America’s first black millionaire was equal parts brilliance and ruthlessness

The amazing, untold story of Wall Street’s other trailblazing Hamilton

By Ryan Vlastelica of Market Watch

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The name Hamilton has perhaps never been more prominent, especially on Wall Street, thanks in large part to the acclaimed Broadway musical about the Founding Father who essentially created the nation’s financial system as the first secretary of the Treasury. Alexander Hamilton is undeniably a figure of global historical import, but even history buffs may be surprised to learn of another American of that name who also broke ground in the world of finance in centuries past, living a life that was far more complex and dramatic than is typically seen in textbooks.

Jeremiah Hamilton was America’s first black millionaire, accomplishing that feat around the time of the Civil War, when most among New York City’s population of African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens or worse. He made his fortune on Wall Street, through a canny knowledge—and skillful, perhaps illegal, manipulation—of the insurance and real-estate markets, as well as through services that are the forerunners to modern-day asset management and hedge funds.

At one point, he was a major shareholder in railroad companies—railroads he was not allowed to ride due to the color of his skin.

For a variety of reasons—including his own private tendencies and the biases of popular history, which have tended to minimize the contributions of minorities, particularly people this controversial and contradictory—the story of this Hamilton’s life is little known today. However, it provides great insight not just into the history of race relations in America but also into American finance as an industry. If you think Wall Street is cutthroat now, imagine what it was like nearly 200 years ago, when a lack of regulation and organization made it a veritable, and violent, free-for-all.

MarketWatch recently spoke with Shane White, the author of “Prince of Darkness,” the first-ever biography of Jeremiah Hamilton, which was recently optioned by the actor Don Cheadle, who, White reported, would be making it into a miniseries for HBO. He discussed what made Hamilton such a unique figure of his time, how Wall Street has changed since his era, and the ways it hasn’t.

MarketWatch: Jeremiah Hamilton occupies a unique place in American history, but I had never heard of him, and you write that most people haven’t. How did you first come across his story?

Shane White: I first saw the name when doing research for another book and was reading through old newspapers. There was a caption on a story about a $50,000 fraud that referred to “Nigger Hamilton.” I assumed it was referring to a white man, because the story involved Wall Street and because the amount of money was so large, the equivalent of $10 million today. I simply thought it was a derogatory name for a man who wasn’t respected. Even today you don’t have to go too far into hedge funds to find retrograde nicknames like that. Since the book came out, a few Indian-Americans have told me their white coworkers have given them similarly racist names.

When I went back and checked my archives I realized I had run into the same man some 15 years [earlier], running counterfeit coins down to Haiti. And I realized that, according to that story, whatever else he was, he was a black man.

I kept running across the name in old news, and became so intrigued that I started looking for him. I eventually had enough material for a book, although it’s an unusual book, as there’s so little information about him. This is a time when every goddamn Puritan kept a diary that recorded their thoughts on every passing cloud, and Hamilton did none of that. A couple of quotes in court records are the only direct quotes you can find.

MW: You mentioned a fraud case and make the case that Hamilton was pretty ruthless in building his fortune and in dealing with people.

S.W.: The case essentially alleged that a boat had been overinsured and then sunk. It appears Hamilton was involved in getting people to pretend they were someone involved with the boat, so that they could claim the insurance.

No one was convicted, but it looks like he had been involved, and it looks like he was probably guilty. However, the prosecution, to ensure they won, got a witness very drunk so they could teach him the lines they wanted to perform. Surprise, surprise — there was corruption on all sides back then.

Hamilton established himself with this kind of scam in the 1830s. This was a time when insurance companies were only just establishing themselves; part of the reason they form an industry association is so they could try and get rid of people like Hamilton. They started passing information amongst themselves about which captains had a habit of running ships aground, and they mutually decided not to insure those people.

MW: It seems remarkable, given the times, that he could’ve amassed the fortune he did.

S.W.: Hamilton was brilliant, very clever and farsighted. One of the whole points of Jim Crow and segregation was to keep the black population uneducated and in lousy working positions, denying them a chance to get ahead. It isn’t surprising that standing at the end of a broom didn’t appeal to a lot of people, which meant they had to get into numbers running or become con artists to make money. They were almost forced into it.

You have to remember that New York in the 1830s is really the free market unburdened by any regulation whatsoever, and the result is just horrible. People were getting ripped off and defrauded all the time. It was really dog-eat-dog, and that’s what appealed to me about Hamilton. A lot of trailblazing African-Americans, like Jackie Robinson, had someone standing over them, telling them to be meek and rein in their anger about the way they were treated. They had to behave in the most temperate fashion possible or risk the wrath of white people. But Hamilton isn’t like that. You hit him in the face, he adds 10% and hits you back. He’s so aggressive. He gets a reputation as the “Prince of Darkness,” for multiple reasons.

There’s a story where he’s in the middle of a legal feud with two white men. They have him arrested at 11 p.m., knowing he wouldn’t be able to post bail until the next morning, and he spends a very uncomfortable night in jail. Then, two weeks later, he has them dragged out of bed at 5 a.m. and gets the bail set so high that they’re unable to get out for several days. He made it abundantly clear he was going to play hardball. Anyone who thought they could roll him over, for whatever reason, was quickly disabused of that notion.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest men in American history, has been quoted as saying that the only man he ever respected in a Wall Street battle was Hamilton. I really think Hamilton could’ve been another Vanderbilt, had the playing field been anything close to level. He had the talent to go a lot further than he did, had things been equal. At one point, the New York Stock Exchange resolved that anyone who bought or sold shares to Hamilton would be expelled from its membership. Apparently this was because Hamilton said something disrespectful to another member. Now, I’m sure that he deserved some of his mistreatment, because he was almost assuredly behaving illegally or ruthlessly, but I’m also sure that whites were doing the same without similar penalties. Beyond Hamilton, the insurance industry had a “black ban” for a while, and the New York Stock Exchange tried to.

MW: So mistreatment was common.

S.W.: New York was in a funny place at the time, because it was so tied to the South. There was serious talk about the city succeeding so it could continue trading with the South. New York was a stop on the Underground Railroad, but it wasn’t a destination. It was well-known for not being safe for runaway slaves. It wasn’t safe for people like Hamilton, but he wanted to be there because that was where he could make money.

Blacks were very visible in New York, and there was a lot of crossover. Tap dancing was invented around this time, and it became a craze in both white and black society. A lot of ideas were being passed back and forth. But it was also very violent, a real cultural convulsion to slavery ending. If there was a black man with a white woman, that was a provocation to a riot.

But that’s what makes Hamilton so fascinating. When he was 30, he got a 14-year-old white girl pregnant. But he doesn’t disappear—it becomes a 40-year marriage! They have 10 children! He broke all the stereotypes. He walks down the street and he’s not even a second-class citizen, but then in his day job he’s a master of the universe.

A man like him is constantly waiting for violence, and it eventually arrived in July 1863, during the draft riots. That was probably New York’s worst week ever, in terms of race relations. There’s a mob that bursts into the street chanting “68! 68!”—Hamilton’s address was 68 E. 29th St. They burst into his basement, find his wife, and say, “We want your husband. We’re going to string him up from the lamppost.” Now, he wasn’t an idiot; he jumped the back fence and disappeared.

MW: Do you have any idea how the rest of the city’s black population viewed him?

S.W.: Hamilton had nothing to do with other blacks. I’m sure he regarded himself as a separate category.

There’s a restaurant in New York that actually still exists, Delmonico’s. Hamilton desegregated it, just ignoring how whites were the only people allowed in. He was able to do that because in addition to having money, he also had a lot of chutzpah.

There were a few other notable black businessmen at the time, and the way Hamilton differs from them is telling. A man named Thomas Downing owned a popular oyster restaurant where a lot of rich and influential white people ate. He didn’t allow blacks into his establishment, but he otherwise tried to fight segregation, writing checks for civil-rights causes. He was caught between his own views and what his business demanded. Hamilton wasn’t like that. He had nothing to do with other African-Americans, and, while he took in some charity cases, they were all white. He had servants, but they were Irish. He lived in a white world, with a white wife, white friends and a white business. He had as little contact with the African-American population as any other rich white guy on Wall Street did.

MW: How do you see Hamilton as a reflection on what Wall Street is currently like?

S.W.: There’s a lot about his conduct that seems familiar. Hamilton operated pools of money, where people would give him money and he would invest it for them. It was kind of a forerunner to hedge funds. He used their money ruthlessly—if he made a profit, he would keep it, and if he made a loss he would spread that loss around. He only gave away enough of his profits that he could keep getting clients.

Beyond him, there was a form of gambling called “insuring the lottery.” The lottery was banned in New York in 1843, so people would gamble on what the numbers would be in Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland. It took a few hours for the numbers to come, so some people—call them entrepreneurs, capitalists or crooks—spent $6,000 to have people stand on hillsides and flash a symbol of what the numbers were. They were able to get the numbers in 20 minutes doing this, and then they made even more money selling both fake numbers and the correct numbers. When I learned about this I thought about the Michael Lewis book “Flash Boys,” which is about how trading firms would spend all this money so they could execute a trade a microsecond faster. Wall Street has always been ruthless.

Is Don Cheadle the Prince of Darkness?

Cheadle is reteaming with his 'Miles Ahead' scribe Steven Baigelman as he plans to star in and produce the adaptation of Shane White's biography 'Prince of Darkness,' writes the Hollywood Reporter.

Don Cheadle has acquired the film and TV rights to Prince of Darkness by Shane White, with plans to adapt the 2015 book as a starring vehicle.

Steven Baigelman, who worked with Cheadle on the Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, is reteaming with the actor and will pen the script for the drama. Cheadle will produce and star.

Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire sheds light on the obscure story of Hamilton, who was mentioned in an obituary for Cornelius Vanderbilt as the tycoon’s true rival. White’s book details the rise of Hamilton as he is chased out of Haiti and becomes a broker and land agent in 19th century New York, his success prickling both white and black society. He broke many taboos of the times, including marrying a white woman and owning stock in rail companies on whose trains he wasn’t legally allowed to ride. When Hamilton died, obits at the time called him the richest black man in America.

The book has been awarded the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic’s best book prize and the 2016 New York City Book Award. 

Cheadle may be best known for playing hero James Rhodes, aka War Machine, in the Marvel Iron Man and Captain America movies. He also is the Golden Globe-winning star of House of Lies, which ran five seasons on Showtime.

Both Cheadle and Baigelman are repped by UTA. White is repped by UTA and the Strothman Agency. 

Jeremiah Hamilton: The only man to fight Vanderbilt to the end.

Black Wall Street businessman, Jeremiah G. Hamilton rode roughshod over his associates, treating legal requirements with all the disdain of a Cornelius Vanderbilt. Then, in the mid-1850s, he took on Cornelius Vanderbilt.

 

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Cornelius Vanderbilt was “the first tycoon,” a self made-man who amassed a fortune running a fleet of steamships and even more money out of the railroad boom. He loved putting together the deal, delighted in the kill and breaking anyone who stood in his way. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century he was an economic colossus bestriding the New York City.

Jeremiah G Hamilton was Wall Street’s first black stock broker. Successful for sure, but loose change compare to Vanderbilt’s fortune.

In 1848, Vanderbilt grew even richer when gold was discovered in California. Scores of thousands of people set out for the west, the majority went by sea, via Nicaragua, in Cornelius Vanderbilt’s steamships.

Vanderbilt treated his steamship company, the Accessory Transit Company, like a personal plaything. He deliberately manipulated the stock price of the company to suit his own purposes, selling them at a high price, then buying them back cheaply.  

A new political revolution in Nicaragua threatened upend his ambitions. The new government, hostile to Vanderbilt,  issued a decree dissolving the Accessory Transit Company. But Vanderbilt simply ignored the decree and continued operating his steamships.

But stockholder Jeremiah Hamilton did ignore the decree but saw opportunity and seized it. In New York (where the company was listed on the stock exchange) he initiated legal proceedings against Vanderbilt, demanding the and Accessory Transit company be wound up, the creditors paid off, and the surplus distributed to shareholders such as himself.

Hamilton put his case to a New York Supreme Court judge, who, according to contemporary newspapers, overturned his application. His legal challenge had failed.

But did it? As Jeremiah Hamilton’s biographer Shane White has discovered, twenty years later, in the wake of Vanderbilt’s death, at least two writers canvassed the issue of “the Nicaragua transit business.” According to the New York Tribune, Vanderbilt had engaged in “a fierce struggle with Jeremiah Hamilton for control of the Nicaragua Transit Company.” Although Hamilton was “beaten on ‘the Street,’” he “took refuge in the courts, and an interminable litigation was the result.”

A front-page obituary of Vanderbilt in the National Republican stated: “There was only one man who ever fought the Commodore to the end, and that was Jeremiah Hamilton.” He explained: “Hamilton fought him in the courts until he got a settlement.”

He then recorded a remarkable admission: “the Commodore respected him [Hamilton],” although “he did not fear him because he never feared anybody.” 

To discover more about this remarkable black businessman, Shane White’s Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street's First Black Millionaire.

 

Interview with Shane White, 2016 SHEAR Book Prize Winner

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Shane White is the Challis Professor of History and an Australian Professorial Fellow in the History Department at the University of Sydney specializing in African-American history. His book, Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire, was this year’s SHEAR Book Prize winner writes the SHEAR.org Blog

The Republic (TR): For those who haven’t read your book, would you provide a synopsis?

Shane White (SW): In Prince of Darkness, I recount the story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton’s life. Hamilton, born in 1808, first turns up in New York in 1828 running counterfeit coin to Haiti for a consortium of merchants. He moves permanently to the city in the early 1830s, struggles for a while, and then begins to establish himself as a guy who can make money for you on Wall Street. He always sailed rather close to the wind. Initially he had a reputation, deserved, for over-insuring boats and then arranging to have them scuttled. He invested his first fortune in real estate, in 1836 buying houses, a 400 foot-long wharf, and land in Poughkeepsie. The 1837 “panic” ruined him and he went bankrupt. But Hamilton bounced back and made another fortune on Wall Street, dispensing advice on what stocks to buy to white investors. Although Hamilton was hardly pure as the driven snow (but then who was on antebellum Wall Street), he also faced considerable discrimination. The second stock exchange in NY passed a resolution in the mid-1840s that anyone who dealt with Hamilton would be expelled. In 1863, during the Draft Riots, a mob invaded his house—the intention of its members had been to hang him from the lamppost out the front of his house on East 29th Street, but he, sensibly had hightailed it over the back fence. When he died in 1875, he was reportedly worth some two million dollars.

TR: What led you to choose this topic for your book?

SW: I have been reading New York nineteenth-century newspapers and court cases for decades and I kept on coming across references to him. It took a while for me to realize that the person I had found running counterfeit coin in 1828 was the same person suing Cornelius Vanderbilt in the 1850s. But once I did, I started to pursue him actively not quite knowing what I was going to do with the material. In the end the challenge of writing a book about someone about whom absolutely nothing was known drew me in and took a couple of years out of my life.

TR: By the time you were finished writing, were you satisfied that you knew the real Jeremiah G. Hamilton?

SW: Absolutely not!! Prince of Darkness is an unusual book. By dint of a lot of hard work, I found surprising amounts of material on some parts of his life. But I haven’t a clue what he was doing for years at a time. And he did not leave a diary or letters somewhere convenient for biographers. I almost never have any indication of what JGH was thinking. This means that there is a lot of “context” in the book. By my lights, and by using JGH’s life, I think the book ends up developing a new version of what it meant to be African American and walking the streets of NYC in the 1830s and 1840s. Some readers like this—others, several “Amazon” commentators come to mind (does anyone but the author of the book in question ever read Amazon readers’ comments?) have been bored to tears by it. On this count I was particularly gratified that the SHEAR prize committee awarded it the best book prize and not the biography award.

TR: Which historians and/or writers most influenced your research for this book?

SW: In my view, there are two major influences on the way I write history. The first is the “Melbourne School” of ethnographic historians, notably Rhys Isaac, Greg Dening, Inga Clendinnen and Donna Merwick. The other important influence is the work of my friend Larry Levine. From these scholars I learned how to approach and exploit sources in such a way that I could write stories about African Americans who had been left out of other historians’ accounts. More specifically, in terms of writing about JGH, I always had in mind such classic books as Natalie Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (1983), Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh (2007), and particularly the wonderful Al Young’s brilliant The Shoemaker and the Tea Party (1999). As well, some of the recent archive-rich work on slavery was helpful: most obviously, James Sweet, Domingo Alvares (2011) and Rebecca Scott and Jean Hébrard Freedom Papers (2012).

TR: What is your current/next project?

SW: At the moment I am half way through writing a book about black confidence men and women. This is another subject where the African American “contribution” has been erased from American history. For most people, confidence men, the “aristocrats” of the criminal world, were white and male. Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting are, for many people, the only con men. My argument is that there were two golden ages of the black con in New York history, one in the 1830s and first half of the 1840s and the other in the 1920s and 1930s. Not coincidentally, both periods were particularly important and exciting in African American history. My conceit is that I can use the patter of con artists, how they fooled their marks, to write African American economic history not from the top down but from the bottom up. My intention, then, is to utilize black confidence men and women as a point of entry into Black Manhattan’s underground economy.

Another Book Prize for Jeremiah Hamilton biography

The Prince Of Darkness has won the 2016 SHEAR Book Prize.

"This is historical detective work of the highest magnitude", said the prize committee of Prince Of Darkness. "Indeed, the feeling the book left the prize committee with after its 300-plus pages was: how could the story of an American character this fascinating not have been written before?"

The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic or SHEAR awards the annual prize to a book that deals with virtually any aspect of American history during the period 1776-1861.

Prince of Darkness by Shane White recounts the extraordinary life story of the black Wall Street broker, Jeremiah G Hamilton.

Battle of Wall Street’s Black Millionaires

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Was Jeremiah Hamilton Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire?

Biographer Shane White is confident that he was and has chronicled Hamilton's challenges and chutzpah in his book Prince of Darkness.

However historian Karl Jacoby isn't so sure, proffering William Ellis – a shapeshifting Texan-born freeman who passed as a Mexican on Wall Street in the 1890s – as a candidate for the title.  His new book, The Strange Career of William Ellis, recounts the life of the mysterious entrepreneur.

Without question, Jeremiah Hamilton walked the fabled street first, wheeling and dealing financial services from the 1840s.

Karl Jacoby’s sticking point is that Wall Street was still a toddlin' town in these years, not yet stalked by wolves such as Jay Gould, JP Morgan and the Lehman Brothers who prowled the street in the Gilded Age.

However, perhaps the most tantalizing question is not who was the first, but how many more?

Certainly when a English tourist named John Boswell visited Wall Street in the late 1840s he passed large knots of kerbside brokers conducting business in the open air with the "avidity of professed gamblers". 

He also watched that “hundreds of Negroes hurrying to and fro through the streets", most of them employed either as draymen or porters -- a detail rarely featured in paintings and illustrations.

But as the recent biographies of Jeremiah Hamilton and William Ellis have demonstrated, African American did more than carry goods. Some of them made large piles of money in the cut and thrust world of share trading.

Wall Street’s lily white reputation will never be the same again.

Winner of the 2016 New York City Book Award

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Shane White's Prince of Darkness has picked up the 2016 New York City Book Award.

The New York Society Library's New York City Book Awards, established in 1995, honor books of literary quality or historical importance that, in the opinion of the selection committee, evoke the spirit or enhance appreciation of New York City. The city must play an essential role beyond that of the setting. A worthy book, whether academic, literary, or popular, must be well written and engaging. It should shed some new or unusual light on New York City.

Shane White's Prince of Darkness tells story of first African-American millionaire

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Prince of Darkness is the fascinating story of an African American who defied the expectations and conventions of his time, and whose extraordinary life challenges historical orthodoxy. 

Shane White, a professor at the University of Sydney who specialises in African-American history, provides an object lesson in how to make sense of hard evidence in limited supply while filling out the narrative with informed speculation and judicious contextualisation. 

Jeremiah G. Hamilton was a black man who made, lost and then remade a fortune as a Wall Street stockbroker and property speculator in 19th-century New York. In an era when African Americans routinely were treated as second-class citizens or worse, Hamilton proved himself as cunning and ruthless as any of his white colleagues and competitors. 

By no means a saint, Hamilton, who first came to public notice through his involvement in a counterfeit currency scam in Haiti, exploited gaps in the law and would rip people off without compunction, all the time labouring under a social disadvantage due to the colour of his skin. Proud rogue that he was, Hamilton refused to accept the status of an inferior and exploited the capitalist system for all it was worth.

In his long career as a wheeler dealer, Hamilton endured innumerable humiliations and survived bankruptcy. He narrowly avoided lynching by an Irish working-class mob that went on the rampage during the infamous Draft Riots of 1863, an event that resulted in the murder of more than 100 black New Yorkers. 

On that occasion, Hamilton's life was saved only through the intervention of his wife, a white middle-class woman who had married her husband against her family's wishes. Eliza Hamilton bravely stalled a gang of murderous home invaders long enough for her husband to escape over the back wall of their upmarket home located near the site eventually occupied by the World Trade Centre.

It is worth remembering history is a version of events that never tells the whole story about the past. According to White, that tendency towards a simplistic explanation applies to the history of race relations in America. "Too often we expect blacks and whites to inhabit completely segregated worlds – but, no matter what the proponents of Jim Crow tried to achieve, this was never the way New Yorkers lived." 

Moreover, the idea of a wealthy and successful black man "does not fit well with our usual understanding of the way African Americans lived in the antebellum North". That very notion strained the comprehension of many people during the period in question while others just accepted it. 

For his part, Hamilton preferred to move in white society, and disdained the black community. "Black leaders certainly knew of Hamilton," comments White, "and they approved neither of him nor of what he had achieved."       

Despite carving out a remarkable career for himself in one of the most densely documented cities in the modern world, Jeremiah G. Hamilton was ignored by the established media of the time. There was no Wikipedia page about him until 2013 and we still have no clue as to what the "G" in his name stands for. There is no known image of the man, though White imagines that there is a likeness hidden anonymously somewhere in the vastness of the archives.      

"Is it possible to recover the story of someone who, for well over a century became all but invisible?" asks White, before going on to answer the question emphatically in the affirmative. In the absence of the biographical information normally preserved after the death of a significant individual, White had to piece together scraps of information scattered in the popular press and also court records generated by the constant litigation in which for decades Hamilton was engaged as both plaintiff and defendant. 

For Hamilton, writes White, exploiting the legal system was "a routine part of business. Forever hustling, disputing debts in order to postpone their payment, Hamilton looked upon lawyers as a necessary, albeit expensive tool." 

The dubious, if not downright fraudulent methods used by Hamilton to accumulate wealth we recognise today as part of the "greed is good" business culture of Wall Street bankers and financiers. It is the murky milieu that facilitated the Great Depression of the early 20th century and the global financial crisis in our own era.

Unusual in many ways and overlooked until now, Jeremiah G. Hamilton is a fascinating character of a type we can all recognise for all that he was also an original. Perhaps Prince of Darkness will serve as the basis for a Hollywood biopic. 

Then again, maybe it won't.    

 

Perspectives on Black Wall Street

A review of Shane White's Prince of Darkness by Elizabeth Elliott, published in the American Historical Association's Perspectives on History, March 2016

On February 27, 1828, 20-year-old Jeremiah Hamilton arrived secretly at Port-au-Prince Harbor, Haiti, aboard the brig Ann Eliza Jane. For the next few days, the young man slipped in and out of the city to distribute counterfeit Haitian coins supplied by prominent American businessmen. When authorities discovered the scam, a $300 bounty and a death sentence were put on his head. After hiding out for 12 days, the counterfeiter managed to escape on a ship bound for New York City. Hamilton was subsequently vilified in African American newspapers as a discredit to his race. Forty-seven years later, this same “base villain”—as a letter printed in Freedom’s Journal described him—would die the richest black man in the United States.

Hamilton’s impressive and unlikely rise to infamy captured the attention of Australian Shane White, a professor of US history at the University of Sydney. The scholar’s latest book, Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), is a biography that does something rare in the profession nowadays: it starts from scratch.

You’ve probably never heard of Hamilton—the first, and only, African American broker to join mid-19th-century New York’s millionaire’s club. Rising from cryptic origins, Hamilton bullied his way onto Wall Street, becoming no less than an antebellum “master of the universe.” He amassed a fortune of $2 million, the equivalent of a quarter of a billion dollars in today’s money. His reputation earned him derogatory nicknames in the newspapers; one, “Prince of Darkness,” referred not only to his skin color, but also to his questionable methods of moneymaking. 

Readers aren’t necessarily supposed to like Hamilton, though one can’t help but admire his sheer gall. The broker intentionally kindled an aura of mystery around his past, and White is unsure if he was born to free parents in Virginia, as contemporary accounts suggest, or the West Indies, as is printed on his death certificate. Hamilton cut his teeth in the business world by orchestrating the Haitian counterfeiting ruse and, by the 1830s, was well on the path to building a personal empire. In the midst of a segregated, racially tense New York, Hamilton freely worked out of an office on Wall Street, participated in the city’s real estate boom, and invested in land and property around the Hudson River. In the 1850s, Hamilton sued tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company, which earned him the notoriety of being referred to as the only “man who ever fought the Commodore” in Vanderbilt’s obituary.

You’ve probably never heard of Jeremiah Hamilton before—the first, and only, African American broker to join mid-19th-century New York’s millionaire’s club.

As the sole black participant in an otherwise exclusively white domain, Hamilton endured what White calls “an impossibly schizophrenic way of living.” The highlights of his life border on the anachronistic: he purchased a rural New Jersey mansion, married and had children with a white woman, and owned stock in railways that denied access to members of his race. One of Hamilton’s contemporaries observed that he brazenly “assumed the privileges of a white man,” but he and others were unable to check his ambitions. He ignored, denounced, or outsmarted racial attacks, even thwarting a lynch mob during the Draft Riots of July 1863.

White says he is at the “ground zero” of all knowledge about Hamilton. In fact, a thread of disbelief runs throughout White’s language in Prince of Darkness, as if he feels someone else should have written this book first. White first casually noticed Hamilton’s name in a newspaper story and pursued leads from there. The bulk of his research is founded on two sources: New York City newspapers and court archives. While no photographs or sketches of Hamilton have survived into the present day, in life the millionaire was endlessly maligned and gossiped about in print. He was also an aggressive and prolific litigant, filing countless lawsuits to satisfy his whims. When he died in 1875, numerous obituaries across the country commented on his fortune and life’s work.

This does not mean that researching Hamilton was easy. Each scrap of evidence was hard won, and the historian estimates that he has traveled over a million miles by air between his office in Australia and New York City. White points out that most biographies on bookshelves today have had the advantage of earlier works on which to build. In contrast, Prince of Darkness comprises 13 chapters of original historical scholarship. White was able to unearth only four fleeting mentions of Hamilton’s name in secondary sources from the 20th century.

During his career, White has earned his fair share of raised eyebrows for being a scholar of African American and New York history with an Australian accent. However, he enjoys using his position as an outsider to his advantage. In a 2011 piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “An Aussie Takes On African-American History,” White wrote that “the experience of living in another society and working in another academic culture makes the historian more aware that what happened in America was not inevitable, and that there are many ways to interpret its history.”

Why have historians overlooked, or perhaps even ignored, the story of Wall Street’s first black millionaire? Perhaps, as White’s book shows, it is because he is utterly impossible to categorize. African American contemporaries were scandalized by Hamilton’s relentless financial scheming, and in turn, the broker made a point of ignoring New York’s black community entirely. Famed black physician James McCune Smith wrote, “Compare Sam Ward”—a respected antislavery activist—“with the only black millionaire in New York, I mean Jerry Hamilton; and it is plain that manhood is a ‘nobler idea’ than money.” Hamilton was at once an integral part of mid-19th-century African American identity and a stranger to it.

Publicity for Prince of Darkness has been somewhat limited due to the fact that White lives in Australia, and only a few American academics have been able to hear him speak on the topic. The historian also knows that there will never be a statue or other similar remembrance of the broker. Hamilton’s contemporaries—almost all of them his enemies—cared more about him than anyone does now. But in publishing his biography, White has created a fitting tribute to a man who had all but been forgotten.

The Daily Beast feasts on the Prince of Darkness

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Jeremiah Hamilton was a rapacious, double-dealing millionaire in 19th-century America. But Wall Street never let him forget he was black, writes Eric Herschthal of the Daily Beast.

Jeremiah G. Hamilton, a mid-19th-century Manhattan millionaire, made his fortune the usual ways people did back then. He speculated in real estate, defrauded insurance companies, and protected his assets by filing for bankruptcy whenever a deal went south. He was a ruthless businessman with no trace of ethics, but that made him, by Wall Street standards, utterly unexceptional. What was exceptional was that he was black.                                             

In Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire, historian Shane White introduces us to a figure that history has essentially forgotten. The story we are told about antebellum New York—where slavery only ended in 1827, and where segregation started—makes no room for a black millionaire. Even the city’s black leaders denounced him, and for good reason: Hamilton wanted nothing to do with the black community, barely conceding that he was black at all.

Yet in Hamilton’s own day, newspapers covered him widely. And who wouldn’t? He made for remarkable copy. In 1828, the Haitian government handed down a death penalty after the 20-year-old Hamilton was caught selling counterfeit coins to Haitian merchants, a major problem for the young black republic. But Hamilton escaped to New York before Haitian authorities could find him. That’s where he settled, and in the decade that followed, he made millions off Manhattan’s maritime insurance companies, sinking insured goods he suspected might not turn a profit, then filing his claim. By the mid-1830s, the insurance industry blackballed him, securing his infamy on Wall Street and earning him the nickname the “prince of darkness.” 

Though Hamilton left none of his own papers behind, White has found Hamilton’s fingerprints all over of the city’s newspapers and court records. That the author has constructed a plausible, cradle-to-grave biography of such a widely discussed yet always mysterious figure is a stunning feat. What’s even more noteworthy is that White has avoided the trap of portraying black men and women only as victims. Doing so denies blacks their full humanity, including their ability to be anything but saints. White achieves this by underscoring the fact that Hamilton’s financial schemes were simply quotidian business practices among the city’s elite. If we find him despicable, we must, White implies, find every other Wall Street executive despicable, too. In the end, White restores Hamilton to the historical record less as a villain than as a surprising anti-hero. We want him to succeed even as we detest the way he does it.

Yet for all White’s exhaustive research, gaping holes remain. To White’s credit, he fills them in with only modest speculation. It may be impossible to know whether Hamilton was born in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, or possibly Virginia, and whether he was born enslaved or free. At various times, Hamilton or his relatives claimed any number of origins. We also know little about how much money he actually had at any given point. But White convincingly argues that Hamilton probably left these issues deliberately vague: What better way to protect his wealth when creditors came calling than by hiding critical details about himself?

What we do know is that the “lily-white” world of Wall Street never let Hamilton forget he was black. On Wall Street, which had become the nation’s financial center by the 1830s, “blacks were expected to carry goods, not buy and sell them,” writes White. Even when the city’s newspapers covered him, it was usually with disdain. In 1840, the New York Herald mockingly referred to him as “a ‘highly respectable’ colored gentleman of some celebrity in Wall Street.” When reporters were at a loss for words, they stooped to simply calling him “Nigger Hamilton”—a word that had only then come into widespread use.

That Hamilton defied the racial order was, of course, at the root of the ill will. He schemed his way to wealth at precisely the moment the city was trying to put its rising number of free blacks in their place. Not long after the city emancipated all its slaves, the city’s streetcar companies enacted segregated seating policies. In 1821, New York’s legislature made universal suffrage available to white men only; unlike whites, black men (forget about women) had to own $250 worth of property even to qualify. By that measure, in 1826 only 16 of New York County’s 12,499 black citizens could vote. To make matters worse, Hamilton committed the era’s gravest sin—he married a white woman, Eliza Jane Morris. At 15, she was almost half Hamilton’s age. And by the time Hamilton died in 1875, at 67, they had had 10 children, all of whom inherited his wealth.

Not a cent was left to black causes. Indeed, White underscores that Hamilton made a good deal of his money at blacks’ expense. In the 1830s, he had bought $2.5 million worth of slave-grown sugar and coffee from a Cuban merchant, trying to sell it for profit in New York. In 1864, as the nation’s war over slavery raged, Hamilton could not be bothered with anything but making money. Court records reveal that in the midst of the Civil War he was demanding 600 cigars and a “basket of champagne” from an investor, in part to give the impression that investing with Hamilton was for big spenders only. By that point, Hamilton was doing what in effect hedge funders do today—pooling wealthy investor’s money, making risky investments, then taking a huge commission. 

Of course not all of Hamilton’s schemes were successful, and many times he seemed on the verge of losing it all. He suffered a devastating blow when he invested at the peak of a housing market bubble that helped precipitate what, in 1837, was then the nation’s worst depression (we are meant to see parallels). He even took on the 19th century’s greatest tycoon, Cornelius Vanderbilt. When Hamilton’s stock in Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company plummeted, Hamilton took Vanderbilt to court. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vanderbilt won, deploying all the legal tricks Hamilton thought he himself had mastered.

Black leaders found Hamilton’s financial scheming and indifference to the black community shameful. From the moment he first gained notoriety for his Haitian counterfeiting scheme, the nation’s first black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, based in New York, hoped Hamilton would be caught. Many black citizens saw Haiti—established by former slaves in 1804—as a beacon of promise, its hoped-for success a way to refute the notion of black inferiority. That Hamilton sought to defraud the country was no small insult. In 1852, Frederick Douglass’s newspaper published a series of essays on whether becoming wealthy would dispel prejudice against blacks. James McCune Smith, a leading black intellectual, took the opportunity to make a swipe at Hamilton: “Compare Sam Ward”—an admired black antislavery activist—“with the only black millionaire in New York, I mean Jerry Hamilton; and it is plain that manhood is a ‘nobler idea’ than money.”

White suggests that historians have dismissed Hamilton—or more accurately, ignored him—for the same reason blacks did in his own time: He doesn’t fit into the story of unceasing discrimination, of two worlds apart, one black, one white. In White’s construct, Hamilton is supposed to challenge that narrative, showing that some blacks did in fact overcome the obstacles against them. If White errs, it’s in this framing. To my mind, Prince of Darkness seems more to confirm the dominant narrative than upend it. As White himself shows, Hamilton never could escape the viciously racist attacks against him.

Perhaps the most devastating attack on Hamilton came amid the Draft Riots of 1863. The city’s white working class was forced to shoulder the burden of fighting in the Civil War because wealthy citizens could pay their way out of the draft. White mobs, after initially attacking city institutions, turned on black citizens. Remarkably, White has found evidence in city archives that Hamilton’s home was deliberately targeted. A mob of 15 white men broke into his home, demanding that his wife, Eliza, “send down that nigger,” saying they planned to “hang him on the lamp-post.” Eliza distracted them, perhaps giving her husband enough time to escape—though we cannot know for certain whether Hamilton was home.

Yet not all the racist attacks were so violent. Once, Hamilton even confronted another wealthy white man after he hurled a racial epithet at him: “I hear you have said I was a nigger,” Hamilton said. To which the man responded, “Are you not?” Even if White reads into this possibly apocryphal anecdote an instance of Hamilton’s boldness—and if true, no doubt it was—we are still left to wonder how many other times confrontations like these went unrecorded.

 

 

Five Stars from Doing Dewey

Doing Dewey writes:

My best nonfiction read so far this year, this author won me over with his enthusiasm and ability to share uncertainty in an honest and engaging way....

I’ve read several engaging nonfiction books recently that have left me wanting better citations...This book was an incredible contrast, because the author handled these things perfectly. Every section, from his intro note describing his research process to the sections where he discussed unknowns in Hamilton’s life, were infused with his enthusiasm for the topic. This kept things exciting even when he had to go into the gritty details of what was known and what was conjecture. It made me feel excited to be part of his research process. I’ve never wanted to write a nonfiction book before, but reading about his experience made me want to...

The second important decision the author made was to not tie himself too tightly to Hamilton’s story. Although the chapters were generally chronological in Hamilton’s life, the author wandered far afield, tackling a bigger topic connected to Hamilton’s life in each chapter....The author kept me interested in every chapter, gave me a greater understanding of the time period, and stayed firmly anchored in Hamilton’s story.  I’d highly recommend it...

For full review see Doing Dewey blog post.