In one of those strange coincidences of history, one date, the 8th of March, proved significant in the Shapira story – a date of death and disappearance.

Moses Wilhelm Shapira was found dead in a hotel room in Rotterdam on 9 March 1884 after hotel staff realized that they hadn’t seen guest Shapira since Friday. The police were notified, and a short time later, they arrived to investigate. The entry for 9 March 1884 in the police log reports the following: “After it was discovered at the office in the guesthouse of L.C. Wickers at Boomjes at the Hotel Willemsbrug that a lodge guest did not come out of his room since the day before yesterday and the door was still closed, Inspector police officer, Gerald Putman Cramer went in to look. It was found that a guest named Shapira, bookdealer and agent of the British Museum, robbed himself of his life by gunshot.[1] The corpse was looked at by a medical person before being brought to the storage known as Drinkling.”[2]

The discovery of Shapira’s corpse in the hotel in Rotterdam on 9 March 1884 was the end of a story that played out on a world stage in a single year. As I wrote in The Moses Scroll,[3]

“Shapira had reported that it was around Easter 1883 when he withdrew the leather strips from the Jerusalem bank vault. Easter that year was Sunday, 25 March, or 16 Adar II on the Jewish calendar, which was Shushan Purim. Shapira would be found dead almost a year later on 9 March 1884 or 12 Adar on the Jewish calendar. Interestingly, the Torah reading for the Sabbath of his death was Ki Thissa (Exodus 30:11-34:35), which ends with Moses in possession of a second set of stone tablets containing the words of the covenant. Moses Shapira also had presented to the world a second set of those words. 

On 23 August, Moses Shapira wrote to Dr. Christian David Ginsburg saying that he did not think he would be able to survive the shame. He didn’t. 

Moses Shapira’s remains were taken to a burial place in Rotterdam reserved for those drowned at sea. He was placed in an unmarked grave, and like his namesake, ‘no one knows his burial place to this day’ (Deut 34:6). According to tradition, the biblical Moses, too, had died in the Jewish month of Adar.”[4]

Shapira was reportedly last seen alive on Friday, 7 March 1884, and was found dead on Sunday, 9 March 1884. This means that Moses Shapira died between Friday the seventh and Sunday the ninth. At the time of his death, fifteen of the sixteen leather strips were still in the care of the British Museum. Sotheby’s sold these in July of 1885 to Bernard Quaritch, who listed them in their catalog as late as September 1888, but the Shapira MSS listing is absent in the earliest catalog of 1889. Researchers speculated on potential buyers for many years, and then in November of 2011, Matthew Hamilton discovered a new lead in the case. Using a complex Google search, he found the name of a man that was “the eventual possessor of the notorious ‘Shapira’ manuscript.” The discovery, oddly enough, was in an obituary for Philip Brookes Mason in the October 1904 edition of the Journal of Conchology, published by the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Since then, with a new clue – the name of the last-known possessor of the scroll fragments – the hunt was back on. 

As is often the case, great discoveries are affirmed by the fact that others find them independently around the same time. This was true regarding Mason being the last-known possessor of Shapira’s MSS. While researching for her master’s thesis, Patricia Francis also discovered the reference. She seems to have been the first, having found it shortly before Hamilton, but only later published the find and then mentioned it in a larger work on Mason’s extensive collection.[5] Francis said, “The most significant object in Mason’s collection which was not natural history was the ‘Shapira manuscript.'” She then recorded a version of the affair in a single paragraph because it was a peripheral point for her.

It was subsequently learned that Philip Brookes Mason was a member of the Burton-on-Trent Natural History and Archæological Society. On 8 March 1889, at a meeting of that society, Mason presented a lecture titled “The Forgery of Shapira.” A report of the meeting appeared in The Burton Chronicle on 14 March 1889. The last line reports, “Mr. Mason is possessed of the whole of the Shapira fragments, and the audience, much to their delight, were afforded an opportunity of inspecting them.”

So far as I know, this was the last time the Shapira manuscript strips were publicly displayed. 

The trail goes cold once again in Burton. So as the 9th of Av has become a date on which calamities occur again and again in Jewish history, the 8th of March is a date that stands for death and disappearance regarding the Shapira saga. And so, on 8 March 2022, I will mark the day, mourning the death of a man that I believe has been maligned and wrongly accused, but I will also renew my focus and dedication to the task of finding those leather strips that were last seen on 8 March 1889 – one hundred and thirty-four years ago.

The following article appeared in The Burton Chronicle on 14 March 1889. It describes the meeting of the Natural History and Archæological Society held in Burton on 8 March 1889.

The Natural History and Archæological Society

The Forgery of Shapira

Not even the promise of a paper on the forgery of Shapira, whose alleged discovery of a manuscript of a portion of the Bible caused no little excitement some years back among Biblical scholars, and for the matter of that the general public, could induce many members of the Natural History and Archæological Society to brave the elements on Friday evening, but the few who ran the gauntlet were well rewarded for their courage. Mr. P.B. Mason … was down for reading the paper alluded to … Mr. P.B. Mason then read his paper on “The forgery of Shapira.” In the first place, said Mr. Mason, he felt that he must justify his choice of a subject that evening, as forgery seemed a rather strange matter to bring before a society such as theirs. Unfortunately, however, one branch of their work, that of archæology, lent itself not only to self-deception, as in the classical if not veracious instance of Mr. Pickwick’s discovery of the stone inscribed, “X Bill Stumps his mark,” but also to deliberate attempts at the deception of others, for the sake of gain. He ventured to think that no better instance of the latter class could be found than the one he had an opportunity of showing them tonight, viz, the fabrication of what purported to be a manuscript portion of the Bible, not less than twenty-seven centuries old, and one not only venerable for its antiquity, but more valuable in itself, as it would have settled forever a burning question between two schools of critics of the biblical text. In the second place, he felt that he owed an apology for the notice they had received, for on further consideration he had determined not to give them a paper of his own that night, but principally to read the article and letters from the Times for the year 1883, in which the circumstances connected with the supposed discovery, and the progress of the investigation, were made public. He need not say that those articles were all written by competent scholars, and he thought that they contained much interesting information. Mr. Mason then detailed anew from the columns of the Times the announcement of the discovery of the manuscript and the articles therein, and proceeding, said the account given at the British Museum by Shapira was that he first heard of the fragments in the middle of July 1878. A Sheikh with several Arabs of different tribes came to his place of business at Jerusalem on other matters, which had nothing to do with antiquities. They spoke of some little black fragments of writing in the possession of an Arab found in the neighbourhood of the Arnon. One of the Arabs spoke of them as a talismans smelling of asphalt. The following day Shapira was invited to dinner by the sheik and heard more about the fragments – viz, that about 1865, during a time of persecution, certain Arabs had hidden themselves among rocks, and that on the side of a rocky cavern they had found several bundles wrapped in linen. Peeling the linen off they found only black fragments which they threw away. They were picked up by one of the Arabs, who believed them to be talismans. He kept them as such, and because, as he thought, in consequence. This was probably two years before Shapira heard of them, but Capt. Conder knew the exact time. Shapira promised the sheikh a reward if he would bring to him an Arab he spoke of who would be able to get hold of the fragments. This happened on the day of the dinner, but the sheik fell ill and afterwards died. About ten or twelve days subsequently a man of the Aguyah tribe brought him a small piece containing four columns, a few words only of which were legible. A week after, on a Sunday, he brought fourteen or fifteen columns, containing clearer writing, and the next Sunday he brought fourteen or fifteen more columns in another character of writing, but not all of one form. Ten days later, on a Wednesday, he conveyed to Shapira three or four more columns, very black, and after this, Shapira saw nothing more of him. On the 24th of Sept. he wrote to Professor Schlottmann, and also to Dr. Rieu. The former said they were fabrications – never, however, having seen the writings themselves, but only Shapira’s copy, and he wrote to the consul at Jerusalem to prevent Shapira publishing the discovery. Shapira then put them aside, but afterwards found that he had made errors in deciphering them, and in 1883 he took them to Leipsic to be photographed. He then became convinced that they were genuine. They had been smeared with asphalt as a kind of embalmment, and further darkened with oil and spirit, the oil being used by the Arabs to counteract the brittleness and also to prevent them suffering from the damp. Mr. Mason read from the Times further information concerning the fragments, and said it was found that they contained all Deuteronomy. He had with him the whole of the translation, but he did not propose to read it. When the greater part of the manuscripts had been deciphered the authorities were inclined to believe that they were genuine, and recommended that an offer of a quarter-of-a-million sterling should be made to Shapira for the purchase. He (Mr. Mason) believed that Mr. Gladstone, who was then at the head of the Government, made a visit to the Museum to see the fragments before the offer was sanctioned, but the offer was never made as further investigation proved that an audacious forgery had been committed. Having again quoted from the Times Mr. Mason said it afterwards transpired that Shapira, before coming to this country, had been to Berlin and offered his wares there, but the German savants determined they were forgeries and offered to buy them as such, as a specimen of what ingenuity could do, but the price did not tempt Shapira while he hoped to make a big haul. After the exposure Shapira threatened to commit suicide. Returning to the Continent, he finally carried out his threat at Amsterdam, on March 9th, 1884. His effects were afterward brought to England and sold at Sotheby’s. 

The Chairman said when they saw the announcement of the title of the paper, and understood that Mr. Mason was going to treat of one of the most gigantic forgeries, and one in which the Times had taken a prominent part, they could not help wondering whether the reader of the paper was indulging in a little bit of humour. At all events it was a strange coincidence – (laughter). – The Rev. C.F. Thornewill thought it was unfortunate that the reserve the Times exercised in dealing with the Shapira affairs had not characterized is in dealing with more recent productions – (laughter). He proposed a hearty vote of thanks to Mr. Mason for his interesting paper. – This was warmly accorded, and the recipient briefly replied.

Mr. Mason is possessed of the whole of the Shapira fragments, and the audience, much to their delight, were afforded an opportunity of inspecting them. 

[1] The determination and widespread report of suicide are questionable. Inconsistencies of the reports, including at least one account which says Shapira had two bullets in his head, have led some to suspect foul play.

[2] This report is from the Daily Report of the Amsterdam police department. Dagrapporten Gem. Dienst Bur. Witte de Withst. Afd. 4a 1884. Also see,

[3] Ross Nichols, The Moses Scroll, (Saint Francisville: Horeb Press, 2021), 99.

[4] Talmud, Meg. 13b; Kid. 38a.

[5] Patricia Francis, “Philip Brookes Mason (1842-1903): Surgeon, General Practitioner and Naturalist,” Archives of Natural History, 42.1 (2015), 126-139. See page 131 for the relevant section on Shapira.