Queer or peculiar?

While I was reading up on Andrew Jackson last month, I stumbled across what sounded like a love story between two men, a story I hadn’t heard before. During the Battle of New Orleans, at the end of the War of 1812, the Jewish merchant and philanthropist Judah Touro was hit in the thigh by a cannonball while on militia duty. Touro had enlisted as a common soldier. When news of his injury reached his friend and fellow merchant Rezin D. Shepherd, who was serving as an aide to a naval commodore, Shepherd reacted dramatically: he left his post, found Touro, put him in a cart, carried him to his house, hired nurses to care for him, and thereby saved his life.

Shepherd’s spontaneous actions were risky. Under Andrew Jackson’s command, soldiers were sometimes shot for leaving their posts without permission. Naturally enough, Touro and Shepherd "were ever afterwards inseparable in this world," according to the 19th-century historian Alexander Walker. When Touro died, he left half his fortune to charity and the rest to Shepherd, between $500,000 and $750,000. That sounds like no more than gratitude, except for a further detail: Walker writes that Touro and Shepherd "lived under the same roof" even before Shepherd saved Touro’s life.

The detail would seem to put Shepherd and Touro’s relationship in a different light. Is there more to the story? Over the past month, when I’ve had a spare moment, I’ve tried to find out a little more about Touro and Shepherd. The short answer: Inconclusive.

Touro never married. I don’t know yet whether Shepherd did, but probably so; he had at least one daughter. It turns out that Touro was rather famous as a philanthropist; he gave money not only for the Bunker Hill Monument but also to Mass General Hospital in Boston and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and to churches and synagogues in New Orleans, New York, Newport, and elsewhere. He even left $50,000 to Sir Moses Montefiore for relief of the poor in Jerusalem. And he was almost as famous as an eccentric. Though one of the richest men in America, Touro "usually ate his meals by himself, and . . . resided in cheap boardinghouses until relatively late in life," according to the American National Biography—a description that seems to contradict Walker’s claim that Touro and Shepherd lived together. But the ANB adds, somewhat cryptically, "What has not been learned since [Touro’s] death continues to puzzle scholars."

In 1955, the scholar Bertram Korn argued in the Jewish Quarterly Review that Touro had been praised as a Jewish philanthropist more than he deserved to be. Korn suggested that Touro was in fact guilty of an inexplicable "indifference towards Jewish life" and felt that the credit for Touro’s bequests should actually go to a journalist named Gershom Kursheedt, without whose charm, patience, and persuasive powers, Korn believed, Touro would have left his money only to civic charities. Korn shed no light on Touro’s special bond with Shepherd, but he did quote a number of Kursheedt’s private expressions of frustration with Touro. "You know he is a strange man," Kursheedt confided to a friend, and likened the millionaire to a snail or a crab. "Mr. Shepherd tells me I must be very careful to humor him or in an instant all may be lost."

In the end, I can’t say whether Touro was queer or merely peculiar. A couple of sources relayed a rumor that Touro remained a lifelong bachelor because in youth he had been in love with a cousin, Catherine Hayes, and had never got over his broken heart when their family separated them. But the sources were careful to specify that it was no more than a rumor. Another source adds that "he certainly avoided the society of ladies and was never willing to exchange a word with them." But that doesn’t really tip the scales either; social awkwardness would explain that behavior better than homosexuality would.

3 thoughts on “Queer or peculiar?”

  1. Although leaving the battle to save your friend might be contrary to military discipline in the 19th century, Shepherd was acting in the tradition of brothers in arms. Neither was regular army were they?

  2. Good point, and good question. As I understand it, Touro was regular army, but Shepherd wasn't. My source for the anecdote is Walker's Jackson and New Orleans, as quoted in vol. 2 of Parton's Life of Andrew Jackson, pp. 165ff:

    When the State was invaded, both [Touro and Shepherd] voluntered their services, and were enrolled among its defenders. Mr. Touro was attached to the regiment of Louisiana militia, and Mr. Shepherd to Captain Ogden's horse troop.

    Soon after volunteering, Shepherd was appointed an aide to Commodore Patterson of the navy, and the task he dropped when he heard about Touro was the fetching of two masons to help in the building of a battery. So no, it isn't as if Shepherd was a sentry who deserted his post, or as if he left the front lines under fire. As a wealthy merchant like Shepherd, Touro could probably also have had himself put into a position of greater responsibility, but didn't, perhaps out of the same quirk of personality that drove him to man his New Orleans shop himself, twelve hours a day.

  3. I guess I'm a bit surprised at the absence of a larger context here for NeverGotOverABrokenHeart syndrome. I think you forgot to mention just how frequently lifelong bachelors of the era gave that explanation.

    And an explanation was a very important thing to have in that time. The social pressure to marry was much higher than modern readers can imagine, and likewise the social penalties for failing to do so were heavier than we can appreciate. Every "respectable" male member of society was either a devoted husband and father or had a good excuse, such as the death of a spouse, to account for the deficit. And men who were not "respectable" were at risk to keep their heads above water.

    Today, no one would seriously entertain the NeverGotOverABrokenHeart ploy. Men (then and now) simply don't make their marriage decisions on that basis. But I don't think anyone alive today can tell us what proportion of the population was sentimental or naive enough to believe it then. A few naive women may have fallen for it. On the other hand, Touro's contemporaries deliberately printed the Doesn'tLikeCompanyOfWomen trope to quietly telegraph a significant message to their intended readership.

    Touro's contemporaries would have understood the story in its unspoken context. Shepherd's success as a maritime merchant was utterly dependent upon his ability to accept his suppliers for precisely what they were: reckless, hard-drinking, whoring, and, in significant part, sexually bonded to one another.

    Decades of research since Katz published Gay American History in 1976 have (at least in my mind) proven that Melville's suppressed hints of sodomy aboard sailing ships reflected a common situation. Therefore, Shepherd's best chance of winning the continued confidence of sea captains would have been if he were actually one of those comrades left behind with a kiss as the ship departs (see: "Calamus").

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