Mordecai Lyon

East Bay St., between Elliott and Tradd St.

Polish merchant and petitioner in a rare divorce case

Born in Poland, Mordecai Lyon (ca. 1735–1818) was among several Jews who immigrated to Charleston during the American Revolution. With him came his wife, Elizabeth Chapman Lyon (also called Binche), and their child. The war had been fought far from Charleston, allowing merchants and shipping companies to carry on business, until late March 1780 when the British laid siege on the city, then occupied it for two years.

The Lyons’ marriage fell apart in spectacular fashion between 1788 and 1789. Claiming that his wife’s “scandalous behaviour” made it impossible for their union to continue, Mordecai Lyon petitioned an ecclesiastical court (bet din) led by the hazanA cantor or prayer leader in a synagogue. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when there were few ordained rabbis in the United States, congregations often were led by hazanim, who were commonly referred to as “Reverend.” of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Abraham Azuby, assisted by Israel DeLieben and Israel Myers. The testimony and specific “scandalous” details have not survived, but it is known that Elizabeth consented to the divorce action and renounced her rights and titles as wife. Despite South Carolina’s general prohibition against divorce, the proceedings of the bet din were accepted by the state government, and the divorce was recorded with the Secretary of the State. It is not known what happened to Elizabeth Lyon and their daughter, but Mordecai remarried. His second wife, Judith Cohen (1748–1815), was the widow of Isaac Cohen, who had died in 1787.

Mordecai Lyon worked as a tailor, clothier, and clothing importer. First listed on King Street, by the early 1790s he had relocated his residence and business to East Bay Street, near the wharves. In 1799, he announced he had just “received from London, a complete assortment of slops (inexpensive readymade clothes). Masters of vessels, seamen and planters, may be supplied with every article in that line, of the best imported in this country for many years, and on very reasonable terms.” As his business grew, Lyon formed a partnership with Joseph Moses, retiring in 1812 at the advanced age of seventy-seven. Upon his death in 1818, he was remembered for the “good and upright conduct that had endeared him to a circle of relations and friends, whom he has left to deplore his loss.”