Friday, January 31, 2014

"An extraordinary breach of promise case"

"An action for breach of promise of marriage, in which both the parties were Jews, and whose evidence had to interpreted to the court, was opened. The plaintiff was Ezra M. Hettena, merchant and agent carrying on business at Port Said..." - Manchester Times

In December 1892, British newspapers were filled with excited reports from a court hearing in Manchester, England. The case of Hettena vs. Joseph involved an unusual marital dispute between Baghdadi Jews that gave Victorian England a titillating peek inside the Jewish bedroom.

The lawsuit had been brought my great-grandfather, Ezra Hettena, and his teenage daughter, Sophia. The defendant was Eliahoo Joseph, a Baghdadi Jew who had been betrothed to marry Sophia. Yet it was only after Sophia promised to Joseph did the Hettenas learn the humiliating truth: her fiance had a wife and three children in Baghdad.

The Hettenas sought £5000 to cover the costs of the dowry Joseph received and their expenses from chasing him across Europe. They also wanted revenge. "We want to break his neck," Sophia told an interpreter for the court.

By 1890, the Hettenas had moved to Port Said, Egypt. Ezra Hettena was a cotton merchant and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 had opened up new opportunities for merchants like Ezra Hettena. By virtue of his birth in Bombay in British India, Ezra was a British subject. And as a British subject, he was subject to British law. He could bring a case in foreign courts and thus avoid the notoriously corrupt and inefficient Egyptian courts.

So, the case was brought in England and the record survives. What's more, the case was sensational, so the newspapers provided readers with detailed reports.  The Manchester Times and the rival Guardian newspapers each devoted nearly an entire page to the hearing and covered all the appeals. Their accounts were picked up as far away as New Zealand.

From a genealogical point of view, it's a treasure trove of information about my family. I learned things that would have otherwise been lost to time: what languages they spoke, how they acted, and to some degree, who they really were.

The story begins in 1890, when a Mrs. Sassoon passed through Port Said, Egypt on her way back to England from Baghdad. In Port Said, she met the Hettenas, fellow Baghdadi Jews who were newly arrived Egyptian immigrants. Mrs. Sassoon was struck by the eldest daughter, Sophia, then 16. When she returned to Manchester, Mrs. Sassoon told her brother, Eliahoo Joseph, about the young girl she had discovered in Egypt.

In 1891, Ezra Hettena left Port Said and traveled to Manchester where he had some business dealings with Joseph, who proposed to marry his daughter. When Hettena returned to Egypt, Sophia, wrote the following letter to Joseph:

Messrs. E. Joseph and Co.
Dear sirs,--
Please receive these few lines. As you have made proposals to my dear father, I am obedient to my parents. Please excuse that I send you these two lines, because when I sent the first letter my father was not at Port Said and now he has come. I have nothing else to say but Good-bye, good-bye. S. HETTENA

The letter was written in French with a copy in Italian, "no doubt sent by the plaintiff to show off her accomplishments," the Manchester Times correspondent wrote.

Arrangements for a wedding were made. The Torah makes Jewish marriage into a two-stage process. The first step is "kiddushin," and the second step is known as "nisu'in." Kiddushin is commonly translated as betrothal, but actually renders the bride and groom full-fledged husband and wife. After this point, if the couple decided to part ways, a "get" (Jewish divorce) would be required. However, the bride and groom are not permitted to live together as husband and wife until the second stage, the nisu'in, is completed.

On April 24, 1892, a kiddushin was held. Joseph signed a power of attorney and sent it to Port Said along with a diamond ring, fulfilling the custom that a Jewish groom provide something of value to his bride. The chief rabbi of Port Said stood in for Joseph during the ceremony.

Sophia then turned her attention to the forthcoming nisu'in in Paris. While Sophia ordered an elaborate wedding gown, Joseph invited his betrothed to meet him in Paris at the Grand Hotel, reminding her to bring all her jewels with her. Her father sent along two cases of her dowry filled with valuables worth several hundred British pounds.

On the 3rd of May, Sophia wrote Joseph:

My dear fiance,--
I have just received your kind note. I was glad to hear of your good health as I am. As you say you want me to hasten to come over before Passover they have not been able to find a dressmaker because they were all busy for Easter. Now we have given everything for making, and we must wait till they finish. I hope we shall leave by the 1st of June. Many compliments from my dear father and my dear mother and all our family. Receive, my dear fiance, my warmest greetings. S. HETTENA

On the 16th of May, Sophia wrote:

My dear fiance,--
I have received your very honored letter in English. I know how to read it, but I can't understand anything. If you write me in English, you know, I will not answer you. As you say, you will wait for us in Paris. It is very difficult for us to go as far as Paris, because mother and I are coming. My father cannot leave the children and come with us. If you wish to please us, come to Marseilles and take us. S HETTENA"

Sophia, accompanied by her mother, Farha, set out for France on the 15th of June. Upon arrival in Paris, they were met by Joseph who took them to the Grand Hotel and showed them the rooms he had taken for them. According to the Manchester Times' detailed account of hearing, Sophia's mother complained that her room was too small for all of them, whereupon Joseph explained he had booked another room for Sophia and himself.

"You are not married yet," the mother told him.

"But the rabbi has consecrated us," Joseph responded.

"That does not matter," Farha Hettena replied. "You will have to be married according to the law of this country before you can occupy one room."

And then the truth came spilling out. "I can't do that," Joseph explained. "I am a married man."

Joseph said it was the custom in Turkey and France for couples to live together without being married, except by betrothal. But Farha Hettena was no fool. She said she wanted to check this story out with the rabbi or consul in Paris the next morning. Joseph said he would go with them.

But the next morning, Joseph took off. Farha and Sophia spent another night in Paris at a more downrate hotel and then pursued Joseph to Manchester and confronted him in his office. He took them to his house and again tried to consort with Sophia. Mother and daughter locked themselves in for the night. The next day, they left and stayed at the home of a friend, Mr. Laredo. There they met Salom Attal, who helped them get a solicitor to bring suit. Attal would play a huge role in the Hettenas future life by becoming adopted father to one of their children. (More on this in a future post)

The trial was held in the Nisi Prius Court at the Manchester Assizes (a court that no longer exists). Farha and Sophia appeared in court and each gave their testimony in Arabic, as did Joseph, who insisted that the Port Said ceremony was a marriage and he had told Sophia's father about his wife in Baghdad. Ezra Hettena was conspicuously absent from the proceedings.

A key point for the defense was what whether Ezra Hettena, Sophia’s father, knew of Joseph’s family in Baghdad. Joseph claimed he had told the father when the two men met in England in 1891. In cross-examination, Farha Hettena conceded that her husband had arrived in Manchester about two weeks before the trial. He had parted company and Farha said did not know exactly where he was. If Ezra did know of Joseph’s Baghdad family, his wife said he never told her about it.  

The jury found for Sophia Hettena and awarded her £1350, not quite the £5000 the Hettenas were seeking but still quite a sum at that time. The announcement was received with applause. Joseph appealed the case, and lost again. "I have come to the conclusion the defendant was a scamp," the Master of the Rolls (senior judge) declared in dismissing the appeal.

Meanwhile, Joseph’s creditors had been nervously watching the proceedings. After the appeal was dismissed, Joseph’s creditors moved to collect their debts. One immediately filed a petition to collect the £425 owed to him. The Calf Hey Mill Company, which wove fabric with its powerlooms, served a writ seeking £266. 

In June 1893, Joseph offered Sophia a divorce. He also said that Ezra Hettena owed him £575, which Joseph said he would waive. “Without the said compromise,” Joseph wrote, Sophia “will be unable to recover anything.” Sophia assented. Joseph granted her a divorce under Jewish law. Jilting Sophia Hettena would ultimately cost Joseph £3,000, most of it in attorney fees and court costs, which pushed him to the brink of bankruptcy. He managed to stay in business but only for a few years longer.

Given how things turned out, Sophia should have been thankful. She nearly married a complete scoundrel. Joseph declared bankruptcy in 1902, was convicted of libel the following year and sentenced to two years in prison with hard labor for conspiring to blackmail a Manchester merchant. He was convicted of living openly with unmarried women (a veiled reference to prostituion). Sophia was lucky to have escaped with little more than a lightly tarnished reputation.

1 comment:

  1. I can add information to this tale of Breach of Promise. or rather information on one of the characters. I have never used a blog before so my earlier comment may have been lost in the ether. Also, I am using a new laptop that is err .. troublesome .. so I sent you an email via the traditional method. E Finlow

    ReplyDelete