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On Boxing Day, two hundred and seventy-eight years ago, six men were born at precisely the same moment.
One was a Scottish Lord, another a rebellious British Naval sailor, a third was an argumentative contrarian parliamentarian, another the instigator of the deadly Gordon Riots, a fifth was the weirdest religious convert in England, and the other was Newgate Prison’s most demanding inmate.
And they all had the same name.
Not easy to cram all of those lives into forty-two years, but Lord Geroge Gordon managed it with aplomb.
His first persona he really couldn’t help. His father and mother - Cosmo and Cathy - sound like they ran a deli in Secaucus, but were in fact Scottish Royalty. He went to Eton, of course, and was then fast-tracked into the Royal Navy and to the rank of Lieutenant.
In the Navy, Gordon was expected to join ranks with the officers, raise his nose a little further into the air to avoid the smell of the deckhands, and drink cognac from flat-bottomed decanters. But for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to do that. Something in him, however much he may have tried, made him break ranks, turn his attention to bettering the lives of those in his care, and swig rum instead.
He instantly became the sailors’ champion, but was inevitably refused any kind of promotion and definitely not the command of his own vessel by the Admiralty, who confused his compassion for weakness.
So off he went to Parliament, to become a member of the 1774 house representing Ludgershall. This third incarnation would be an easier ride, one might have thought, except that Gordon didn’t see it that way. All his political viewpoints were at odds with both sides of the house; he just didn’t agree with either party. Astonishing as it may seem, Gordon saw a third option; a middle-ground, an alternative path. Not right, not left, but somewhere in the middle. It's a revolutionary thought, isn’t it?
Because he didn’t see the world as the staid career politicians did, his political life came to an end as both sides accused him of being a contrarian. And of course he was instantly branded a political outcast and shunned.
Cast aside as a politician, Gordon found a cause with which to prove he could both lead and accomplish great things. In 1779, he founded the Protestant Association which marched to the Houses of Parliament to present a petition against Catholic rights; he was born and lived in a Protestant country, and felt that Catholicism didn’t have a place in England in the same way.
He didn’t march alone of course, he took around fifty thousand protesters with him. Because, while we may see this cause as somewhat misguided and firmly against our belief in the rights of all humans, he was really just trying to prove that he could achieve something.
The march was peaceful at first, but agitators and infiltrators (which many said were Government agents acting to create a need for violent suppression, if you can believe such a thing could ever happen …) turned the march into chaos. The horde spent the next few days and nights burning churches and pillaging homes, and even attacked the Bank of England. And that gave authorities the right to shoot protesters (where have we heard that recently …) and they did. At least four hundred and fifty, maybe as many as seven hundred, marchers were shot dead in the streets where they stood.
Gordon’s organizational skills and inspiring leadership had made him the peoples’ hero, but those same qualities also made him the Government’s scourge. To the Tower, they cried, and off he went.
Although he was accommodated well in the Tower of London, he was swiftly freed and bolted to Amsterdam for a bit of a rest and a cycle around the Dam. Unfortunately, while there he seems to have criticised that thoughtless lush, Marie Antoinette, who had come to symbolize all that was wrong with the aristocracy, fueling the French Revolution. I’m not sure exactly what he said to defame her, but he was thrown out of the country and had to traipse back to England with his duty free.
On his return, and maybe in response to being ex-communicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Gordon decided to convert to Judaism, embracing what was in England in 1787 a fairly obscure and definitely not mainstream religion.
Converts are often far more fundamental than those born into that religious doctrine, and Gordon was the epitome of the ger tzedek, the righteous Jew. He quickly became Yisrael bar Avraham Gordon, and lived a very othrodox life. He grew a wonderfully luxurious beard, wrapped the prayer boxes around his arm every day, studied and discussed the Torah, and broke bread with his community in Birmingham.
Other than being heralded by his fellow Jews as the risen Moses, it was an ordinary Jewish life, until 1788 that is when he was arrested for deformation and treason and sent to Newgate Prison.
Gordon’s incredible commitment and piety had given the Jewish people someone to admire and respect, but he brought no mazel on himself or on the arresting officers who were following their own orders.
And so to Gordon’s fifth and final persona, that of a prisoner at Newgate in London.
Although hard to believe, Gordon lived in Newgate as an orthodox Jew. He prayed every day, he fasted when his religion required, he celebrated all the Jewish holidays, ate only kosher meat and wine, and challah, and had a beautiful mezuzah on his cell door. And on shabbat, the guards hung the Commandments on his wall to turn his cell into a temporary synagogue, and helped form a minyan to say the prayers with him.
As a spiritual leader, he administered to his fellow prisoners, giving them his time, support, and money, and won the respect of and a place in Charles John Huffam Dicken’s ‘Barnaby Rudge’.
And even though he was free to leave Newgate in 1793, it appears he decided to stay, and continue giving charity to this new community. He’d found a safe place and he didn’t want to let go of it.
A few months later, during an epidemic in the prison, he caught and succumbed to typhoid, and died surrounded by friends who refused to worry about their own health, on the 26th of Marcheshvan, 5554.
All six men died on one day, at the very same time.
One was a Scottish Lord, another a forward-thinking and compassionate officer, a third was a progressive parliamentarian keen for a third party alternative, another the inspiring galvanizer of thousands of people, a fifth was an impressively-pious and dedicated religious leader, and the other was a most well-respected inmate at the old Newgate Prison.
Zay gezunt, Lord George Gordon.