Wall Street

The Daily Beast feasts on the Prince of Darkness

jeremiah-hamilton

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.

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Panoramic vision and panache

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.

 


Only One Man Fought Cornelius Vanderbilt to the end

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.
POD_TwitterVanderbilt.jpg

 

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.

The "indispensable historian of black New York" brings the Prince of Darkness back to life

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.

 
 
 

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.