New York

A Starred Review from Kirkus for Prince of Darkness

 "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

 

 

 

 

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.