Once Upon a Time

Quincy's Jewish families helped shape the city

This undated trade card is from the J. Stern & Sons men's clothing store in Quincy. | Public domain card courtesy of the Arnold and Deannie Kaplan Collection of Early American Judaica at the University of Pennsylvania
Posted: May. 18, 2019 12:01 am Updated: May. 18, 2019 11:40 pm

From the arrival of Abraham Jonas and his family in 1838 through the end of the 19th century, Jews -- despite their tiny numbers -- were essential in laying the foundations of the city of Quincy. They established businesses that made the city prosper and played a large role in civic and charitable affairs.

Jonas, a close friend of Abraham Lincoln, helped bring a Lincoln-Douglas debate to Quincy. Jonas was a lawyer and state legislator and held the highest Masonic position in Illinois. His wife, Louisa, replaced him as postmaster after his death. While Jonas' sons fought in the Civil War, daughter Annie worked on the Great Western Illinois Sanitary Fair in 1864 as a member of the Needle Pickets, a women's soldier aid society.

The Jonas family was British and highly literate, and Abraham's brother Samuel was instrumental in the Quincy Public Library's first years, lecturing there and serving as president. Abraham's nephew Lewin Cohen, also a library trustee, was a prominent physician on the faculty of Quincy Medical College and an early officer of the County Health Department.

Other Jews who settled in Quincy in the mid-19th century were from present-day Germany and western Poland and encountered some discrimination. Some in Quincy shared the common belief that Judaism should be respected for its foundational beliefs but had become an archaic, outmoded religion superseded by Christianity. Over time, Jews earned respect, and some became leading citizens.

Most Jewish newcomers began in a small way as peddlers or clerks, and then became shopkeepers. Some became successful wholesalers, retailers and manufacturers -- big employers that helped Quincy thrive. Jewish merchants led efforts to pave sidewalks; improve access to the city by water, rail, and road; electrify the city; and host citywide fairs and parades.

Isaac Lesem gave the city a boost in 1890 when he hired 400 people, mostly women, to sew Noxall overalls and work shirts. His modern factory featured fire escapes, good lighting and proper ventilation. Public-minded, Lesem was one of the city's top promoters. In 1890, he lobbied in Washington to improve Quincy's wharf. He served on statewide boards, including the Board of Education.

Gustav Levi personally made good on all deposits after his bank failed. Morris Goodman, cigar manufacturer, instituted the eight-hour workday in Quincy. In 1890, J. Sterns & Sons, a successful men's clothing store, attracted fanfare by throwing 50 overcoats off its roof to a crowd of 1,000 below.

In the early 1870s, Quincy's Jewish population topped out at about 500, making Jews just 2% of the population, but they had a far larger share of children in the public schools. In 1879, for instance, one-third of those who graduated from Quincy High School were Jewish. Tobacconist Samson Kingsbaker was on the Quincy school board. The first from Quincy to attend normal school, Rebecca Lesem, taught in Quincy.

Not only did Jews look after their own through their benevolent and fraternal organizations, they also spearheaded local efforts to fund civic improvements and charities. They were motivated by religious imperative and enthusiasm for their new hometown and its opportunities.

In 1875, the Woodland Home admitted its first Jew to the orphanage's board of directors. From 1853, the orphanage was to be governed by women from each church, "that they contribute to its funds."

Isaac Lesem's wife, Kate, was selected from "the Hebrew Society," to broaden the orphanage's financial base. In Kate's memory, Isaac Lesem contributed generously to the Cleveland Jewish Orphanage.

Jews were major backers of Blessing Hospital from the start, particularly Gustav Levi, who was one of its incorporators. Wealthy Jewish women, including Kate Lesem, Fannie Joseph, Jennie Nelke, Julia Vasen and Harriet Lesem served both on its Board of Lady Managers and as leaders of the Hebrew Ladies' Benevolent Society, which supported it. As a young doctor, Sarah Vasen headed the obstetrics department.

Quincy's rabbi, like the city's Protestant ministers, urged congregants to support citywide charities. Through the city's Minister's Council, Quincy's rabbi was involved in helping the indigent, and his female congregants helped him. Directed to "help the poor to help themselves," the Associated Charities was a nonsectarian citywide voluntary effort established in 1885. Quincy's rabbis and Isaac Lesem, Wolf Joseph, J.D. Levy and Ben Vasen were among the group's top leaders and contributors. Fannie Wolf visited needy families to offer counsel.

Working closely with the Associated Charities, Alderman Harry Swimmer formulated a plan to canvass neighborhoods for funds. Swimmer ceaselessly promoted the city and ran unsuccessfully for mayor. His wife, Lena, led the successful drive for women to serve on the school board. Jewish women joined Christians in 1893 to create the Woman's Council through which Lena Swimmer promoted public parks, street signs and drinking fountains. Jewish women led the council's philanthropic work, with Julia Vasen raising funds to purchase 275 pairs of shoes for school children. Julia's husband, Ben, established the city's savings and loan industry.

Most 19th-century Jews left Quincy for large cities. Julius Jonas, like many others, moved to Chicago, where he secured the vote to locate the Soldiers' Home in Quincy. When I.H. Lesem was criticized for having box seats at Quincy's Empire Theater in 1893, he responded by saying that he had just donated 1,000 loaves of bread to the poor.

Many Quincy Jews, like Julius Jonas' sister Rosalie and her husband, Herman Hirsch, performed charitable deeds unobtrusively. On Herman Hirsch's 1915 death, a newspaper editorialized, "[I]t may be doubted if according to his means there has ever lived in Quincy a man who gave more of time and money for the relief of the poor ..."

Such is the legacy of the Jews who helped establish the city of Quincy and those who followed.


Cynthia Francis Gensheimer is an independent scholar. She holds a doctorate in economics and is writing a book about the history of Quincy's Jewish women's benevolence. She is the author of an article about a woman from Quincy: "Annie Jonas Wells: Jewish Daughter, Episcopal Wife, Independent Intellectual," published in American Jewish History.



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Gensheimer, Cynthia F., "A Jewish Family Divided," Heritage, The Magazine of the American Jewish Historical Society, Winter, 2012.

Gensheimer, Cynthia F., "Annie Jonas Wells: Jewish Daughter, Episcopal Wife, Independent Intellectual," American Jewish History, Vol. 98, No. 3, July 2014, pp. 83-125.

Gensheimer, Cynthia F., and David A. Frolick, "Dr. Sarah Vasen: Pioneer female obstetrician," Quincy Herald-Whig, March 21, 2015.

Gensheimer, Cynthia F. and Anton Hieke, "Heimat and Home: Mobility Among Jews in Quincy, Illinois," American Jewish History, Vol. 102, Issue 2, 2018, pp. 255-277.

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Photo presentation

Cynthia Gensheimer of Denver and David Frolick of Columbus, Ohio, will present "A Photographic Essay on Jewish Life in Quincy" at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 19, at the History Museum on the Square, 332 Maine. Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County Museum is sponsoring the event, which is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served after the program.