The Charleston Ottolengui

The Charleston Ottolengui


Unfortunately, we have not been able to establish a link to the Charleston Ottolengui, so I’m going to give that a rest for a while and wait for something to turn up as it usually does sooner or later.
This then will be the last of my Charleston Ottolengui stories………….for the time being, at least.


Orthodontist, lepidopterist, editor, novelist. Benjamin Adolph Rodrigues Ottolengui MDS, DDS, LLD, FACD, was born in Charleston four weeks before the outbreak of the Civil War, on 15th March 1861. (Incidentally South Carolina was the first state to secede.) He was the second of three children born to Daniel Ottolengui (grandson of Mordecai Ottolengui the founder of the Charleston dynasty) a newspaperman and dramatist, and Helen Rosalie Rodriguez, an author. His maternal grandfather Benjamin Adolph Rodrigues was a pioneer dentist who had played an important part in establishing dentistry in South Carolina.

Known to friends simply as “Rod”, Rodrigues Ottolengui attended the College of Charleston but moved to New York City in 1877, only just 16 years old, to serve an apprenticeship under the dentist Dr. J. Albert Kimball. He obtained a master’s degree in dental surgery from the Regents of the State of New York in 1885. He then practiced dentistry in the office of Dr. William A. Atkinson, “dean” of the dental profession. He served another apprenticeship with Dr. Norman Kingsley, who tutored him in cleft palate. As Kingsley’s protégé, Rodrigues Ottolengui became interested in orthodontics and began writing articles on “regulating” teeth in 1892. He made substantial contributions to pulp canal therapy and cleft palate restoration and was a pioneer in the dental use X-rays.

Rodrigues Ottolengui was the leading dental editor of the early 20th century and guided specialist orthodontics during its formative years. Neither Angle-trained (Edward Hartley Angle “Father of American Dentistry”) nor a specialist, Ottolengui’s heritage was both in dentistry and literature, and he was to follow both those legacies with distinction. He authored a dental text, Methods of Filling Teeth; a chapter on malocclusion in Fones’s Textbook for Dental Hygienists; and a collection of dental writings published under the title Table Talks on Dentistry. He was a dental editor for almost forty years, starting in 1896 with Items of Interest, a periodical (later Dental Items of Interest). He enlarged it into a journal and inaugurated a department of orthodontics, which he illustrated with drawings of classical figures from mythology. He also published the proceedings of the American Society of Orthodontists from 1901 to 1920 until it was taken over by the International Journal of Orthodontia. He was a crusader for regulation in the dental profession and by the introduction of legislation, Ottolengui helped eliminate charlatans, quacks, and other illegal practitioners from New York City.  He was president of the original Brooklyn Dental Society; the Second District Dental Society; and the Dental Society of New York. He was made a member of the Odontographic Society of France and the Dental Society of Denmark; an honorary Doctor of Dental Surgery at Creighton University; an honorary LLD at Valparaiso University; and a fellow of the American College of Dentists.

An almost obsessive reader of detective stories, Rod Ottolengui was not only a pioneer in forensic dentistry but author of at least 30 publications including 27 mystery novels and short stories as well as many articles on dentistry. The SATURDAY REVIEW OF LITERATURE called Ottolengui “the dental counterpart… of England’s physician crime solver, Dr (Sir Arthur) Conan Doyle. (creator of Sherlock Holmes)” The literary figure Ellery Queen dubbed Ottolengui “one of the most neglected authors in the entire history of the detective story.” (Ellery Queen was actually the pen name created in 1929 by crime fiction writers Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee and the name of their main fictional character, a mystery writer in New York City who helps his police inspector father solve baffling murders). Rod’s first mystery, An Artist in Crime (1893), was also published in England, and translated for publication in France, Poland, and Germany. His next book, A Conflict of Evidence (1893), was followed by A Modern Wizard (1894), which was brought to the attention of the Pasteur Institute because of the possibility advanced in the story that some forms of insanity were traceable to microorganisms. He also wrote The Crime of the Century (1896) and Final Proof: Or the Value of Evidence (1898).

Rodrigues Ottolengui’s hobbies included taxidermy and photography. A member of the New York Camera Club, he gained recognition for his pinpoint prints of landscapes and Rembrandt-style portraits.

He was a charter member of the New York Entomological Society. His interest in the family of noctuid moths, the plusiide (plusiae), led him to become the leading authority in the United States on this group. (Plusia moths are particularly destructive pests active at night, but their larvae (caterpillars) usually feed during the day on the leaves and shoots of onions, peppers, beans, potatoes, beets, alfalfa, aromatic herbs such as basil, mint, etc.) His specimen collection outnumbered those in the British Museum and in Washington.  In 1913 he wrote a monograph on every North American species of plusiae, describing fourteen new species and illustrating them with his own photographs. The American Museum of Natural History allotted his collection special space and labelled it “The Ottolengui Collection.”

Rodrigues Ottolengui was awarded several honorary doctorates. His wife, May Hall Ottolengui, died on 10th July 1936. Rodrigues Ottolengui died of a heart ailment and a stroke after a long illness in New York City on July 11, 1937.

“Rod” Ottolengui’s death in 1937 stimulated numerous testimonials from the dental profession. He had helped shape the future of American dentistry, but also contributed in no small way, as one writer put it, “to the growth of the lusty infant, orthodontia. His memory will linger, and his important influence will be felt for all in both dentistry and orthodontia.”

The Charleston Ottolengui

The Charleston Ottolengui Part Four

Florence and Nina were daughters of Israel Ottolengui (1832–1895 grandson of Mordecai Ottolengui), and Rosalie Cecile Moise (1835–1914). They had 11 siblings four of whom died in infancy.

Florence and Nina Ottolengui took over the cafeteria of the Women’s Exchange for Women’s Work in Charleston which was founded in 1885 to help the city’s “educated poor’ become self-sufficient. Items on sale there included foods, flowers, and artisanal hand crafts. It continued the trend of charity work of Southern ladies before and during the Civil War. The exchange began with a simple stated purpose, which was to assist needy women become financially secure “systematically and delicately”. It was run on what they called “purely business principles” accepting work solely on merit and not because of any undue sympathy for the producer.

The Women’s Exchange, Charleston

Florence and Nina opened the “Lady Baltimore Tea Room” which they ran for around 25 years.  They developed the eponymous Lady Baltimore Cake from a version of the common “Queen Cake” of that period. 

Typical Lady Baltimore Cakes

The cake however had nothing to do with the infamous Lady Baltimore. Lady Charlotte Lee who was born in 1678 at St. James’s Park in London. She was the eldest of at least fourteen children of Edward Henry Lee, the first Earl of Litchfield (1663 –1716) and Lady Charlotte Fitzroy (1664 –1718) illegitimate daughter of King Charles II by his mistress Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, Duchess of Cleveland. Lady Charlotte’s mother was fourteen at the time of her birth, having married the Earl of Lichfield at thirteen. He was only fifteen at that time. At the age of twenty in 1699, the younger Charlotte married her first husband Benedict Leonard Calvert, 4th Baron Baltimore  and assumed the title of Lady Baltimore in 1715, when her husband became Baron Baltimore upon the death of his father, the third Baron Baltimore.

Florence and Nina’s Lady Baltimore Tea Cake found national fame when it was immortalized in a book by Owen Wister (1860-1938), a popular novelist of the time who authored “The Virginian” (1902) and “Lady Baltimore”(1906).

Florence and Nina reportedly sent a cake to Owen Wister every year in appreciation of his contribution to their success. At Christmas time, they shipped hundreds of white boxes carrying tall, round fragile gift cakes to all parts of the country.

Florence died on 6th April 1928 aged 68 at 84, Rutledge Avenue, Charleston, S. Carolina, and was buried on 8th April 1928 in the Huguenin Avenue Cemetery – this is her memorial.

Nina died at the age of 80 on 8th May 1960 at Asheville, North Carolina and is buried at the city’s Lewis Memorial Park.

The Charleston Ottolengui

The Charleston Ottolengui Part Three

The Third Generation

Daniel Ottolengui (1836-1918) was one of the 13 children born to Abraham Ottolengui & Sarah nee Jacobs and brother of Israel and Jacob Ottolengui the auctioneers.

Daniel’s grandfather Mordecai founded one of Charleston’s first Sephardic Jewish families but the extent of Daniel’s following of the Jewish religion and tradition is not documented. Daniel received his education in classical tradition at South Carolina College, later working as a newspaper stringer, author, producer, lyricist, health officer, and clerk.

He married Helen Rodrigues, the adopted daughter of Charleston dentist B. A. Rodrigues and Cecilia née Solomon, in 1860. The ceremony was performed by Henry S. Jacobs, minister of Shearith Israel, the traditionalist congregation that had split from Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in 1840. Daniel and his brother Israel resigned from KKBE in 1861 but the reasons are unknown.

Daniel was instrumental, at the insistence of his brother Jacob, in bringing back to Charleston their sister Sarah and her husband, who were reportedly “fully southern in heart and soul,” from New York, where they had been living when the war broke out. Daniel served as a private in the Confederate Charleston Guard of the South Carolina Militia during 1863.

In 1866, Daniel’s wife Helen died leaving him a young widower and father of three small children. Daniel left his home town of Charleston and settled in New York, where in February 1867, he had become a manager at The Hall, a small theatre around the corner from the Worrell Sisters Broadway Playhouse, the premier burlesque theatre of that time. In Trow’s  city directory for  1868, Ottolengui was described as working at a cigar store at 860 Broadway.

It is not known if Daniel participated in Jewish life during this period of his life in New York, but on his return to Charleston in 1870, he did not rejoin Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, whose membership had since 1866 included the dissidents who had left Shearith Israel. The organ at the KKBE. had been destroyed during the Civil War, and a new one was needed. There is no record of Ottolengui’s feelings on the controversy over organs in Jewish worship which had been a reason for the more traditional members of KKBE to leave and found the Shearith Israel congregation, but in 1871 he produced a performance of the classic 1830s John Baldwin Buckstone comedy, “Married Life”, with the proceeds going to the organ fund. A letter of thanks was received from the congregation for his “indefatigable and untiring exertions”. His later repertoire at the Academy of Music included, in 1878, scenes from the 1862 Augustin Daly play, “Leah, the Forsaken”, based on the Biblical story of Deborah. This may indicate a sentimental, at least, connect to his Jewish roots.

Ottolengui returned from Charleston to New York in the 1880s. He is listed in the Brooklyn city directories of the late 1880s at the address of his son Rodrigues Ottolengui. His profession is given as “elocutionist,” as it had been in the federal census of 1880, when he was still living in Charleston with his children and brother Jacob.

All three of his children were in New York. His son, Rodrigues, following his maternal grandfather’s career, became a pioneer of advanced orthodontia and also apparently having inherited Daniel’s literary abilities became a renowned crime novelist, as well as an advocate for bicycle paths in Central Park. Rodrigues was also librarian and curator of the entomology department of the Brooklyn Institute (“Saratoga”). Rodrigues married May Cameron Hall in 1890 in an Episcopal church.
Lee Ottolengui followed his father as manager of various theatres, notably the Brooklyn Amphion. He also used the initial of his first name, Israel. He married Lillian Rush, the daughter of the educator Edward Rush. Lillian, had been a church worker, died in 1914 and Lee later married Elise Bloch.
Daniel’s daughter Helen took to the stage and played light ingenue roles in romantic comedies. She married a jewellery buyer by the name of Arthur Hirsch.

Any strong Jewish, or Southern, identity in the family had probably diminished by the time Daniel’s children reached adulthood. Daniel Ottolengui died in 1918 and his ashes were buried next to his wife, Helen, in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery. Why Helen and Daniel were not laid to rest in the Jewish Coming Street Cemetery, is another mystery, but it probably indicates their distance from their Jewish roots.

The Charleston Ottolengui

The Charleston Ottolengui Part Two

The Second Generation – Abraham Ottolengui

Abraham Ottolengui was the son of Mordechai and Rinah Ottolenghi. He was born in Charleston in 1790 and was sent to London for his education where he graduated as an ordained minister when he was 19 or 20 years old. When he returned to Charleston he expected to take up a position at the Kahal Kadosh Beit Elohim synagogue where his father in 1792 had sponsored a cornerstone, but he was thwarted from doing so by the complaint of a senior member who objected to employing a minister who had not yet reached the age of maturity.

So Abraham turned to business and commerce and became an successful auctioneer and during his lifetime donated frequently and generously to the KKBE community where, although he had not been accepted as a young minister, he served as president for 12 consecutive years.

He married Sarah née Jacobs, born 13th July 1793 in Charleston and they had some 12 children of whom 6 died in infancy or early childhood.

Upon his death Abraham bequeathed the sum of $1,500 to KKBE to be used to succour the poor and needy, and in his honour the management of the community published the following obituary notice:

Abraham Ottolengui, Dec. 12, 1850
Died, at Charleston on the 12th inst., in the 61st year of his age, Abraham Ottolengui, Esq., President of the Hebrew Congregation of Beth Elohim. The subject of this notice was a native of Charleston. At an early age he was removed to England, where he received an education for the Hebrew Ministry. On his return to the city, having scarcely reached manhood, he would have been chosen permanent pastor of the Synagogue Beth Elohim, the only place of Hebrew worship then in Charleston, but from a scruple of delicacy on his part, one member only having expressed a doubt as to the propriety of electing a Minister who had not yet reached the age of maturity. He subsequently engaged in mercantile life and withdrew some years since from its more active and engrossing cares. His knowledge, however of commercial pursuits, his sound judgment, and systematic habits of business, led to his election as a Director of the Union Bank, of this place, to which post he had been re-elected for several years, and continued a director until the period of his death. Mr. Ottolengui had also largely participated in the administration of the affairs of the Hebrew Synagogue, Beth Elohim of this city, having served as Trustee for nearly thirty years and its President for an uninterrupted term of twelve years. He was a remarkable illustration of the solidity of the domestic virtues. His family affection flowed from a deep source and in a tranquil current. They were cultivated, not with a view to self-indulgence and parental pride, but to that principle of restraint which looks on the paternal relation as one of high duty—of solemn obligation. This was beautifully exemplified at nearly the last moment which closed his mortal career. Three days before his death he summoned his family around him, and addressing each according to his or her age, capacity, and degree of merit or of frailty, expatiated on their several duties in a strain that might be called, at the scene of a death-bed, an example of the moral sublime, so discriminating were the counsels and exhortations from the lips of that dying parent—so instructive—so calm and collected in the hour of death—so elevated was the spirit of resignation—so rich were the lessons of an unshaken fortitude and a tranquil philosophy. In that one moment was exemplified all the relations of husband, father, friend. In it was concentrated all the excellencies or his well-disciplined nature, in that outpouring of the heart and intellect. As he had in his own case exhibited a rare example of filial piety, having, when but a youth, given sympathy and support to a blind and aged mother, so in that higher relation of parent he evinced the deepest solicitude, bringing his whole domestic life into perfect unison. This death-bed scene, like the parting of Jacob with his sons, was no less than that, beautiful in exhortation, rich in parental monition—if not more touchingly pathetic, closing the scene with his paternal blessing. In the social sphere the subject of our notice manifested the qualities <<580>>that win respect and command confidence. Possessed of large wealth, acquired by steady industry he was without ostentation. himself, as he disliked parade in others—the simplicity of his habits was in just correspondence with the even tenor of life and his amenities of temper. Urbane in manners, he sought no distinction that was founded on a sacrifice of personal independence. The practical turn of his mind, and the rectitude of his judgment, would have given value to his services, as his integrity would have illustrated, civil station; but if he did not shun, he did not seek the glare of a public career, satisfied that his experience and advice should be felt within those more limited spheres which he occupied and embellished. His zeal for religion was unadulterated with bigotry, as his piety had no taint of intolerance. Educated in the principles of an ancient faith, that looked suspiciously on change, while he threw the mantle of charity over all who dissented from him on points of religious belief, he claimed for himself the largest liberty—the highest independence. His sole end here was truth, liberal inquiry, honest belief, sincere conviction. In his religious relations he was a model for universal imitation. As he understood and practised the golden rule of life, “do unto others as you would they should do unto you,” so were all the traits of his character, social, domestic, and religious, in harmony with that precept. Such was the life and such the death of a truly good and pious man, fully justifying the exclamation, “O let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.” At a meeting of the Board of Trustees of Kahl Beth Elohim, or Hasel Street Congregation held at the Vestry Room, Sunday, the 15th December, 1850 or 5611, the following Preamble and Resolutions were offered, and unanimously adopted: Whereas, it has pleased Almighty God to remove from among us our esteemed and respected President, the late Abraham Ottolengui, Esq., who has for many years presided over our congregation, and whose conduct has been marked by urbanity, kindness, and a sincere desire to promote its welfare—therefore, Resolved, That we deeply deplore the loss we have sustained, as well in his official capacity as in the relation of friend and brother. Resolved, That as a mark of respect for the memory of the deceased, our place of worship be clothed with suitable badges of mourning for the space of thirty days. Resolved, That a copy of these Resolutions be sent to the family of the deceased; and that the same be published in the papers of the city. M. Jacobs, Sec’y. & Treas. KK. B. E.
Memorials Abraham & Sarah Ottolengui at the Coming Street Cemetery, Charleston SC
Abraham Ottolengui (1790 - 1850) - Genealogy
Abraham Ottolengui Memorial
Sarah Ottolengui Memorial
The Charleston Ottolengui

The Charleston Ottolengui Part One

Mordechai Ottolengui

Some inquiries generated by posts in the O-Blog rekindled our interest in this branch of the tribe. We have known about them for many years but our attempts some 20 years ago failed to establish any link to our ancestral line and the quest was abandoned.

The first member of the clan Ottolengui in Charleston, S. Carolina, was Mordechai, thought to have been born in Italy around 1750 from where he moved to London and then to Charleston.  The spelling Ottolengui is peculiar to the London S&P records appearing only for the numerous offspring of Aaron Ottolangui (1810-1874) (grandson of David Ottolenghi) and his wife Reyna nee Bensabat, all of whom appear as Ottolengui, probably due to the phonetic preference of the registrar at that time. As far as we know, the only other place where this spelling occurred was in Charleston.

Working on the premise that Mordechai was one of the Italian Ottolenghi, a search of the Livorno O birth register for 1690 to 1810 appearing in a previous blog post, revealed that the only Ottolenghi births registered were those of the children of our direct ancestors Menachem Emmanuel Ottolenghi and Judica nee De Valletro starting in 1720, including our David, David’s older and younger siblings, David’s children and his siblings’ children, so nothing corresponding to that Mordechai. Similarly, the Bevis Marks archives do not include any Ottolenghi/Ottolengui or Ottolangui that do not belong to our direct family line. So, the mystery of that Mordechai Ottolengui’s provenance remains.

A link of sorts may be that around the time that Mordechai went to America, is the rumour that the Bevis Marks community financed passages for some 40 members to emigrate to the Atlantic colonies. Researching that revealed that it was not so much the community that had sent those 40 members, but probably the prominent Da Costa family of the Bevis Marks congregation who were wealthy bankers and merchants in London of the 18th century. Isaac da Costa had bought large amounts of land in Carolina after the 1699 charter drawn up by the Earl of Shaftesbury granted “Liberty of Conscience” to all settlers, and expressly welcomed “Jews, heathens, and dissenters”. S&P Jews from London were among the early settlers and comprised most of its Jewish community into the early 1800s. In 1800, South Carolina had the largest Jewish population (around 2,000) of any state.  Isaac da Costa himself immigrated to Charleston in the late 1740s. He helped found the Charleston synagogue Kahal Kadosh Beit Elohim (The Sacred Congregation of the House of God) or KKBE in 1749, where he was the ḥazan (cantor) for a few years. In 1764 he donated a plot of land to the congregation for use as a cemetery. It still exists today as the Coming Street Cemetery, the oldest Jewish burial ground in the south, and that is where Mordechai Ottolengui is buried, this is the inscription on his memorial tablet:

Unfortunately, KKBE’s records were burned in 1838, so it seems that Mordechai’s early life will remain a mystery. His son, Abraham (1790-1850) was president of KKBE for many years. He had married Sarah nee Jacobs and they had many children a number of whom sadly died in infancy or in childhood.