This week we will focus on Joseph Darmstadt, a Richmond Freemason; and first savior of Masons Hall. Darmstadt, along with other Jews, played a vital role in the growth of Richmond both civic, business and cultural matters. He was originally a Hessian soldier. Hessians were German mercenaries hired by the British during the Revolutionary War; and nearly 30,000 of them fought in the American Revolutionary War.
Joeseph Darmstadt was captured during the battle of Saratoga and taken to Virginia by American forces. Joseph remained in the Commonwealth after the American Revolution. Not long after, he renounced his foreign allegiance, settled in Richmond, and became an auctioneer and merchant in Richmond serving the German farmers of the Shenandoah Valley. His morning ritual of serving coffee on the Shockoe Market made his store a favorite meeting place for local merchants to catch up on news and gossip of the day.
Joseph played a role in the establishment of the first Jewish Congregation in Richmond about 1789. Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome was the sixth and westernmost congregation in the colonies, and one of the six that congratulated George Washington upon his inauguration as first president. The 1790 census shows Richmond with the fourth largest Jewish population, following only New York, Charleston and Philadelphia. The first Jewish burial ground in the state was established on Franklin Street in 1791 and, the first synagogue was dedicated on Mayo Street in 1822.
He was also an involved Freemason and active member of Richmond #10, original owner of Masons Hall, and as a Grand Lodge Officer, that is after he played a vital role in the establishment of the Grand Lodge of Virginia.
Joseph Darmstadt is likely the first person who should be credited with first saving Masons Hall;
In 1791, a considerable sum was owed to the contractors who had erected Masons Hall and the contractor had filed a lien which would have forced the sale of the building. Joseph, a generous man, assumed the burden and soon after advanced the money to meet the debt of 247 pounds. Calculated for inflation that would equal $53,000 USD in 2016. His generosity stopped the sale of the building and has allowed for the building to be used without interruption for the last 227 years!
Sadly Masons Hall needs your help today. $5 Donations are being collected, please help save this original piece of American history.
If you are interested in more information on the history of Jews in Richmond, please visit Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives.
Written by: Lee Oppenheim