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.