Flora Spiegelberg: Grand Lady of the Southwest Frontier

Southwest Jewish History
Volume 1, Number 2, Winter 1992

by Sheri Goldstein Gleicher

corrections submitted by Will Kriegsman were entered to this online version on 10 January 1996

In the educated, outspoken, talented, and elegant young Flora Langerman Spiegelberg, two worlds blended to form a unique culture and a remarkable Jewish woman. Flora learned about life on the frontier at an early age. But her mother had Flora well educated in Germany where the beautiful young girl learned to appreciate fine art and high German culture. Her father, William Langerman, lived in California at the time of the 1849 Gold Rush. He was reportedly the owner of a tobacco shop in San Francisco, an active member of the Vigilance Committees of 1851 and 1856, and, according to Flora (but not yet proven), a Colonel in the California State Militia. Although she was educated in Germany after her father's death, she was a 5th generation American and a descendant of Philip Arcularius, a Hessian soldier/officer. Interestingly enough, and in spite of her devotion to Judaism, she often commented favorably on her nearly equal amount of Gentile "blood."

In 1874, through family connections the 17-year old Flora was introduced to the 30-year old, successful business man Willi Spielelberg, Flora summed up their courtship by later commenting "I was young and he was handsome and in a very short time, I became Mrs. Willi Spiegelberg." The couple soon held the first wedding in the new Reform Temple in Nuremberg, Germany.

At the end of an extravagant year long honeymoon in the best hotels and leading cities across Europe, the new couple set out for Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the American frontier. After having enjoyed the best in accommodations, Flora now faced a grueling trip by railroad, stagecoach and army ambulance over rough country. The cuisine consisted of dried buffalo, bear meat, buffalo tongue, buffalo steaks, beans and chiles; Flora did not exactly enjoy the meals. And the bumpy, bruising, jarring ride itself was more than uncomfortable; it caused Flora to miscarry. The young bride was "terribly frightened" when she saw Indians for the first time because "they were the first live Indians (she) had ever seen." A stage coach station master told Flora about the reaction of another Jew to the sight of Indians.

Upon seeing a group of Indians, a group of traveller hurried to their stagecoach to make a quick getaway. But one of the passengers, a German man, put on his yamulka and prayer shawl and began to pray in Hebrew. When he was done, he ran to the coach, joined his anxious fellow passengers and said, "Good friends, put your trust in god and He will bring you safely to your journey's end."

When the couple finally stopped at a hotel in Las Animas, Colorado, Flora became self- consciously aware of the gender imbalance on certain areas of the frontier. As the first woman they had seen in months, the attractive young Flora was under the gaze of a large group of cowboys at the ramshackle hotel. Since the building had no staircase, she had to climb a ladder to her bed while the men looked on. Having no their choice of accommodations, the Spiegelbergs slept in a common room with the cowboys, separated by sheets of muslin. The anxious and teary-eyed Flora slept in all her clothes. New Mexico was a long way from the polite society she had known in New York and Europe.

When the couple finally arrived in Santa Fe, they were greeted by the Spiegelberg brothers, their wives and children, a band playing Lohengrin's wedding March. The local people cheered the newlyweds as 'Don Julian El Bonito," (William the Handsome) "and his pretty Tenderfoot Bride!" Flora loved the cultured life. Her parties included uniformed maids, German cuisine and fine champagne. She was an accomplished pianist, an art collector and an organizer of local literary and dramatic clubs. Flora and Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy became close friends through a common interest in fine culture.

They conversed in French for hours while they gardened together. Flora and Willi maintained a magnificent home on Palace Avenue and yet, she did not isolate herself from the needs of her community. As part of a tradition of financially elite women during the nineteenth century who did charity work and helped to make civic improvements, Flora organized several important community projects. In 1879, she helped establish the first non-sectarian school in Santa Fe. Flora hired a woman from the Presbyterian Teacher's Mission Society to educate a mixed group of twelve Jewish and Protestant children. The following year, she raised $1,000 for the Santa Fe business community to purchase an acre of land for a new three room school house. Flora also created the first children's playground and garden in Santa Fe.

Flora was proud of the Jewish heritage but also did what she could to contribute to the culturally diverse people of Santa Fe. Through her relationship with the Archbishop, Flora maintained close ties to the Catholic community. She conducted two religious schools herself, one a Sabbath school on Saturdays for Jewish children and the other a Sunday school for Catholic children. Among Flora's Jewish students was Hyman Lowitzy who became a member of Teddy Roosevelt's "Rough Riders," and Arthur Seligman who went on to become Governor of New Mexico in 1930.

Flora also had her share of unique frontier experiences in Santa Fe. One late night in 1887, an angry mob pounded on the door. they insisted that Willi join in the festivities to lynch two Mexicans who allegedly murdered an Anglo physician. The Spiegelbergs, of course, would have no part in such behavior. Flora convinced the mob to leave her husband alone since, as a new mother, she needed him at home. In another instance, Flora met the infamous Billy the Kid when he came to the Spiegelberg store in 1876 to buy a new cowboy outfit.

Flora was a smart and aggressive woman who sometimes impressed others as pushy and domineering. In truth, she was trying to always improve the situation of her husband, family and community. As a result, she insisted in the late 1880s that heir family join the other Spiegelbergs in New York City where their daughters Betty and Rose could grow up in a Jewish environment and eventually marry Jewish men.

Like her husband and the other Spiegelberg men, Flora continued her projects in New York. Working in the atmosphere of the Progressive Era, she became an activist committed to social improvement. She organized the Boys Vocational Club and, in 1889, the first Jewish Working Girls Club which offered evening classes.

Flora was the leading force behind the creation of a modern system of garbage collection in New York City. She studied the sanitation systems of European cities and had Thomas Edison make a film about her plan. She soon developed the political contacts to implement such a system in New York. As the prime mover behind New York's sanitation system, Flora wrote that she was given the "rather unpleasant sounding nickname The Old Garbage Woman of New York." Sometimes criticized for her "unladylike" concerns with garbage disposal, Flora explained that the health of the population and the cleanliness of the streets was "quite within the province of women." Flora also participated in other important public issues by serving on a number of committees like the New York City Health Commission, the Street Cleaning Department, the Bill Board, the Public Water Commission and the Daylight Saving Commission.

The wide range of Flora's talents was also demonstrated in her moderately successful career as a children's writer. Her novel, Princess Goldenhair and the Wonderful Flower, and her radio script, "The Enchanted Toy Store of Fairyland" were broadcast by CBS in the 1930s. Her collection of short stories, Grandma Flora's Animal Stories, was also a successful work. In 1937, Flora published some of the stories from her own life in "Reminiscences of a Jewish Bride of the Santa Fe Trail" which appeared in the Jewish Spectator.

Ironically, the remarkable life of Flora Langerman Spiegelberg has remained largely unknown, perhaps because of her heritage. Due to her husband's tremendous success in the mercantile business, Flora could have enjoyed a pampered life removed from the needs of the different communities in which she lived. But as a woman of conviction and action who cared about all the people around her, she never stopped working to improve society and better individual lives.

Information on the spiegelberg family was drawn from a wide variety of sources at the Bloom Southwest Jewish Archives including the papers of Rabbi Floyd Fierman.