A Look at Lewis Dembitz, Part Two

07Aug13

I am going to conclude this profile of Louis D. Brandeis’ uncle with excerpts of two more old Courier-Journal articles. Both of the stories here were related in the article I transcribed in part one, but I left them out because these two articles go into more detail. The article from my previous post described Dembitz’s love of swimming, but I would have thought that the incident from this August 8th, 1853 article would have turned him off of that activity forever.

Man Carried Over the Falls–Unparalleled Editorial Feat

We have to record an event in connection with our Falls–the much abused, yet turbulent, wild and not to be trifled with rapides la belle rivierre, which might have equaled the recent terrible disaster at the rival cascade of Niagara. We say might have equaled, for as it is, the denouement exhibits no loss of life, only a catalogue of hair breadth escapes by flood and field.

On Friday evening, about 11 o’clock, three gentlemen, (all Germans) Messrs. Louis Dembitz, late editor of the “Beobachter am Ohio,” in this city, Feamberger, and another whose name we have not ascertained, went in bathing at the upper wharf. They swam to Jeffersonville, and without resting started back. Dembitz, anxious to show off his agility in the water, pushed out boldly ahead of the others, and unconscious of the rapid current leading to the falls, was drawn in. In a few moments he found himself unable to cope with the strength of the hurrying waters. He was swiftly carried through the Indiana chute, and happening to come in contact with Ruble’s rock, he seized upon it and rested there for some time. But slipping off he went down through the eddy, whirlpool, round the tarn, and found himself exhausted in slack water a short distance above New Albany. There he crawled out, and in a state of perfect nudity, in puris naturalibus, walked up the plank road to Jeffersonville, where borrowing a pair of pants, shirt and cap, he came over on the first trip of the ferry. At the wharf he found a group of relatives and friends collected, bewailing his loss. His companions were taken up by a skiff, having halloed lustily for assistance.

We have yet to hear of an achievement by a knight of the scissors and quill, equal to that of our friend and contemporary, Dembitz. He may congratulate himself on having performed such an arduous and saved his life beside. Editors are hard to beat at anything. They cannot be drowned, but may be hanged.

I should point out that no one goes swimming in the Ohio River now. Whether this is because people are much less athletic these days or because the river is that much more polluted I cannot say. The next bit is an extract from an article from August 11, 1918, some 7 years after Dembitz’s death. It is one of a series of articles titled “Memoirs of a Court Reporter,” which were a series of anecdotes about members of the Louisville bar by Clarence E. Walker. (Mr. Walker was the man who played the record backwards in Part One of this profile.) This anecdote gives a good idea of the breadth of Dembitz’s knowledge and his ability to retain information.

It was in the early eighties that I first ran across Mr. Dembitz. Theodore F. Bristol, the valedictorian of the class of 1878 at the High School, was reporting for one of the evening papers. Dropping in on me one morning where I was wrestling with Kent or Blackstone he said to me, “I wish I could find out something about El Mahdi.”

“Who is El Mahdi?” I asked.

“He is a Mohammedan who is kicking up a pretty good sized row over around Arabia,” said The, “and no one seems to know anything about him.”

I had been introduced to Mr. Dembitz a few days before and the personĀ  who introduced me had told me that he knew everything. Instantly I thought of him.

“Come on, The,” I said. “I will take you to a man who they say knows everything, and he may tell us something.”

We started, and if there ever was a man from Missouri The was the man. I was sure Mr. Dembitz would know something, but The was not. When we got there and the introduction was over I said to Mr. Dembitz:

“Mr. Bristol is a reporter and wants to find out something about El Mahdi. Can you help him?”

“Sure,” said Mr. Dembitz, and down he sat and commenced writing. He wrote a very small, compact hand, and it took him fully a quarter of an hour to finish the first page, and both of us were fretting, thinking he was writing something for himself after which he would give us the information we were after. He handed us the completed first page and continued writing. He gave us the parents of El Mahdi, the place of his nativity, how many brothers and sisters he had and the order in which they came. His education was also set forth at length, with the things for which he manifested a liking and those to which he did not take kindly. In short, it was apparently a full and complete but compact biography. We thanked Mr. Dembitz and left and The was almost afraid to use the matter. I insisted that Mr. Dembitz would not give him anything but what was accurate and The published it.

The press generally looked askance at The’s article. One prominent Eastern paper published it in full with the comment that a small afternoon paper in Louisville (and the afternoon papers were small affairs then) had published this article, and if true it was interesting, but the paper published it without any guaranty as to its correctness.

As El Mahdi loomed larger and larger, first one portion of the article was found to be accurate and then another, until it was finally recognized that the whole was a wonderfully accurate account of the life of the False Prophet. Then considerable interest was manifested as to how the information was procured, and The and I again went to Mr. Dembitz to get an answer for the inquiry, and Mr. Dembitz said: “In order to keep up my Arabic, I take two copies of an Arabian paper, and just before you boys came in with your inquiry I had read an account of El Mahdi’s life in that Arabian paper.”

I have one more Dembitz story to relate. This one came from Charles Tachau, who is the grandson of Louis Brandeis’s brother, Alfred. This comes from an interview I did with him a couple years ago about his family.

He was famous in our family for being very absent minded. He was supposed to have taken one of his sons out to teach him to swim. He threw him in the water and walked away and left him … Another thing I remember is that he was very active in politics, I guess as a Republican and an abolitionist, although this would have been a little later. The way I remember the story is he was walking down the street and a lady dropped a package. He stooped to pick it up for her and it was wrapped in the wrong newspaper. He said, “You read this damnable newspaper!?” and threw the package down.

Mr. Tachau didn’t have any idea which newspaper it was. I hope it wasn’t the Courier-Journal…

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