Morris Levy [or not] (1838-1896)

Morris LEVY was my maternal grandfather’s maternal grandfather. But it appears he was not born with that name.


“Morris Levy”, c. 1883

Morris was born in Kozmin, Prussia – also known by its German name, Koschmin – on 11 May 1838. This was only about 30 miles from Sandberg, the birthplace of his eventual spouse, Helena JACOBOWSKY, although it’s unknown if the two families knew each other. His father’s name, according to Morris’s gravestone, was Samuel HaLevi; that is, “Samuel the Levite”.

We don’t know exactly what Morris’s birth name, or when he came to the United States, other than it appears to be prior to 1859. Three branches of the family independently agree that Morris changed his name, but the stories vary as to why.

The first story is that Morris wanted to serve in the Civil War, but was too old. In order to get in, he stole the draft notice of a deceased neighbor, who was named Morris LEVY, and took his place. As Morris was only in his mid-20s during the Civil War, I tend to discount this one.

A second story was the soldiers had to provide their own uniforms during the war. Morris’s uniform was heavily damaged at one point, and he took one off of a dead soldier named Morris LEVY, and started using his name.  Possible, but I find it hard to imagine why this would require a name change.

The third story is that before the war, he was a tailor in business with an established merchant named Morris LEVY. When Morris died, in order to keep the clientele, my great-great-grandfather changed his name to match the shingle.

No one knows which of these stories, if any, are true, but all agree on the name change.  The main clue as to his original name is the 1860 census, in the household of Simon JACOBOWSKY, Helena’s brother. Helena had arrived in 1857, and on the 1860 census we see a young couple, a tailor, Louis HESSE and his wife Helena, both of the right age and origin (“Poland”). It’s unfortunate that the 1860 census did not inquire, as did later censuses, as to the relationship of each person to the head of household. Whatever his name, however, by 1863 he was using LEVY.

Another Clue

There is another clue regarding Morris’s name, that being the baby book of Harlan Englander, one of Morris’s great-grandchildren. The book contained entries back to great-grandparents, but someone – likely Harlan’s mother – filled in the next generation by hand.


We see Morris and Helena, and Helena’s parents, Hirsch and Taube WOLFF JACOBOWSKY. Each of them has “Great Great Grandfather[mother]” inscribed underneath. And also, what appears to be “Augustus Levy – USA”.  It is unclear what this means. I thought at first that it was Morris’s father, but we know from his gravestone that that name was Samuel. Additionally, as far as we know, Morris’s father never came to the US.

Was Augustus Morris’s original name?

All sides of the family believe that Morris served in the Union army as a tailor, although no one knows what unit. Hirsch FRIEDMAN, married to Caroline JACOBOWSKY – either a first cousin or half-niece to Helena LEVY – was in the 13th Regiment, New York Heavy Artillery. In the same unit was an Augustus HESSE (recall the HESSE name on the 1860 census), from Prussia, but about 10 years senior to Morris. It is possible that this is a brother. More investigation is needed here.

Post-War Life

Morris and Helena had married about 1858, and their first child, Wolf, was born in 1863 in Manhattan. This son was apparently deceased by 1870, as he appears on no future censuses.

Hirsch FRIEDMAN had been stationed in Portsmouth, VA at the end of the war, and had liked the area so much he had moved his family there by 1866. Simon JACOBOWSKY, Helena’s brother, also moved his family at just about the same time, and Morris relocated not long afterwards, sometime between 1868 and 1870. There, he and Helena raised seven children born between 1864 and 1879 and ran a merchant tailor business.

Morris’s grandson, George W. Pawel, has dim memories of his grandfather, which he wrote about in his (unpublished) autobiography: Grandpa Levy was a small-statured, mild-mannered man who operated an unpretentious “department” store on Court St., Portsmouth. He probably catered largely to the colored trade of the district. I visited him once, with my mother, when I was 4 or 5 years old, and I recall he authorized a haircut for me while sitting on an ordinary chair in his rather dismal store. [Haircut: 10 cents]

Morris became a Naturalized Citizen on 7 May 1886. Unfortunately, the documentation required at the time gives us no new information which could help us discover who he was.

He died at home of Bright’s Disease on 20 July 1896, and the Virginia Pilot noted that he was an honest, up-right citizen, and had many friends who will regret to learn of his death. One silver lining is that many newspapers of this era are available in digitized format, and it was through newspaper coverage of his funeral that I was able to determine the familial relationship between Helena LEVY and her brother Simon JACOBOWSKY.

Morris LEVY was buried in Hebrew Cemetery, Norfolk, two days later. As was the custom, several grandchildren born after his passing were named for him, including Mildred Lana PAWEL (likely), Maris Levy JANUARY, Hillary Morris JANUARY – Maris’s double-first cousin, Morton Paul LEVY, and my grandfather’s brother, Morris Levy ABRAMS.



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