Friday, July 31, 2009

My Davis family From Kiev, Ukraine (updated 6/3/2015)

Despite the all-American last name, this Jewish family's original surname is said to be Davinsky or something similar, and they came from Kiev, Ukraine, a major city in the Russian Pale of Settlement. My great-grandma Bess (sitting in the middle of this family picture) said that her family raised Sammy Davis, Jr., and that's why he converted to Judaism... but somehow I doubt that story.

The father of all the Davis family was named
Yekutiel Zusman Davinsky. His name was given in another record as "Jacob Davis." At least one grandson was also named Yekutiel Zusman, and two other grandsons named Jack may be named after him. The first of these children was born in 1891, implying that Yekutiel Zusman died in Russia, before his children immigrated. However, I have not found any Russian records about the family.

His wife,
Esther Davis, came to New York around 1892. She lived with her daughter Ella in the Lower East Side and then Brooklyn. Esther died on October 15, 1910 and her death certificate lists her parents as "Sussman Davis" and "Sara Cohen," although her husband's name is mistakenly listed as her father's. On another form, her maiden name is given as "Saslawsky."

In the 1900 and 1910 census, Esther claimed to have birthed 13 children, with 6 surviving. All 6 children came to the United States in the 1890s: they were Ruben Davis, Joseph Davis, Isaac Davis, Louis Davis, Paul Davis, and Ella Axelrod.  

Ruben and Rose Davis, c.1930 - courtesy of my cousin Steve Davis.

Ruben Davis (sometimes spelled "Reuben" and "Rubin") was probably the eldest sibling. His first wife, Ida Mostrofsky, died young around 1880 and he married his second wife, Rose (Rachel) Basilevsky, shortly thereafter. Ruben said in his naturalization records that he came to New York in December 1890. His wife Rosie and children came the following year. His occupation was given in various records as tailor (1897), shirtmaker (1900), fruit store owner (1905), storekeeper (1906), fish dealer (1910), none (1920), retired operator (1930).

In 1920, Ruben Davis and his family helped found the East Flatbush Jewish Community Center, a Reform Jewish temple in Brooklyn. Ruben served as a trustee, and his wife Rose Davis, son Philip Davis, and son-in-law Abraham Leibowitz were founding charter members. Another son-in-law, Abraham Marshall, headed the building committee to select a site. By 1929, the center was located at 661 Linden Boulevard, Brooklyn, and Ruben's other son, Arthur Davis, served as its president during the 1940s. The East Flatbush Jewish Community Center has since closed and its former building now houses a Christian school.   

Joe Davis, c.1900 - courtesy of my cousin Steve Davis.

Another older brother, Joe Davis, lived more of a double life, as he eventually grappled with a divorce and a gambling addiction. Within a few years of immigrating from Russia he was in Cripple Creek, Colorado, the site of one of the last great Wild West gold rushes. A September 1896 article described him as "a well known character upon Myers avenue [the town's red light district].... Joe, so Dame Rumor whispers, is a 'gay boy' and is prone to mixing up with the opposite sex in an undue degree." The article described how a judge dismissed charges a "discarded housekeeper" brought against Joe. Angered, the housekeeper "let dive with her dainty little fist and Joe's eye at once assumed a sable tint." 

Joe had gotten rid of this nameless housekeeper as he married an Illinois-born woman named Margaret Ann McDonald the previous month, across the border in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Joe and Margaret's only child, Reuben, was born in 1898 in Washington State. 

Joe and his brother Isaac were arrested in Spokane, WA in August 1899 for running an unlicensed pawn shop, but they still stayed in the town. In the 1900 census (dated June), Joe said he had a "confectionary store" and claimed to be born in Ohio, even though he probably was in Russia a decade before. By August 1900, Joe owned a jewelry shop called The Diamond Palace, which advertised jewelry with cheap quartzes called "Ural Diamonds," and he spent his leisure time playing competitive checkers. My grandmother owned a gold watch made by "Uncle Joe," which may date from this time. 

Then, Joe's life quickly devolved. Joe and Margaret got divorced in August 1900, and the following March, Joe left Spokane over a debt and his store closed down. In an article from May 1901, ex-wife Margaret said that Joe had not paid his $15 monthly alimony for the last two months. Joe insisted on custody of their son Reuben, but she said that he was “unfit” to raise or even see Reuben, as he was “a man of violent temper and ugly disposition” and “a man of immoral habits, he is dishonest, untruthful, unreliable and has no standing whatsoever.”

Margaret said as a divorcee she was forced to work as a domestic for a local Jewish businessman, Isadore M. Cuschner, and they both said that Joe would see her at all times of the day and night in the Cuschner home, threatened to kill her if she did not marry him again, and said he would abduct Reuben. Saying she wanted the equivalent of a modern restraining order, Margaret also wanted Joe to pay railway fare from Spokane to a different city.
Cuschner and two other local Jewish men gave the shameful allegation that Joe thought “that the decree of divorce was not binding upon him, that he was a Jew and did not consider the orders of this court legal or binding.”

The next Spokane newspaper account, from October 1901, gave an update on what they termed the "Sad Fate of Joe Davis." Fleeing to Portland, Oregon, Joe became obsessed with playing checker games for money, and after a particularly large loss tried to accuse his opponent of theft. The following February, it was reported that Joe's former jewelry business partner also fled to Portland and was accused of being a bigamist.

Despite these clouds of scandal, Joe returned to Spokane and somehow was able to reopen his jewelry store in the exact same spot by 1903. By the following year, he was gone. It's possible that Joe moved to Milwaukee, as his younger brother Paul also settled there at the same time.

Eventually, Joe made it to San Francisco, and according to his great-nephew Marc Axelrod, did a partially redeeming act. The story goes that Joe worked in a haberdashery, saved his money, and eventually bought the store. With his (honestly-earned) money, he was able to pay for his newly immigrated younger sister Ella to return to New York City, when she accidentally boarded a train for Montana.

The family story is that Joe died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but he is listed in his two brother's obituaries in the 1920s as a San Francisco resident, so it's possible that he survived the earthquake. Perhaps more sources can flesh out the story of this shadowy man.

His ex-wife Margaret went to California, married another man, and raised Reuben with the new husband's last name. Reuben became a successful bank executive and lived into his 90s. It wasn't until 2011 that Joe's descendants learned the backstory of their Wild West ancestor, thanks to this blog. 

Ike Davis, c.1900 - Courtesy of my cousin, Steve Davis

Another older son, Ike [Isaac/Yitzhak] Davis, was in 1890 possibly the first family member to immigrate to the United States. His wife Rebecca and their four surviving children immigrated the following year. Ike is possibly listed in immigration records as "Itzig Dewinsky," a 32-year-old tailor from Kiev who took the S.S. Wieland from Hamburg, Germany and landed in New York City on September 26, 1890.
By 1894, they lived in Missoula, MT, where Ike's daughter Anna was born. Maybe Ike knew about the town from Ella? In 1897, Ike appeared in Montana newspapers as a Missoula jeweler who was swindled by a business partner.

The family story is that Ike traveled by train to join his brother Joe in California, but the train broke down in Spokane, WA. Ike liked the town and decided to stay. In August 1899, Ike appeared in the Spokane papers when he and his brother Joe were arrested for running an unlicensed pawn shop. By November, Ike was again in the paper for having his house robbed, and he was mentioned as the owner of a clothing store, which he was for the next two decades. In 1901, Ike became one of the founders of Keneseth Israel, Spokane’s Orthodox Jewish congregation.
Rebecca died of tuberculosis in 1904, and Ike remarried around 1905 to Lena Prager (originally Podajetsky, who came from Katerinopol, Ukraine). Ike died in a car accident outside of Spokane on March 27, 1921. By the late 1920s, Lena Davis had moved with her daughter and son to Brooklyn.

Paul Davis, c.1910

Paul [Peisach] Davis landed in New York with his first wife Gittel aboard the S.S. Werkendam on June 23, 1893, and their daughter Jennie was born two months later. Gittel died of tuberculosis in 1896, and Paul soon married Fannie Scher (who immigrated from Lodz, Poland). The story goes that Fannie met two-year Jennie Davis, "fell in love with her," and raised Jennie as one of her own children. Paul was a housepainter, but the exposure to lead paint ruined his health, and doctors advised him to leave New York and go west. Paul took a train to Milwaukee, WI in 1903 and his wife and children followed in his tracks in 1904, using tickets provided by the Industrial Removal Office

They moved to Spokane, WA in 1909, where Paul ran a clothing store in his later years, and Fannie became prominent in local Jewish affairs. Paul became sickly in later years, gradually had his whole leg amputated, and died in Sacred Heart Hospital in Spokane on March 7, 1926. Fannie clearly loved Paul; she never remarried and claimed to have conversations with Paul's ghost at night. Fannie Davis died in Miami, FL on December 19, 1956, and her body was flown back to Spokane to be buried next to Paul.

Ella [Alta Miriam] Davis, the youngest sibling and only sister, probably survived a serious illness at a young age, and then received the Yiddish first name "Alta" (Elder) as a segulah (spiritually protective act) in hopes of a long life. It paid off, as Ella outlived her siblings by decades. 

Ella came to the United States as a teenager with a female cousin. According to Ella's grandson Mark, the two women went by train from Russia to France, took a ferry to England, then another train to Southampton to get on a boat to New York. Weeks later, instead of seeing a large city, they docked in Charleston, SC. Somehow they had boarded the wrong ship! Luckily, someone in the train station who spoke Yiddish explained what happened and the two immigrants bought two tickets to New York. Many days later, in the dead of winter, the train pulled into a wilderness town and Ella saw "American Indians sitting around the station all wrapped up in brightly-colored blankets and smoking pipes." Somehow, Ella and her cousin ended up 2,000 miles east of New York, in Missoula, Montana! By a miracle, the women found another Yiddish speaker, and the almost-penniless immigrants wired Joe Davis in San Francisco. Joe was able to wire money to his sister and cousin, and they were able to arrive at long last in New York.

After a few years living with her mother on the Lower East Side, Ella married in 1900 Benjamin [Benzion] Axelrod, a Russian-born ladies' tailor who in later life resembled Churchill. Benjamin's father, Wolf Axelrod, founded the Axelrod dairy products company in 1896, and Benjamin's brother and nephew later ran the company. Ben and Ella Axelrod moved to Brooklyn in 1905, where they spent most of the rest of their lives. They are buried in Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Queens. 


Ruben Davis (b. c.1855 in Russia; d.1934 in New York) first married c.1875 to Ida Mostrofsky, who probably died in Russia. They had two surviving daughters: 

Ruben's children were:
1. Mary Davis (b.1876 in Russia; d.1965 in New York City), who married c.1899 the storekeeper Sam Prigerson (b.1874 in Russia) and had three children: Henry Prigerson (1900-1958), Harriet Mintz (1904-1983), and Irving Prigerson (1908-1937).
2. Jennie Davis (b.1879 in Russia; died 1921 in Brooklyn) married Julius Litkoff [Jacob Litkowsky] (b.1880) in 1904 in Manhattan. They had two children: Harold Litkoff (1905-1946) and Irving Litkoff (1909-1987).

, at some point before 1885, married Rosa Brodsky [Rachel Basilevsky] (b.1864 in Russia; d.1941 in Brooklyn; 
daughter of Nathan and Leah Brodsky). Ruben had another four children with Rose: 
3. Lena Davis (b.1885 in Russia; d.1965 in Brooklyn) married Abe Leibowitz and had four children: Norman Leeb, Howard Leeb, Elinor Lowe, and Jane Pollack.
4. Anna Davis (b.1889 in Russia; d.1984 in Los Angeles), a suffragrette who married Abraham Marshall (1884-1955), a builder and union painter. They had four children: Gladys Shepard Salit (1908-1969), Irving (1911-1971), Elinor (1915-2013), and Norman (1918-1939), and moved to Los Angeles in their later years. The eldest daughter, Gladys, was a social worker, the mother of pioneer American mime Richmond Shepard, and the grandmother of pop singer Vonda Shepard. The third child, Elinor Marshall Glenn, was the first woman hired as an organizer by the SEIU union, and she helped lead a 1966 strike of Los Angeles hospital workers, leading to the "first collective bargaining for public workers." See union obituaries for Elinor here and here.
5. Arthur [Otto] Davis (b.1895 in Manhattan; d.1972 in Brooklyn), who as a youth played piano in a silent movie theater and later ran a meat factory, married Helen Uhler (c.1900-1988) in 1920 and they had two daughters, Jane (1921-1942) and Mary.
6. Philip Davis (b.1897 in Manhattan; d.1974 in St. Paul, MN) was a meat broker and then a liquor broker, who in 1926 married his first cousin Betty Davis (1906-1994, Ike's daughter, see below) in Brooklyn and they had two sons, Richard and Robert.

Isaac Davis (b.1857 in Russia; d.1921 in Spokane, WA)
first married c.1881 to Rebecca Kukler (b. c.1862 in Russia; d.1904 in Spokane, WA; daughter of Abraham and Anna Sarah Kukler)
Their surviving children were:
1. Alex Davis (b.1881 in Russia; d.1978 in Spokane), a clothes salesman, married Elizabeth Markowitz (1892-1932) and had a son and daughter: Private First Class Robert Davis of the Army Air Force (1917-1944), who was a POW aboard the Japanese hell ship Arisan Maru and died when it sank, and Zelda Taitch (1919-1968). Alex then married Daisy (1910-1990) and had another daughter, Roberta Greer.
2. Morris Davis (b.1885 in Russia) lived as a saloon/pool hall worker in Western towns. First he married Kathryn "Kate" Greene Shortridge (1882-1917), a divorcee, in 1914 in Great Falls, MT. Kathryn was first married in 1901 to Charles G. Shortridge (1864-1927), a son of Populist North Dakota Governor Eli C. D. Shortridge (1830-1908). Kathryn and Charles had a son, Lyman (1901-1976), but Morris never raised him. In February 1917, Kathryn committed suicide in her home in Lewistown, MT by ingesting 
strychnine. Seven months after his first wife's death, Morris married Aritia Cassell (b.1896) in Cascade County, MT, and they stayed in Lewistown.
3. Sadie [Sonya] Cassell (b.1889 in Russia; d.1982 in Los Angeles) married in 1909 David Bennett Cassell (b.1882 in Arkansas; d.1965 in Los Angeles), who worked for a construction company. They had four children - Daniel (1910-1914), Benjamin (1912-1978), Betty (1913-1968), and Jane Lapota (1915-1996) - and Sadie outlived three of them.
4. Jake [Jacob] Davis (b.1891 in Russia) lived in Chicago.
5. Anna Davis (b.1894 in Missoula, MT; d.1972 in Bellevue, WA), who became a registered nurse in Spokane in 1912, 
converted to Catholicism in 1916 against her father's wishes, and became a nun named "Sister Mary Mercedes." According to her obituary, Sister Mercedes first worked with the Sisters in Longview, WA, spent 30 years as a supervisor at St. Joseph's Hospital in Bellingham, WA, and then for 11 years was the receptionist at Sacred Heart General Hospital in Eugene, OR, before retiring in 1969.
Isaac remarried c.1905 in Spokane to Lena Prager [Podajetsky] (b. c.1876 in Katerinopol, Ukraine; died in New York; daughter of Itzig/Isaac Podajetsky and Miriam Feinberg), and they had the following children:
6. Betty [Rebecca] Davis (b.1906 in Spokane; d.1994 in St. Paul, MN), who dated Bing Crosby in Spokane before she went to New York City, married in 1926 in Brooklyn her first cousin Phil Davis (1897-1974, Ruben's son, see above) and had two sons.
7. Max [Mordechai] Davis (b.1910 in Spokane; d.1910 in Spokane)
8. Leo Davis (b.1911 in Spokane) married Gertrude Lees in Brooklyn in 1934.

Joseph Davis (b. c.1859 in Russia) was a jeweler who married Margaret Ann McDonald (b.1871 in Illinois) in Cheyenne, WY 
in 1896. They lived in Cripple Creek, CO and then Spokane, WA and divorced in 1900. Afterwards, Joe operated a Spokane jewelry store that failed twice, fled to Portland to escape a debt, and then after 1903 ended up as a haberdasher in San Francisco (maybe by means of Milwaukee). Family lore says he died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but according to his brothers’ obituaries he was still living in San Francisco during the 1920s.
Joe and Margaret had one son: 
1. Reuben Irvin (b.1898 in Washington State; d.1989 in California) took the last name of the stepfather who raised him. Reuben had a son and helped found the Santa Barbara Bank & Trust.  

Paul Davis (b. c.1867 in Russia; d.1926 in Spokane, WA) first married Gittel Abelov (b.1873 in Russia; d.1896 in Montefiore Home in Manhattan). Their only surviving child was:
1. Jennie Davis (b.1893 in Manhattan; d.1984 in Portland, OR), who married in 1919 the chiropractor Herman Wexler (c.1894-1962; son of Morris Wexler and Jennie Abrams). They had a daughter, Myrtle Marsha Williams (1920-1995), and a son,
Paul Wexler (1929-1979), who was a Hollywood actor. Paul in turn had a son who became a high-ranking Hare Krishna, Bhaktividya Purna Maharaja.
Paul remarried in 1896 to Fannie [Feige] Scher (b. c.1876 in Poland; d.1956 in Miami, FL), and they had the following children:
2. Jack [Samuel] Davis (b.1896 in Manhattan; d.1951 in Spokane, WA), who served in World War I and moved to Bend, OR by the 1920s. Jack worked there as an insurance salesman and real estate agent, commanded the local American Legion, and among many civic duties helped organize and lead Deschutes County's World War II draft board. Jack Davis first married Genevieve Perkins (1890-1946; daughter of Hugh and Frances E. Nelson) and then a woman named Gladys (d.1958) but had no children. He died while visiting his mother.
3. Moe [Morris] Davis (b.1898 in Manhattan; d.1989 in Bainbridge Island, WA) ran a clothing store in Spokane, where lumberjacks and Spokan Indians numbered among his customers, and also led the synagogue's social events. He married 
Jennie [Genevieve] Itkin (1910-1988; daughter of Henry Itkin and Lena Bade) in 1931 in Portland, OR. They had a son and a daughter, Paul Davis and Eleanor Capeloto, moved from Spokane to Portland in the 1940s, and spent their last years in Seattle.
4. Bessie Lillian [Rebecca] Davis (b.1900 in Manhattan; d.1995 in Miami, FL) was an outspoken saleswoman with a sarcastic wit, who eloped and married Nathaniel Karasov (1895-1977), a British-born salesman, on April 10, 1918 in Coeur d'Alene, ID. They had one daughter, Frances (1919-2014), and moved to many places, including Spokane, WA; Watrous, Saskatchewan; Los Angeles, and Portland, OR before retiring in Miami. Widowed, Bess married in 1978 in Miami the retired pots and pans manufacturer Louis Krutt (1899-1983).
5. Florence Davis (b.1904 in Manhattan; d.2001 in San Francisco, CA) married in 1922 in Coeur d'Alene, ID and later divorced Walter J. Fraser, and they had one son, Robert. She lived the later half of her life in San Francisco, CA and remarried, probably to Martin Edward Daly (1890-1969). Robert Fraser served in World War II in General Patton's Third Army and helped bring the famed Lipizzan horses to safety from Czechoslovakia to Austria. After the war, he served in the FBI, became an assistant district attorney and evenutally was a judge in Washington State.
6. Dorothy Davis (b.1905 in Milwaukee, WI; d.1991 in Santa Ana, CA) married Mickey Berg (1905-1986; son of Jacob Berg and Hannah Aronowitz) in 1934 in Brooklyn and had a son and a daughter, Paul and Anita.
7. Esther Davis (b.1913 in Spokane, WA; d.2002 in Queens, NY) married Ruby Kaplan (1913-2005; son of Joseph and Ida Kaplan) in 1936 in Brooklyn and they had a son and a daughter, Jerry and Marilyn.

Louis Davis may be the same man found in records (b.1862 in Kiev, Ukraine; d.1944 in Manhattan) who immigrated in 1891 under the name Leiser Dewinsky with his wife, Minnie Chudnoff [Mindel Sidnofsky] (1862-1930), and three oldest children. He became a fish dealer in Manhattan and had six more children:

1. Ida [Chaje] (b.1884 in Russia), who may be named after Ruben's first wife.
2. Fannie [Trimme] (b.1885 in Russia) married Pincus Needle in 1907. 

3. Ray [Rachael] (b. c.1886 in Russia) married Samuel Lewis in 1904. 
4. Samuel (b.1893 in New York) married Hannah Standowitz in 1919. 
5. Beatrice [Rebecca] (b.1896 in New York) married Jacob Horowitz in 1919. 
6. Abraham (b.1898 in New York) married Jennie Berman in 1919. 
7. Anna (b.1900 in New York; died 1995 in Los Angeles) married George Rothenberg in 1919. 
8. Henry [Hyman] (b.1902 in New York) married Selma Engelman in 1926. 
9. Belle [Beckie] (b.1904 in New York; died 1987 in New York), who may be named after Isaac's first wife, married Louis Rosenson (1902-1991) in 1925.
Note: Louis and Minnie Davis are buried in the "Ahavas Achim Anshe Corsom" section of Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, implying that they came from the town of Korsun, Russia (now Ukraine). Korsun is now part of the Cherkasy Oblast, but in imperial Russian times it was part of the Kiev Gubernia. If this Louis Davis is part of the family, that might clarify the family's originating in "Kiev."  

Ella Axelrod (b.1876 in Russia; d.1960 in Brooklyn) married in 1900 the tailor Benjamin Axelrod (b.1875 in Minsk, Russia; d.1948 in Brooklyn; son of Wolf Axelrod and Ida Perelman). Their children were:

1. Solomon [Yekutiel Sussman] Axelrod (1902-1988), a salesman who married Sylvia Pardes (1913-1994) and had one son, Mark.
2. David Solomon Axelrod (1905-1907)
3. Milton Axelrod (1908-1910)
4. Estelle [Esther] Axelrod (1914-1994), who died unmarried. 

Questions? Comments? Please email me at ruedafingerhut [at]

1 comment:

  1. Hi Edward,

    My mother, Sallie, has just written back to you about Joe Davis and his son, Reuben (my great-grandfather). I just wanted to thank you so much for all the hard work you've done here and for the connection you have provided for us. It's very, very moving!

    Thank you!