black millionaire

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.
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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.