Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The American Jew Who Fought for the Boers During the Second Boer War (1899-1902)

Posted by Ann Rabinowitz




Harry Spanier
Lancaster, Ohio



This story ends on December 11, 1899, with an American, the first Jewish casualty on the Boer side, killed needlessly on the field of battle during a night attack of Surprise Hill, at the siege of Ladysmith, South Africa. However, it begins fortuitously enough with a German Jewish boy, Harry Spanier, who came to America with his siblings Joseph and Pauline as part of the mid-19th Century German Jewish migration to America.

The Spanier siblings were barely teenagers when they arrived and strove to integrate into the American melting pot. Siblings, Joseph and Pauline, settled in post Gold Rush era San Francisco, California, and Harry took to the east coast, New York, and then Columbus in mid-western Ohio.

According to Harry’s passport application, he was the son of Abraham Spanier of Wandsbek, Germany. He had two passports with varying birth dates, one in 1840 and one in 1853. Records are never accurate it seems, even on important documents such as a passport.

Later, as he became acclimated, Harry Spanier became a grocer, a fish market owner, and a speculator in America. He was someone who looked for the main chance, a good idea, a way to make his mark. He was eager to make his first million like he had heard it was possible to do in America, the land of opportunity. The streets were paved with gold were they not?

To others, he appeared to be a fine figure of a man, attractive with blue eyes and light hair, hardly with the look of a Jew about him. He fit in everywhere. He must have been a persuasive talker as he gained the attention of many a prominent businessman, belonged to civic organizations and lodges, and he had many devoted friends.

At some point, he met the lively, ebullient and social Frances Emma Vagnier, the daughter of Bartholomew and Frances Vagnier, who were French Catholics and early settlers of Lancaster, Ohio, a small town not too far from Columbus, Ohio. It was not known how “Emma” met Harry Spanier. She was young, much younger than he was, and eager to see the world and he was a worldly man intent on making things happen. She was smitten despite the difference in their ages and their religions. However, she took her religion seriously, seriously enough to require that their forthcoming children would be brought up Catholic.



Frances Emma Spanier

Columbus, OH



So, they were married in approximately 1884, although no records remain of their joining and whether it was done civilly or in a church. Intermarriage or marrying out whilst frowned upon, occurred frequently in those days where Jews were located in areas where there were few other Jews. The fact, too, was that many of these early German Jewish settlers were of the reform persuasion and also may have become much less observant in the less restrictive confines of America.

The Spanier’s had their first child, Joseph, immediately, and two more, Clara Belle and Lewis J., followed. However, their first son Joseph died in 1890 as did Harry’s brother Joseph. It was a terrible year, but Harry carried on.

It was difficult trying to make something of ones self and raise a family too. However, Harry was a hustler and always eager to find his niche. He kept up with current affairs and what was going on in the world. Eventually, he concocted the idea that he should become involved in South African-related commerce. South Africa was teeming with possibilities as they had much in the way of natural resources such as diamonds, gold and other things, but little in the way of standardized or commercially mass-produced products such as carriages, railroad cars, mining machinery, explosives, etc.

His first successful venture was to represent a combine of New Yorkers in the shipping of mules to South Africa. Since mules were not naturally raised in South Africa and were stronger and more long-lasting than horses, there was a great desire for them, especially in mining where twenty mule teams pulled ore from the mines as well as equipment. They were essential ingredients in the mining industry. In addition, they were most important in military operations such as carting food, guns, and equipment, as had been found in the First Boer War (1880-1881).

As it so happened, the major companies in Columbus, OH, The Columbus Buggy Company, Inc. and Kilbourne and Jacobs Manufacturing Company were intent on providing items related to mining, transportation, and other similar areas. Harry established connections for selling their products overseas in far-off South Africa. A group of the companies hired Harry to go directly to South Africa and negotiate contracts with the government for many diverse items. This was his chance at making it rich. His ambitious plan was to spend a year or two in South Africa, make his fortune and bring his family out to join him.

It was now 1896, and he got his passport and packed his bags and bid good-bye to his devoted wife and two young children and away he went on a ship to South Africa. As he left the coast of America for a daunting and unknown foreign shore, like all adventurers, he penned a letter to his wife of which only the first page remains:

“On board ship, Saturday, Oct.17, 1896

My own dear wife and children,

This is a great moment for me. It almost breaks my heart, but we will trust in God to land us safe and may God keep you and the children until my return. I have set my teeth together to keep from almost breaking down not because I am a coward, but because I miss you so much my darlings. We are just leaving the shore of our country behind and with a heavy heart I am looking at the………………”

And so, Harry sailed across the seas and arrived in South Africa and immediately set about making connections, so he could consummate some deals. He was widely accepted in the halls of government in Pretoria where many other speculators competed with him for the lucrative government contracts. His friends were other Americans, who hung out at certain social clubs, but also the Boers officials who he had to deal with. He was a fresh face who represented companies that had a worldwide reputation which boded well for his future success in closing some deals.

He began to have some successes and American products from Columbus, Ohio, flowed to the Boer Republic in significant amounts. Despite this, he recognized that the big money was going to come from the provision of the railroad cars and lines for new main and branch rail lines being constructed as well as other related machinery for the mines.

In 1898, he represented a group of companies in the following undertaking:

“News by Wire
Transvaal
The New Branch Lines
A Syndicate Offer
Undertaking the Work
At Eight Thousand a Mile

Pretoria, 3rd (Central News Agency)

An American syndicate, which has practically secured the contract for the Vryheid-Dundee line, has submitted a proposal to the Government offering to construct all the new branch lines at an average rate of £8,000 per mile, to be paid in State debentures bearing four percent interest. The proposal will have to be submitted to the Volksraad.”


This was an important arterial rail line which was scheduled to connect the Richards Bay coal line with the Durban-Gauteng main line. The initial section of 11km was built in 1896 from Glencoe to Talana. Due to the onset of the Second Boer War, the line was not extended to Vryheid until 1903.

The South Africa Harry saw was wild and full of possibilities. He continued to write glowing letters to his wife about what he could accomplish. Meanwhile, his letters added that he was terribly homesick and missed his family. The time flew by and it was now three years later, 1899, and Harry had not managed to go home yet. Things were still on the cusp of succeeding for him.

He wrote to his wife that if things did not work out he would come home, but he wanted to stay until he had tried every means of succeeding on a special project he was working on. He told his wife that if he did succeed he would be a millionaire many times over. She wrote back and agreed that he should stay until he reached his goal or his opportunities ran out.

At some point, Harry became a burgher of the ZAR and joined the Boer commandos. He, along with many others from Pretoria, left to defend Ladysmith. It is quite strange that Harry, a man who was considered elderly by most accounts as he was about 59-60, should have done so. It is true that there were older men who joined, but many took non-combatant roles. In addition, he had a wife and two young children who needed his support in America.

What prompted him to take this life-changing and subsequently fatal move which risked everything he had or hoped to accomplish?

  • Did he suddenly become idealistic and join a foreign army, despite the fact that he had only been in the ZAR for only three short years? There is no documentation that has survived of his feelings along these lines.
  • Was he influenced by his friends? Americans speculators, for the most part, who were in South Africa, supported the British and not the Boers. He was also in the minority as a Jew, although there were those who did join the Boer cause, but they were significantly smaller in number than those who fought for the British. However, he did have some close American friends who did join the Boers and this may have accounted for his decision.
  • Was he caught up in something that has not been documented perhaps such as spying for the American government? There were many Americans who were in the same position as he was who just left and went home when the War was declared. They did not stick around. Several descriptions of his activities during the War led one to believe that he was watching and observing the proceedings from the sidelines and not actually participating.
  • Or, did he feel that his participation and support would guarantee his success after the War was over and the Boers won? This may be the final answer as he had told his wife he was in it for the long haul until he reached the success he had struggled to get.
This is the missing link in Harry’s story. There is nothing to tell us either in his correspondence or, those things which have up to now have been uncovered, as to what caused him to end up on a battlefield at Surprise Hill in the dark early hours of December 11, 1899.

One of the unique bits of necrology following Harry’s death was the letter written to Harry’s wife by a Catholic priest, the Rev. Father A. Baudry, who had shared a tent with him on the battlefield.

12.12.1899
Hoofdlager

Madam,

It is my sad duty to ----to you news which will grieve you very much. As you know your husband joined the Boers forces here near Ladysmith. For a couple of weeks he shared the tent where I was. We soon became very friendly and he talked much to me of you and your two children, gave me your address and told me that if anything happened to him to inform you. Though not a R. Catholic he attended mass which I celebrated in the camp on Sunday. We parted about a week hence; he was going to join the Pretoria Commando.

Our eyes were full of tears when we last shook hands to see each other no more. Yesterday morning at about two o’cl his picket was attacked by the English; heavy firing commenced and continued for about an hour.

The English were repulsed, but not until they had blown up one gun with a charge of dynamite. On the Boers side there were 2 killed and 14 wounded. Your husband was among the last. He was mortally shot in the stomach. As soon as I heard of it I went to the ambulance, but he had not yet been brought there.

I went again in the afternoon, but to learn that he had succumbed to his wound. He died in the ambulance wagon on his way to the ambulance train, which was to carry him to Johannesburg.

I need not tell you how much I sympathiese (sic) with your loss. I pray almighty God that He sends you grace and strength to bear your bereavement with the proper Christian resignation and submission to God’s will. Any further information I may gather I shall carefully take down by writing and send to you later on.

Anything I can do for you on my return to Johannesburg I will do with much pleasure. Your husband told me he sent you £400 just before this breaking out of hostilities. He also mentioned something about his affairs in Johannesburg but entered into no details. Your husband was well acquainted with the American Consul in Pretoria and Acting Consul in Johannesburg. They must know the state of his affairs.

If you answer this letter be kind enough to address it to The Rev. Father A. Baudry(sp?),R. C. Priest, Box 430 Johannesburg. The letter will be sent to me, if I am not back in J. H. Burg by that time.
(-------)again my heart felt sympathy and the promise of my humble prayers,

I remain Dear Madam
Yours very truly in J & M

Baudry, R. C. P.” (Roman Catholic Priest)

The unusual nature of Harry’s passing whereby he had been shot by his own side, the Boers, and then bayoneted by the other side, the British, and the fact that he was a foreign soldier, a Jew, at that, and was a person well-known in the halls of power in the Boer Republic, caused his funeral to gain a magnitude that might not have been felt for a regular soldier.

The following is a government report of what took place in Pretoria on December 13, 1899, with President Paul Kruger in attendance:





The certified burial certificate for Harry was attested to by S. [Sigmund] Wolfson, of The Pretoria Jewish Helping Hand and Burial Society, on January 1, 1901. It states that Harry was buried in the Jewish Burial Ground, Block B, Grave #3, Pretoria, SA, on December 10, 1899. It was slightly off a few days from the correct date of December 13, 1899, but still of interest.







As a closing remark, it appears that poor Harry Spanier not only was killed twice, but according to the above letter, he was buried before his death!!!! In addition, he was never able to consummate any of the deals that were in the works before his death which had kept him in South Africa for three long years, away from his beloved family. On top of it, he joined the losing side in the War and got himself killed almost as soon as he was deployed in battle.

All I can say is that unlike the popular Yiddish song “Wie Nemt Men A Bissele Mazel, Harry, poor fellow, had no mazel whatsoever!



Previously published in "Jewish Affairs", Volume 64, No. 3, December, 2009, Johannesburg, South Africa, with permission of the author.



NOTE: Members of the public are invited to attend the ceremony to rededicate the monument for the British killed at Surprise HiIl and a new monument to commemorate the Boer burghers who fought and died there with a special plaque in Hebrew in honor of Harry Spanier.

The function will start at 11:00 a.m. on the December 11, 2009. Lunch will be served to be followed by short talks on various aspects of the night attack on Surprise Hill. Venue: Moth Hall, 17 Egerton Road, Ladysmith, 12:30 p.m. A hike to the gun-emplacement on the summit will take place on Saturday morning, December 12, 2009, and may also be arranged for Friday afternoon. Options for visits to nearby battlefields, regional game reserves and Ingula archeological site over the weekend are open. More information can be obtained from the Siege Museum Trust, (camphere@telkomsa.net), 082 801 6524 or Ladysmith Historical Society (jhuman@telkomsa.net), 083 627 8446.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks to Jim Zink for providing the pictures and letters for this article!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sometimes, when going back to one's posts, one finds that something very important and critical was left out. In this case, I forgot to mention that I was quite fortunate to find a family member of Harry Spanier's who had a wonderful chache of memories, photos and newspaper articles that he was willing to share with me. His name was Jim Zink. He also was an expert sleuth and went about investigating the materials he had with just as much interest and vigor as I did. Without his assistance and records, I couldn't have unraveled the knots, twists and turns in Harry's life. It points out the fact it is so important to contact family members when researching your family tree. I am so glad that I was able to connect with Jim Zink and share in Harry's life and that of his family.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hello,

    I have a photo of Clara Belle Spanier who apparently was a friend of my grandmother in Lancaster, Ohio. I would be happy to share it.

    ReplyDelete

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