WESTPORT — They called him the “man without a country.” He wandered across oceans, from nation to nation for years and died, destitute and alone, in Westport at 37 years old.
The mystery of who this man was, and how he ended up in Westport, was solved in 2019 — though it was uncovered during routine and tedious clerical work.
Lori Gandini, assistant registrar of vital statistics at the Westport Town Clerk’s office, was rearranging death certificates from the early 1900s when she found one hidden behind another.
The death certificate, for Nathan Cohen, listed him as a “man without a country.”
Gandini spoke to the house historian at the Westport Museum for History and Culture, which began an investigation that ultimately uncovered the history of Cohen’s complex life and tragic death.
Cohen died on March 3, 1916, at the “McFarland Sanitorium in Green’s Farms, Conn.,” according to the death certificate. It listed his birth in 1878 in Russia and said he was buried at the Cemetery of the Hebrew Burial in Staten Island, N.Y.
Cohen’s life was chronicled by several news outlets at the time, including The New York Times, The Pittsburg Press and the Grand Island Daily Independent of Nebraska.
An article in the April 18, 1915, edition of The Pittsburg Press said Cohen “has no address, belongs nowhere, is wanted nowhere.”
Cohen was born in the Russian village of Baush, or Bausk, according to a New York Times obituary published two weeks after Cohen’s death. Cohen was Jewish, and the region was home to a large Jewish population before the 1905 Russian Revolution.
Newspaper accounts stated Cohen went first to Brazil before migrating to the United States in May 1912 with $5,000 in his pocket, buying a $45 steerage ticket on a Lamport & Holt steamship called the SS Varari, from Rio de Janeiro to New York.
Entering the United States at Ellis Island, he traveled to Virginia to start a small store with a family relative.
It did not go well.
Newspaper accounts said Cohen was swindled out of his money and “his best friend stole his wife.” Cohen became penniless, talked to himself and was depressed to the point where the Virginia authorities believed he was “mentally unsound” and placed him into a Baltimore asylum in early 1914.
Authorities in Virginia didn’t want to continue paying for his care out of public funds, so he was sent back to the immigration service in New York.
There, U.S. immigration service proclaimed Cohen “insane” and said they believed he was “insane” when entering the United States in May 1912. Using the Alien Act of 1798 — which allowed deportation of any individual that was on public assistance within three years of entering the United States — the immigration service decided to deport Cohen back to Brazil.
The act, at the time, stipulated that the expense of all deportations were the responsibility of the agency or company that brought the individual to the United States. Therefore, the Lamport & Holt Steamship line was responsible for all expenses relating to the deportation of Cohen until he was settled in another country.
On March 6, 1914, Cohen was placed on a Lamport & Holt steamship for return to Brazil, but the Brazilian government declined his entry since he wasn’t a Brazilian citizen. The steamship continued to its next port in Argentina with Cohen onboard, but Argentina also denied his entry. The steamship then returned to the United States, with Cohen onboard, but Cohen was again denied entry.
During the next year, Cohen was sent back and forth twice, between Brazil, Argentina and the United States and was continually denied entry. He arrived back in the New York harbor on the SS Varasi on March 14, 1915.
It was there that The Pittsburg Press reporter James Taylor was allowed to meet with Cohen, and a piece on his plight was published. Cohen was once again slated for return to Brazil on the SS Varasi departing on April 18, 1915, for the fourth time but, just a few hours before departure, the acting U.S. Secretary of Labor John B. Densmore relented and allowed Cohen to re-enter the United States.
A retired judge, Leon Sanders, and an organization called the Hebrew Sheltering and Guardian Society, intervened on Cohen’s behalf, contending that Cohen was not “insane” on initial entry into the United States in 1912 and his mental instability was caused by factors after his living in the United States.
He was taken off the ship and placed into the Ellis Island hospital on April 18, 1915.
As part of Cohen’s re-entry agreement, a $500 bond would be posted by the Jewish Society assuring that Cohen would not have to be placed on public assistance.
Cohen was transferred in October 1915 to the McFarland Sanitarium in Green’s Farms, where he remained until his death on March 3, 1916. His final resting place was handled by the Hebrew Free Society to Staten Island in New York.
As an article in The New York Times after his death said, “Nathan Cohen, once a resident of Brazil, and then of the United States, who finally became a man without a country, spent more than a year shuttling between Brazilian and United States ports, none of which would receive him, ended his strange career yesterday as a sea rover.”
Bob Weingarten is the house historian for the Westport Museum for History and Culture, and a realtor for William Raveis Real Estate of Westport, with a focus on historic and antique houses.