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Marcus Roberts

In 1839 the principal Jewish family of Chatham - the Isaacs - suffered a devastating tragedy and blow to their reputation. Their 22-year-old son, Nathaniel, committed suicide by poison in Dover, after having been discovered resorting to fraud to cover for debts created by his profligate lifestyle and perhaps business problems. The repercussions nearly brought his family down and they even rippled through the Kent Jewish community bringing bankruptcy and despair to relatives and colleagues.

The Isaacs family through the pater familie, Lewis Isaacs, had established themselves a leading Jewish family in Chatham. They were leading Army agents and general outfitters and had made a considerable fortune through the business.

The tragedy unfolded after Lewis Isaacs made his son Nathaniel the sole manager of his business at a young age. Nathaniel conducted extensive business on his families behalf helped by considerable charm and his handsome looks. It was written of him that, "The young man being of a very genteel and prepossessing appearance, was a great favorite with many of the chief families of Chatham, and the officers of the garrison, and had been latterly living in a rather expensive style." Elsewhere he was described as, "a rakish young man, 22 years of age, and of prepossessing appearance." Other reports related, ...and it is said [that Isaacs] to [have] been living extravagantly for some time past."

The exact reasons for the fraud that followed are not known for certain but it seems likely that Nathaniel may not have been equal to the responsibilities placed on him by the conduct of his father's business and that he may have lived substantially beyond his means. The fact that he had an extravagant lifestyle was agreed by most witnesses. The possibility that business may not have been going well is hinted at in the allegation that was made at the time the London newspaper "The Era", that, "Isaacs is now found to have obtained much business in "outfitting" and "furnishing" by means of forged certificates of recommendation from commanding officers both ashore and afloat." In the background was also the construction of a grand new shop opposite Hammond Place in the High Street at Chatham, "the front of which has been made in London, and was to eclipse every other in the three towns." The construction of this was apparently halted once the allegations came out.

Whatever the exact truth of the situation was, Isaacs appears to be sunk into cash shortage and bad debt which led him to use desperate and fraudulent means to get more credit and to buy time. He resorted to forging promissory notes for large sums for at least a month before his death, chiefly from wealthy army officers of the garrison as well many prominent people in Chatham, Rochester and elsewhere, which he was able to use to gain cash from various willing tradesmen in Chatham.

The impression that is gained is not so much of a calculated fraud for illicit gain but of a young man wildly out of his depth trying to regain his financial footing before he was found out. It may be recalled that business bankruptcy was not uncommon in this era, as capital ventures were risky, and carried considerable social stigma. It may have been that Isaacs was using his wits to avert a crisis.

There is no doubt that the business practices of the time aided his downfall as much of his business was done on complex network of personal and corporate credit backed as much as anything on the assumed personal integrity of gentlemen and their agreements. Isaacs had access to what were in those days huge sums of money on credit through the use of promissory notes. Isaacs appears to have conducted a great deal of business using credit and it is related that, "The fact of so many bills being issued by the defrauder excited no suspicion, as it was well known that he himself [Isaacs] was a great bill discounter."

The beginning of the end for Isaacs came on the Saturday 19 or Sunday 20 October. Isaacs attempted to gain more money from the Chatham Australian Bank, where he did a great deal of business. They had apparently begun to suspect the forgery by Isaacs as an Army officer had allegedly told Mr. Gough the managing clerk of the bank that one of the bills signed in his name was definitely a forgery. The clerk no doubt suspecting that they were in imminent danger of a large loss on his account for this or some other reason and demanded (the amounts differ in different accounts) that he settle some or all of his outstanding debts to them.

It appears that Nathaniel Isaacs managed to meet his account by another flurry of forgery and thus obtained some of the bills of security he had lodged with the bank, which may have totaled up to 2,000 pounds. Isaacs may well have considered that even if the bank had not given him a further line of credit, then at least he could fall back on bills of security he had lodged with them originally and regained by meeting some or all of his account.

The conduct of Gough, the clerk, in the matter was at the very least morally questionable if not repugnant. He pretended that nothing was the matter so that he could extract full repayment from Isaacs, since Isaacs would have to pay the call on his account without demur to avoid his real financial situation being exposed. The clerk must have realised that others would most likely have been exposed to great personal loss in order to meet his own bank's risk and that Isaac's position would almost certainly immediately collapse following his actions.

The Era related the alleged fatal turn of the screw by the clerk as follows, "...Isaacs then paid Mr. Gough several hundred pounds - borrowed elsewhere on forged papers - and regained possession of certain bills he had deposited as security. One of these bills, if reports be true, was long known by Mr. Gough to have been a forgery, and indeed, an officer, whose name it bore, distinctly told Mr. Gough the signature was not his. Mr. Gough, however, kept his secret till all was paid by Isaacs, and then, on returning the bills told him significantly, "such paper is not worth two-pence". Isaacs immediately left the bank muttering the words, "then I am ruined!" He had perceived by Gough's manner he was discovered, and immediately fled."

Isaacs later suicide note clearly blamed Gough as it stated that he had taken the fatal poison as "Mr. Gough was the cause, as he had robbed him of upwards of £2,000." The bills lodged with the bank may or may not have been genuine. With Gough's accusation even if they had been genuine they would probably have become of no use to him any way once the suspicion of fraud was afoot. Whatever blame may or may not be appended to the clerk there was little doubt that Isaacs would have little chance to recover himself from such a large repayment and no chance once his personal integrity had been exposed as a sham.

The remainder of Isaacs life was played out it desperate scenes over the next five days. On leaving the bank he went to his brothers house' "depressed in spirits and complaining of being unwell" but he still played cards. From there he went to his fathers' house at Brompton where he usually stayed at night. However he did not linger at his father's, but instead said that he was going out and that his mother should leave a candle burning for his return and give him the latch key. He then unbeknown to his parents took flight on the Dover mail to that port and alighted at the Ship Hotel early in the morning with no luggage. By seven or eight o'clock that morning he had taken a room at the Victoria Hotel.

On having entered his room at the hotel he told the proprietor that he would sleep until two o'clock. However after the owner left him he ordered breakfast for half past nine but before it could be made ready he changed his mind and decided to go out until five o'clock.

During this time, back at home, his father grew concerned for his son, as he did not turn up for work at the shop in the morning. Concern turned to alarm when one of the directors of the London Bank paid a visit to Nathaniel Isaacs' father. The fraud had been discovered, and the London Bank had found to its horror that £3,000 of Nathaniel's' discounted Bills were forgeries.

While this was going on that Monday, Nathaniel had engaged a local boatman to take him on a boat trip to St Margaret's' bay some four miles distant. He got out there and had some breakfast but spent most of the trip sleeping on the boat.

When he got back at about five o'clock, he wove the hotel proprietor a rather dubious story to cover for his arrival at the hotel without luggage and for his activities of that day. He observed that, "it might appear strange for a gentleman to be travelling without luggage; but when he left home he had no intention of proceeding more than a few miles on the road for a ride; but he found a very agreeable companion, and he had come on with her to Dover and had been with her on the water for the whole day."

At the end of this explanation Isaacs asked the hotelier to forward a letter for the post, to be sent to a gentlemen at Tilbury, relating the same story and requesting L.15 to be sent on to him. This letter perhaps sealed Isaacs' fate - it seems he might have needed money to make a flight to France as he had engaged the boatman of his day-trip to take him on to Calais the next day. Additionally he was perhaps endeavoring to find out if he had actually been revealed as a fraud by the bank clerk, as he was evidently not certain as to whether the banker had anymore than suspicion about his integrity. In his mind a lack of response to his letter would have probably been taken to indicate that the game really was up.

On the Tuesday he stayed in bed until 4 o'clock and then ate. He went out and came back in the evening, inquiring of the hotelier if a reply to his letter had arrived, which it had not.

Unknown to the hotelier when Isaacs went out this time he went to prepare his suicide as he had doubtlessly decided that with no immediate response to his letter all was probably lost. Isaacs went to a local apothecary to obtain arsenic. In order to get it he went into the shop posing as an officer at the castle claiming that he, "was dreadfully annoyed by cats that came into the room, and wished for poison to destroy them."

When he heard there had been no reply, he went to bed and did not rise again until 4 o'clock the next day, the Wednesday, and after eating again he went out. On going out he obtained more poison from the chemist. His apparently cheerful disposition and willingness to chat with the other customers in the shop allayed any suspicions about his motives.

All the time the net was closing in on Isaacs, on the Monday an official of the London bank had gone to Dover with officers, to find the fugitive. He had even crossed in vain to Calais to see if he had escaped there. On failing to find any trace of his quarry, the bank informed the Metropolitan Police, who sent out an Inspector Pearce to apprehend the felon. The inspector quickly investigated and decided that Isaacs was in reality still secreted in Dover.

By the time on the Friday that Inspector Pearce arrived in Dover, he only found his man just after the final tragic scenes of Isaacs' life had been played out. On the Wednesday evening Nathaniel Isaacs had gone to his room to make a last supper of the arsenic he had obtained. He had spread it on to bread and butter and ate it, taking to his bed to die. Remains of the food were found among his bedclothes.

Unfortunately for Isaacs the effects of the poison were slow and excruciating. He was discovered the next day, Thursday, at half past four by the proprietor in considerable agony. Isaacs denied taking poison saying he only had a bilious attack and wanted a glass of water. The hotelier despite his pleas called for the Doctor who rapidly diagnosed poisoning.

The remains of the three packets of poison were soon found in his pockets by the Doctor as well as a letter addressed to Mr. Magnus (his brother-in-law in Dover) and which was to be opened by him and him only. The proprietors' son was immediately dispatched with the letter to Magnus. Richard Hunt the Doctor related later at the inquest, "I then asked him why he had taken the poison, and he said because he was a -- fool. He continued in great agony, and I attended him till last evening about 5 o'clock, when he died from inflammation of the stomach in consequence of taking the poison."

Inspector Pearce arrived on the scene shortly afterwards that Friday. Isaacs' body was left in the room and on the next day the Saturday the inquest was rapidly convened in the room next door. After the jury had viewed the remains of Isaacs, the evidence of most of those involved was taken.

The representatives of the banks affected by the fraud at the inquest made much of the letter delivered to Magnus in Dover. This letter had been lost by Magnus - he said that the letter had stated that he had taken poison at the Victoria Hotel and that Mr. Gough had been the cause, "as he had robbed him of upwards of £2,000." He went on to say that, "I was so agitated on reading it, that I put it into my pocket, and have not been able to find it and believe it to be lost."

The bankers obviously felt that others apart from Nathaniel Isaacs were involved in the fraud and that the lost letter probably revealed who his accomplices were. Some of the jurors remarked it was strange that such an important letter had been lost and the coroner had to stop them by saying that as, "Mr. Magnus had stated on his oath that the letter was lost, they were bound to believe him."

Mr. Knocker the manager of the London and County bank insisted that the hotelier's son, William, be questioned about the delivery of the letter. However this threw no more light on the situation.

The verdict of the inquest was swiftly reached at the conclusion of the examination of the evidence. It was that, the deceased - Nathaniel Isaacs destroyed himself by poison labouring at the time under a fit of temporary insanity.

After the inquest the body was free to be taken for burial. It seems that the family wanted the body buried in Canterbury as the cemetery not so far distant. However the congregation met in emergency session and resolved that not less that 25 pounds should be charged the family for the privilege. This levy was five times the average rate for a Jewish burial of the time. It may well have been an attempt by the congregation to profit from the burial or perhaps more likely an effort to discourage a Jewish felon from being buried in their cemetery.

In the eventuality Nathaniel was conveyed back to Chatham by hearse on the Monday and buried in the cemetery next to the synagogue. His grave and memorial is to be found in row G, the second grave from the right hand wall.

The burial of Isaacs was not the end of the affair. His father, Lewis Isaacs, was so mortified by the affair that he was taken ill. Things did not improve for him when reports were circulated about the town and in the newspapers that he and Nathaniel's brother had been involved in the fraud. Samuel Isaacs took legal action against a Solomon Lucas and John Marks of Chatham as well as the proprietors of the Era newspaper for libel. The latter were forced to make a cringing retraction in print. They wrote that, "their duty to their readers would have been performed by merely relating the facts with regard to the late Mr. Nathaniel Isaacs, but they incautiously inserted also the floating and lying rumors of the town, some of which may be supposed to reflect on the respectability of the father and brother of the deceased."

Samuel Magnus, Nathaniel's' brother in law, may well have been a loser in the affair. A month after the death of Isaacs he
advertised the complete disposal and sale of his stock and premises. It seems likely that he was brought down by the fraud.

Whether there was any substance in the claims that there were accomplices in Isaacs's fraud is difficult to ascertain. The events suggest that the fraud was the tragic efforts of an individual to meet the shortfalls of financial indiscretion.

However it is part of the historical record that his brother Samuel Isaacs business ethics were not beyond suspicion. He profited from blockade running in the Civil War and his activities as an army contractor were the subject of a lengthy parliamentary enquiry. Isaacs was accused of bribery to secure boot making contracts and other improprieties. Nothing was ever substantiated against him but one feels that unlike his brother his Saul always had a chair to sit on when the music stopped. These concerns are however another story.

In the final analysis there is much that is pathetic and touching in the suicide of Nathaniel Isaacs. However with the objectivity leant by time the episode is also revealing of the nature of business and the early capitalism of the time. The nature of business then was much less structured and regulated than now, particularly in regard to the capitalization of business ventures. Much depended on personal networks, contacts and integrity. It is easy to understand why "respectability" was placed at such a high premium by the aspirant Victorian middle classes. It was not just about undue personal esteem it was a veritable trading commodity.

The victims of Nathaniel Isaacs' forgery.


Mr. Solomons, £1,800, Chatham.
S. Magnus (brother in law) (Tailor Clothier, Hatter), Dover


Capt. Daubney (of 55th) £.300
Capt. Kyle (45th foot) £.500
Capt. Cotton L.400
Earl Cassilis (Rifles) £.500


London & County Joint Stock Bank, Chatham branch (principal bank for Isaacs).£ 3,000
South Australian Branch Bank, Chatham


Mr. Chaplin (of the spread-eagle, Gracechurch Street) -?
Mrs. Davis (widow) £. 18

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