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Far Away Moses and an unidentified young woman at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893. She appears with Moses in many photos from the event. //

The Name of Far Away Moses

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Carved stone head with beard on top of a curved window.
Far Away Moses was the model for this striking head, which sites atop a window not far from where I write this post. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Note: This is part of a series of posts about Far Away Moses, a fascinating celebrity of the 19th century, who served as the model for one of the keystone heads on the Thomas Jefferson Building.  Moses, a Sephardic Jew from Constantinople, knew some of the most prominent Americans of his era, including Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain.  See the first post about Moses here.  See the second post here.

In a previous post about the fascinating character known as Far Away Moses (whose face adorns the outside of the Thomas Jefferson Building, where I sit writing this post), I covered the basics of his life and mentioned some of the ways in which his story became part of the folklore of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In particular, I discussed legends and tall tales about Moses and his extraordinary honesty, which circulated among English-speaking tourists to the Ottoman Empire, and later influenced his career as a merchant, a store manager in several U.S. and Ottoman cities, and the manager of the Turkish Bazaar at the 1893 Columbian World’s Exposition in Chicago. [1]

Posed, sepia toned photo of a bearded man in loose trousers and jacket with a headcovering, leaning on a pillar that comes to his elbow..
One of Far Away Moses’s cartes de visite, from around the time he met Mark Twain in 1867.

But there were also other folk stories about Far Away Moses, who was a dragoman, tour guide, and merchant active in Istanbul, Cairo, and several American cities during the 19th century. Moses was best known for having been Mark Twain’s guide in Istanbul, and thus mentioned in The Innocents Abroad, but he was also written about by many contemporary writers who traveled in the Ottoman Empire, which seems to have led also to a substantial oral tradition of Far Away Moses stories. One mystery in particular caused several tales to arise: where did Far Away Moses get his name?

Several legends about this circulated in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the most common story, his name was Moses, and he was admonished, usually by Mark Twain, for always being so far away. An example of this story was retold by Hubert Howe Bancroft on pages 857-858 of The Book of the Fair, his account of the 1893 exposition:

But attracting more attention than anything else in the village, is a small, white-bearded man whom Mark Twain introduced to the world many years ago. It is related in Innocents Abroad how the author selected him for his guide through the narrow, tortuous streets of Constantinople. Although he could speak English, the man was rather of taciturn mood, and Twain was so much interested in what he saw that he did not care to talk. Finally, after they had travelled together for a while, the latter asked the guide his name. ‘Moses,’ was the reply. Now, having always lived in Constantinople, Moses was not specially interested in its sights, and while Twain would be standing before some gorgeous mosque or bazaar, as though rooted with the intensity of admiration, his guide would still keep plodding on. The humorist was so often distanced in this unequal contest that he dubbed him ‘far-away Moses,’ and thus he was recognized by thousands who visited the plaisance.

Head-and-shoulders portrait of a young Mark Twain.
Mark Twain’s own carte de visite, with a photo taken by Abdullah Freres in Constantinople, during the trip on which he met Far Away Moses in 1867.

Similarly, the anonymous article ‘Finishing the Fair,’ in the San Francisco Chronicle, Apr. 19, 1893, page l,  told the story this way:

The humorist and the guide strolled along together, the former being so intensely interested in what he saw that he often stood stock still in the road to admire the strange architecture of the houses and shops. But Moses kept plodding away, with the result that when the humorist resumed his tramp the Turk was so far ahead of him that it was with difficulty that he was called back. So often did Twain find himself alone in his tramps through the crooked streets of Constantinople that he facetiously dubbed his guide and chaperone ‘Far Away.’

Another variant was told by Thomas James Donlon in his account of the Oriental rug trade, ‘Getting Wise in the Rug Business,’ in the July 31, 1915 Saturday Evening Post:

In 1876 Robert Levy, a Turkish Jew, conceived the idea of bringing to America a collection of rugs. He also brought with him a native of Constantinople who had acted as guide to Mark Twain and who was known as Faraway Moses. Thus he had been dubbed by the humorist, who always found himself left so far behind by his eager guide that he was compelled perpetually to shout after him ‘Don’t go so far away, Moses’ in order to keep him somewhere within hailing distance. He put Moses in his book, which had a great vogue at that time, and made him famous. Levy located on Broadway and widely advertised the presence of the notorious cicerone of the famous humorist. Crowds flocked to the store to see Faraway Moses, and the beauty, durability, and value of the Oriental rug were thus brought to the notice of the American public.

Finally, Cyrus Adler, who helped Moses’s company get the concession to run the Turkish area of the World’s Columbian Exposition, and who himself got a tour from Far Away Moses, recorded his version of the tale in his book I Have Considered the Days in 1941:

When Mark Twain went through Constantinople he would stop at a shop, and when he looked around for his guide he would see Moses fifty yards ahead, and, as this got to be a habit, he dubbed him Faraway Moses.

Older bearded man in loose trousers, jacket, and headcovering, standing among Oriental rugs.
Far Away Moses in the 1892 photo book Chicago Times Portfolio of the Midway Types. Note the similarity to his carte de visite from 25 years earlier.

Amusingly, all these authors seem to think they are recounting something from Twain’s book, The Innocents Abroad, in which he talks about his meeting with Moses. Yet nothing like it exists in Twain’s account (which is quoted in full in my previous post). In fact, Twain clearly states that the dragoman was already called “Far Away Moses” by the time the two met. To corroborate this, there are accounts of his activities that use the name Far Away Moses dating back at least four years before he met Mark Twain.

The fact that the earliest of these writers states explicitly that Twain recounts this story, when Twain does no such thing, suggests strongly that the story was alive in oral tradition by 1893; Bancroft must have heard it somewhere else and assumed it was in Twain’s book. The only other explanation would be that Bancroft chose to invent a story out of whole cloth and deceive his readers into thinking it was in Twain’s book, which seems both pointless and doomed to fail.

There are other reasons to suspect the tale was in oral circulation: it was written down in different variants, with none of the authors citing or quoting another. All four authors use the word “dubbed,” and two describe Moses as “plodding,” suggesting some textual borrowing. But there are also differences: only one of them, for example, makes the name an accidental coinage, coming from the spontaneous command “don’t go so far away, Moses.” One of them includes the somewhat ridiculous detail that Twain was left behind because his guide was “not specially interested” in the sights. (This approach would, of course, make Moses a terrible tour guide rather than “best of dragomen in the ‘City of the Sultan,’” as he was described in 1863.) These differences suggest that the story passed through oral versions between the written examples.

There’s another prominent story told about Moses’s name, which is that a popular guidebook first called him “Far Away Moses.” This story also exists in several variants, suggstive of oral transmission. C.F. Moberly Bell, who encountered Moses at Souhami and Sadullah’s shop in the Cairo bazaar in the 1880s, wrote in From Pharaoh to Fella:

Faraway Moses, so named by some facetious American — title duly registered in a guide-book, and accepted by the worthy old Hebrew in a large board over his stall.

Yet Bell gives no evidence for this story, and doesn’t say whether he had heard this from someone, read it somewhere, or simply guessed that this was how it might have happened.

Head and shoulders engraving of a man with curly hair and luxuriant mustache.
Harry Harewood Leech, from the frontispiece to his travel book Letters of a Sentimental Idler.

Another version of the “guidebook” tale was printed by Harry Harewood Leech in Letters of a Sentimental Idler. This time, the story is attributed directly to personal conversations with Moses, yet it can’t possibly be accurate:

Something like the following conversation took place:
Idler. — ‘What is your name?’
Guide. — ‘Far-away Moses! ’
Idler. — ‘Why Far-away Moses? ’
Guide. — ‘I don’t know, sir; I was put in Bradshaw with that name, and I have had it ever since.’

Here, “Bradshaw” refers to a popular guidebook, and the reason I can say the story can’t be true is that Bradshaw is one of the only sources to describe Moses but NOT to call him “Far Away Moses,” calling him instead “Mr. Samuel Moses.”

James N. Hyde, writing in The Lakeside Monthly in 1873, told yet a third version of the “guidebook” story:

Of course they all summoned to their assistance ‘Far-away Moses,’ the guide, philosopher, and friend to all who seek an acquaintance with the city of the Sultan. Everyone has heard of ‘Far-away Moses.’ The compiler of Murray’s Guide-Book for Constantinople gave him his title of ‘Far-away’ years ago. And Moses takes infinite pride in it; it made his fortune, in fact.

This is more plausible than Leech’s tale, since at least Murray’s books did sometimes use the name “Far Away Moses.” But it would still be very strange for a guidebook to give an entirely made-up name to a businessperson who relied on people finding him; how would readers of the guidebook be able to find a man unless the man actually used the name by which they identified him? Thus, the whole idea of Moses first learning of his nickname from a guidebook seems very farfetched.

So where DID Far Away Moses get his name? Sadly, there’s no “smoking gun” which tells us who bestowed the name on him or when. He is already called “Far Away Moses” the first time he turns up in the literature, and none of the stories relating how he got his name are consistent with the facts.

Drawing of a stained glass window showing Moses, with long white hair and beard, blessing a younger man, who has long brown hair and beard, and who kneels before Moses.
Design drawing for stained glass window with Moses, by J. & R. Lamb Studios. This traditional image of Moses as a man with a long beard is the source for the traditional nickname “Moses,” which is given to any bearded Jewish man, and the adjective “Mozy,” which means “hairy.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. [// ]
Most people assume that his given name really was Moses, but there’s not much evidence even of that. There’s another explanation for why a Jewish man would be called “Moses” by English-speakers, even if that was not his name: “Moses” was (and still is) a common nickname for any Jewish man, especially one with a beard. This was already true in Moses’s lifetime; an 1839 English dictionary of provincialisms tells us that “Mozy” means hairy, and derives from “Moses, a common nickname for a Jew.” The nickname is persistent, if obscure: I am myself a Jewish man with a beard, and I have been spontaneously called “Moses” by complete strangers three times, in Liverpool (England), Cardiff (Wales),  and Nine Mile (Jamaica). Like me, Far Away Moses might have been dubbed “Moses” by an English-speaker simply because of his beard, because he was Jewish, or both.

As for “Far Away,” there is an intriguing fact that no one, to my knowledge, has pointed out in connection with the famous merchant and guide: “Far Away Moses” or “faraway Moses” was also, at about the same time, a proverbial phrase in American English.  It was a compound adjective, generally used in conjunction with such words as “expression,” “look” or “attitude.” Although I haven’t found any examples of it from before the lifetime of our own Moses, several things make me believe it predates his fame. In particular, by the 1870s it was widespread; it had multiple meanings; and in none of the places where I’ve found it used as an adjective was it ever explicitly connected with the dragoman, suggesting an independent existence.

What were the meanings of a “far away Moses” look or attitude?  The primary meaning seems to have been haughtiness or pride, as in an article about a particularly snooty hotel clerk, which appeared in many newspapers in 1874:

Hotel clerks, as a rule, are a haughty, reserved, self-absorbed caste; but there was a remoteness, a be—very—careful—how— you—address—me sort of a manner, a ‘far away Moses’ look about the Westminster Brahmin, whom we found at his post, extremely suggestive of that early Spanish king who scorched himself to death sooner than ring with his own regal hand for a fire screen.

(See the far right-hand column of this page for the above story.)

A similar sense is conveyed by this 1910 newspaper article about English lawyers:

In England it frequently happens that a client does not see his counsel at all; but only deals through the solicitor. Some barristers are very averse to seeing such minute atoms as mere clients. This “faraway-Moses” attitude is supposed greatly to add to the fictional dignity of the law. Now and then a barrister, at least a junior, will interview the client; but he treats the latter as a species of reptilian Interloper and ‘lays down the law’ in a highly important and often egregiously bombastic manner. The client’s main function is simply to pay the costs.

Illustration of a man in loose garments and headcovering.
Most illustrations of Far Away Moses, like this one from Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, make him look very proud, perhaps in recognition of the phrase, “far away Moses look,” which often meant a proud or haughty expression.

As we have seen, several of the writers who encountered Far Away Moses even described him as being very proud of the name, suggesting that they were aware of its existence as a phrase meaning “haughty” or “proud.”

Another meaning of the phrase seems to have been “wistful,” as in this story about the aftermath of a crackdown on selling alcohol in Topeka, Kansas, on Christmas Eve, 1883. (The article appeared on page 5 of the Christmas Day edition of the Topeka Daily Capital.)

Towards evening the effects of the action of the County Attorney and Sheriff were noticeable. Saloon keepers stood upon the street corners and in front of their saloons with wonderfully woebegone countenances expressive of a great and sudden grief. A melancholy gloom hung upon their brows and a far-away- Moses look was noticed lingering upon their faces like the last rose of summer left blooming alone. Before night Ullman’s saloon was closed, women’s saloon was closed, and three-fourths of all the saloons in the city were closed; each saloon-keeper declaring as he closed that he had closed his saloon forever. The sun went down to rise upon a Christmas morning, and as the day was done and the evening came, the saloon keepers sadly murmured ‘farewell, vain world, I’m going home.’

Sometimes a “far away Moses” look meant evasiveness, as in this article from the San Francisco Call, Volume 77, Number 60, 29 January 1895, about a governor’s inaugural ball in California:

Mr. Chambliss, the society leader, the advocate of the three-step polka and the author of a society book, accompanied by two ladies, attended the ball. This was his first inaugural ball in California and he anticipated the event with more than ordinary pleasure, believing that he would have an excellent opportunity of comparing California society people of dancing inclination with the leaders of New York, Philadelphia and Washington society at the Cleveland inaugural. Being asked if E. M. Greenway was present, Mr. Chambliss gave a ‘Far Away Moses’ look and responded that he didn’t know.

The “far away Moses” attitude could also mean inattention or a lackadaisical approach, as in this basketball article from page 10 of the March 5, 1931, Franklin (PA) News-Herald:

On the other hand, given this advance assurance, the Grovers are expected to go on the floor, with each of the five men wide-awake and alert to every move of the opposing men. No dreamy, far-away Moses attitude on the part of any player will be tolerated and each wearer of the Orange and the Black will know when he starts in the battle that he must be on his toes.

A rowboat filled with U.S. Navy sailors of the War of 1812 flies a large American flag. Commodore Perry stands and points behind him at the enemy ships.
William Henry Powell’s Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie (1863) hangs in the Ohio statehouse. An enlarged copy was commissioned by the U.S. Senate in 1873, and hangs in the U.S. Capitol. Perry, the figure standing up and pointing behind him, has been described as having a “far-away-Moses-expression.”

Finally, we can even see what Julius Chambers of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle column “Walks and Talks” imagined a “far away Moses” look to be, since he described a famous painting in those terms:

Powell’s “Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie,” in which the hero is represented as standing in the stern of a six-oared cutter pointing ahead, although his face with a “Far-away-Moses” expression, is toward the spectator and his back to the foe. At the oars are Cornelius N. Bliss, Rear Admiral Brownson, and the late Joseph Jefferson, if portraiture goes for anything.

Head-and-shoulders engraving of a man with straight hair and a luxuriant mustache.
This portrait of Jacob Huff was included in the book Local and National Poets of America. Huff wrote under the pen name “Faraway Moses.”

“Far Away Moses” also had another meaning for people in the late 19th Century: it was the nom-de-plume of a very well known columnist and poet, Jacob Huff, who also wrote under a second pen name, “Jake Haiden.” (See a brief biography and a poem by Huff here.Huff was described as a “Pennsylvania Dutchman” (he also had immigrant German and Scots-Irish ancestors), but he moved and lived for a time in Colorado, and wrote both about his native state and about Western themes.  As “Faraway Moses,” he was a columnist for the Williamsport, Pennsylvania Grit (which evolved into today’s Grit Magazine) and as “Jake Haiden” he wrote for the Reading Times. As “Faraway Moses,” he also wrote a book of poems in the general style of cowboy poetry, called Songs of the Desert. [2]

The fact that “Moses” was a more common name among the Pennsylvania Dutch than among English-speakers, and the fact that a prominent Pennsylvania Dutch writer chose “Far Away Moses” as a pen-name, makes it conceivable that the phrase has a Pennsylvania Dutch origin. In any case, the widespread nature of the phrase, its wide range of meanings, and the fact that other people used it as a name, all without any apparent awareness of the Ottoman Far Away Moses, makes it likely that the phrase predated its use for the dragoman.

It seems likely, then, that “Far Away Moses” was named after a common proverbial phrase—another way in which our dragoman and merchant’s life story had interesting intersections with 19th century folklore.  It’s only appropriate, then, that the proverbial name should become the subject of still more folklore, in the form of traditional narratives about how he earned it.  Both the proverbial name and the legendary narratives are testaments to Moses’s status of a celebrity of his era, a locus around which there developed stories and sayings which we can still find over a century after his death.

As always, if any reader of this post has more information on the phrase “Far Away Moses” or its origin, I’d appreciate a comment!


[1] In a second post involving Moses, I looked at his participation in Yom Kippur observances among the Jewish performers at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

[2] Huff, like many regional authors of the time, incorporated folklore into his writings. He was a close friend of Henry W. Shoemaker, who was later the nation’s first state folklorist. Shoemaker wrote a “Biographical Appreciation” for Huff’s posthumous collection of Jake Haiden columns.

Comments (5)

  1. Far-Away-Moses, as it turns out, was one of the partners in the company that held the concession for the Turkish village–he was none other than Harry R. Mandil, one of the two American partners. He was also the model for Semite head in the ethnological series of thirty-three races that adorn the keystones above the windows on the first floor of the Library of Congress. Had Mandil appeared clean shaven in a business suit as an American citizen would he have been chosen as the model for the Semite head?

    This was from Making a Place in the World: Jews and the Holy Land at World’s Fairs by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

    • Thanks for your comment, Scott. He was not actually Mandil, who was considerably younger than Moses. This story is dealt with in other articles in this blog series. The mistaken identification was made by one of my predecessors at the Library of Congress, and accepted by BKG. As I write in a footnote to “The Folklore of Far Away Moses”:

      I would like to clear up a fallacy unwittingly created by Wayne, since like me he was writing for the Library of Congress. In his 1992 article, “Constantinople to Chicago: In the Footsteps of Far-Away Moses,” Wayne interpreted the word ‘mosyo,’ written in Ottoman script before the name of one of Far Away Moses’s associates, as an approximation of ‘Moses.’ He therefore identified Far Away Moses as Harry Mandil, an American citizen with business interests in Constantinople. But my research indicates that Mandil was far too young to have been Far Away Moses, and Julia Phillips Cohen has further pointed out that ‘mosyo’ was a common phonetic spelling of ‘monsieur,’ indicating that Mandil was a foreign gentleman, not that his alias was Moses! This mistaken identification of Moses with Mandil caused Wayne to suggest that Far Away Moses was a partner of the firm where he was most likely just an employee, and that he was American-born. These misconceptions have been accepted by other scholars, including folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett, but more recently refuted by Cohen.

  2. You get to have so much fun!!

  3. Excellent post thank you. Quick questions about the reference to Leech’s account: Leech’s book was published 1869 (based on a letter dated December 1866); you refer to Bradshaw to dispute the usage of Far-Away, but your link is to an edition dated 1887 – significantly later. Since L’s original account of the story is dated 1866, presumably an earlier edition of Bradshaw might show the usage. Have you been able to check Bradshaws from the early 1860s? Many thanks.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sven. I have seen several earlier editions of Bradshaw guides to the Turkish Empire and to the route to India, which often included Istanbul. None of them mentioned Far Away Moses at all. But of course I have not examined every edition, so it is possible a reference could turn up, vindicating this version of the tale. Again, it seems strange that a guidebook should use a name for a dragoman if the dragoman were not already known by that name–that would not make it easy for people to find and employ the dragoman. So the story is unlikely to be true on logical grounds as well.

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