by Florence Markoff

The story of his courage and generosity.


Image source: wikimedia.

The time was the war of 1812. A young merchant in New Orleans volunteered to carry ammunition to a battery under British fire. He was hit and left for dead on the battlefield. A close friend, hearing the news, rushed to his side and found him still alive. For more than a year the injured man suffered from his battle wound, and for the rest of his life he remained an invalid.

Judah Touro was born in Newport, on the eve of the great battle of Bunker Hill [June 17, 1775]. Left an orphan as a youngster, he was brought up by his uncle Moses Michael Hayes. From Hayes the boy learned the fundamentals of good business methods, along with strong moral principles.

And then what should have been the happiest time of his life became the saddest. He fell in love with his cousin Catharine. Judah's uncle opposed the match, and the young man, brokenhearted, left Newport and went south to New Orleans—a city which was rapidly becoming one of the leading ports in the country. He prospered there and people began to refer to him as the New Orleans merchant prince.

Judah Touro was a modest man, and he appreciated his good fortune. He showed his public spirit by helping civic and patriotic causes. Word of his generosity spread to Massachusetts, where money for finishing the Bunker Hill Monument was needed. The cornerstone had been laid by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825, and on the fiftieth anniversary of the famous battle there still wasn't enough money to finish the project. When the need for funds was brought to the attention of the New Orleans philanthropist, he answered the call. He was always proud of the fact he had been born on the eve of the Battle of Bunker Hill. He gave ten thousand dollars—but with a condition—that he remain anonymous. When he was accidentally revealed as the donor, he was so angry, he almost withdrew his gift.

Judah Touro died a bachelor, and his fortune went to sixty different charities all over the country. Nobody carries his name in Newport today, but it is memorialized in the oldest synagogue in America, now a national shrine. When tourists visit the famous Touro Synagogue, they read the name of the courageous and generous merchant—Judah Touro—a Rhode Island Portrait in Sound.

Providence resident Florence Markoff (1927-2017) was a speaker, performer, storyteller, and radio personality.

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This article last edited February 4, 2003

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