Several days after Benjamin and Kitty Cohen hosted their glamorous party, James Macon Nicholson (1807-1975) dutifully fulfilled his promise to send an account of the event to his mother at Wye House.(1) Too ill to attend, Rebecca Lloyd Nicholson apparently longed for every detail, but her son found his memory “considerably at a loss.” Nicholson offered his mother little on the house beyond “you remember that everything about the house is rich and expensive, and if anything has been added . . . it was all in keeping with the rest.” The rugs had been rolled up for dancing and the “supper rooms” were on the second floor. Nor did he report on food and drink beyond “every delicacy” served on the finest china, cut glass, and silver and that the rooms were “brilliantly lighted by lamps which blazed from amidst bounties of flowers.” That abundance of fresh flowers, in an antebellum Baltimore January, grew in the greenhouses behind their home. (The Cohen residence was torn down prior to 1908; it was located at what is today 230 North Charles Street).
Nicholson’s “meager description,” however, does allow a mid-winter peek inside one of Baltimore’s finest homes, at a costumed gathering of the city’s most prominent and influential residents, many with deep and notable roots. Some dressed in lavishly elegant costumes and others choosing to pepper the occasion with legend and humor. Margaret Patterson dressed as a Circassian Princess “her dress in perfect keeping—of rich materials and beautiful jewels—& wore a crown covered with jewels.” Her cousin Charlotte Patterson as an “Italian Peasant”; Margaret Smith, daughter of General Sam Smith, in a “beautiful Turkish costume of pink and white with a pink turban”; Serena Rowell as “Rowena” and Miss Emma Meredith as “Queen of the Fairies.” Among the most striking was Mr. Wethered as “Old Hagar,” and “young Dr. Butler as Mrs Trollope “excited a great deal of merriment.” Rebecca Key Howard, however, drew Nicholson’s full attention:
“What was she, you will ask—she was no Queen or Goddess—she represented no character in Shakespeare—neither was she attired in any costume as a princess—she was herself only and as herself dressed in some white material familiar to you ladies, but unknown to me. She paraded through those rooms—crowded with all the beauty of this city of beauties—the acknowledged Queen of the Night—not that she received more attention, but she elicited the most admiration.”(2)
Nicholson closed his letter with high tribute to Benjamin and Kitty Cohen, “charming host and hostess [whose presence] was felt and acknowledged everywhere . . . there was no effort visible, everything went on as of by magic.” Many stayed until the early hours of the morning. Who were the Cohens?
Benjamin Israel Cohen (1797–1845) and Kitty Etting Cohen (1788–1837) belonged to two of the city’s earliest and most important families, both of which settled in Baltimore decades earlier and had long been prominent in the city’s financial and cultural life. One of the foremost bankers in Baltimore, Benjamin Cohen was a member of the banking firm of Jacob I. Cohen Jr. and Brothers, and in 1838 helped form the first Baltimore Stock Board. He worked toward passage of the Jew Bill, urging members of Maryland’s House of Delegates to introduce and support legislation that extended the same civil privileges to Jewish persons as those allowed to members of other religious denominations. Benjamin Cohen, as exemplified in the story above, held a prominent role in the social life of Baltimore, played the violin, and enjoyed botany and horticulture. The Cohen and Etting family relationships began with Benjamin’s marriage to Kitty Etting, daughter of Solomon Etting and Rachel Gratz Etting.
Eleanor Septima Cohen (1858–1937) died one hundred years after her grandparents’ fancy dress party. She devoted much of her time and support to both Jewish and non-sectarian charities, among them the Medical Department of the University of Maryland, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and the Associated Jewish Charities her community memberships included the Maryland Historical Society, to whom she bequeathed family papers, miniatures, textiles, furniture, china, and silver—some of which may have graced the costumed festivities of that legendary ball in February 1837.(3) (Patricia Dockman Anderson)
Dr. Patricia Dockman Anderson specializes in U.S and Maryland History, Nineteenth Century; Social and Cultural History; Catholic History; and Civil War Civilians. She has served as a member of the History Advisory Council for the Women’s Industrial Exchange, the Baltimore History Writers Group, and the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission. Dr. Anderson is the Director of Publications and Library Services for the Maryland Historical Society, editor of the Maryland Historical Magazine, and a professor at Towson University.
(1) Copy of a letter written in 1837 by Mrs. Shippen’s father, James W. Nicholson to her grandmother describing “fancy party” given by Mr. and Mrs. B. Cohen, uncle and aunt of Mendes Cohen, President of MHS. MS 1415, Shippen Papers. [transcribed in Maryland Historical Magazine, 1919, vol. 4 pp.348-358]
(2) There is no known image of Rebecca Key Howard
(3)Facing the New World: Jewish Portraits and Decorative Arts in Colonial and Federal America from the Maryland Historical Society (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1998).