In the mid-1940s as World War II was turning in the Allies’ favor, the earliest stories of the horrors of the Holocaust were being reported.
The Morristown Jewish community, then united spiritually as the Jewish Community Center — a synagogue encompassing all denominations — wanted to give thanks to the United States for their freedom and display patriotism during those harrowing times.
“The year 1944 was a very tough time, for Jews, Morristown, and everyone,” said Lewis Stone, a retired banker who, unofficially, serves as the historian of the Morristown Jewish community. “The Jewish community of Morristown wanted to … show its appreciation to the United States by donating something historically significant to the park.”
So the Jewish Community Center raised money to buy a high chest, believed to have been owned by John Hancock, the first signee of the Declaration of Independence, and donated it to the Morristown Historical Park in 1944, according to a 1945 letter from the National Park Service.
Stone is a member of Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael, a Conservative synagogue which evolved from the Jewish Community Center and celebrated its 120th anniversary this year. He said the story of the furniture donation was discovered during a search through the congregation’s artifacts in preparation for its milestone anniversary.
Now 75 years after its donation, the chest of drawers is now exhibited on the second floor of Ford Mansion, a private home used by General George Washington as his headquarters in 1789-90. “We’re happy the chest has returned to display,” said Stone.
The two-piece high chest, previously in storage for 35 years, is constructed of maple and pine with a mahogany stain. The feet of the tall dresser are Queen Anne style, a decorative element popular between 1725 and 1750. Stone is talking to the other Morristown synagogues, Reform Temple B’nai Or and Orthodox Congregation Ahavath Yisrael, about a combined community ceremony this fall to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the purchase.
But the story of the tall dresser includes a bit of intrigue and unanswered questions. Namely, was the piece of furniture purchased before Morristown’s Jews were solicited to donate to the gift? And second, did Hancock really own the dresser?
Two letters provided by Stone confirm the high chest’s donation. The first, dated Nov. 17, 1944, and signed by Jewish Community Center’s president Milton Schlosser, asks for contributions amounting to $700, which was the total cost of the piece. The purchase of the high chest was facilitated by Israel Sack, a well-known Lithuanian-born antiques dealer based in New York City.
“The Jewish Community of Morristown has been given an opportunity to establish a memorial gift in the shrine of George Washington at the Headquarters Building or Ford Mansion on Morris Street,” Schlosser wrote in the letter. “The privilege of donating and inscribing it was offered to us through the courtesy of Mayor Potts.” Clyde Potts served six terms as mayor of Morristown beginning in 1922. He is credited with founding what became known as the Morristown National Historical Park, comprised of four sites of significance to the Revolutionary War.
The wording of Schlosser’s letter is vague, but it could be understood to mean that the piece had already been purchased and then offered to the Jewish community to give as a donation.
Stone also provided an acknowledgement letter to Potts, dated Oct. 2, 1945, from Melvin J. Weig, who was acting superintendent of Morristown National Park. Besides being mayor, Potts was also a member of the Washington Association of New Jersey, a civic group committed to preserving George Washington’s legacy and the story of the Revolutionary War in the state. The letter expresses appreciation of the gift from Morristown’s only synagogue:
“… I desire to acknowledge the gift, by the Washington Association of New Jersey, of an 18th century mahogany highboy which is said to have been [emphasis added] once part of the furnishing of the John Hancock House in Boston, Massachusetts. It is understood that this highboy was presented to the Washington Association of New Jersey by the Jewish Community Center of Morristown.
“This gift is greatly appreciated and will, I believe, prove to be a valued addition to the museum in which it is to be deposited and accorded the same care and protection given to our other materials.”
The display card at the Ford Mansion uses the words “purported” and “believed to have” been owned by John Hancock. “In any museum, we always try to find a paper trail with any object,” said Jude Pfister, curator at Morristown National Park. “We’re trying to find that paper trail. We ran into a dead end at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, which has a lot of Hancock material. One issue is John Hancock’s will does not survive.”
Rose Spady, Pfister’s summer intern from Muhlenberg College and a resident of Chester, has handled the bulk of the research on the chest, and is waiting for a final definitive answer.
“Our request on ownership of the chest is with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which has such records,” said Spady. “We have not heard back yet.”
On the other hand, Pfister knows the world-renown reputation of Sack, the antiques dealer whose sale produced the donation on display at the Ford Mansion.
“Sack was certainly the caliber of dealer who would have had a John Hancock piece,” he said. “It’s just that, as a historian, we’d like to have that paper trail. If I were to buy this in 1944, I probably would have taken Sack’s word for it. But here we are, 75 years later, and we, as a park, like a documented paper trail and that’s what we’re trying to establish.”
Regardless of questions surrounding the furniture’s authenticity, the fact remains that the Jews of Morristown banded together under the cloud of World War II, during a time of economic hardship, to produce a public display of the community’s patriotism that is being recognized 75 years later.
If you go
What: Display of an 18th-century high chest believed to have been owned by John Hancock, donated by the Morristown Jewish community
When: Through Dec. 31, 2019
Where: Ford Mansion, Morristown National Memorial Park
Cost: Free (The chest can only be seen during guided tours of the Ford Mansion, which begin in Washington’s Headquarters. The tour schedule is available at nps.gov/morr or by calling 973-539-2016, ext. 210.)