The Quest for the Grave of David Oppenheimer
by Ada Green with Nancy Biederman, © 2008
David Oppenheimer (1834-1897) was the second mayor of Vancouver, British Columbia and is considered the “Father” of Vancouver. Detailed historical and biographical background about his illustrious business and political career can be found by reading the excellent article on David Oppenheimer by Cyril E. Leonoff in a recent issue of Western States Jewish History (Vol. 40 #1, p. 69). Thus, rather than duplicating that information here, the following story explains the genealogical methodologies and resources employed in searching for his grave.
I first became aware of the existence of David Oppenheimer on a trip to Vancouver in 1983 as I was about to embark on a seven-mile walk around the perimeter of Stanley Park. There at the Beach Avenue entrance of the park, whose official opening he presided over in 1889, is a bronze memorial of him on a pedestal, which could easily have been mistaken as his gravestone had it not been erected in 1911, fourteen years after his death. My memory was refreshed three years later on a repeat visit to Vancouver for Expo ’86. But then I forgot all about Oppenheimer – for 20 years.
At the IAJGS Conference in New York in August 2006, Sonia Hoffman introduced me to Ed Goldberg, a board member of the Jewish Genealogical Institute for British Columbia. Ed, who was familiar with my work in New York area Jewish cemeteries, told me that David Oppenheimer was buried in a New York Jewish cemetery, but he did not know which one. He had tried calling all the major Jewish cemeteries in New York during and prior to the conference, without success. He asked me if I had ever come across David Oppenheimer’s grave over the course of my cemetery visits and I responded in the negative. He requested that if I ever came across it to let him know, since he had previously made phone inquiries to several cemeteries while in New York for the 19th Annual Conference on Jewish Generalogy in 1999 with no luck.
In July 2007 I spent three weeks in British Columbia and had nine days of free time on my own. During that period I cataloged two historic Jewish cemeteries in British Columbia for the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR): Congregation Emanu-El Cemetery in Victoria (the oldest Jewish cemetery in Western Canada) and the Jewish section of City of Vancouver-owned Mountain View Cemetery (the oldest Jewish burial site in Vancouver). Both cemeteries are still in use today.
Amongst the gravestones in Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El Cemetery was that of Sarah Oppenheimer (c. 1840-1880), whose inscription read, “the beloved wife of David Oppenheimer.”
Also buried there was David Oppenheimer’s brother, Godfrey, and three of Godfrey’s children (two of whom died as infants), also an infant son of David Oppenheimer’s brother, Isaac. But not David Oppenheimer himself, which piqued my curiosity as to why he wasn’t buried with his wife.
Well if not in Victoria, he certainly had to be buried in Vancouver, the city in which he presided as mayor from 1888-1891. Indeed in 1887 David Oppenheimer and his brother Isaac were responsible for the establishment of Mountain View Cemetery when they were both on the Vancouver City Council, which appropriated the parcel of land for Mountain View Cemetery, including a separate fenced off section for Jewish burials. This was the only Jewish cemetery in the Vancouver area at the time of David Oppenheimer’s death in 1897 and he certainly had to be buried there. But after I cataloged all the burials in the Jewish section of Mountain View Cemetery, it turns out he wasn’t buried there either.
There wasn’t any further research I could do in Vancouver to find his grave. Looking at a newspaper obituary of his December 31, 1897 death would have been the obvious thing to do, but Vancouver municipal workers went on strike on Monday, July 23, 2007, shutting down the Vancouver Public Library for the entire duration of my stay in Vancouver.
Once I was home in New York, I contacted JGSLA board member Nancy Biederman, who had a number of relatives buried in Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El Cemetery and sent her the gravestone pictures that I had taken at her request. That’s when I told her about David Oppenheimer and she immediately became as interested as I was in finding his grave. Although Nancy has a German-Jewish family connection to both Victoria and New York in the same time period, neither of us is known to be related to Oppenheimer.
A biography of David Oppenheimer said that he was buried in the Victoria Jewish Cemetery, which we already knew was not the case. A footnote on the same webpage, quotes a published source stating, “David is interred in a Jewish cemetery in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, Julia.” The Dictionary of Canadian Biography revealed that little more than two years after the death of his first wife, Oppenheimer was married on January 3, 1883 in San Francisco to the former Julia Walters of New York City and that they had a daughter, whose name was not mentioned. The same article referred to the tragic loss of his second wife, who had fallen off a train, which hastened Oppenheimer’s own death and that they were buried next to each other in a Jewish cemetery in Brooklyn, NY without giving the cemetery name. What was clear though was that he died in Vancouver, not in New York, and indeed he was not listed in the New York City death index. What prompted Vancouver’s Ed Goldberg to believe that Oppenheimer was buried in New York is that he read a Canadian source that specifically said that Oppenheimer died in Vancouver and that it took a week for his body to arrive in New York by train.
These online biographies armed us with a whole new slew of clues. The obvious place to start was the Brooklyn Jewish cemeteries and with one in particular, Salem Fields.
This was the cemetery for Manhattan’s tony Temple Emanu-El, which was the temple of choice for the elite of 19th century New York German-Jewish society known as “Our Crowd.” German-born David Oppenheimer, with his immense wealth and status, would certainly have been considered a bona fide member of Our Crowd, if not by New York residence, then by marrying into it. But in two separate phone calls to Salem Fields in August 2007, each a week apart, the office staff told me that although they had two people buried there by the name of David Oppenheimer, neither one of them died on December 31, 1897. One did pass away in 1897, but on March 10, which was too early to be the right person, plus his age was 52, which would have made him 11 years too young to have been our David Oppenheimer. The other David Oppenheimer that they had in their records died in 1947, which I ruled out immediately.
Having eliminated Salem Fields, I then called the other Brooklyn Jewish Cemeteries that are listed on the on the Jewish Genealogical Soc. of NY website and checked Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery but there was no record that fitted David.
At that point I gave up on New York and figured that he must have been buried elsewhere with one of his brothers other than Godfrey. In Vancouver, in terms of both politics and business, he seemed to be closest to his brother, Isaac, so I suspected that where rests Isaac, there rests David. A search of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Washington State cemetery project revealed that Isaac, his wife Celia, his son Sidney, and two other people with the surname Oppenheimer are buried in Fairmont Cemetery in Spokane, but no David.
I also tried to find a written record for Julia Oppenheimer, who was even more of a mystery than her husband because, lacking the fame of her husband, there was no written material on her. Nor was she in the New York City death index, and a search of The New York Times Obituary Index 1858-1968 at the New York Public Library (NYPL) revealed neither a David nor a Julia Oppenheimer. The Personal Name Index to The New York Times 1851-1974 (Vol. 15, letters N, O) at the NYPL contained a Mrs. Julia Oppenheimer who died in 1934, but we already knew that couldn’t have been her because she predeceased her husband. Nor were they listed under the spelling of Oppenheim in either source.
At that point Nancy and I came to the conclusion that there was only one clue left – the daughter of David and Julia Oppenheimer, who was an only child. In rapid succession, Nancy made some ground-breaking finds online:
- Using a Google books search, the name of David Oppenheimer’s daughter was revealed in the British Columbia Court Reports. In Oppenheimer v. Sweeny, (pp 117-120, 1908), there is a discussion of the will of David Oppenheimer. The plaintiff was Lena Oppenheimer, widow of David’s brother, Godfrey. Most relevant to our genealogical quest was that the case clearly spelled out the name of David’s daughter as Flora.
- Via Ancestry.com, Nancy found that in 1910, Flora J. Oppenheimer was a guest at the Hotel Endicott on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, apparently working as a private family maid.
- In the Italian Genealogy Group vital records database, Nancy found Flora in the NYC Brides Record Index: Oppenheimer, Flora J married Hirsch, David C on Aug 22 1912 in Manhattan.
- In the 1920 US census, Flora was married to lawyer David C. Hirsch, with one daughter Marian A and lived on W. 72nd Street. In the 1930 census, the same.
We now had the names of three new family members: Flora Oppenheimer, her husband David C. Hirsch, and her daughter Marian A. Hirsch. The next day I went to the New York City Municipal Archives on the first floor of the New York County Surrogate’s Court building and looked up the 1912 marriage record of Flora Jeannette Oppenheimer, born Victoria, BC, to David Charles Hirsch, born Georgetown, Colorado, son of Adolph Hirsch and Rachel Harris. Interestingly they were married not by a rabbi, but by the assistant leader of the Ethical Culture Society.
After I was done with the Municipal Archives, I went up to the 4th floor to the Surrogate’s Dept. to see if David Hirsch and his wife Flora left a will. That’s when I found Flora J. Hirsch for 1951 in the card file, so now I had a year of death for her.
The ProQuest Historical Newspapers database contained a death notice for David C. Hirsch in both the New York Times and the LA Times. He died in Los Angeles on September 2. Funeral services and interment were in Kansas City, MO, which is presumably where his parents were buried.
The New York Times death notice for Flora J. Hirsch specified that she died on May 20, 1951, that she was the wife of the late David C. Hirsch, the mother of Marian A. Hirsch, and that funeral services would be at the Riverside, 76th & Amsterdam in Manhattan. I then looked her up in the microfilm of the 1951 New York City death index to get her death certificate number.
Since the funeral service for Flora was held in New York, Nancy and I accepted that she is buried in New York (as opposed to with her husband in Kansas City). The next day I called the funeral home to ask where she was interred, but unfortunately they don’t have records going back to 1951. They weren’t required to keep records for more than 30 years. That left me with no choice but to pay $15 to the New York City Department of Health for her death certificate, which would indicate the name of the cemetery. Nancy and I both assumed that once we located Flora’s place of interment, her parents would be in the same place. However, since Flora was affiliated with the Ethical Culture Society, we were concerned that she was not buried in a Jewish cemetery, opening the possibility that perhaps her father David Oppenheimer wasn’t either.
I ordered Flora’s death certificate – it indicated she was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, an upscale, nonsectarian cemetery in Ardsley, Westchester County, NY, that was unfamiliar to me. An immediate call to the cemetery dashed all hopes of finding her parents — they were not buried there. It’s almost as if they deliberately didn’t want anyone to find them.
Now what? The clincher that finally solved the puzzle came from Ed Goldberg of Vancouver. Once the Vancouver municipal workers’ strike was over in the third week of October 2007, Ed was able to go to Vancouver research facilities that had been closed for three long months. On October 25, 2007, while I was overseas on a three-week trip, Ed wrote Nancy and me as follows:
Here is the latest news on the search for David Oppenheimer’s grave. It seems like we are getting closer to finding it.
First I contacted the City of Vancouver Archives and one of the archivists did a bit of research for me. They had no record of photos of the tombstones of David and Julia Oppenheimer but she did look in the unpublished book by Major J.S. Matthews, the City Archivist in 1934 which contained transcripts of information given to him by the daughter Flora Hirsch. She was living in New York at that time. The part of the book that refers to the funeral is from a publication called The World, from December 14th 1911. It refers to the body being transported on the Atlantic Express on the 4th of January 1898. He was taken to the Hebrew Cemetery in Brooklyn,N.Y. and was buried next to his wife who had died just a few months before while on a trip to Germany for her health. Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Oppenheimer and Mr. T.D. Burdis accompanied the body on the train journey.
So, today I contacted the Jewish Museum and Archives of BC. They told me that they had a folder of information on David Oppenheimer. Cyril Leonoff, one of the founding members of the Jewish Historical Society and a noted historian, had embarked on this same project a few years back and had found the graves. There is a letter in the folder from the Cemeteries of Congregation Emanuel of the City of New York signed by a Robert J. Ilasi and he says that David Oppenheimer is buried in Salem Fields Cemetery in Brooklyn at 775 Jamaica Ave. in Plot 2086.
The letter also gives transcripts of the information on the headstones and it definitely is our David and Julia Oppenheimer.
Shortly after I returned to the United States I went to Salem Fields Cemetery and told Robert J. Ilasi, the cemetery’s manager, that David Oppenheimer is buried there after all. I provided him with the plot number that Ed Goldberg had received from him. With some further checking of the wall map and the file drawer of index cards, he and another staff member found David Oppenheimer and indicated the approximate burial location on a cemetery map. His instructions were excellent because within less than 10 minutes I was able to find the gravesite. David and Julia shared a double gravestone.
According to his inscription, David Oppenheimer was born January 1, 1834. Julia Oppenheimer (nee Walter) was born on April 1, 1853 and according to her inscription, died on May 10, 1897 in Hudson, NY. Their Hebrew names are not on the stone. When I returned from the cemetery, I emailed the photos to Nancy and to Ed Goldberg.
I will never understand why I had been told on the phone three months earlier that they were not buried there, which is the same situation that Ed Goldberg experienced before and during the 2006 NY Conference, as well as while attending the 1999 conference. But had it been too easy Nancy and I would not have had such a fun and interesting time looking for it, even though it was frustrating at times. How often does one get to work on a real genealogical mystery?
Here we were thinking that it was a satisfactory end of the quest, but Nancy noticed that Julia’s place of death of Hudson, NY inscribed on the stone, did not agree with the report that she had died on a trip to Germany for her health. That, along with the difficulty we had in finding the burial location, left us wondering if the family had been deliberately hiding something. What on earth could have happened? Was there some kind of scandal?
That sent Nancy immediately scurrying to search The New York Times with a new criterion: Hudson. That’s when our thrill of finding David and Julia Oppenheimer quickly turned to chill. Nancy found the following extremely sad and shocking brief item in the New York Times of May 11, 1897, p. 9. [Also, a similar blurb was on p. 1 of THE NEWS, Frederick, Maryland on May 11.]
LEAP COST A WOMAN HER FEET
Mrs. Oppenheim Flung Herself Out of a Car Window Near Hudson
HUDSON, May 10 – Mrs. David Oppenheim, the wife of ex-Mayor Oppenheim of Vancouver, B. C., is in the hospital here with both feet cut off. She was en route to Philadelphia, to be treated by a specialist for a nervous disease, and was accompanied by her husband and a nurse.They occupied a compartment in a Wagner car on the New York Central Railroad. Early to-day, when the train was a few miles above Hudson, Mrs. Oppenheim flung herself from the car window. The wheels cut off both her feet. Amputation of both legs will be necessary.
Julia Oppenheimer died that same day — May 10, 1897. There was no subsequent follow-up in the New York Times about Mrs. Oppenheimer’s passing and nothing about a funeral.
The extremely tragic news certainly explains why it hastened the death of her husband,
who had already been suffering from steadily deteriorating health, but nothing that we had previously read prepared us for the incredible shock that he witnessed his beloved wife’s suicide in front of his very eyes and that he was helpless in preventing it. While her fall from the train could indeed have been an accident, the fact that she had a “nervous disease” (which I interpret as a euphemism of its day for mental illness), and was on a very long train journey from Vancouver all the way to Philadelphia accompanied by her husband and a nurse, indicates that more serious issues were going on than a mere accident. This tragic incident hit us like a sharp bolt and we felt really terrible about it because by now we had been researching the Oppenheimers for so long that we were beginning to feel they were almost like family.
A postscript: In late December 2007 I went back to Victoria, BC and spent a day at the BC Archives. The first death record I looked up was that of David Oppenheimer because, just out of curiosity, I wanted to see if it listed the town and cemetery of burial. If the information was on the certificate, we had taken the long way around through in-person library, cemetery, and archives visits, telephone calls, and online resource and newspaper research, to find his grave. But, the certificate did not list his burial information. So even if I had obtained his death record in July 2007, it would not have helped us find his gravesite any sooner.
Ada Green is a New York-based genealogist whose name is synonymous with Jewish cemeteries.
Nancy Biederman is an avid researcher and JGSLA CFO.