetings conducted in the Pennsylvania State House (later known as Independence Hall).

Bro. Israel died on March 17, 1822, at the then-advanced age of 78 and his remains are interred in South Laurel Hill Cemetery within Philadelphia's Fairmount Park.


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