LOOKING BACK: One Grand Home on Main Street

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, February 8, 2023

By Nancy Bell, Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation

An ad in the Daily Commercial Herald on July 28, 1888, advertised this five-bay galleried cottage for sale as “one of the most handsome and convenient houses in Vicksburg, in thorough repair. The improvements are all of the most modern plan.”

Shortly thereafter, Rabbi Herman M. Bien and his wife, Louise, and his four children, called the house home. Bien had moved from Dallas to Vicksburg in September 1881 to lead the Anshe Chesed congregation.

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The Dallas Gazette reported that they “regret the loss of his gentleman, as he has, by his social, genial manners and gentlemanly deportment, made many warm friends. He is a gentleman of culture, refinement and education; possessing energy and public spirit, and his loss will be felt in religious as well as social circles. Our loss in Vicksburg’s gain, however, and we congratulate the good people of that city on their good fortune in securing the services and society of this good man.”

Bien became known as the “poet Rabbi” because he wrote and published his many poems and stories. In February 1884, he published “Progress,” a 20-page journal “in the interest of the Jewish religion, and contains many historical and political sketches.” 

His first book, “Samson and Delilah or Dagon stoops to Sabaoth,” was published in 1860, six years after he immigrated to America from Germany.  According to Bien, it was a “biblio-romantic tragedy in five acts.”

At this time Bien was living in Virginia, Territory of Nevada. In October 1864, he edited and published a semi-weekly German paper devoted to politics, literature, and science. When he was elected the vice president of the German Union Club of Virginia, his address to the meeting was reported by the Gold Hill Daily News:

“He portrayed the pangs and sufferings of despotism, lauded the freedom and liberty of the United States, and paid a just tribute to its founders-the fathers of the Revolution.  He said that no German who witnessed the struggle of the Germans for liberty, could side with those that are now trying to destroy this Union, and with it the liberty that induced the Germans to flee their native land and become citizens of this country.  It were (sic) vain for us to attempt to do the eloquent doctor and his speech justice- being himself one of the heroes of the German Revolution in 1848, and at present a political exile.”

In that same year, 1864, Bien was elected to the first Nevada State Assembly, representing Storey County, when Nevada was admitted to the Union. By 1871, he was living in Port Henry, New York and owned a drug store there.

He continued to write as evidenced by an article in the Burlington Democrat on July 12, 1873, reporting that Bien had “sold a play of his own composing to a New York theatrical manager, for a handsome sum. The play to be brought out at Wood’s Theatre this season.”

In 1879, the Dallas, Texas, Jewish congregation hired him as their Rabbi and they were delighted that he had in a short time increased membership from 50 to 87 and increased Sunday school and day school attendance. 

While in Vicksburg, Bien continued to publish his writings, including “Oriental Legends and Poems” in 1883 and “Ben-Beor, a Story of Anti-Messiah” in 1891. He was also an inventor.

In 1885, the Vicksburg Evening Post reported that he had “invented a very ingenious and what will no doubt prove a most valuable and useful rocking chair. The main point about it is a frame attachment which will constitute three fans that will fan the person rocking in the chair. This attachment is so arranged that a mosquito bar can be placed on the frame over the chair, and by this means the occupant of the chair, if so disposed of, can take a nice nap undisturbed by mosquitoes. Dr. Bien has applied for a patent for his invention.”

The patent that he received in February 1886 was for an automatic fan, which could be “attached to a rocker or any other chair, or to a bedstead, lounge or crib and which also provides for the attachment of a mosquito net; by which the two greatest plaques of life in the South, heat and insects, are effectually banished.”

In May 1888, he received a patent for an improved Automatic Fan for Furniture which was produced by a Cincinnati firm and sold for $2.50 retail. 

In early 1895, Bien was not re-elected to his position with the Vicksburg congregation. In April, he traveled to Birmingham to interview for the position of Rabbi there and was not chosen because the congregation voted for a younger man. Bien returned to his hotel and took an overdose of morphine. When he was found in the morning by the chambermaid, he was near death and died ten minutes after a physician arrived. He left a note stating that life had been a disappointment to him, everything having gone wrong lately, and he had decided to end his trouble.

His remains were returned to Vicksburg where is casket was placed in the family home at 1000 Main St. The Daily Commercial Herald reported that “the sad event had excited an unusual degree of popular sympathy and hundreds of visitors called during the afternoon.”

The Herald reported that the funeral was “one of the most remarkable popular demonstrations that ever occurred in the city. Business was quite generally suspended and the beautiful auditorium was crowded with representatives of every religious denomination, including all or nearly all the clergy of the city. There were large delegations also present from the numerous fraternal organizations of which the deceased was a member, and altogether entrance into the edifice could not be had after the services began, while the vestibule was filled with spectators and the sidewalk thronged for nearly a block.”

Rabbi Bien was 56 years old when he died. He was buried in the Jewish Cemetery, as was his wife when she passed away in 1904. I’ll share more about the occupants of 1000 Main St. next week.