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Mendes I. Cohen

Mendes I. Cohen may have been born into a family with extensive interests in finance and civic life, but curiosity and a restless heart urged him in a different direction. Born in Richmond, the sixth child of Israel and Judith Solomon Cohen, and brother to celebrated Baltimore banker Jacob I. Cohen, Jr. and Benjamin Cohen, founder of the Baltimore Stock Exchange, Mendes did not find banking and trading much to his taste. As a teenager, he enlisted in the Maryland Militia to fight in the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812, serving in the defense of Fort McHenry alongside Samuel Etting. After the war ended, he took up a position at the New York branch of his brother’s firm. After more than a decade of working in finance, he left Baltimore at the age of 33 to seek adventure overseas.  In six years of travel, he visited a number of countries in Europe and the Middle East, reporting back to his mother and brothers on the conditions he found there, particularly as they pertained to the local Jewish population, in long and chatty letters.  In 1832, he became the first American to explore the Nile Valley, amassing a collection of nearly 700 relics from that area.

Upon his return to Baltimore in 1836, Mendes I. Cohen explored his interest in politics through participation in a number of civic and communal causes.  He was elected a member of the Maryland Assembly and served in that body during the 1847-1848 term.  During the Civil War, he joined the Peace Party and served as a delegate to the Maryland State Peace Convention.  He was also active in Jewish causes, most notably in chairing a public meeting about the Mortara case on November 28, 1859, which resulted in a petition to President Buchanan of which Cohen then became one of thirteen signatories.

Mendes I. Cohen never married, but when he died in 1879 he left his possessions to a nephew and namesake, the son of his brother, David I. Cohen.  Five years after his death, in 1884, the younger Mendes Cohen donated his uncle’s collection of Egyptian artifacts to Johns Hopkins University as the Cohen Collection of Antiquities.