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My Three Soldiers: Eliza Heilbrun’s Quest for a Pension


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Envelope of letter from Simon to Eliza.

Civil War pension files are integral to the Shapell Roster. In them, we often find stories of the dazzling bravery, of the unspeakable suffering, and of the fraternal camaraderie one would expect from veterans of America’s bloodiest conflict. But, these files can also read like your favorite soap opera; Days of Our Lives could learn a few things from pension records. One such drama was that of Eliza Heilbrun, who married not one, but three, Civil War veterans, but only managed to receive a widow’s pension for less than two years. On the surface, Eliza looks like one of those serial pensioner daters, or worse, a black widow; who would try to marry elderly veterans, close to death, to receive the death and widow benefits from their hopefully timely demise. The Bureau of Pensions was convinced such women existed in the early 20th century, and interrogated widows who married their veteran husbands late in the gentlemen’s lives accordingly. Eliza’s story, however, is even more convoluted and scandalous than that!

Eliza’s first soldier husband was Simon Adamsky. Simon served as a Private in the 7th Connecticut Infantry for the last five months of the Civil War, after he enlisted November 29, 1864, under the alias Patrick H. Hamilton.  Simon claimed in his pension application that he served under an aliasin order to avoid being taken back to his home by his parents.” But, we believe the real reason for Simon’s use of an alias was that he deserted from a previous enlistment in the 25th NY Cavalry, especially given that the soldier was not a minor at the time of his enlistment in his Connecticut regiment and did not need his parents’ permission to join up.

After the war, Simon served as a police officer in New York City, and later a salesman in Omaha, NE, before he returned permanently to New York, and worked as a wine merchant until his death. He was extremely active in Grand Army of the Republic circles, and in the Hebrew Union Veterans Organization (for more information on this latter group, please watch our presentation), being listed as “one of the foremost Hebrew soldiers of the Civil War” in his obituary, and showing more dedication to being a veteran that he ever had being a soldier. This obituary also claims that Simon served in the 4th US Cavalry, as did Eliza to the Bureau of Pensions when she applied for a widow’s pension, but the War Department found no evidence to substantiate this claim, and Simon never mentioned it in his own pension application when enumerating his service. 

Eliza and Simon’s love story was, in every iteration, melodramatic. After Simon’s death, at the behest of Eliza, Simon’s brother, Michael, gave a detailed account of their relationship’s inception and consecration. According to Michael, Eliza was “the hired girl at the home of [his] parents” in Omaha, NE, when Simon was living at home with them, and Simon began living with her as husband and wife sometime after their father’s death in 1883, the implication being that Simon couldn’t run off with the servant girl until the patriarch had passed. Michael had presumed them to be married, until the pair came to visit him in Chicago in the 1890s, and Simon informed Michael he wished to obtain a marriage license, because “Eliza wanted to be married by a Justice [of the Peace,] because she was a Christian Scien[tist], and he wanted to be married by a Rabbi. And for that reason they had never been married by a ceremony.” 

Michael Adamsky's Deposition
Kansas City Times Account of Eliza and Simon Adamsky’s Elopement

Michael served as a witness at the couple’s wedding, making him the perfect witness to prove the two were married to the Bureau of Pensions.

Or was he? The Bureau of Pensions also specifically asked Michael whether Simon or Eliza were previously married, and Michael stated “No, Simon had never been married before he married Eliza, and so far as [he knew] she had not been married before.”  But, the Bureau of Pensions determined that was a lie.  In fact, other than Michael’s description of their civil ceremony in Chicago, everything he told the pension examiner was patently false.  Simon and Eliza met each other in New York City, not Omaha, when BOTH were married to other people. Simon, working as a beat cop, met Eliza–then Mrs. Moses Nussbaum–at her husband’s saloon. He had a wife, Lena, of eight years, and Eliza had been married to Mr. Nussbaum for close to eleven years, but Simon began “paying daily visits to [Eliza] while her husband was away.”  When the affair was discovered in June, 1881, Eliza emptied her bank account, and they eloped to Omaha, NE, their scandal making the national news. Here follows a  particularly salacious example of the descriptions printed:

“Patrolman Simon Adamsky cast his eyes upon the substantial form of Mrs. Nussbaum, and was smitten to the left auricle of his heart. The stroke of Cupid so strong that, without doubt, the barb was clinched in the back of the lover’s coat, and, according to the gossips of the neighborhood, the wound proved fatal to his peace of mind. To bring the climax promptly, the twain eloped, and so ended the first act in the drama.”

Eliza’s cuckolded husband obtained a divorce two months later, but Simon’s spurned wife remarried without one, believing “the soldier’s desertion of her and his continued absence for five years were equivalent [sic] to a divorce.” The passion that spurred the pair to upend their lives appears to have held through the years. This can be observed in an affectionate letter from Simon which Eliza included in her later pension claim, signed “I Remain as Ever Your Ever Loving Husband” and “Kiss me Good Night Dearest Your Simon.”

Quote from Simon Adamsky’s Love Letter to Eliza.
Article on Eliza and Isaac Adamsky’s Marriage.

After living for what they felt to be a suitable amount of time out west, Eliza and Simon returned to New York City and resumed their lives and social circles, staying committed to one another until Simon’s death in 1907.

Just a year later, Eliza was married again, to Simon’s brother, Isaac Adamsky.  After a forty-year marriage to his first wife, Rebecca Schoen, Isaac was also recently widowed, and perhaps out of brotherly duty, or the pull of Eliza’s “substantial form,” he took Eliza over the river to New Jersey, to be married by a Justice of the Peace.

Arrest of Isaac Adamsky During a Cigar Union Strike. "Thought the Judge Was Joking." newspapers.com. Original data: The Evening World [New York, NY], 18 May 1893, p. 3.

Isaac was also a Civil War veteran, having served as a Musician and a Private in the 37th OH Infantry. He enlisted in Cleveland on August 25, 1861, and remained in the service until he was wounded during the Siege of Vicksburg, “receiving a gunshot wound through both thighs and pelvis, causing lameness of the right leg and chronic cystitis.” Isaac was granted a discharge for disability, and went into the cigar business.  He was a member of the Cigar-Makers’ Union, and earned a reputation for leading workers’ strikes and intimidating those he deemed to be scabs crossing the picket lines. Like his brother, Isaac also belonged to the Grand Army of the Republic, and the Hebrew Union Veterans Association, taking an active role in veterans’ fraternal circles.

Unfortunately, Eliza’s second Adamsky union was short lived; Isaac died just a year and a half after they were married. Both Adamsky brothers died of natural causes, so while Eliza’s reputation may not have been sterling, there was no suspicion of her being a black widow-type. Following Isaac’s death, Eliza’s years-long battle with the Bureau of Pensions began. 

Eliza first applied to receive the accrued benefits of Isaac’s pension, following his death, and then applied for a full widow’s pension in 1916, based on Simon’s service, because she had not been married to Isaac long enough to qualify for such as Isaac’s widow. It is at this point Michael Adamsky’s false narrative comes into play. For a short period of time, it worked: Eliza received a pension from May 27, 1919 to January 4, 1921. A gullible Special Pension Examiner who accepted the couple’s alleged dispute over a marriage officiant on its face because:

 “With regard to [Eliza]’s alleged reason for preferring a common law marriage to a ceremonial marriage by a Jewish Rabbi, all the witnesses sa[id] that she has been known as a Christian Scientist ever since their first acquaintance with her, although she admit[ted] her Jewish blood. In this connection, [the examiner was] informed that a good many Jews [we]re Christian Scientists, and that a certain Christian Science church in Brooklyn [was] patronized and supported almost altogether by Jews.” 

The US government found that Eliza and Simon had begun a common law marriage in 1887, making their union meet the 20 year mark, qualifying her for benefits. But, never one to pay a cent more than absolutely required of them, the Bureau of Pensions kept digging for dirt, and quickly poked holes in Eliza’s story, discovering her and Simon’s previous marriages. Not only did they stop her pension payments, but they sued Eliza to recover the payments that had already been issued to her, the sum total of $1148.63. The court filings specifically called to attention that Eliza

“knew of the divorce obtained by [her first husband Moses] Nussbaum within two months after [sic] her elopement[,] and of the statutory provision in the decree prohibiting her from remarrying during the lifetime of said Nussbaum, because when she married Isaac they took the trouble to go over to New Jersey to have the ceremony performed.”

The United States vs. Eliza Nussbaum, alias Adamsky

The only silver lining for Eliza was that all the pension investigations had rekindled a connection between herself, and Simon’s old friend, Henry Levison. Henry was interviewed by a pension examiner in 1919 at the United States Soldiers’ Home in Washington, DC, about Eliza and Simon’s relationship. Two years later, he and Eliza were married at Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church in Alexandria, VA; despite the fact that he too was also Jewish. 

Signature from Henry Levison’s Pension Declaration
Henry Levison's Certificate of Disability for Discharge.

Henry Levison was also the third Civil War veteran Eliza married; he served as a Private in Battery H of the 1st US Artillery from September 1861, until September 1863, when he was discharged for disability due to his failing eyesight. It is unclear whether Eliza and Henry ever lived together: he was living at the Soldiers’ Home in DC when he died in 1928, as he had been when he provided his testimony for Eliza’s claim nine years earlier.

Eliza was living in DC in 1926, when she was interviewed for the pension fraud claim against her; but twelve days after Henry’s death, she was at least staying in New York City, when she sent the Bureau of Pensions a letter, in her last attempt to receive a widow’s pension, this time based on Henry’s service. Her given name is conspicuously absent on said letter, perhaps she hoped that would keep the government from dredging up her past history with the Bureau of Pensions.

Eliza's Letter Following Henry Levison's Death.

Eliza died in 1935, in Brooklyn, at 84 years old, and was listed in the New York City death certificates as Eliza Adamsky Levison. She was buried with Simon in Washington Cemetery, a predominantly Jewish cemetery in Brooklyn. Her life was certainly a roller coaster, filled with romance and despair, scandal and intrigue. In her time, Eliza was maligned as an adulterer, a liar, a gold digger, and a “loose woman.” But her devotion to Simon Adamsky, the man she gave up everything for, never waivered. She also maintained to the end that she and Simon believed that his wife had divorced him, and that she in good faith claimed that their marriage was legitimate. With a modern lens, Eliza was a woman who followed her heart, trapped by antiquated divorce laws, who later took the steps she needed to take to provide for herself in a society that supplied few opportunities for a single, middle-aged woman without means. Who doesn’t root for a girl with chutzpah?

 

 

Image Citations

(1) Department of the Interior. Bureau of Pensions. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War Veterans, ca. 1861-ca. 1910. Microfilm Publication and Textual Records, ARC Identifier no. 561929: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

(2) Courtesy, The National Museum of American Jewish Military History

(3) Department of the Interior. Bureau of Pensions. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War Veterans, ca. 1861-ca. 1910. Microfilm Publication and Textual Records, ARC Identifier no. 561929: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

(4) “Love Among the Batons.” newspapers.com. Original data: The Kansas City Times [Kansas City, MO], vol. 22, no. 16, 18 June 1881, p. 2.

(5) Department of the Interior. Bureau of Pensions. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War Veterans, ca. 1861-ca. 1910. Microfilm Publication and Textual Records, ARC Identifier no. 561929: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

(6) “Soldier of 63 Marries Brother’s Widow.” genealogybank.com. Original data: The Star and Newark Advertiser, 24 Feb. 1908, p. 3.

(7) Courtesy, The National Museum of American Jewish Military History

(8) Department of the Interior. Bureau of Pensions. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War Veterans, ca. 1861-ca. 1910. Microfilm Publication and Textual Records, ARC Identifier no. 561929: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

(9) Department of the Interior. Bureau of Pensions. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Veterans Who Served in the Army and Navy Mainly in the Civil War and The War With Spain (“Civil War and Later Survivors’ Certificates”): Nos. SC 9,487-999,999, 1861-1934. Textual Records, ARC Identifier no. 300019: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

(10) Department of the Interior. Bureau of Pensions. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Veterans Who Served in the Army and Navy Mainly in the Civil War and The War With Spain (“Civil War and Later Survivors’ Certificates”): Nos. SC 9,487-999,999, 1861-1934. Textual Records, ARC Identifier no. 300019: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

(11) Department of the Interior. Bureau of Pensions. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Veterans Who Served in the Army and Navy Mainly in the Civil War and The War With Spain (“Civil War and Later Survivors’ Certificates”): Nos. SC 9,487-999,999, 1861-1934. Textual Records, ARC Identifier no. 300019: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.


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