Monday, April 5, 2010

Isaac Lurch

Isaac Lurch's grave and headstone in the Mokelumne Hill Jewish Cemetery

Isaac Lurch
Born: July 17, 1831 (Ediglieim, Germany)
Died: December 28, 1859 (Lancha Plana, California)
Interred: Mokelumne Hill Jewish Cemetery, Mokelumne Hill, Calaveras County, California

Isaac Lurch emigrated to the United States from Bavaria in 1854, first living in Wilmington, North Carolina, then moving to California sometime after 1855 to join the Gold Rush. When he arrived in California he settled in Lancha Plana, a small community south of the gold town called Mokelumne Hill. He died in his Lancha Plana home only a few short years later.

While he was a resident of California, Lurch joined the Masonic and Odd Fellow's fraternal organizations. After his death his body was transported north to Mokulemne Hill, to the location of the nearest Jewish cemetery, where his fraternal brothers and the Jewish community put together the largest funeral procession the area had yet seen. Lurch was the first person to be buried in the newly set aside parcel of land designated as the Jewish community's cemetery. The carved picture at the top of his headstone depicts a typical Masonic funeral service.

The San Francisco Weekly Gleaner newspaper reported on his funeral:
"He was buried last Friday morning, Dec. 30, at Mokelumne Hill, in the Jewish burying ground. His remains were accompanied by the Masonic and Odd Fellow's fraternities of Amador and Calaveras counties, also by the firemen of Lancha Plana. The funeral procession was headed by a band of music, ordered by the Masonic members, numbered over 500 persons, among whom were the Jewish ladies of Mokelumne Hill, was the largest that ever took place in this part of the country. The deceased leaves an aged mother, and two sisters, whose sole support he was, to mourn his loss."

* * * * *

This cemetery was the first of the seven Jewish cemeteries in California's Gold Rush country, six of which lie alongside highway 49, that I visited. I discovered it by accident one day as I was doing an inventory of the Protestant Cemetery in Mokelumne Hill. As I gradually made my way toward the back of the Protestant Cemetery I noticed a tiny fenced off area behind it. A closer examination revealed the Jewish Cemetery with only ten still-marked grave sites. Of those ten headstones, all of which were originally upright, only one remains standing. The others, including Isaac Lurch's, have long since broken off the base, fallen over, and were eventually cemented in place, flat across the grave sites. Several of the grave sites have foot stones that still remain upright, though.

The Mokelumne Hill Jewish Cemetery

Ashley, by the Mokelumne Hill Jewish Cemetery

The Mokelumne Hill Jewish Cemetery

The Mokelumne Hill Jewish Cemetery

Of the seven Jewish cemeteries, four are kept locked by the Judah L. Magnes Museum, which owns or has control of all seven. A few years after I accidentally discovered this small cemetery in Mokelumne Hill, I was introduced to several employees and trustees of the museum and was given access to the locked cemeteries. Since then I have completed inventories of six of them. The only one I have not yet completed is the Marysville Hebrew Cemetery, though I was invited to, and attended the re-dedication ceremony on June 29, 2008.

A Traveler's Guide to Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries of the California Gold Rush by Susan Morris

1. Mokelumne is pronounced "muh kuh luh me" with the emphasis on the second syllable. I learned this in December 2007 after I'd spent most of the previous decade pronouncing it completely wrong. The town is commonly referred to by the locals as "Moke Hill" with a long "o" sound, rhyming with "poke", which led to my earlier confusion about the pronunciation. Mokelumne is a Miwok (Native American) word meaning "people of Mokel", most likely referring to the name of a nearby Indian village.

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