Ebony Magazine finds Prince of Darkness to be a fascinating picture of enigmatic figure.
"An engaging look at an extraordinary man" says Booklist of Prince of Darkness.
Though now historically obscure, Jeremiah Hamilton, at his death, was the richest black man in America, worth more than $250 million in modern currency. Hamilton’s obscurity springs from more than the usual reasons that so little is written about the history of black Americans in the nation’s first centuries. Aside from the anomaly of being a wealthy black man in the particularly unwelcome landscape of Wall Street, Hamilton was no race hero. He started his career as a broker and ruthless investor by selling counterfeit Haitian currency in the chaos of its liberation. He went on to all manner of skulduggery, including railroad stock speculation and insurance fraud, often with the backing of wealthy white investors who sought to keep their names out of the papers. The black press disparaged Hamilton for his avaricious pursuit of money, even at the expense of other blacks. The author draws on a trove of public documents, including newspaper accounts and court documents, to offer a portrait of a relentlessly driven man. Despite the fact that Hamilton left no personal papers behind, White details his incredible life, marriage to a white woman, and contentious presence on Wall Street, in the process revealing the ways that historians reconstruct the past. An engaging look at an extraordinary man. — Vanessa Bush, Booklist
Library Journal's verdict on The Prince of Darkness, The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton:
"Hamilton's story is gripping; so too is his puzzling near disappearance from the historical record. [Shane] White does an excellent job drawing out the facts of Hamilton's life and supplementing them with details from the history of Wall Street and of other African American New Yorkers of the era.
Recommended for readers interested in African American history, New York City or the history of American business."
The black stockbroker, Jeremiah G Hamilton, was a fixture of Wall Street in the decades before and during the Civil War. Known for his sharp business acumen and ruthless lust for power, Hamilton was said to be the wealthiest black man in the United States.
Yet within decades of his death in 1875, he was all but forgotten. Even a respected historian of black New York such as Shane White did not question the orthodoxy that Wall Street was an all-white preserve.
Then White came across a reference to one "Nigger Hamilton" while trawling through city's historic newspapers. At first he thought it was some racist joke -- but their accidental meeting did not end there.
The historian kept on stumbling upon references to the black broker. Some were tributes to his business skill. Most were accusations of skulduggery and fraud. The more White probed, the greater his astonishment.
"He was a black man, who became rich while living out the American nightmare of race", summed up White.
In 2013, Shane White penned a profile of Jeremiah Hamilton for the New York Times. Three paragraphs into writing the article, it struck White that this was largest collection of assembled facts about the black broker that had ever been gathered.
October 2015 sees the release of Prince Of Darkness, Shane White's full length biography about Jeremiah G Hamilton. The history of Wall Street will never be quite the same.
"Superb scholarship and a sprightly style"
STARRED REVIEW -- A specialist in African-American history pieces together the remarkable career of an antebellum Wall Street broker who was married to a white woman, ambitious, ruthless, successful, and black: in short, “a racist’s nightmare come to life.”
An 1875 death notice of Jeremiah G. Hamilton labeled him “The Richest Colored Man in the Country.” Relying almost entirely on newspapers, government files, court records, the public cloud of dust kicked up by Hamilton’s tumultuous financial maneuvering, and his otherwise private life, White (History/Univ. of Sydney; The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons and Speech, 2005, etc.) recovers a surprising amount of information about this amazing wheeler-dealer. The natty, shrill-voiced Hamilton enjoyed fine living—he bought only the best homes, cigars, and lawyers—and serious books. During the course of compiling his $2 million fortune, he was at various times sentenced to death in absentia in Haiti for his role in a counterfeiting scheme, banned from coverage by New York insurance companies, and blackballed by the stock exchange. He exploited the financial chaos amid the ashes of the city’s Great Fire of 1835 and smartly used the Bankruptcy Act to recover from the 1837 panic. In a largely unregulated Wall Street, with gambling and speculation rife, the ethically challenged Hamilton beat his slippery white adversaries at their own game—and they resented him for it. Combative (in old age, he fought off a Broadway pickpocket), endlessly litigious (he once sued Cornelius Vanderbilt), Hamilton understood the importance of the press and manipulating public opinion. White expertly mines the era’s penny press for stories and characters—William Thompson, junk shop and brothel owner, Thomas Downing, oyster-house proprietor, himself book worthy—that help explain the era’s racial climate and Hamilton’s notoriety as assessed by the likes of John Russwurm, publisher of New York’s first African-American paper, the Herald’s race-baiting James Gordon Bennett, and Hamilton’s ally, the Sun’s Benjamin Day.
Superb scholarship and a sprightly style recover an unaccountably overlooked life in our history. -- Kirkus Review
Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American on Original (2009) reviews Prince of Darkness.
Villain? Hustler? Financial Genius? Black Horatio Alger? The White Man’s worst nightmare? With panoramic vision and panache, Shane White unravels the mystery that is Jeremiah G. Hamilton. The enigmatic millionaire was no ‘race man’ lifting his 'people' as he climbed. More rogue than romantic, “the Prince of Darkness” made his money the old fashioned way: he stole, cheated, speculated, and worked the levers of power with ruthless abandon. But unlike his associates, he could not escape the color line. By following Hamilton’s fugitive tracks, White weaves together a compelling history of 19th century New York, a raucous account of American finance capital, and the remarkable story of one Black man who saw the courtroom not as an obstacle to liberty but a path to riches.
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.
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.
David Waldstreicher of CUNY's Graduate Center reviews Prince of Darkness:
Like Mr. Hamilton himself, Shane White makes the impossible possible. Only the indispensable historian of black New York could have brought the "Prince of Darkness" back to life. He makes smudgy newspapers and dusty court records pulse with the ambition, treachery, and hilarity of a different age of boom, bust, and dubious racial progress. A great read about a one-of-a-kind who nevertheless has much to tell us about Gotham and U.S. history.
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.