On Sept. 22, 1928, 4-year-old Barbara Griffiths went for a stroll in the woods in Massena, New York, an industrial town bordering Canada, and got lost. Within hours a massive search ensued, involving as many as 300 locals.
Someone, no one knows who, then floated the idea that Barbara had been kidnapped and killed by a member of Massena’s small Jewish community. The town’s mayor, along with a local state police officer, believed the charge and began hauling in some of the town’s Jewish residents, including the local rabbi, for questioning.
Twenty-four hours later, Barbara stumbled out of the woods, unharmed. But the damage had been done—the only documented case of “blood libel” in U.S. history, the belief that Jews kidnap, kill, and drain the blood from Christian children for matzo-making and other rituals, showed how, once again, Jews are vulnerable to the insanity that is anti-Semitism.
“It’s one of the ugliest things you could possibly say about anybody, that the Jews for their basic religious needs have to murder a child,” says Edward Berenson, author of The Accusation: Blood Libel In An American Town, a new book about the Massena incident and the origin and history of an anti-Semitic falsehood that stretches back to the 12th century.
“The idea of this blood libel became deeply embedded in Catholic culture,” he adds, noting that the whole idea of the blood libel came from the belief that the Jews, rejecting the Eucharist, in which wine is meant to represent the blood of Christ, used real blood instead of wine in their rituals.
The charge of blood libel particularly resonated in Massena, which was across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec, because a fair number of Quebecois (and Eastern European immigrants with their own anti-Jewish hang-ups) worked in the town, thanks to the presence of a large Alcoa plant. Quebec anti-Semitism “was pretty intense,” says Berenson, “and no place in the 20th century was more conservative Catholic than Quebec. Edouard Drumont [a French anti-Semite who wrote books with titles like Killed by the Jews: A History of Ritual Murder] had a lot of influence there. I suspect anti-Semitism was more generalized in Quebec, because there wasn’t much secular culture, whereas France at that time had secular Republican types who hated that kind of thing.”
No matter what ethnic group the Jews-kill-Christian-children accusation came from, however, it had a long history that dated back to 1144, when an English monk alleged that some Jews bought a Christian child before Easter and tortured and hung him on a cross. The first real blood libel occurred in 1235 in Germany, after five Christian boys died in a fire, and Jews were accused of killing them to harvest their blood. Over 30 Jews were tortured and killed in retaliation.
Then the hits kept on coming—1475: A 2-year-old boy was found dead in Italy, and Jews were accused; 1547-1787: 82 accusations of ritual murder in Poland; 1881: A flood of blood libels accompanied by anti-Jewish violence after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.
And in 1883 in Hungary, several Jews were acquitted of kidnapping and murdering a 14-year-old girl. Despite the verdict, anti-Semitic riots broke out all across the country. The rioters believed, says Berenson, that Jews “had the money to buy the lawyers, the judges, the journalists. They always get off because they have this power to rig things in their favor.”
But The Accusation, which is as frightening in its own way as prime Stephen King, is not just about the blood libel, but also a brief history of the Jewish experience in America. As such, it is quick to point out that the Massena accusation was not only a total aberration—there has never been a similar one before or since—but that even though socially discriminatory anti-Semitism (denying Jewish access to schools, professions, social organizations, and clubs) has long been a part of American culture, physical violence has not.
“The main reason is that in the U.S. there never developed any explicitly anti-Semitic political parties to organize opposition against Jews,” says Berenson. “And you never had, with the exception of Henry Ford [whose newspaper The Dearborn Independent was virulently anti-Jewish], an anti-Semitic press. There was a group of people who were the objects of the most hatred, and it wasn’t the Jews; it was the African-Americans.”
Which may help explain why, in the midst of a 1928 presidential campaign filled with anti-Catholic bigotry aimed primarily at the Democratic candidate, New York governor Al Smith, the first Catholic nominee of a major party, the Massena blood libel turned out, in a strange sort of way, to be a good thing for the Jewish community.
“It became a national story because the Jewish community of the town was alarmed by the accusations against them and thought they needed to do something to protect themselves,” says Berenson. So, they got in touch with the leaders of the two main national Jewish organizations, the American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress, “and they decided to make this a national story and teach a lesson about the dangers of anti-Semitism.”
Which they did. “After this, the blood libel would never again appear in the U.S.,” says Berenson in his book. “The outcome of the scandal was it likely shored up Jewish standing at the end of the decade.”
But neither the blood libel nor anti-Semitism have been relegated to the dustbin of history. The Holocaust happened, and so did the killing of Jews who returned to Poland after World War II and had the effrontery to claim lands and businesses that had been taken from them.
In 2000, an Egyptian newspaper ran an article entitled “Jewish Matzah Made From Arab Blood.”
In 2017, a Russian Orthodox church commission called the murder of Tsar Nicholas II in 1918 a Jewish ritual murder.
And just recently it was revealed that in 2013 Miftah, the Palestinian group that arranged Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib’s planned trip to Israel, published a post on their website about the blood libel.
Plus, there’s this: The recent synagogue shootings in Pennsylvania and California, and the marchers in Charlottesville who chanted “The Jews shall not replace us” have put a new, and much more dangerous, face on anti-Jewish activity in this country. Which makes The Accusation seem like a warning from the past that can’t be ignored.
“We need to be vigilant, although the U.S. has been an extremely safe place for Jews,” says Berenson. “But we have seen that it’s possible for some of the worst aspects of anti-Semitism to surface in this country. It can happen again, and we need to keep that in mind.”