Heroes and Villains: the Black History of New York's Great Fire of 1835

 
 Harper's Weekly's version of New York's Great Fire of 1835.

 Harper's Weekly's version of New York's Great Fire of 1835.

 

One terrible night in December 1835, a catastrophic fire ripped through the commercial district of New York. Close to 700 buildings were leveled to the ground. Not until terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center would the city again experience physical damage on such a scale.

And the connection of this disaster to African American history? A hero and a villain.

In Prince of Darkness, a riveting new biography about Jeremiah Hamilton, Wall Street's first black millionaire, author Shane White recasts New York's Great Fire of 1835 from a black perspective.

He tracks restaurant owner Thomas Downing, who heroically prevented the fire from spreading west into Broad street with little more than pails, dippers and vinegar. According to the editor of the Journal of Commerce, the black oysterman’s efforts were vital: “a million dollars at least was thus saved from destruction.”

Jeremiah Hamilton, on the other hand was cast as “the most finished villain the city ever harbored,” for taking advantage of his clients’ misfortunes. He refused to hand over $25,000 without the requisite paperwork, which had been incinerated in the fire. In the view of the Herald’s editor this was little more than theft of a sum that in today's dollars would exceed five million.

In the mid-19th century, white New Yorkers looked upon African Americans as either arsonists or passive victims of fire. Historian Shane White has chronicled the history of African New Yorkers and fire to show how Thomas Downing and Jeremiah Hamilton changed the way the subject was viewed.

“Part of my ambition with Prince of Darkness is to begin to recast some of the key events of New York City’s history and show how they look different, even if sometimes only slightly, once it is realized that African Americans took an active role in the way things played out,” he explained.