Legally Insane? The Tale Of A 19th Century Convert


Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Warder Cresson (1798-1860) was the first U.S. Consul to Jerusalem. Born to a Quaker family, Cresson in 1840 met Isaac Leeser who alongside Mordecai Manual Noah caused him to develop a keen interest in Judaism and Jewish activities in Palestine.

In May 1844, he was commissioned as the first consul of Jerusalem, but the appointment was revoked before he arrived in Jerusalem, unbeknownst to him. Once in Jerusalem, he developed a strong friendship with the Sephardic community in the Yishuv, and by 1848, he sought to convert to Judaism.


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He returned to the States in 1848 to arrange his affairs, convert, and move back to Jerusalem. His family, in an attempt to prevent his departure, had him declared insane in court. His appeal, which resulted in a six-day trial, was of great public interest at the time, with nearly 100 witnesses called to help determine whether he was sane.

The court ultimately overturned the lower court’s decision, and he was declared fit and released. During this period, he was an active member of the Mikveh Israel synagogue and wrote for the Jewish publication The Occident. He returned to Jerusalem where he married a Sephardic woman names Rachel Moledano, and lived in Jerusalem until his death in 1865.

A volume I acquired this week, titled The Key of David, David the True Messiah, or the anointed of the God of Jacob, was published by Cresson in 1851 and tells his version of this remarkable tale and his beliefs. Cresson wrote fiercely against the many missionaries that made Jerusalem their home “in the very best houses, bought most splendid Arabian horses and dressed in the most luxurious and stylish manner.”

He wrote of their attempt to convert Jews. “To further their imposing and enterprising object they built a church which has cost them more than $150,000; then a hospital and Dispensary, sent physicians from England, set up an institution of Industry and also a college and schools, all to entrap and instruct the poor, dirty, oily, greasy, starving Jews and to tempt and provide them with good livings, fine English clothing….” According to Cresson, the missionaries failed to convert one Jew to their beliefs.

Cresson’s conversion appears in the responsa of the Aruch Laner, Avne Nezer, Yismach Levav, and others because there was a delay between his circumcision and immersion in a mikveh (because he was recovering from the brit). Rabbinic authorities were unsure what his status was in the interim period.


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