The Court-Martial of Albert F. Cahn

I want to start 2020 with a story that is in many ways one of the most disturbing and challenging stories I’ve researched. It’s a story about bullying and military (in)justice and the folly of youth.

Felix Albert Cahn, who was known as Albert, was my fourth cousin, once removed.

Remembering the tragic start to Albert’s life makes his story especially poignant. To recap what I’ve already written about him:

Felix Albert Cahn was the son of May Sigmund and Gerson Cahn. May was the biological daughter of Lena Sigmund and Solomon Sigmund. Her mother Lena died when May was a year old.  Solomon, May’s biological father, seems to have disappeared from her life after Lena died. So May was effectively an orphan from the time she was a toddler, and was raised and seemingly adopted by her grandparents, Ella Goldschmidt and Albert Sigmund.

May married Gerson Cahn on April 24, 1898, and their son Albert was born on November 6, 1899 in Baltimore.  His father Gerson died on November 23, 1903, and his mother May died just four months later on March 18, 1904. Albert was only four years old and had lost both his parents. Albert, like his mother, was orphaned as a young child.

Marriage record of Gerson Cahn and May Sigmund,

In 1910 when Albert was ten, he was living with his biological first cousin and adoptive aunt, Mollie Sigmund Goldman, and her family. Albert engaged in charitable work, collecting money for sick children, when he was thirteen, and he was confirmed at Har Sinai Temple in Baltimore when he was fourteen. He seemed to be growing up just fine.

Harry Goldman and family, 1910 US census, Census Place: Baltimore Ward 15, Baltimore (Independent City), Maryland; Roll: T624_558; Page: 5A; Enumeration District: 0250; FHL microfilm: 1374571 1910 United States Federal Census

Then Albert entered the military. According to a volume compiled in 1933, Maryland In the World War, 1917-1919: Military And Naval Service Records, Albert was inducted into the US Army on June 20, 1917, when he was seventeen. He was promoted to private, first class, on August 3, 1917, and was serving with the Ambulance Corps, but not overseas. Then on December 13, 1917, he went absent without leave and was found guilty of desertion. He was sent to prison at Fort Jay in New York City on August 20, 1918, and was dishonorably discharged from the army on March 14, 1919.1

The only additional information I could initially find about Albert’s military record was this brief news item that was published on September 27, 1918, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 27, 1918, p. 19

I was quite disturbed by this news story and the report in the Maryland in the World War book, and I was determined to learn more about Albert’s case. I sent a request to the National Archives National Personnel Records Center and received this reply:

Thus, it appeared that there was no file about Albert Cahn’s military record that survived the 1973 fire at the National Archives.  I then decided to see if there was a record of Albert’s court-martial that existed separately from his military records. I wrote again to the National Archives asking if there would be a transcript of a court-martial from 1919. And sure enough there was.

The file is 35 pages long, and I won’t reproduce it here in its entirety, but if you are interested, you can find it here; CahnAlbertF_1760263_GCM  I will summarize most of it and share some of the pages. The pages in the citations refer to the page numbers in the file I received from NARA.

Albert was charged with desertion, to which he pled not guilty, as articulated here:

Court Martial file of Albert F. Cahn, p. 14

There were only three witnesses at the trial. The first witness was Harry Goldman, Mollie Sigmund’s husband. Harry described Mollie as Albert’s guardian and as “his mother’s niece,” that is, May Sigmund Cahn, Albert’s mother, was Mollie’s niece (as well as her adoptive sister). (p. 15) Mollie herself was the second witness, and finally Albert testified on his own behalf. Rather than recount the testimony in the order it was given, I thought it would be more helpful to tell Albert’s story in chronological order as described by the three witnesses.

Harry testified that after Albert’s father Gerson Cahn died, Albert’s mother May asked her aunt/adoptive sister Molly if she and Albert could temporarily live with Molly’s family. Then May died a few months after moving in to Molly’s home, leaving Albert an orphan. Harry testified that Albert’s grandfather had no interest in Albert, and Harry and Molly’s children persuaded them to take care of Albert on a permanent basis. Thus, Albert had been living with Harry and Molly since he was four years old. Harry agreed that his relationship with Albert was like that of father and son. (p. 18) Molly’s testimony corroborated these facts. (p.21)

File of Court-Martial of Albert F Cahn, p. 18

I was puzzled by the reference to Albert’s grandfather since Harry did not identify which grandfather he meant when he said that the grandfather had taken no interest in Albert. Was that Gerson Cahn’s father, Felix? He was living in Baltimore in 1904 when Albert was orphaned and in his sixties with grown children. Or did Harry mean Albert’s maternal grandfather, Solomon Sigmund, who seemed to disappear from the family after Lena died in 1875? I suppose neither grandfather was interested in taking care of young Albert.

Being orphaned at such a young age and being abandoned by his grandparents must have had some psychological effect on Albert. Molly’s description of Albert’s personality should probably be seen in that light. She testified:

File of Court-Martial of Albert F. Cahn, p.22

Molly further testified that Albert had not gone to high school or into business and that his employment record was very spotty—that he’d left eight to ten jobs without justification. She agreed that he was “very” excitable and eccentric. But she also testified that Albert was “always extremely honest.” And she agreed that his behavior was “due to lack of serious thought—boyishness.” (p. 23)

Harry testified that in December, 1916, when Albert would have been just turning seventeen, he ran away from home with a friend and ended up in Great Lakes, Illinois, where he (and the friend) enlisted in the Navy without consent from his guardians. After his friend died from spinal meningitis, Albert wrote to Harry and Molly, indicating that he wanted to get out of the Navy. Harry intervened with the Navy, knowing that Albert was underage when he enlisted, and Albert was discharged. (p. 19) Albert himself corroborated these facts in his own testimony. (p. 27)

According to Harry, Albert then went to Cleveland, where Harry and Molly’s daughter Adele was living with her family. In contrast, Albert testified that he returned to Baltimore and stayed home until a little before the “war broke out” (I assume he meant the United States’ entry into World War I in April 1917). In any event, both Albert and Harry testified that sometime in the spring of 1917, Albert ran away again, this time to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he enlisted again on June 20, 1917, this time in the Army. He was still not eighteen years old. (pp.19, 27)

He was first stationed at Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia and then at Camp Dix in New Jersey. (p. 19) Harry testified that Albert would come to visit them in Baltimore when he had a furlough and that he seemed to be getting along fine. But Albert’s testimony revealed that things did not go well after some time at Camp Dix.

Court-Martial File, Albert F Cahn, p. 27

Harry testified at length about his efforts to convince Albert to return to the Army. Both Harry and Molly testified that they had not heard from Albert after December 1917 until August 1918 when Harry persuaded Albert to return to Camp Dix. (pp. 15-20)

Albert’s attorney argued in his closing statement that “this fellow is nothing but a mere child and has never really considered his status in the army at all, his military status. … I really think he did not consider the consequences of his act in going away from here.” (p. 29)

The court was not convinced and on September 16, 1918, found Albert guilty of the charge of desertion and issued the following sentence: “To be dishonorably discharged the service, to forfeit all pay and allowance due or to become due, and to be confined at hard labor, at such place as the reviewing authority may direct for twenty (20) years.” (p. 29)

I don’t know anything about military justice, but sentencing a young man–a teenager–for twenty years hard labor because he ran off after being bullied by his fellow soldiers seemed awfully harsh. I realize that desertion is a very serious offense, but Albert was not in a war zone, no one was endangered by his desertion, and he had had a hard life. Some mercy could have been shown.

Eight days later, on September 24, 1918, Major General Scott reduced the sentence to ten years hard labor and designated Fort Jay in New York as the place of confinement.

File of Court-Martial of Albert F Cahn, p. 31

But Albert did not serve even a year of that sentence. On February 13, 1919, Harry Goldman submitted a request for clemency supported by affidavits from a doctor and from Molly regarding Albert’s poor condition .

Court-martial file of Albert F Cahn, p. 2

Unfortunately, there were no copies of those affidavits in the file. But Harry’s request was granted, and Albert was released from imprisonment on March 4, 1919.

Court-martial file of Albert F. Cahn, p. 3

Court-martial file of Albert F Cahn, p. 1

Thus, in the end Albert served less than six months. What did Albert F. Cahn do after his release? What was the rest of his life like? Did he learn from this experience? Did he mature? That is a story for another post.







  1. Maryland. War records commission, Karl Singewald, and Stuart Symington Janney. Maryland In the World War, 1917-1919: Military And Naval Service Records. Baltimore: Maryland War Records commission, 1933, p. 303.