Lesson #184: Massena’s Blood Libel

I got to this subject in a very roundabout way, considering. I got here by way of the flagellants and global highway numbers.*

There’s a town I know of — I won’t say how — way the heck up on the Canadian border that used to be an industrial town. And before that, it was a hot springs town.

But what gained it national attention in the late 20s was neither spas nor industry; it was a blood libel.**

On 22 September, 1928, a four-year-old girl named Barbara Griffiths wandered away from her home and subsequently went missing. Rumours quickly began to spread that the small Jewish community in Massena had kidnapped her with an eye towards a ritual slaying for the upcoming holiday of Yom Kippur.*** It didn’t help matters that the mayor at the time, Gilbert Hawes, was a notorious bigot and the volunteer fire department, which was charged with leading the search had in its ranks several members of the Ku Klux Klan. Long story short, the state police interrogated a mentally challenged 21-year-old Jew and a guy who was Jewish in name only and, having received no outright denials that the Jews ate children for Yom Kippur decided that it was entirely possible they did and went to see the town’s rabbi, Berel Brennglass. Unsurprisingly, Brennglass chewed the cops out. Griffiths, it turns out, had gotten lost in the woods a few blocks from her house and fallen asleep and was spotted wandering along a road the next afternoon. Hawes issued a somewhat hollow apology and Brennglass agitated to bring the event national attention (which no doubt made a lot of people seem like idiots in the eyes of an entire nation).****

There are articles that touch on the failure of the more sensible types in the town and of the religious leaders at large to dispel such myths that call to mind the Goldhagen debate before there was a Goldhagen debate. There’s not really a point to that statement, except that I find it interesting.

*Sometimes, it’s best not to ask.

**For those of you not well versed in religious history, a blood libel is the false allegation that a religious organization or cult has kidnapped, abused and ritually murdered a member of another religious organization or cult. And sometimes cannibalized.

***You know, because nothing says atonement like spilling the blood of small children.

****More can be read here, here, here, here and here.

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