Blood Libel: The Dam­as­cus Affair of 1840

Ronald Flo­rence
  • Review
By – September 24, 2012

Charges of rit­u­al mur­der against Jews were not uncom­mon in Chris­t­ian Europe in the Mid­dle Ages, and the case of Leo Frank in Geor­gia in the ear­ly years of the 20th cen­tu­ry revi­tal­ized this libel in the Amer­i­can South. But the 1840 accu­sa­tion of rit­u­al mur­der after the dis­ap­pear­ance of a Capuchin monk in Dam­as­cus, Syr­ia, pro­vides a unique and com­plex dra­ma revolv­ing around this age – old calum­ny. Ronald Flo­rence, a nov­el­ist and his­to­ri­an, mas­ter­ful­ly recounts the dra­ma of this 19th cen­tu­ry epic clash of reli­gions and inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics in a com­pelling and schol­ar­ly chronicle. 

The Chief Pros­e­cu­tor in the Dam­as­cus Affair” was the French con­sul, aid­ed by his British coun­ter­part. The unlike­ly defend­ers of the accused Jews were the Sul­tan, ruler over the Ottoman Empire, and the Aus­tri­ans. Even the Amer­i­can rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Dam­as­cus sup­port­ed the charges brought against the city’s hap­less Jews. The facts sur­round­ing the blood libel clear­ly exon­er­ate the Jew­ish bar­ber, Negrin, and eight oth­er promi­nent mem­bers of the local Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, who were tor­tured in order to obtain a con­fes­sion. On Feb­ru­ary 5, 1840, Father Thomas, a Sar­din­ian supe­ri­or of the Fran­cis­can con­vent at Dam­as­cus, dis­ap­peared with his ser­vant. The monk, who prac­ticed med­i­cine and who often pro­vid­ed med­ical care to Chris­t­ian, as well as Jew­ish and Mus­lim, inhab­i­tants of Dam­as­cus, was a well – known fig­ure. A few days before Father Thomas’ dis­ap­pear­ance, he had engaged in a dis­pute with a Turk­ish mule­teer who had heard the monk blas­pheme Mohammed. The Turk is report­ed to have yelled: That dog of a Chris­t­ian shall die by my hand.” Yet the French con­sul, Rat­ti-Men­ton, a noto­ri­ous anti-Semi­te, on advice from some local monks togeth­er with the con­nivance of the gov­er­nor, Sherif Pasha, com­menced inves­ti­ga­tions of the Jew­ish quar­ter when Father Thomas disappeared.

Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in Europe and Amer­i­ca were appealed to, and pub­lic meet­ings and demon­stra­tions were held against the sham tri­al” of the Dam­as­cus nine” in Lon­don, Paris, New York and Philadel­phia. The Aus­tri­an con­sul in Alexan­dria, Egypt, defend­ed the accused Jews, as did the Sul­tan Majid in Con­stan­tino­ple. Ulti­mate­ly Rat­ti- Men­ton was exposed for the scoundrel he was when, after an appoint­ment to a con­sular post in Can­ton, Chi­na, he was accused of cor­rup­tion and involve­ment in a smug­gling oper­a­tion. Notwith­stand­ing the scan­dals that marked the last years of his diplo­mat­ic career, Rat­ti-Men­ton retired from the French diplo­mat­ic corps as an offi­cer of the Legion d’Honneur.

Ronald Flo­rence ably weaves the his­tor­i­cal events of 1840, Dam­as­cus into a first – rate mys­tery that, sad­ly, has echoes in the anti-Semit­ic rhetoric and vio­lence wit­nessed in Europe and the Mid­dle East of late. This review­er high­ly rec­om­mends Blood Libel, not only as an his­tor­i­cal mono­graph, but as a pow­er­ful thriller with thought – pro­vok­ing insights into con­tem­po­rary anti-Jew­ish prejudices.

Stephen H. Gar­rin is a past man­ag­ing edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World and a past assis­tant to the direc­tor of the Jew­ish Book Council.

Discussion Questions