A quick glance at the long and varied life of Mordecai Myers convinced Neil Yetwin this was somebody worth spending a lot of time with.
“Someone mentioned to me that Schenectady once had a Jewish mayor back in the 19th century, and I thought that was mildly interesting,” said Yetwin, a history teacher at Schenectady High School.
“It was uncommon, but not impossible by the 1850s. However, when I looked a little closer at his life, how long he lived and the variety of activities he participated in, that’s what got me really interested in pursuing my research on him.”
“To My Son: The Life and War Remembrances of Captain Mordecai Myers, 13th United States Infantry, 1812-1815,” is Yetwin’s recently released annotated book about the man who at the age of 75 became mayor of Schenectady.
The book consists of Myers’ memoirs about the War of 1812, including one long letter to his son in 1853, as well as an introduction by Yetwin and plenty of endnotes. Yetwin will sign copies of the book at the Open Door Bookstore on Sunday.
‘To My Son: The Life and War Remembrances of Captain Mordecai Myers’
WHAT: A book signing
WHERE: Open Door Bookstore, 128 Jay St., Schenectady
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Sunday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 346-2719, www.opendoor-bookstore.com
Born in May of 1776 in Newport, R.I., Myers was much more than a politician. He first won elected office in 1828 — the first Jew in the New York state Legislature — but before that he was a respected merchant and military hero, having been wounded at the Battle of Crysler’s Field in Ontario during the War of 1812. He was also a Freemason to the 32nd degree.
“In Europe, Jews weren’t allowed to become Freemasons,” said Yetwin. “But from the very beginning, here in the American Colonies they were allowed in, and that gave them access to the business and political community that would have been impossible in Europe.
“I think there was a sense that this was a new country, and people could remake themselves and enjoy more individual freedoms. Freemasons in this country encouraged Jews to join, and I think it was a reflection of that philosophy.”
With his military exploits and his earlier political connections with Martin Van Buren while living in Kinderhook, Myers already was prominent and well-known when he moved to Schenectady.
“He had moved to Kinderhook planning to retire, but the financial crisis of the 1830s and ’40s caught up with him a bit, and he had to sell the home there and move to Schenectady,” said Yetwin.
“He had a statewide reputation as a war hero and a legislator, so when he moved here he was recruited by the Democrats to run for the mayor’s office.”
Finding a wife
It was Myers’ war experience that helped him find a wife. At the age of 39, while recovering from his battle wound at Crysler’s Field, Myers met 17-year-old Charlotte Bailey and the couple were married. They had 10 children before she died in 1848 at the age of 51.
“She was suffering from tuberculosis and passed away in New York City,” said Yetwin. “When Mordecai came to Schenectady, she had already died and he was in his early 70s and still had teenage children.”
Myers served one term as mayor of the city, ran again and was elected, but did not complete his term. “He resigned in protest,” said Yetwin. “He was against taxpayer-funded education.”
Biography in mind
Yetwin is also working on a full biography of Myers and is looking for a publisher.
“I’m hoping I can approach a publisher with this edition of his memoirs and get them interested in my book,” he said. “My introduction in this work is just an outline of his life, and his memoirs are mostly about his time in the War of 1812. There’s a lot more detail to tell, and a lot more information on his life than just his war experiences.”
Myers died at his home on Union St. in Schenectady on Jan. 21, 1871, just four months shy of his 96th birthday.
“To My Son: The War Remembrances of Captain Mordecai Myers” is published by the Old Fort Niagara Association and the forward is written by Donald E. Graves, an author and authority on the War of 1812.
“He’s done a lot of books for the Old Fort Niagara Association, and he’s an expert on military history in Canada,” Yetwin said of Graves. “He was on the PBS special on the history of the War of 1812, and I was very happy to have him write the foreword.”
The cover is a painting of Myers from 1810 by John Wesley Jarvis.