Two Half-Plate Daguerreotypes
Newport, Rhode Island, ca. 1850s,
apparently the first photographic depiction
of a Jewish event in the United States
Judah Touro was born in Newport, Rhode Island in 1775. Touro’s connection to Judaism was heavily influenced by his father, Rabbi Isaac Touro. Under Rabbi Touro’s leadership, the Newport Sephardic congregation Jeshuat Israel completed construction of Touro Synagogue in 1763, making it the oldest surviving synagogue building in North America. Despite a childhood marked by poverty, Touro went on to live a prosperous life. As an adult, Touro spent time in Boston before permanently relocating to New Orleans, where he lived most of his life. Touro supported the founding of many institutions in New Orleans, including a hospital, a home for the poor, and the city’s first synagogue. The synagogue later separated into two congregations: one of the Sephardic tradition, one of the Ashkenazi tradition. Touro continued to financially support both traditions, although he himself was a Sephardic Jew.
Upon his death in New Orleans in January of 1854, Touro bequeathed what would today total approximately two billion dollars in support of hospitals, orphanages, schools, libraries, and Jewish congregations across the United States. Remembering Newport, his birthplace, Touro also donated $10,000 to purchase and improve the “Old Stone Mill,” an area that was kept as a public park; $3,000 to Newport’s library; and $10,000 to pay the salaries of those men “keeping in repair and embellish[ing]” the Jewish Cemetery. One of his larger donations went to the Jewish Cemetery, to be known later as Touro Cemetery. Touro’s body was returned to Newport and interred at Touro Cemetery in June of 1854.
The first daguerreotype seems to depict Judah Touro’s burial at Touro Cemetery in June of 1854. A group of men stand outside the Touro Cemetery gates. One is wearing a top hat and traditional white kittel, a shroud worn by Jewish men of the Ashkenazi tradition who are in mourning. In front of this man is a jar or urn, likely containing soil from the Holy Land, to be used during the subsequent ceremony. An account written on the day of the funeral states: “After the coffin was deposited in the grave, the Rev. Mr. Isaacs deposited upon it a quantity of earth which was brought from Jerusalem for the purpose.” Only two people were interred in Touro cemetery during the daguerreian era: Judah Touro and his cousin, Catherine Hays, who died in Richmond, Virginia on January 2, 1854. Since Judah Touro was a major benefactor in Newport and beloved by the city’s inhabitants, it’s more likely that this daguerreotype depicts his burial.
Men wearing kittel are also present in the second daguerreotype of this set. A horse-drawn sleigh carries a group of men through a snowy street, indicating that this event took place during the winter season. The presence of kittel seem to link the sleigh scene to the first anniversary of Touro’s death, or yahrzeit, in January of 1855; or, the dedication of Touro’s cenotaph in Touro Cemetery on December 1st of 1855.
The two half plate daguerreotypes being offered were once part of a group of approximately seven half plates scenes, all from Newport, Rhode Island. One of the case bottoms from the original group was stamped with “Williams, Daguerrian Gallery”. It is likely that the two daguerreotypes being offered were made by J. Appleby Williams of Newport.
Each half-plate measures 5 1/2 x 4 1/4 in. The sight dimensions of the daguerreotypes are 4 1/2 x 3 1/4 or the reverse.