By: Gotthard Deutsch
A case of forcible abduction in which a child named Edgar Mortara was violently removed from the custody of his parents by papal guards in Bologna on June 23, 1858. The details of the case, which created a sensation in both Europe and America, are not fully known because the matter was never brought before an impartial court of justice. The following, however, seems to be the most probable version:
Anna Morisi, a servant-girl at one time in the employ of the Mortara family, confessed to a priest that about four years before the abduction, when the child Edgar was very ill, she had secretly baptized him in order to save his soul if he should die. For some time she had concealed the fact, but her conscience gave her no rest, and so she was driven to make this confession. The priest to whom she confessed reported the matter to Rome, and the Congregation of the Inquisition gave orders that the child be taken forcibly from his parents and that he be educated as a Christian. While the Church deprecated forcible baptism, it held that the sacrosanct character of the sacrament, if duly performed, made the recipient ipso facto a member of the Christian communion. A force of papal soldiers commanded by a Swiss officer went to the house of the Mortara family June 23, 1858, at ten o'clock at night, andshowed an order for the arrest of Edgar Mortara. The parents thought that there was a mistake, and said that Edgar was but a child of six years. They were told in reply that the order presented was one of the Holy Office, and must be complied with, so the child was taken from them. Their attempt to obtain his release on the ground that Anna Morisi had acted out of spite—a statement which was supported by the fact that the girl had kept the matter secret for four years—quite apart from the assertion of the parents that the child had never been seriously ill, was of no avail. In those days, when the papal government opposed all reasonable demands for reform, the sentiment of Europe was rather hostile to it, and this outrage provoked universal indignation.
The Jewish congregations of Sardinia invoked the aid of their government, a great number of German rabbis headed by Ludwig Philippson sent a petition to the pope, English Jews held a mass-meeting, and Sir Moses Montefiore went to Rome to petition the pope for the release of the child. Catholic sovereigns, such as Francis Joseph of Austria and Napoleon III. of France, wrote personal letters to the pope, advising him not to defy the public opinion of Europe. William, at that time Prince Regent of Prussia and later Emperor of Germany, replied to a Jewish society that he was much in sympathy with its demand, but that he could not intercede in the case because as a Protestant his intercession would be misinterpreted. All was without avail; Montefiore was not received in audience; and the petition of the German rabbis was not answered.Vain Attempts at Recovery.
The pope when he received the Roman congregation in annual audience on Feb. 2, 1859, upbraided its members for having made a European affair of the case. He threatened them with reprisals, and is said to have declared that he "snapped his fingers at the whole world."
In 1859, after Bologna had been annexed to the kingdom of Sardinia, the parents made another effort to obtain possession of their child, again without avail, for he had been taken to Rome; and when in 1870 Rome became the capital of Italy another effort was made, but again without result. Edgar Mortara, then eighteen years old, had declared his intention of remaining a Catholic. He was educated in a convent, and often was paraded in the ghetto for the purpose of annoying the Jews. Later young Mortara entered the Augustine order, adopting the convent name Pius; he has preached before the Vatican Council, has often been sent as a missionary to various German cities, as Munich, Mayence, and Breslau, and has preached also before the Italian congregations in the Catholic churches of New York.
His father, who died in 1871, became the target for clerical rancor. He was accused of having thrown a servant-girl out of the window, and was compelled to spend a long time in prison before he was finally discharged ("Vessillo Israelitico," 1872, p. 213). Edgar's mother died in Florence Oct. 17, 1895, and her son went from Switzerland to attend the funeral. He caused to be published in a Catholic paper a request to his friends to pray for his dead mother and for his afflicted family. After he had taken orders he was permitted to freely come in contact with the members of his family, and was seen recently with them in Milan in a kasher restaurant ("Vessillo Israelitico," 1904, p. 294).
The Mortara case undoubtedly contributed in some measure to the downfall of the Papal States, and it is reported on good authority that Pius IX., whose name the young convert adopted, said to him in 1867, "I have bought thee, my son, for the Church at a very high price" ("Oh, se tu sapessi, quanto mi costi"; "Vessillo Israelitico," 1896, p. 308).
This case certainly gave the strongest impetus to the formation of the Alliance Israélite Universelle. It is worthy of notice that there was some discord in the almost universal indignation which this outrage had produced among the Jews. Ignatz Deutsch, court banker at Vienna, wrote a circular to Orthodox rabbis requesting them not to join the movement of protest in the Mortara case, and also to the Austrian minister of education, Count von Thun, declaring that this movement was supported by the "Neologen," who used it for political purposes as henchmen of the demagogues (Israel Levi Kohn, "Zur Gesch. der Jüdischen Tartüffe," pp. 42 et seq., Leipsic, 1864).
- The newspapers of 1858, especially Educatore Israelitico and Allg. Zeit. des Jud.;
- La Grande Encyclopédie; Hebr. Bibl. ii. 47, iii. 47;
- Albrecht, Der Gewaltsame Kinderraub zu Bologna;
- Zugleich ein Wort der Erinnerung an Alle Concordatsfreunde, Ulm, 1858;
- A. Gennari, Il Governo Pontificio e lo Stato Romano, 1864;
- Der Kleine Neophyte Edgar Mortara, Würzburg, 1859 (translation of an article in Civiltà Cattolica);
- Berliner, Geschichte der Juden in Rom, ii. 153;
- Vogelstein and Rieger, Gesch. der Juden in Rom, ii. 382.
- The case was made the subject of a drama by H. M. Moos, Mortara, or the Pope and His Inquisitors, Cincinnati, 1860.