Neither villains nor saints

Finally, a book about the unusual origins of Jerusalem's American Colony Hotel.

colony hotel 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
colony hotel 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem By Jane Fletcher Geniesse Nan A. Talese/Doubleday 364 pages; $26 The cheapest room at the American Colony Hotel in east Jerusalem goes for $255 per night. Such a handsome sum would surely have come in handy for the colony of 18 American Christians who landed nearly penniless in Jaffa in September 1881. This was the kernel of the group that eventually established the now-famous hotel. Leading the original contingent to the Holy Land were Horatio and Anna Spafford of Chicago, whose simultaneously vague and extreme religious views were born of the Protestant revivalism then sweeping middle America, as well as several personal tragedies - including the death of their four young daughters in a shipwreck. The Spaffords' constantly evolving creed called on followers to overcome "iniquity and apostasy," a category that later grew to include national and familial attachments. Accordingly, the colonists dubbed themselves "the Overcomers" and submitted to enforced celibacy for many years. As Jane Fletcher Geniesse reveals in this meticulous and fascinating account, the Spaffords' "supernatural visitation" urging them to await the messiah in Jerusalem - and other "messages" that shaped their unusual beliefs - came at a time when Horatio Spafford's enormous debts and shady business dealings were catching up with him. "Horatio's timely discovery that there was no such thing as hell was convenient, given his current difficulties. It was consoling to believe that his criminal abuse of trust funds did not consign him to eternal punishment," Geniesse writes. Geniesse's ability to relate facts nonjudgmentally is among her hallmarks. She was praised in 1999 for being "at once critical and sympathetic" in her prior work, Passionate Nomad, and she has generally brought the same skill to this book. It is hard to argue with Geniesse's observation that "[t]here are neither villains nor saints in this story." Horatio, Anna and their followers were selflessly charitable. While anticipating a Second Coming that never arrived, they created a vast system to aid the poor of Jerusalem - Muslim, Christian and Jew alike. Yet within the cultish colony, Anna Spafford's harsh autocracy made emotional and financial captives of the Overcomers. Horatio had at one time been a successful lawyer, but in Jerusalem he eschewed employment and depended on the largesse of well-wishers - and the inheritances and trust funds of colony members. After his death in 1888, Anna - who had long felt ashamed of her husband's economic failings - encouraged the members to work industriously to sustain themselves and provide for an endless stream of guests and alms-seekers. That well suited the influx of Swedes who joined the group at the turn of the century. Of course, all proceeds remained firmly in Anna's control. One of their most successful businesses was professional photography. It was the American Colony photo of the surrender of Jerusalem to the British in 1917 that has survived as the one of the best-known images of the period. The Overcomers stuck it out in Jerusalem through years of political and military upheaval, hostility from the American consulate, internal strife, legal troubles, plagues, famines and bad press. That the hotel they founded not only survived but has flourished to this day is remarkable. Regrettably, the author's seeming impartiality falters in the final pages. Here, Geniesse supplies a startlingly selective account of the events stretching from the Balfour Declaration to the Six Day War. It is difficult to discern whether the resulting anti-Zionist tenor is merely a faithful reflection of the Overcomers' views, as Geniesse would have us accept. "It was the massacre of Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948, that most appalled the colonists," she writes in introduction to a 13-line description of that singular example of Jewish ruthlessness - while the massacre of the Hadassah-bound convoy later that week merits but a brief line and a half - yet this statement lacks a citation. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly fair to conclude that the Jews arriving during those years were so different from the colonists' expectations as to call into question their founders' belief in "the necessity of returning the Jews to the land of their fathers in order to fulfill the ancient prophecies and hasten the Messiah's return." The 20th century's bold and largely atheistic "new Jews" were interested neither in the American Colony's theology nor philanthropy. Their determination to build a Jewish state dashed the Overcomers' hopes of mass conversion. It makes sense, therefore, that the remaining colonists would felt a greater affinity for the Arab neighbors with whom they had long enjoyed a warm relationship. Today, the Spafford Children's Center, founded in 1925, continues to serve the Palestinian population of east Jerusalem along with two outpatient clinics in the West Bank. This is really just a side point, however. It was not the Arab-Jewish conflict that spelled the demise of the Overcomers. The unraveling had begun years before, as Anna Spafford's death in 1923 uncorked decades of "fratricidal acrimony" among the colonists. Those who remained gradually traded messianic fervor for a variety of capitalistic ventures, and the luxury hotel in east Jerusalem is still owned by the Spaffords' descendants. It is surprising and ironic that although the American Colony Hotel is favored by visiting journalists, none has ever before written a book about its unusual origins. Geniesse has now ably filled that gap.