The Bunker Hill Monument that overlooks Charlestown, Mass. was only built because Judah Touro, a somewhat reclusive New Orleans merchant, stepped in to pay for it. In fairness, Judah Touro would take issue with that. He contributed only the final donation that allowed for the completion of the monument. Gathering the funds for the 221-foot-high obelisk took an excruciating 20 years.
The Bunker Hill Monument Association came together in 1823 with the idea that, on its 25th anniversary in two years, the Battle of Bunker Hill deserved a more prominent monument. King Solomon’s Lodge of Masons had erected a monument in 1894 marking the death of Joseph Warren at the battle. But everyone agreed the battle deserved something more than that 18-foot wooden column.
By 1825, the association had purchased a 15-acre piece of the battlefield to head off its being developers. When the 50th anniversary of the battle finally came in June of that year, the association laid the cornerstone for the monument with great fanfare. The Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the Revolution, attended. Daniel Webster spoke, and the movement to build a monument appeared to be off to a great start.
In 1827 construction began in earnest. Block by block, worker’s laid huge granite stones from Quincy, Mass. on top of each other and the monument began to rise. But by the end of 1828 the job site fell silent. The association had run out of funds, and the monument stood just 37 feet tall.
Bunker Hill Monument Take Two
Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association next stepped in to restart work on the monument. The trade group, organized by tradesmen in 1795 with Paul Revere as its first president, was a fraternity of craftsmen, and it dug in to tackle the monument.
Work restarted in 1834, but ground to a halt by the start of 1836. Against the backdrop of the financial crisis of 1837, in which banks failed triggering a five-year depression and deflationary cycle, the monument stood frozen at 85-feet. As the depression dragged on, the association had to sell off most of the battlefield to pay its debts in 1839.
In 1840, writer, editor and activist Sarah Josepha Hale took up the monument’s cause. Hale famously authored Mary Had a Little Lamb and helped create Thanksgiving as a national holiday, among her many achievements. To rescue the monument, she proposed and organized a week-long Ladies Fair to raise funds.
Hale and other activists initially suggested women donate $1 to the monument association, but that idea met with opposition. Critics argued women should not be spending household funds on charitable donations. So, Hale and her compatriots decided to change the plan.
Soliciting assistance from dozens of ladies’ organizations, the group put together a fair to display the handiwork of women crafters and sell donated goods for the benefit of the monument. Offering goods such as needlework, preserves and raw fabric, the five-day fair in September of 1840 brought more than 35,000 visitors to the Faneuil Hall Market in Boston. Between revenue raised by admission to the fair and proceeds from the sale of goods, the fair succeeded terrifically, generating $30,000 for the monument.
The total cost of the monument was about $120,000, and the fair generate enough to restart work on the project. But the association still needed another $20,000 to finish its work.
Benefactors Step In
By 1840, Amos Lawrence spent most of his time finding ways to dispose of his fortune. One of the founders of the City of Lawrence, he had made his money as a wholesale fabric producer. In failing health, Lawrence had given away hundreds of thousands of dollars to schools and other charities,
Lawrence’s father had fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill, and he decided to donate to the memorial. Lawrence pledged $10,000 – half of what remained to be raised, but he made the donation contingent on others pledging the additional $10,000.
It didn’t take long for the money to emerge.
Judah Touro Builds a Monument
Judah Touro’s was born in Newport, R.I. on June 16, 1775 – the date of the Battle Bunker Hill. Touro’s father was prominent in Newport, being a leader of the Touro Synagogue. Ironically, Touro’s father remained loyal to the Crown during the American Revolution. The family remained in Newport during its occupation by the British and relocated to New York when the British left Rhode Island.
From New York, the family proceeded to Jamaica. There, the elder Touro died and the family then returned to New England. They went to Boston to stay with Judah’s uncle, Moses Michael Hays, a prosperous importer and exporter.
Here, Judah Touro grew close to his cousin, Catherine. The two fell in love but Touro’s uncle forbade them from marrying. Hays first sent Touro away on a voyage to safeguard a shipment to Europe. But when he returned to Boston as much in love with Catherine as ever, Hays threw Touro out of his home.
In 1801, Touro relocated to New Orleans and himself became a wealthy importer and exporter.
Funding the Monument
In 1840, Judah Torah read of Amos Lawrence’s gift and challenge in a newspaper. He then sent a $10,000 check to the association to match the donation. He included instructions with the gift that he wanted to remain anonymous. The association perhaps assumed Touro only feigned modesty and would appreciate an acknowledgement. It then published Touro’s name so that he would be celebrated for his generosity.
The monument opened with great ceremony in 1843. President Tyler and Massachusetts statesman Daniel Webster came to the parade and ceremony that attracted 100,000 people. And Oliver Wendall Holmes composed a poem for the celebration. It began with the lines:
Amos and Judah – venerated names,
Patriarch and prophet press their equal claims,
Like generous coursers running “neck to neck”,
Each aids the work by giving it a check,
Christian and Jew, they carry out one plan,
For though of different faith, each is in heart a Man
The Monument Thrives
Today, more than 300,000 visitors a year visit the Bunker Hill Monument, built by the efforts of so many, including Judah Touro.
Touro himself (almost certainly) never saw the monument he helped build. Touro lived a remarkable life. Nearly killed in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, he went on to become one of the country’s 10 wealthiest men. In 1854 he died in New Orleans. His body was returned to Newport for burial.
Touro’s will produced quite a stir. Generous throughout his life, his will only further enhanced his reputation as a philanthropist. It distributed his estate to dozens of organizations and individuals through large gifts.
Touro had remained single throughout his life, as did his cousin Catherine. Both Judah Touro and Amos Lawrence were celebrated at the banquet to mark the opening of the monument, which would no doubt have infuriated the reserved and reclusive Touro.
Rev. Theodore Clapp recalled:
“Mr. Touro once said, in my hearing, that he would have revoked the donation given for completing the Bunker Hill Monument, on account of their publishing his name in the newspapers, contrary to his wishes, had it not been for the apprehension that his real motives would have been misunderstood and misrepresented.”
Aaron Lopez and Judah Touro; A Refugee and a Son of a Refugee by Morris Aaron Gutstein
Judah Touro, by Jerry Klinger
Images: “Freemens’ quick step : as performed on the “glorious 10th of September” / by George Hews..” University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. Accessed: April 07, 2021. Judah Touro http://www.newportalri.org/items/show/7857, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. From the Cambria steamer, starting from Boston, U.S. Bunker’s Hill Monument.
This story updated in 2022.