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David G. Seixas

The life of David Seixas, according to Isaac Leeser, “was as varied as the figures of a kaleidoscope, shadow and sunshine alternating with him ceaselessly, and could his biography be written by a faithful pen, it would exhibit a picture remarkable for variety and strange vicissitudes.

Seixas was the oldest of twelve born to Shearith Israelhazzan and leader of American Jewish religious life Gershom Mendes Seixas and his second wife, Hannah Judah Manuel. He grew He grew up in New York, and rather than start a family of his own, he threw himself into a string of projects and the restless life of a manufacturer, merchant, and innovator.

In 1804 he went down to New Orleans to manage a store with his brother-in-law Israel Baer Kursheedt. Not satisfied with the results, Seixas returned to the city of his birth. In 1811 he went to work as an agent for early American industrialist Harmon Hendricks in Philadelphia. With the outbreak of war with England, Seixas began a venture selling English style crockery when imports from England were impossible to come by.

Among his other business ventures were manufacturing ink, laminated visiting cards, and sealing wax. He opened a brewery and a daguerreotype parlor.

In 1816 Seixas inaugurated the project for which he would be best remembered, and it was not a business venture. It was the Pennsylvania Institution for the Dumb and the Deaf, today called the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. Operating out of his home, it was only the third institution of its kind opened in the United States. By the end of the year the school had moved into its own building.

In 1821 he took six of his students and traveled to Harrisburg where they demonstrated lip reading and sign language before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and Governor Joseph Heister. An act was passed incorporating the institution and endowing it with funds to support fifty children a year. Among the students who studied there was Albert Newsam, who became the greatest lithographer of his day in America.

The same year as the Seixas’ victory in Harrisburg also saw an unfortunate affair that would tarnish his reputation for the remainder of his life. Two students accused Seixas of molesting them, and while there is cogent evidence to suggest the charges were invented, he was nevertheless dismissed. Rebecca Gratz called his dismissal unpardonable.” And though numerous other Jewish and non-Jewish defenders spoke out in support of the horrified and heartbroken Seixas, he would never return to the school he had founded. Although he established another institution, the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, it closed its doors after only a few years. Seixas shrunk from public view after the incident and did little else that has been recorded before his death in South Bend, Indiana—a dark and quiet end to such an active and colorful life.