On September 22nd, 1928, in a small New York town near the Canadian border, a four-year-old girl disappeared. So begins The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town by New York University historian Edward Berenson. It’s not until the end of the book that we discover the girl’s surprising fate, but this is not her story. This is the story of what historical conditions could have possibly led the inhabitants, the state police, and even the mayor of Massena, NY to believe, only a few hours after the child’s disappearance, that she had been kidnapped and killed by Jews for a ritual murder — blood libel.
While such accusations were not uncommon in Europe, this case, Berenson tells us, was the first and only case of blood libel in the United States. So, the author asks, “Why Massena, New York? And why there but nowhere else in the United States … What did the accusation and its outcome say about the place of Jews in American life?” The book is a deep exploration of the blood libel accusation in Europe and how it made its way to the United States. This gives us a broader overview of part of the history of antisemitism.
Berenson begins with a history of blood libel in Europe, which we learn started with two seminal cases. The first took place in England in 1144, when the Jews of Norwich were accused of torturing and crucifying twelve-year-old William of Norwich. The second occurred in Fulda, Germany in 1235, when thirty-four Jews were tortured and killed in retaliation for what was believed to be a ritual killing of five Christian boys who died in a fire.
From those early roots of blood libel, which spread throughout the Holy Roman Empire, the author takes us to the proliferation of these accusations throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.But this European history isn’t enough to explain how the horrors of that continent made their way to the United States. For that, Berenson digs through the history of Massena, where his own great-grandfather settled in 1898.
Some of the most poignant sections of the book are those covering the history of antisemitism in the United States, and in particular the history of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK.) Equally gripping is the connection between the 1928 presidential election, the KKK, and two prominent rival Jewish leaders, Stephen Wise and Louis Marshall, all of whose stories converge around the Massena case.
Not long after the young girl’s disappearance, the case was national news. Its remnants can be found in the New York Times archives online. A search for Massena from August 1928 to December 1928 shows a series of articles about the case in October of that year, sandwiched in between wedding announcements and sports news.
After the Massena case, blood libel accusations stopped in the United States, but continued in Canada, Europe, and the Soviet Union. Its most current incarnation, writes Berenson, lives on in various areas in the Middle East, where the blood libel myth has morphed from the version in which Jews use Christian children’s blood for ritual purposes to one in which Jews use Arab children’s blood to make matzah for Passover.
In Berenson’s impressive book, he synthesizes centuries of Jewish history into a digestible narrative reflected through a long-forgotten case in a small American town.
Ada Brunstein is the Head of Reference at a university press.