For better and for worse, my parents raised me to be a mensch. In the business world, sticking to the strong moral values they instilled in me hasn’t always been easy, but I can safely say I’ll never be the type who could stab a co-worker in the back. Little did I know that at least one of my ancestors wasn’t troubled by such compunction.
During my genealogy research I was surprised to learn that my great-grandfather was a real scoundrel. While it’s impossible to know what was happening inside of his head, I’ve found clues that give me a better understanding of who he was.
I first stumbled onto his sordid past when I found several documents that detailed four separate birthplaces. On a census record, Isaac Spear listed his birthplace as New York. On his wedding certificate, it’s written as London. On his son’s birth certificate, he claimed Hanley Staffordshire, England. And, in 1900, an Isaac Spier in Sing Sing prison claimed to have been born in Pennsylvania.
While visiting my grandparents’ apartment in Brooklyn as a child, I remember that my grandmother once told me to not say the word Sing Sing in front of my grandfather because it upset him.
I flew to New York to examine Sing Sing’s admissions records. In one hour I confirmed that my great-grandfather, registered as Isaac Spier, alias Herbert Edward Spier, was a criminal.
Isaac’s trouble started when two women took their separate grievances to the Kings County Courthouse. My great-grandmother Ida complained to the judge that Isaac had abandoned her. The other woman, Minnie Ott, accused Isaac of bigamy.
Several newspapers provided different perspectives of the story. According to one account, my great-grandmother went with my then-infant grandfather and a policeman to Minnie’s house. After realizing who was at the door, Isaac darted into the street and hopped onto an eastbound trolley car. A mile down the road he realized the policeman was following him, so Isaac jumped off the trolley and hopped on another one headed in the opposite direction. Eventually Isaac was apprehended.
Another newspaper captured the dialog between my ancestors. Isaac first denied ever knowing my great-grandmother. In response, she held up my grandfather in front of Isaac and said, “Do you deny that this is your son?” Isaac’s only response was a gulp.
He was later convicted of bigamy and sentenced to four years at Sing Sing. Police suspected that Isaac might have had as many as four wives.
As I continued to research Isaac’s nefarious past, I found a 1916 New York City Police Department report that detailed how Isaac laundered money from Gretsch, a guitar manufacturer. In 1925, he made The New York Times when he was accused of extortion. As an auditor for the New York State Income Tax Bureau, Isaac was the target of a failed police sting operation.
Although the process took years, I finally determined that Isaac was born in London, the son of a rabbi. By comparing my great-grandparents’ marriage certificate to my grandfather’s birth certificate, it is clear that he was conceived out of wedlock.
His headstone at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens, located right next to the grave of his third wife, Rose, shows his name as Joseph in English and Isaac in Hebrew. If nothing else, his tombstone is an amusing final tribute to his use of aliases.
Criminal behavior among Jews has been far more rampant than what our parents or the Jewish community are willing to admit. I was amazed to find thousands of Jewish criminals as I delved deep into Sing Sing’s records. The goniffs ranged from big-name gangsters to small-time crooks and included physicians who performed illegal abortions.
As a genealogist, I have come across numerous fellow descendants of Jewish inmates who have been kind enough to share the stories of their ancestors with me. I find solace in the fact that I’m not alone. And the odds are likely that you might have a black sheep like Isaac in your family, too.
Ron Arons is a member of both the Los Angeles and San Francisco Jewish Genealogical Societies. He will be teaching a three-part introductory genealogy course at The University of Judaism beginning Oct. 18. Walk-ins welcome. For more information, visit dce.uj.edu/Content/CourseUnits.asp?CID=282 or call (310) 440-1246.