Who’s ever heard of Cora Wilburn, the first Jewish novelist in America? At nineteen, she’d traveled the world and disdained its corruption. Clawing her way out of poverty as the Civil War divided the United States, she used her pen to
Jonathan D. Sarna // fight for women’s rights, abolition, and her own freedom to rejoin the Jewish people

Footloose and Fancy-Free

“Journal, La Guayra, 1844,” the cover of the precious diary reads. Its nineteen-year-old author identifies herself as “Henrietta.” Four years later, she would leave Venezuela and enter the United States as “Henretty Jackson.” But that was neither her real name nor the one under which she would write her many novels, essays, and poems. When she died in 1906, the death of this “well-known” Jewish writer was noted across the United States, and even in Hawaii, under a totally different name: Cora Wilburn.

Born in 1824 in France, probably in the Alsace region that became part of Germany as a result of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, Henrietta was originally known by the last name Pulfermacher (“Powdermaker”). Her German-born mother, Lea, died soon after her birth, and her father, Moritz, subsequently remarried in England. Then misfortune struck again in 1837,

when “Moss” Pulfermacher, self proclaimed “agent for foreign houses in the West Indies, and for Spaniards on the Spanish Main,” was listed in The London Gazette (pt. 1, p. 801) as an insolvent debtor and prisoner.

Consequently, the little family traveled, in Henrietta’s words, “nearly over the world.” “In the year 1839… we were voyaging up the Ir[r]awaddy River, bound for the capital of the Burmah Empire – the city of Amarapoora [Amarapura],” she recalled in one article (“Honor to Whom Honor is Due,” Our Dumb Animals, November 1878, p. 46 ). Looking back on this period, she wrote regretfully:

The dreamer of the beautiful, the free, wild, soaring spirit, is imprisoned by the requirements of the daily needs. She, who gazed upon the glories of the sunset from the Ganges’ sacred banks, she who stood beside the sphynx in solitary meditations, who drank in soul-draughts of life-lasting inspiration on the Alpine mounts – she is now the saddest, most unheeded thing of earth, a seamstress for her daily bread. (Banner of Light, June 16, 1860, p. 1)

Henrietta mentions spending “youth’s roseate hours” in Hawaii. Then on March 22, 1843, according to her diary, she and her parents left Singapore for Bremen.

World travelers, especially Jewish ones, were few and far between in the first half of the 19th century. Prior to the advent of the steamship, sea voyages were risky, wearying, and expensive, so only traveling merchants and the very wealthy indulged.

Moritz Pulfermacher pretended to be among the latter, and his gem business lent his penchant for peripatetic travel credibility. But around the time he and his family departed from Singapore, an article in Burma’s Maulmain Chronicle (later reprinted elsewhere) blew his cover. “Tricks of a Traveller” described how Pulfermacher, opulently attired and in the company of his wife and daughter, held forth as a “rich diamond merchant” and swindled a sea captain and others by taking loans never repaid, leaving what proved to be  “false stones,” “counterfeit gold,” and “German” (faux) silver as collateral. In some venues, it reported, he paraded as “an American Jew named Moritz Jackson” – the same last name Henrietta adopted when immigrating to America. The exposé warned that the con man was en route to Curaçao to ensnare new victims (The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia, March 30, 1843).