Five Stars from Doing Dewey

Doing Dewey writes:

My best nonfiction read so far this year, this author won me over with his enthusiasm and ability to share uncertainty in an honest and engaging way....

I’ve read several engaging nonfiction books recently that have left me wanting better citations...This book was an incredible contrast, because the author handled these things perfectly. Every section, from his intro note describing his research process to the sections where he discussed unknowns in Hamilton’s life, were infused with his enthusiasm for the topic. This kept things exciting even when he had to go into the gritty details of what was known and what was conjecture. It made me feel excited to be part of his research process. I’ve never wanted to write a nonfiction book before, but reading about his experience made me want to...

The second important decision the author made was to not tie himself too tightly to Hamilton’s story. Although the chapters were generally chronological in Hamilton’s life, the author wandered far afield, tackling a bigger topic connected to Hamilton’s life in each chapter....The author kept me interested in every chapter, gave me a greater understanding of the time period, and stayed firmly anchored in Hamilton’s story.  I’d highly recommend it...

For full review see Doing Dewey blog post.

Unlocking Black History at the New York Municipal Archive

writes Ginger Adams Otis for the New York Daily News, Saturday, October 24, 2015, 5:28 PM

Some of the city’s best-kept secrets are all hidden in one place — but you have to know what you’re looking for to find them.

Inside the Municipal Archives, there’s a remarkable set of records full of forgotten history: the District Attorney’s Indictment Papers.

They’re part of an incredible 221,000 cubic feet of documents kept by the city’s team of archivists and conservationists. Almost anything related to New York City life can be found there, from 1645 all the way through the Bloomberg years.

This includes things like the very earliest etchings of the green space that became Central Park, tales of a black millionaire who got his start running brothels in the city and Robert Moses’ vision to create a huge expressway in lower Manhattan.

It’s even more unusual to get a glimpse of African-American New Yorkers over the centuries — but through the court records, rich details of their lives appear.

A census from 1810 shows a hefty population of enslaved African-Americans — but a growing number of free blacks, too. Six years later, records show, an African-American woman named Nancy paid $2 to then-Mayor Jacob Radcliff for a certificate of freedom — allowing her to travel unimpeded in the city.

Australian historian Shane White at the New York County Clerk Records office, which he said has "the best set of records I have ever seen."

The contents of the District Attorney’s Indictment Papers are so astounding that historian Shane White — a specialist in the city’s historic African-American life — comes all the way from Australia just to study them.

He’s unwrapped more than 30,000 dusty old files, carefully untying fragile red ribbons to read through descriptions of murders, drunken brawls, even libel cases.

“As it happens, the best set of records I have ever seen ... are contained in the Municipal Archives,” said White, whose latest book, “Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton,” recounts the life of the first black Wall Street millionaire.

Sometimes old evidence from long-ago cases drops out of the files into his lap, he said.

White has found “flick knives” from stabbings, old rope from a kidnapping and an implement used to terminate a pregnancy, he said.

When White’s not prowling the archives, he is up on the seventh floor in the New York county clerk’s office — where senior archivist Joe Van Nostrand holds the key to a sealed room holding tens of thousands of court cases from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

“These offer rare snippets of life for African-American New Yorkers over the centuries,” White said.

“Sooner or later, even the most respectable of New York blacks had his or her day in court as a litigant or merely as a witness and left a paper trail in these records,” he noted.

The archives tell a far more inclusive story about New York’s past than most people realize, White said.

The ruthless Wall Street trader Hamilton wasn’t alone among the city’s successful black businessmen of the time.

Another black entrepreneur, William Thompson, made his fortune running brothels in the 1830s.

“Just like many white New Yorkers, he got his start with immoral gains, then he invested in real estate,” White said.

“Most people have no idea that a black man once owned the lower half of Times Square — in fact, there’s a subway there today,” White said. “Whenever I walk by there, I give a little tip of my hat to him.”

For full article see New York Daily News Website

Wall Street’s complicity in slavery

Wall Street’s prince of darkness: New York City should give Jeremiah Hamilton a permanent place in its history

writes Shane White for the Daily News

Earlier this year, New York City commendably acknowledged Wall Street’s complicity in slavery and the slave trade with a 16-by-24-inch memorial sign.

Perhaps, though, given the current state of race relations in the United States, something more might be asked of the city. Specifically, acknowledging that African Americans too were actors — in some cases, prime movers — in the history of American capitalism, not just slaves and some white man or woman’s capital investment.

And Wall Street provides a particularly appropriate site on which to reconsider the extent to which Americans have either ignored or erased black achievement from the usual story with which they have chosen to comfort themselves.

Even professional historians treat Wall Street in an unthinking fashion, as if it was a quintessentially white location — the sole province of the Morgans, the Lehmans and the like. According to accepted wisdom, about as far as a black man ever got at the big end of town was either toting things or, later on, operating an elevator.

This was not the case. In the middle decades of the 19th century, a black broker cut a swath through the lily-white New York business world. Not only was Jeremiah G. Hamilton Wall Street’s first black millionaire, he was one of the earliest New Yorkers to have the word used to describe him. His depredations earned him the nickname of “Prince of Darkness.” Others, with even less affection, simply called him “N----r Hamilton.”

Far from some novice feeling his way around the economy’s periphery, he was a Wall Street adept, a skilled and innovative financial manipulator. In the 1850s and 1860s, Hamilton was running what was termed a “pool.” This resembled a modern hedge fund. Investors lodged their money with the broker, who used it as the margin to raise more funds that allowed him to take aggressive positions in the market.

In order to gain privileged access to this African American’s wisdom about the market prospects of listed corporations, some white New Yorkers were willing almost to grovel, sending him baskets of champagne and boxes of cigars. (Mind you, Hamilton made it clear that when it came to such gifts, “he did not want any but the very best.”)

Generally, white businessmen were more interested in the color of Hamilton’s money than the color of his skin. But the playing field was never going to be level for someone known as the Prince of Darkness.

In the mid-1830s all the principals of New York marine insurance companies agreed amongst themselves that none of them would insure any vessel associated with Hamilton.In the mid-1840s, the New Board, a secondary stock exchange in New York, passed a resolution “that whereas J.G. Hamilton had grossly insulted a member of this board . . . that all members of this board are forbidden doing any business for him on penalty of expulsion.”

One writer considered that the reason for the ban “appears to be, that said Hamilton is a colored man.”

Hamilton, though, brushed aside such obstacles and kept on making money. When he died in May 1875, dozens of newspapers from one end of the country to the other acknowledged that he was the richest black man in the United States, his wealth estimated at $2 million, or more than 200 million in today’s dollars.

His had been a dramatic life, cinematic in its vividness. He was a black man who became rich while living out the American nightmare of race (a nightmare aggravated by the fact that he was married to a white woman).

And yet Jeremiah Hamilton has been forgotten totally. His name has been in print, fleetingly, on four occasions since the turn of the 20th century — and three of those mentions are confused or inaccurate. Hamilton was part of no one’s usable past.

It is crucial this and future generations understand that New York’s African American history is much richer than the commonly understood sum of slavery, poverty and the Harlem Renaissance. No matter how inconvenient it is for accepted views of nineteenth-century New York, Jeremiah Hamilton was a wealthy African American broker who worked on Wall Street for just over 40 years. He took on white New Yorkers, on their terms. And, in many cases, he beat them.

As for giving him his place in history now: Another sign in Wall Street would be a hopelessly inappropriate way to remember him. There are alternatives. He loved newspapers, wrote for them and for quite a while James Gordon Bennett, founder of the New York Herald, thought Hamilton was the new proprietor of the New York Sun. Perhaps a brief story in a newspaper, for now, can suffice.

Shane White is Challis Professor of History at the University of Sydney and author of “Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire.”

The Other New York Hamilton

Jeremiah G. Hamilton, the first African-American millionaire on Wall Street, has been practically erased from the telling of American history

Writes Shane White for

Hamilton is a honey of a musical, staged in the most spectacular of fashions. Not long ago, its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda received a MacArthur Award—and, for once, it is hard to argue with the popular understanding of this fellowship as the “genius award.”

Still, Mr. Miranda lets Hamilton, a slave owner, off the hook. Although Hamilton was a member of the New York Manumission Society, that organization proposed a deliberate, some would say glacial, pace for ending slavery. One of its earliest acts, in 1786, was to organize a petition to prevent the export of slaves from New York. About half of the 132 signatories were slave owners. If these men had liberated their own human property, they would have freed almost 10 percent of the city’s slaves. These New York grandees were beginning to stir things up, but only on their own terms. 

More troubling than any inaccuracies, however, is the framing of the show. As theater, Hamilton is a breath of fresh air. As “history” it is not. Although he will attract many Americans anew to a story of the founding of their nation, the story Mr. Miranda has told is dated.

Hamilton infuses new life into an older view of American history. For decades now, many historians have been teaching a different story, trying to open the Revolution up chronologically by starting with the Seven Years’ War (which lasted from 1754 to 1763, but who’s counting) and ending in the early decades of the new nation. Attempting to get away from the Great Men story of the founding fathers, these scholars have incorporated ordinary people, African-Americans, Native Americans and women and placed the whole half-century in the broader contexts of the Atlantic World. In this more inclusive and nuanced telling of the republic’s creation, Hamilton plays a cameo rather than leading role.

What’s most intriguing about the way Mr. Miranda reinvigorates his older tale is that he does so, consciously or not, by borrowing from this newer history. Couching Hamilton’s life as a migrant story, deliberately flouting any demands of realism to cast African-Americans in white roles and women in men’s roles, and drawing on African-American culture to give his musical a hip-hop sensibility, accords nicely with the more recent history of the era. I, and many of my historian colleagues, would like to imagine that Hamilton is a last convulsion of the founding father mythology. But I suppose this is a daydream. No matter how hard we close our eyes and wish, massive biographies of founding fathers are not going away.

The point about the framing of Hamilton is easily illustrated. As it happens, another Hamilton lived in early 19th-century New York. While not a bastard, he came to New York from the Caribbean with little to his name. He too made a fortune on Wall Street. He, like Alexander Hamilton, even married a white woman named Eliza.

His name was Jeremiah G. Hamilton and he has been practically erased from the telling of American history. Hardly coincidentally, this Hamilton was black. He led a dramatic life, cinematic in its vividness, including incidents of derring-do, running counterfeit coin into Haiti, a trial that was the talk of the town, and many a confrontation about business ethics or his lack of them.

On Wall Street he was cleverer and more ruthless than most of his white peers. One of his business opponents, Cornelius Vanderbilt, even confessed his admiration for the black man. But as soon as Hamilton left his Wall Street office, he was not even a second-class citizen and subject to the demeaning racial etiquette that held sway on the streets.

This is material that an artist of Mr. Miranda’s genius could fashion into a tale for our times. For any dramatization of the black Hamilton’s achievement could not laud the exceptionalism of American democracy or take comfort from the familiar retelling of the founding fathers. But it would tell another story of the white misunderstanding of blacks, of the refusal to acknowledge black achievement and the African-American contribution to the making of the United States, a story that although it may meander here and there along the way has as its destination Ferguson, Mo.  

Prince of Darkness, the movie?

Jeremiah Hamilton's biographer, Shane White dreamcasts an adaptation of The Prince of Darkness for My Book, The Movie and Campaign for the American Reader:

I would hardly be the first historian to think that my just published book, to which I have devoted several years’ work, should have a larger audience and be made into a Broadway musical or a film. Or both.

Although Prince of Darkness is about a Wall Street broker named Jeremiah Hamilton, his was a life of cinematic vividness. There were feats of derring-do, including a foiled foray running counterfeit coin into Port-au-Prince harbor, vigorous disputes about business ethics (or Hamilton’s lack of them) including one spectacular incident in which a slanging match in a New York courtroom broke out into a brawl on the steps of the Tombs building, and the violent eruption into the New York Draft Riots, arguably the worst week in the city’s history, where an Irish mob stormed into Hamilton’s house with the intention of lynching him on the lamppost outside. What is most appealing about him, though, is his large style. He may have been a pioneer but he was anything but polite and deferential. Hamilton never turned away or turned the other cheek.

Making a film about African Americans always seems to depend on signing up a big well-known bankable star. And depending on what part of the story the film concentrates, and thus how old he is (from say 20 to 67 when he dies), any of the usual suspects would surely do a great job—Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Will Smith etc. Hamilton’s white wife, Eliza, was 14 to his 28 or 29 when he married her—so for once Hollywood’s insistence on casting the female lead decades younger than the male lead would be accurate enough. Very little is known of Eliza Jane Hamilton, but she must have been a formidable person to cope with all that New York threw at her throughout her life.

As to director. Scorsese always manages to convey a New York feel to his pictures—you may (and I would) argue with some of the history of Gangs of New York but some of his shots of New York were heartbreakingly beautiful. Spielberg has a feel for history and an interest in the African American past in say Amistad or Lincoln. To be honest, though, one of my favorite directors is Ridley Scott. The color and look of many of his films is achingly beautiful as well.

I have no doubt that Prince of Darkness could be made into a great film. It is a wonderful and surprising story that runs against the grain of the history Americans have been taught for so long.



A Starred Review from Booklist

"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 is gripped by story of Wall Street's first black millionaire

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."

Forgetting Jeremiah Hamilton: Black History and Cultural Amnesia

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.


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.


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.