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 a 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.

Unlocking Black History at the New York Municipal Archive

writes Ginger Adams Otis for the New York Daily News, Saturday, October 24, 2015, 5:28 PM

Some of the city’s best-kept secrets are all hidden in one place — but you have to know what you’re looking for to find them.

Inside the Municipal Archives, there’s a remarkable set of records full of forgotten history: the District Attorney’s Indictment Papers.

They’re part of an incredible 221,000 cubic feet of documents kept by the city’s team of archivists and conservationists. Almost anything related to New York City life can be found there, from 1645 all the way through the Bloomberg years.

This includes things like the very earliest etchings of the green space that became Central Park, tales of a black millionaire who got his start running brothels in the city and Robert Moses’ vision to create a huge expressway in lower Manhattan.

It’s even more unusual to get a glimpse of African-American New Yorkers over the centuries — but through the court records, rich details of their lives appear.

A census from 1810 shows a hefty population of enslaved African-Americans — but a growing number of free blacks, too. Six years later, records show, an African-American woman named Nancy paid $2 to then-Mayor Jacob Radcliff for a certificate of freedom — allowing her to travel unimpeded in the city.

Australian historian Shane White at the New York County Clerk Records office, which he said has "the best set of records I have ever seen."

The contents of the District Attorney’s Indictment Papers are so astounding that historian Shane White — a specialist in the city’s historic African-American life — comes all the way from Australia just to study them.

He’s unwrapped more than 30,000 dusty old files, carefully untying fragile red ribbons to read through descriptions of murders, drunken brawls, even libel cases.

“As it happens, the best set of records I have ever seen ... are contained in the Municipal Archives,” said White, whose latest book, “Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton,” recounts the life of the first black Wall Street millionaire.

Sometimes old evidence from long-ago cases drops out of the files into his lap, he said.

White has found “flick knives” from stabbings, old rope from a kidnapping and an implement used to terminate a pregnancy, he said.

When White’s not prowling the archives, he is up on the seventh floor in the New York county clerk’s office — where senior archivist Joe Van Nostrand holds the key to a sealed room holding tens of thousands of court cases from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

“These offer rare snippets of life for African-American New Yorkers over the centuries,” White said.

“Sooner or later, even the most respectable of New York blacks had his or her day in court as a litigant or merely as a witness and left a paper trail in these records,” he noted.

The archives tell a far more inclusive story about New York’s past than most people realize, White said.

The ruthless Wall Street trader Hamilton wasn’t alone among the city’s successful black businessmen of the time.

Another black entrepreneur, William Thompson, made his fortune running brothels in the 1830s.

“Just like many white New Yorkers, he got his start with immoral gains, then he invested in real estate,” White said.

“Most people have no idea that a black man once owned the lower half of Times Square — in fact, there’s a subway there today,” White said. “Whenever I walk by there, I give a little tip of my hat to him.”

For full article see New York Daily News Website

Wall Street’s complicity in slavery

Wall Street’s prince of darkness: New York City should give Jeremiah Hamilton a permanent place in its history

writes Shane White for the Daily News

Earlier this year, New York City commendably acknowledged Wall Street’s complicity in slavery and the slave trade with a 16-by-24-inch memorial sign.

Perhaps, though, given the current state of race relations in the United States, something more might be asked of the city. Specifically, acknowledging that African Americans too were actors — in some cases, prime movers — in the history of American capitalism, not just slaves and some white man or woman’s capital investment.

And Wall Street provides a particularly appropriate site on which to reconsider the extent to which Americans have either ignored or erased black achievement from the usual story with which they have chosen to comfort themselves.

Even professional historians treat Wall Street in an unthinking fashion, as if it was a quintessentially white location — the sole province of the Morgans, the Lehmans and the like. According to accepted wisdom, about as far as a black man ever got at the big end of town was either toting things or, later on, operating an elevator.

This was not the case. In the middle decades of the 19th century, a black broker cut a swath through the lily-white New York business world. Not only was Jeremiah G. Hamilton Wall Street’s first black millionaire, he was one of the earliest New Yorkers to have the word used to describe him. His depredations earned him the nickname of “Prince of Darkness.” Others, with even less affection, simply called him “N----r Hamilton.”

Far from some novice feeling his way around the economy’s periphery, he was a Wall Street adept, a skilled and innovative financial manipulator. In the 1850s and 1860s, Hamilton was running what was termed a “pool.” This resembled a modern hedge fund. Investors lodged their money with the broker, who used it as the margin to raise more funds that allowed him to take aggressive positions in the market.

In order to gain privileged access to this African American’s wisdom about the market prospects of listed corporations, some white New Yorkers were willing almost to grovel, sending him baskets of champagne and boxes of cigars. (Mind you, Hamilton made it clear that when it came to such gifts, “he did not want any but the very best.”)

Generally, white businessmen were more interested in the color of Hamilton’s money than the color of his skin. But the playing field was never going to be level for someone known as the Prince of Darkness.

In the mid-1830s all the principals of New York marine insurance companies agreed amongst themselves that none of them would insure any vessel associated with Hamilton.In the mid-1840s, the New Board, a secondary stock exchange in New York, passed a resolution “that whereas J.G. Hamilton had grossly insulted a member of this board . . . that all members of this board are forbidden doing any business for him on penalty of expulsion.”

One writer considered that the reason for the ban “appears to be, that said Hamilton is a colored man.”

Hamilton, though, brushed aside such obstacles and kept on making money. When he died in May 1875, dozens of newspapers from one end of the country to the other acknowledged that he was the richest black man in the United States, his wealth estimated at $2 million, or more than 200 million in today’s dollars.

His had been a dramatic life, cinematic in its vividness. He was a black man who became rich while living out the American nightmare of race (a nightmare aggravated by the fact that he was married to a white woman).

And yet Jeremiah Hamilton has been forgotten totally. His name has been in print, fleetingly, on four occasions since the turn of the 20th century — and three of those mentions are confused or inaccurate. Hamilton was part of no one’s usable past.

It is crucial this and future generations understand that New York’s African American history is much richer than the commonly understood sum of slavery, poverty and the Harlem Renaissance. No matter how inconvenient it is for accepted views of nineteenth-century New York, Jeremiah Hamilton was a wealthy African American broker who worked on Wall Street for just over 40 years. He took on white New Yorkers, on their terms. And, in many cases, he beat them.

As for giving him his place in history now: Another sign in Wall Street would be a hopelessly inappropriate way to remember him. There are alternatives. He loved newspapers, wrote for them and for quite a while James Gordon Bennett, founder of the New York Herald, thought Hamilton was the new proprietor of the New York Sun. Perhaps a brief story in a newspaper, for now, can suffice.

Shane White is Challis Professor of History at the University of Sydney and author of “Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire.”

The Other New York Hamilton

Jeremiah G. Hamilton, the first African-American millionaire on Wall Street, has been practically erased from the telling of American history

Writes Shane White for Observer.com

Hamilton is a honey of a musical, staged in the most spectacular of fashions. Not long ago, its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda received a MacArthur Award—and, for once, it is hard to argue with the popular understanding of this fellowship as the “genius award.”

Still, Mr. Miranda lets Hamilton, a slave owner, off the hook. Although Hamilton was a member of the New York Manumission Society, that organization proposed a deliberate, some would say glacial, pace for ending slavery. One of its earliest acts, in 1786, was to organize a petition to prevent the export of slaves from New York. About half of the 132 signatories were slave owners. If these men had liberated their own human property, they would have freed almost 10 percent of the city’s slaves. These New York grandees were beginning to stir things up, but only on their own terms. 

More troubling than any inaccuracies, however, is the framing of the show. As theater, Hamilton is a breath of fresh air. As “history” it is not. Although he will attract many Americans anew to a story of the founding of their nation, the story Mr. Miranda has told is dated.

Hamilton infuses new life into an older view of American history. For decades now, many historians have been teaching a different story, trying to open the Revolution up chronologically by starting with the Seven Years’ War (which lasted from 1754 to 1763, but who’s counting) and ending in the early decades of the new nation. Attempting to get away from the Great Men story of the founding fathers, these scholars have incorporated ordinary people, African-Americans, Native Americans and women and placed the whole half-century in the broader contexts of the Atlantic World. In this more inclusive and nuanced telling of the republic’s creation, Hamilton plays a cameo rather than leading role.

What’s most intriguing about the way Mr. Miranda reinvigorates his older tale is that he does so, consciously or not, by borrowing from this newer history. Couching Hamilton’s life as a migrant story, deliberately flouting any demands of realism to cast African-Americans in white roles and women in men’s roles, and drawing on African-American culture to give his musical a hip-hop sensibility, accords nicely with the more recent history of the era. I, and many of my historian colleagues, would like to imagine that Hamilton is a last convulsion of the founding father mythology. But I suppose this is a daydream. No matter how hard we close our eyes and wish, massive biographies of founding fathers are not going away.

The point about the framing of Hamilton is easily illustrated. As it happens, another Hamilton lived in early 19th-century New York. While not a bastard, he came to New York from the Caribbean with little to his name. He too made a fortune on Wall Street. He, like Alexander Hamilton, even married a white woman named Eliza.

His name was Jeremiah G. Hamilton and he has been practically erased from the telling of American history. Hardly coincidentally, this Hamilton was black. He led a dramatic life, cinematic in its vividness, including incidents of derring-do, running counterfeit coin into Haiti, a trial that was the talk of the town, and many a confrontation about business ethics or his lack of them.

On Wall Street he was cleverer and more ruthless than most of his white peers. One of his business opponents, Cornelius Vanderbilt, even confessed his admiration for the black man. But as soon as Hamilton left his Wall Street office, he was not even a second-class citizen and subject to the demeaning racial etiquette that held sway on the streets.

This is material that an artist of Mr. Miranda’s genius could fashion into a tale for our times. For any dramatization of the black Hamilton’s achievement could not laud the exceptionalism of American democracy or take comfort from the familiar retelling of the founding fathers. But it would tell another story of the white misunderstanding of blacks, of the refusal to acknowledge black achievement and the African-American contribution to the making of the United States, a story that although it may meander here and there along the way has as its destination Ferguson, Mo.  


Prince of Darkness, the movie?

Jeremiah Hamilton's biographer, Shane White dreamcasts an adaptation of The Prince of Darkness for My Book, The Movie and Campaign for the American Reader:

I would hardly be the first historian to think that my just published book, to which I have devoted several years’ work, should have a larger audience and be made into a Broadway musical or a film. Or both.

Although Prince of Darkness is about a Wall Street broker named Jeremiah Hamilton, his was a life of cinematic vividness. There were feats of derring-do, including a foiled foray running counterfeit coin into Port-au-Prince harbor, vigorous disputes about business ethics (or Hamilton’s lack of them) including one spectacular incident in which a slanging match in a New York courtroom broke out into a brawl on the steps of the Tombs building, and the violent eruption into the New York Draft Riots, arguably the worst week in the city’s history, where an Irish mob stormed into Hamilton’s house with the intention of lynching him on the lamppost outside. What is most appealing about him, though, is his large style. He may have been a pioneer but he was anything but polite and deferential. Hamilton never turned away or turned the other cheek.

Making a film about African Americans always seems to depend on signing up a big well-known bankable star. And depending on what part of the story the film concentrates, and thus how old he is (from say 20 to 67 when he dies), any of the usual suspects would surely do a great job—Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Will Smith etc. Hamilton’s white wife, Eliza, was 14 to his 28 or 29 when he married her—so for once Hollywood’s insistence on casting the female lead decades younger than the male lead would be accurate enough. Very little is known of Eliza Jane Hamilton, but she must have been a formidable person to cope with all that New York threw at her throughout her life.

As to director. Scorsese always manages to convey a New York feel to his pictures—you may (and I would) argue with some of the history of Gangs of New York but some of his shots of New York were heartbreakingly beautiful. Spielberg has a feel for history and an interest in the African American past in say Amistad or Lincoln. To be honest, though, one of my favorite directors is Ridley Scott. The color and look of many of his films is achingly beautiful as well.

I have no doubt that Prince of Darkness could be made into a great film. It is a wonderful and surprising story that runs against the grain of the history Americans have been taught for so long.