Metro-East News

World-traveling federal judge to donate antique globe to Collinsville historical society

Federal Judge Gerald Cohn describes his ascent of Mt. Sinai

Federal Judge Gerald Cohn describes his ascent of Mt. Sinai
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Federal Judge Gerald Cohn describes his ascent of Mt. Sinai

Federal magistrate judge Gerald Cohn has stepped foot on the summit of Mt. Sinai in Egypt at sunrise, the spot where two of the world’s great religions — Christianity and Judaism — hold that Moses received the 10 Commandments.

He has trod on Easter Island among the enormous stone carvings of prehistoric people known as Moai. The famous Incan city of Machu Picchu above the clouds in Peru, the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, the fabled Oracle of Delphi in Greece. All were on his traveling itinerary during a 37-year judicial career that continues to this day from the home of Cohn and his wife and traveling partner, Marsha, in Collinsville.

So a 19th Century world globe valued in good condition at $10,000 would seem an appropriate gift for a judge who has been all over the planet.

The large 1818 globe — Newton’s New and Improved Terrestial Globe — shows the western U. S. as a series of Indian territories; if you look at the bottom of the sphere, there is nothing at all. The Antarctic mainland wasn’t discovered by explorers until 1820.

“It’s a really interesting depiction of the world, especially the West,” said Cohn, who is also vice president of the St. Louis chapter of the American Archaeological Institute. “It is fascinating.”

He plans to turn the antique globe with its mahogany stand over to the administrators of the Daniel Dove Collins House at 703 W. Main St., Collinsville, during a ceremony set for 10 a.m. Monday.


The globe is a little banged up, although it is still a rare and valuable artifact. The globe had been offered for sale in New York City for several years along with another 19th Century globe owned by the Cohn family. But Cohn recently decided to have the unsold artifacts returned to him. During shipment the 1818 globe was crushed in, right at about the Mediterranean Sea on the European/African side of the world. It is fixable but would take a professional restorer to properly repair it.

Cohn said he has filed a small claims suit in Madison County Circuit Court against the shipper for damages. The shipping company has said it is not responsible.

Cohn used to sit on the bench in federal court in East St. Louis. But instead of retiring at full pay after 14 years as a federal judge at age 65, he chose to keep working. He currently handles appeals involving Social Security benefits that originate in the northern district of Oklahoma based in Tulsa, and the Central District of Pennsylvania based in Harrisburg. He said he works from his Collinsville home with the help of two law clerks based in the other states. When his presence in a district is required, as it would be if a trial ensued, he flies to the location for the duration of the courtroom procedure.

Cohn, who has been very active in helping to excavate prehistoric sites in Illinois connected to the Mississippian people, received a degree in history and a Juris doctor degree from the University of Chicago.

At 78, he says he is beyond the time when he can climb down into a dig site and use a trowel and brush to uncover the past.

“Nowadays I’m more like an archaelogical tourist,” he said.

However, his many trips to the earth’s faraway spots have allowed him to engage in challenges to long-held beliefs that modern archaeologists are helping to fine tune.

He’s been to Easter Island three times and agrees with recent scholarship that the now-barren-except-for-grass island’s millions of palm trees were not made extinct by the islanders who carved the moai from volcanic rock over the centuries. The previous idea was that when a statue was carved, tree trunks were used to move them into place. And all the trees were cut down for that purpose.

However, the real answer says Cohn and many scholars was right under foot: Polynesian rats came to the island with the earliest visitors in large, outrigger-equipped canoes. Rats soon proliferated and, because they had a fondness for eating palm tree seeds, the trees were doomed. Archaeologists found rat skeletons and half eaten seeds.

“That’s pretty widely accepted theory now,” Cohn said.

George Pawlaczyk: 618-239-2625