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.