LATE ON THE EVENING of June 11 in the year 1771, Elizabeth Hutchins, widow, was sitting in the parlor of her farm house in Chelsea, on the outskirts of London, thinking about retiring to bed, her two manservants having already done so, when her dog started barking alarmingly. She called two maidservants to see what the commotion was. Hearing screams, Mrs. Hutchins ran to investigate.
It was what we could call a “home invasion.” Her maids had been set upon and tied up by three or four men dressed in greatcoats “so long they reached down to their heels,” according to Mrs. Hutchins’s testimony at the Old Bailey. She herself was forced to sit, her petticoats pulled over her head. The men went exploring. A scuffling from upstairs was followed by a shout for mercy and two pistol shots, at which point Mrs. Hutchins attempted to escape. Her way was barred by several men waiting outside her back door. She was returned to her chair, struck across the face with a pistol, and had her shoe buckles removed. At one point, she had a pistol pointed at her head. She was forced to hand over 64 guineas in coin. With that and all the plate silver they could find, the gang made off.
One of the pistol shots from upstairs had hit one of her manservants in the back. Joseph Slew crawled downstairs, more or less naked, bleeding. “His shirt was on fire close to the wound, and I put it out,” Mrs. Hutchins testified. “The blood ran down his legs.” He died the following day.
The invaders were identified as Levi Weil, a surgeon and apothecary who had trained at the University of Leiden, his brother Asher, a Hyam Lazarus, and a Solomon Porter. They had been aided and abetted by Marcus Hartogh, Abraham Lineval, Lazarus Harry, and Daniel Isaacs. This last, seeking the handsome reward offered by the government (then an unusual practice), turned the gang in. All were Dutch, though Dr. Weil (as he was always known) was well established in London and spoke fluent English. And all were Jewish.
Up to that point, in 18th-century London, Jews had been despised as con men and petty fraudsters, and of course simply for being Jews, but not as violent criminals. The Hutchins incident was something new.
Having been encouraged back into England by Oliver Cromwell during his reign in the middle of the previous century, the Jewish community in London had grown to about 15,000, of a total population of around a million. Some, mainly Sephardim for whom acculturation was less difficult than for the Jews of Germany and Central Europe, had flourished. A Jewish elite existed.
There followed, in 1753, the controversy over the Jewish Naturalisation Act. Known familiarly as the Jew Bill, it had as its object the immigration of “the many persons of considerable substance professing the Jewish religion.” The process was deliberately expensive, so the Jews in question had to be rich. And anyway, according to the great literary man and Parliamentarian Horace Walpole, the bill was “purely for increasing wealth and commerce in the nation.” It wouldn’t make foreign-born Jews any more “citizens” than native-born Jews, Catholics, or Dissenters—none of whom, because they could not take the necessary Oath of Abjuration or pass the Sacramental Test affirming their commitment to the Church of England, were allowed to vote, take a degree, or be called to the bar.
Passing without great difficulty through Commons and Lords, the Bill became an act in May, at which point, according to the Scots Magazine, a “clamour . . . was industriously propagated against it.” Pamphlets and newspapers raised preposterous objections. It was suggested, for example, that one consequence would be the institution of mandatory circumcision. Genesis 34:15–16 was cited: “If ye will be as we be, that every male of you be circumcised; Then will we give our daughters unto you, and we will take your daughters to us, and we will dwell with you, and we will become one people.” What follows this verse, as everyone of the day knew, is the slaughter of a newly circumcised non-Jewish tribe by Jacob and his sons as revenge for the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah.
The grounds for objection were both religious and political. With an election due the following year, the Tory opposition jumped on the bandwagon, finding in it a stick with which to beat the Whig government. In a pamphlet by William Romaine, Jews were portrayed as “professed enemies of Christianity” who prayed for its “total extirpation.” These were more or less medieval views, dragged up for political purposes, written by those who wished to stir the mob, which was always ready, as mobs so often are, to raise the flag of malice. This was especially easy to do in light of the fact that only eight years previously the Scottish pretender to the throne, Bonnie Prince Charlie, had conquered England as far south as Derby. Thus, fears of “foreign invasion” were easily rekindled. The public reaction, out of all proportion to the modest provisions of the Act, included the threat of physical violence as well as name-calling. The Jew Bill was repealed in November.
Notably absent from any anti-Jewish sentiments was an accusation of criminality on the part of Jews, which would surely have been a talking point if it had been an issue of the day. In the next decade, however, the subject had become of concern to both Jewish elders and the authorities.
Eighteenth-century London was awash in theft and burglary, and in the 1760s, Jewish fences, receivers of stolen goods, had become among the city’s most vigorous. With their contacts in Germany and Holland stolen goods could be swiftly removed from the capital. Otherwise, Jewish criminality was low-grade, consisting of pickpocketing, passing bad coin, fraud, swindling, and mock auctions. Most Jewish goniffs of this sort were poor Ashkenazim, who made otherwise paltry livings selling on the streets. Violent crime was not part of the picture. Which is perhaps why the Chelsea murder caused such a stir in a city through which it was not particularly clever to walk home at night. Think certain parts of New York in the mid 1970s.
Levi and Asher Weil, Hyam Lazarus, and Solomon Porter were convicted on a Friday, and on the following day they were anathematized in the synagogue. They were hanged on the Monday, “attended to the place of execution by immense crowds of people,” according to an account in The Newgate Calendar, a monthly record of executions intended for the moral improvement of its readers. The rabbi appointed to attend to them in their last hours declined to accompany them. The four men reportedly “sang an hymn in the Hebrewe language” before being “launched into eternity.”
Referring to leaders of the Jewish community who had played a part in identifying the culprits and in persuading witnesses to speak up, the judge had prefaced the sentence with a “judicious and just compliment to the principal Jews, for their very laudable conduct in the course of this prosecution.” An account in the Annual Register for the Year 1771 relays that he “hoped no person would stigmatize a whole nation for the villainies of a few.” His hope was in vain. The Newgate Calendar reported that this crime “long roused the public indignation against the whole Jewish people.” According to William Jackson, a barrister, “a Jew could scarcely pass the streets, but he was upbraided with the words ‘Hutchins’ or ‘Chelsea,’ and many of them were pulled by the beards, while those who ought to have taken the insulters into custody stood calmly by and triumphed in the insult.” Jew-baiting became a sport.
Jewish criminality continued to increase, but then, so did criminality in general, as the industrial revolution sucked the population out of the fields and into the cities. Jews were more despised and more often attacked than hitherto. To put it romantically, they were in need of a hero.
And on January 9, 1788, in the unlikely setting of a Hampshire village, they found one in the form of a five-foot-seven-inch 24-year-old called Daniel Mendoza. He was to become not merely a star in his own community but a genuine national sporting celebrity, perhaps the first in British history. His fame spread even across the channel, to revolutionary France, where Jean-Androche Junot, one of Napoleon’s most capable generals, wrote he hoped Mendoza would one day fight in Paris. This was an age of heroes. Beethoven dedicated a concerto to Napoleon; Lord Nelson was mobbed in Portsmouth by vast crowds before sailing to even further fateful glory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805; Byron was soon to be Byron.
DANIEL MENDOZA WAS BORN in July 1765 to second generation Spanish-Portuguese immigrants, in the Jewish enclave of Aldgate, the easternmost “gate” of the City of London, which still features Britain’s oldest synagogue, Bevis Marks. He went to Shaare Tikvah School, at least up until he became a bar mitzvah. “By no means affluent,” in his own words, his parents “contrived to bestow a tolerable education on all their children,” but the large family required the children to be employed early. Apprenticed “before I attained the age of thirteen” to a glasscutter, Dan found his employer’s son to be of an intolerably “haughty disposition,” a boy who “made use of such violent threats, that I determined no longer to submit and therefore gave him a severe thrashing.” Young Daniel then “imitated the manners of the great” and resigned.
Unwilling to be a financial burden to his father, he found work with a local fruiterer and greengrocer, where he was “frequently drawn into contests with the butchers and others in the neighbourhood, who, on account of my mistress being of the Jewish religion, were frequently disposed to insult her,” he writes. “In a short time, however, I became the terror of these gentry, and when they found that, young as I was, I was always ready to come forward to her defence, they forbore to molest her.” That job did not last too long, either.
There followed stints with a tea merchant, a tobacconist, a baker—each job lost, invariably for brawling. He was both immensely proud and clearly immensely unafraid of pain, as either inflictor or inflicted. His first professional fight was on a Saturday on the Mile End Road, east of London, in 1780. Not ideal for a Jew, but he overcame his “reluctance to a battle of that sort,” saying he did not want to let down the friend who had promoted the bout. His “second” at this fight was a young professional boxer by the name of Richard Humphreys, of whom more later.
Prize-fighting, with bared knuckles, had lost favor in the 1750s as a result of the fall from grace of Jack Broughton, boxing’s first rulemaker (his backer, the Duke of Cumberland believed his man had thrown a fight, on which Cumberland lost an astronomical amount of money). Among the dismayed was Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose uncle had a boxing ring in Smithfield. “Prize-fighting is gone out,” complained the greatest litterateur of the age. “Every art should be preserved, and the art of defence is surely important.”
It was a battle between Richard Humphreys and “Martin the Bath Butcher,” held at Newmarket racecourse, which began the restoration of the sport. (Humphreys was distinguished by not having a moniker, as others did; Mendoza became “the Jew,” much as Dennis was “the Groom,” and Harry “the Coalheaver”; there was even a Davis “the Milkman.”) The sport was supposedly illegal, but the fight had been witnessed by the Prince of Wales, and he continued to favor pugilism with his interest deep into his own reign as George IV. The Prince was chief among “the fancy,” those aristocrats to whom boxing appealed as a gambling diversion. As Steven Marcus pointed out in these pages 60 years ago, “in the England of that time public life was essentially brutal, and the upper classes codified that brutality and sanctioned it as part of their own personal habits.”1
Mendoza first came to public attention in the 1780s in a series of bouts, often in the presence of royalty and other “personages of note.” During these early years, he married Esther (daughter of another Daniel Mendoza) and opened a boxing school at Capel Court, hard by the London Stock Exchange.
He came to be regarded by many at the time, not least himself, as the first “scientific” boxer. By no means large, he was clearly both quick and strong. His technical genius lay in his defensive abilities. To put it bluntly, he learned how to avoid a punch. Mendoza’s instruction manual, The Art of Boxing, begins:
Master strikes with his left arm at your face. Parry with your right fore-arm, barring at the same time your stomach with your left fore-arm, throwing the head and body back.
There was also clearly something exotic about his appearance. He wore his hair long, and he was not averse to showmanship. Crowds followed him. His own “mill” with Martin the Bath Butcher was watched by an estimated 5,000 people. Numbers for the fights with Richard Humphreys were measured in tens of thousands.
It was the trilogy of fights with Humphreys that was to turn Mendoza into what, without too much hyperbole, could be called a superstar.
He lost the first. His opponent wrote to his patron, Wilson Bradyll: “Sir – I have done the Jew, and am in good health.” In fact, the victory was somewhat contentious, Mendoza having had the upper hand throughout most of the bout. Indeed, such had been the quality of the contest that both boxers became celebrated. Prints, songs, and poems poured forth, as in this one, called “The Odiad”:
Mendoza, Mortal Foe to Christian Light,
Aims his left fist against th’opponent’s fight.
Bold Humphries totters – foiled in every thwack–
Head, Eyes, Ears, Nose, Lips, Teeth, Loins, Belly, Back.
The great caricaturist James Gillray produced a popular print, “Foul Play,” depicting a moment when many thought Humphreys should have forfeited the fight. Boxing had become fashionable.
Seizing on this newfound popularity, there followed what has become a familiar trope in the fight game: name-calling in the media. Whether their malice toward each other was sincere or invented, Humphreys and Mendoza stoked the public interest, each addressing his foe through letters to the newspapers, punching and counterpunching. A second bout was arranged.
This time, Mendoza won in front of a huge crowd, near Stilton in Huntingdonshire. Nimble, sharp, balanced, the Jew saw off the Christian in the 52nd round, though the fight had been won long before. Some of Humphreys’s backers felt that Mendoza’s methods were unmanly, such as dodging punches and dancing. Mendoza was more Ali than Liston, and as popular.
Now the call, obviously, was for a deciding bout. Despite his victory, Mendoza had hurt himself badly in the loins and required some months before returning to the ring. In the meantime, the publication of Mendoza’s The Art of Boxing took the front pages. Finally, at Doncaster racecourse, on September 29, 1790, the two men met again. Mendoza was triumphant, easily so. The fight established him as the likely successor to Bill Ward of Bristol as the champion boxer of the age, and Mendoza duly defeated Ward in 1792 and again two years later. He was at the very apex of his glory and was summoned to an audience with the king, apparently the first Jew George III had ever met. The following year, 1795, in a controversial struggle, he was defeated by Byron’s boxing teacher, “Gentleman” John Jackson.
Daniel Mendoza was not merely a revolutionary boxer, not only a Jew who raised the status of his community, not only a natural entertainer; he was also a writer. His Memoirs, probably written in 1808 but not published until 1815, is a vital document in the understanding of Jewish assimilation into English cultural life. It is written in rounded, Augustan English, and the journey of his life is presented in picaresque terms (in the introduction he quotes at length from Fielding’s Tom Jones). We proceed from one colorful incident to another. He was impressed by the Irish:
Returning home one evening in company with Mr and Mrs De Castro, we wished to pass through Dublin Castle . . . but were prevented by the sentinel of duty who refused to let us pass, declaring his orders were to admit no one through the castle after dusk. This refusal, however, gave great displeasure to Mrs De Castro who immediately desired, or rather ordered her husband to knock the fellow down: this was no easy task for her husband to perform, who was by no means adapted for feats of this kind, being a remarkable slight made man, not five feet in height, but upon his objecting to execute his wife’s commands, and mentioning that he really thought the man had done no more than his duty, this high-spirited lady (who is a native of Ireland) exclaimed with great indignation, “Now, by Jasus, if you don’t knock him down, I’ll knock you down.” And she kept her word.
While his Jewishness is not prominent in the book, it is never skirted around or ignored. He was clearly proud of his faith, claimed to have learned Hebrew to a highish standard, married a Jewish wife, brought up his children Jewish, honored his father and mother. He knew how to make and bake Passover cakes. He invariably fought as “Mendoza the Jew” and was known as “the Light of Israel.” Such was his popularity and the respect he earned that in very few of the two dozen or so prints depicting him is there a suggestion of malicious caricature. Certainly he is identified as a Jew, but not as an alien.
Indeed, while it was his Jewishness that made him a fighter in the first place, when he writes, he is emphatic about his sport’s Britishness. In the preface to The Art of Boxing, he declares: “Boxing is a national mode of combat, and is as peculiar to the inhabitants of this country as fencing is to the French; but the acquisition of the latter as an art, and the practice of it as an exercise, have generally been preferred, in consequence of the objection [‘coarseness and vulgarity’] which I have just stated as being applicable to the former. That objection, I hope, the present treatise will obviate.” Boxing is seen in both the Memoirs and The Art of Boxing as more manly, indeed more rational, than duelling with swords. Had he known it, Mendoza might have said that it was a product of the Enlightenment.
Daniel Mendoza has always remained famous in Britain. There is always a play or movie or documentary in the works, though an altogether successful one has yet to see the light of day. He turns up in Leopold Bloom’s list of “postexilic excellence” in Joyce’s Ulysses. He is seen fighting in the 1934 Leslie Howard version of The Scarlet Pimpernel. He has been inducted into every conceivable sporting and Jewish hall of fame.
It was—is—thought by many that Mendoza’s example made Jews less vulnerable to insult or attack, that his prowess tempered traditional stereotyping of Jews as cowardly or passive, that he contributed to the thinking that allowed Blackwood’s magazine to declare in 1817 that “the idea of a Jew (which our pious ancestors contemplated with such horror) has nothing in it now revolting.”2 In his retirement, Mendoza trained a generation of Jewish boxers who helped establish Jews as bona fide Englishmen, even if the two most famous were called, father and son, “Dutch Sam.”
Daniel Mendoza is perhaps the best example of how Jews retained their Jewishness while appropriating British culture. Their future assimilation in England was altogether less fraught than on the continent. It is perhaps too much to suggest that Mendoza raised the social standing of the Jews in Britain single-handedly, for there were already Sephardim living in some pomp, but for the Jews of London’s meaner streets, his example was thoroughgoing and permanent.
He died in poverty, at his home in Horseshoe Lane in Aldgate in 1836, leaving his wife destitute. It has been suggested that he must have gambled away his fortune. Daniel and Esther had had four sons and six daughters. Peter Sellers claimed direct descent. So does my wife. Pride in such an ancestor, the pride our sons have in him, is wholly appropriate.
1 “Annals of the Prize Ring,” December 1956
2 In this context, it is worth remarking that Jews—Nathan Mayer von Rothschild in particular—had been the principal funders of Wellington’s triumphant 1807–14 war in Spain against Napoleon. This probably did not go against them.