Montefiore Hospital: Jacob Schiff’s Enchanted Mountain (Part 1).

The following excerpt is from an unpublished biography The Benevolent Warrior: A Critical Study of Jacob Schiff, Robber Baron and Philanthropist by Robert Dannin.

One hundred years ago he was a Gotham presence without equal. The name Jacob Schiff (1847-1920) resonated among immigrant Jews from East Side tenements to Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. Some compared him to Moses leading his people from the wilderness while others cursed him, in Yiddish mostly, as a Teutonic overlord intent on grinding young cheder boys into fodder for countless sweatshops or other degrading acts of manual labor. Politicians from opposite sides of the aisle, the Republican Charles Evans Hughes and the Democrat Samuel Untermeyer, excoriated his patrician business practices and sought his public humiliation.

A diminutive, meticulously groomed financier, Schiff was expectantly squired yet never entirely welcomed in Pierpont Morgan’s sumptuous Metropolitan Club where he dared wrestle the great man to a draw in a contest to monopolize the nation’s transcontinental railroads.

Weekdays he commanded the Kuhn, Loeb & Co. offices overlooking Pine Street and negotiated profits with the Robber Barons – James J. Hill, Edward Harriman, William K. Vanderbilt, Henry Villard, George Baker of National City Bank, and Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller Sr.

Jacob Schiff. (CREDIT: From the Collection of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives)

On weekends he comfortably debated socialists or listened to the pleas of Russian revolutionaries at the Henry Street Settlement whose director Lillian Wald escorted him through a Progressive’s trail of public hygiene, social welfare, healthcare, feminism, and pacifist militancy. When Wald veered hard to the left – Emma Goldman, Max Eastman, The Masses, etc. – other philanthropists blustered and dumped her, but not Schiff who perennially intervened to settle strikes in favor of beleaguered garment workers and funded radical screeds against the brutal Romanov tsars. As a commissioner in New York Department of Education, he lobbied successfully to assign registered nurses in all public schools and championed employment for black school workers against threats of cutbacks and layoffs.

On Civil Rights, he preferred Washington’s Tuskegee Plan but also contributed to DuBois’ Niagara Movement.  The NAACP’s first meeting was held in the sturdy colonial brick complex on Henry Street acquired and refurbished on his account. His fortune was immense, his gifts large and diverse; the Educational Alliance, the Free Loan Society, the 92nd Street Y, the Museum of Natural History, Peary’s expedition to the Arctic, the New York Public Library, Harvard’s Semitic Museum, Goethe University and other charitable endeavors in his native Frankfurt  – all given on condition that his name not be prominently inscribed or in any other way attached to those institutions within his lifetime.  

If Abe Cahan’s Daily Forward, voice of the Hebrew immigrant community, regularly devoured him for breakfast, then the financial press, the Times, and the Tribune marveled at his prowess and feted his milestones. Novelists Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Theodore Dreiser abused him as the stereotypical wealthy Gilded Age Jew, a sometimes crude, yet dependably avaricious social climber and cultural interloper who inflected their realist literature with a Rhenish accent. Newspapers reported his frequent journeys abroad and often featured his comments on national and international affairs. 

Familiar, if not altogether comfortable, with celebrity he eschewed lengthy explanations of his actions by letting journalists draw their own conclusions. It is said, for example, that he triggered the Crash of 1901 by declining to execute an important client’s purchase order although he received and pocketed the request while attending prayer at Temple Emanuel. Are we to believe that he never traded on Sabbath? In the muckraking classic, Other People’s Money, and How Bankers Use It, Louis Brandeis, a fellow German-American Jew, skewered him as Public Enemy Number Two to Morgan’s Number One.

An even darker, malevolent Schiff ignited the imagination of Russia’s proto-fascists, the real authors of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, who held him responsible for the Gold Standard and the U.S. Federal Reserve System, symbols of a clandestine plot for Jewish world domination.

With greater subtlety, Schiff was immortalized as the puckish Uncle Pennybags, trademark of Monopoly, arguably the world’s most famous board game after chess. But for this caricature and a bronze plaque in the 92d Street Y’s vestibule, he’s gone missing. Unlike his quondam rival Morgan whose reputation still echoes in literature and the annals of finance, Schiff never lent his name to a tickertape symbol nor did his firm survive the mergers and recessions of the 20th century. He disbursed most of his immense wealth before dying in 1920 at the age of seventy-two, and here perhaps with one comparatively small donation, lies the mystery of his disappearance and comeback.


The ghetto. (CREDIT: LIbrary of Congress)

According to Ralph Waldo Emerson an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man, and Montefiore is the shadow of Jacob Schiff. 

On September 30, 1908, Jacob Schiff delivered the keynote address before delegates gathered in Washington, DC for the International Congress on Tuberculosis. Entitled, “Institutional Care for the Early Advanced Consumptive … Experiences and Conclusions of a Layman,” his speech described the challenges of managing chronic degenerative diseases. What was the correct strategy for public health officials? How should scarce resources be deployed to treat the maximum number of potential patients compassionately? Were the existing therapies consistent with advanced scientific knowledge? 

Schiff offered no circumlocutions as to the identity of the patients, the “dependent classes of New York City” whose “unstable residency” made it difficult to monitor the progress of the diseases. The majority were recent Jewish immigrants from Russia “often underfed, of weakened constitutions and generally unaccustomed to the rigor of the new climate.”

For those in the early stages of the disease, the road to health led through a sanitarium cure to provide fresh air, good nutrition, and some occupational therapy. This prescription was necessary to rescue them from the advanced stage of consumption when they might become “a public danger.” There was not much one could do for the latter except to isolate them in a “reasonable and humane manner.” Whether or not their affliction was intractable, something had to be done to look after the families left behind lest their children succumb to the same pathogenic conditions.

Schiff was speaking on the eve of the twenty-fifth year of his stewardship of the Montefiore Home for Chronic Invalids and Country Sanitarium for Consumptives. He outlined a national model in which public hospitals were best equipped to deal with advanced tuberculosis cases while private hospitals handled the early-stage patients. Borrowing also from his experiences at the Henry Street Settlement he proposed using public schools and visiting nurses on housecalls to identify and treat “young sufferers” while providing welfare assistance to families who had lost their breadwinners to the tubercular scourge. Understanding the link between disease and poverty was essential for treating the epidemic in communities where the trauma of displacement created stress fractures in the weakest of social classes.

Illustration from Brockhaus and Efron Jewish Encyclopedia (1906—1913). Montefiore Home for Chronic Invalids in the Bronx, New York; this evolved into the present-day Montefiore Medical Center. I believe the central portion of this building still survives as part of the modern hospital (either that or it was replicated), although the wings have been replaced.

Schiff, a realist, saw tuberculosis as a catastrophic threat to civic order requiring prompt attention from the nation’s politicians and philanthropists. At Montefiore he had created an institution whose physicians and patients seemed obsessed with understanding the nature of disease in its deep, metaphysical sense as an affliction of the soul. Like Dr. Behrens, the medical director of Berghof Sanitarium in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, who used x-rays to analyze the most intimate details of his patients’ lives, Benevolent Schiff exercised an unorthodox presence among Montefiore’s patients while inspiring its staff to visionary heights. The difference of course is that Thomas Mann’s novel was a fictional alpine spa for the European bourgeoisie whereas Schiff’s Montefiore was and remains a vital metropolitan hospital dedicated to the best available treatment for the poorest of the poor. 

New York’s second Jewish hospital was conceived during a meeting at the Shearith Israel synagogue in 1884 and named to commemorate the one-hundredth birthday of the eminent British philanthropist Moses Montefiore. Shearith Israel was spiritual home to the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who settled in Manhattan around 1655. With other Sephardic immigrants in the cities along the east coast, these Sephardim regarded themselves as the original Jewish settlers who had weathered Dutch and British colonial rule until the American Revolution finally cemented their claims to citizenship and religious freedom. 

In the mid-nineteenth century they had viewed the next wave of German-Jewish immigrants with the same apprehensions that the latter now focused on Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Russia, Poland, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Shearith Israel’s president Adolphus Solomons and its rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes had convened a meeting with their German Jewish peers to discuss urgent questions about this third and largest wave of immigrants. In attendance were the leaders of Temple Emanuel, bastion of the German Reform Judaism, including Marcus Goldman, Henry Lehman, Solomon Loeb, Louis Gans, Adolph Lewisohn, Joseph Seligman, Isidor Straus and Jacob Schiff. No invitations were extended however to representatives of the new immigrants themselves.

Thus, the city’s Jewish elite convened to discuss remedies for the immigrants’ physical and psychological difficulties, mostly derived from the stress of exile and sudden displacement.

Driven from their homes and firesides … [they] undergo many privations … sickness … fatigue, irregularity of living, bad and insufficient diet … in order to reach the Promised Land.

Among their many afflictions were chronic diseases, principally tuberculosis, considered to be cause by unsanitary housing. Many immigrants sought assistance at the city’s hospitals and dispensaries but were rejected out of prejudice and overcrowding. Mt. Sinai, the city’s first Jewish hospital, was a bastion of German Jewish chauvinism and did not readily welcome either patients or doctors from the Lower East Side. Rather than expose themselves to opprobrium from their co-religionists, the big shots decided to shelter those afflicted with communicable diseases in a separate institution located outside their neighborhood and beyond the range of public controversy that might cause problems for all Jews, meaning themselves. 

Montefiore quickly outgrew its first home at East 84th Street and York Ave., moved to West 138th Street at Broadway in 1888, and then relocated to its permanent location at Gun Hill Road in the Bronx in 1914.  In 1901 a large annex or country asylum opened north of the city in Westchester County.

Jacob Schiff stood out among Montefiore’s benefactors not only as the most generous but also as a thoroughly dedicated and active board president. He endowed Montefiore with a professional staff, organized its administration, and imposed a clear division of labor. Like one of the railroads controlled by his investment bank Kuhn, Loeb & Co., the hospital was a capital- intensive enterprise; although a non-profit, its success was still measured by the size of its budget indicative of its capacity to treat the greatest number of patients, employ the best doctors, and purchase the latest medical technology. 

Testifying to Schiff’s managerial skills it has been written that he “maintained a first-hand contact with the everyday life of Montefiore that must be regarded as startling. Outside the Hospital staff and his intimates, how many people knew that regularly, week in week out, over a period of many years he read every application for admission to the institution? Or that every application with its attached sheaf of pathetic correspondence meant to him not a mere drop in the bucket of administrative detail but a vital human problem, a veritable matter of life and death? He confided once to a colleague, ‘I can’t read them at home anymore – they keep me awake at nights. I’ll have to bring them to the office.’” The Montefiore Hospital archives contain scores of such applications “upon which he scribbled terse notes, signing them with the characteristic initials ‘JHS.’” 

According to his daughter Frieda the intensity of his devotion to Montefiore was all-consuming. “Each place and each move was [sic] long discussed in my parents’ home. Every Sunday morning, except during the summer months, he left his home at half past nine and did not return until lunchtime.” She recalled accompanying him on his rounds through the hospital wards where he knew every patient, their families, and financial conditions. As the hospital’s chief fundraiser, he wrote personal appeals to wealthy New Yorkers describing his vision of a consolidated charity to serve all indigent residents in the city. This explicitly stated goal alienated those who resented his self-appointed leadership and viewed him as a self-aggrandizing patron. Yet no one challenged him publicly. After lamenting the meager results of an annual fundraising campaign, Frieda gently reproached him, “Your goal seems to be that every Jew in New York ought to be either a contributor to, or an inmate of Montefiore.’

“‘Yes, of course, that is as it should be,’ he responded without a trace of irony.” 

From the moment he became president of the Montefiore board in 1886 until his retirement in 1919. Schiff took his position seriously and expected as much from the other trustees. A few tried to emulate his frequent visits, making the rounds of patients, and supervising staff but soon found it impossible to match his remarkable pace. By the same token his partners and associates on Wall Street understood that Montefiore took precedence over the Union Pacific, Westinghouse, or even his most important client, the Union Pacific Railroad tycoon Edward Harriman. At the height of the 1901 Panic, Schiff was nowhere to be found and when finally located at Montefiore he explained coolly to a frantic Kuhn, Loeb partner, “I thought that the poor people up here needed me more than you people down there.” 

If the other trustees failed to the visit the hospital regularly, they always remembered punctually waiting at “designated corners” when Schiff’s car would pick them up for Montefiore board meetings. New York’s mayor Seth Low cited Schiff’s work as a “force for good municipal government” because it depended upon the “social work of the very character performed at Montefiore.”⁠ At the hospital’s 25th anniversary gala, Low’s praise reached new heights.

If Schiff’s charitable largesse was a commonly known fact, then few people realized how much of a managerial presence he was in Montefiore’s success. Dr. Simon Baruch, a German-trained physician and Montefiore’s first medical director, was an innovator of hydrotherapy, the water-cure, or total irrigation of the body through weekly colonic cleansing, drinking lots of liquids, and frequent Epsom salts bathing.

As a treatment for consumption, the colloquial term for tuberculosis, hydrotherapy addressed the known culprits for the disease, unsanitary housing, and unclean, cheap food. Hydrotherapy was also consistent with the metaphysical notion of fighting the pollution, thought to be an inherent characteristic of the bedraggled East European tenement dwellers.

In the years preceding germ theory and discovery of the Koch bacillus to test for tuberculosis, hydrotherapy represented an advanced, scientific treatment leading Baruch to claim that Montefiore would become the Mecca to which the best minds of the profession would turn for information on the subject.  Nutritious meals and comfortable, sterile living quarters supplemented Baruch’s hydrotherapeutic treatment of the first fifty patients to enter the program. In the best tradition of European spas, they received copious amounts of fresh food, beer, and good tobacco.

Schiff’s wife Therese and his mother-in-law Betty Loeb organized donations of essentials from local merchants and wholesalers and organized the collection of cast-off furniture from the mansions of their friends along Fifth Avenue and Riverside Drive. They made sure that Montefiore’s communal dining room was always graced with fresh cut flowers.

WORDS: Robert Dannin.


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