By Shane White
It was still dark when the reporter slipped into the Halls of Justice on Centre Street, an architectural disaster known on account of its misguided inspiration as the Egyptian Tombs, or simply the Tombs, and glanced at the previous night’s watch returns. His eye fixed on the entry for a small-time crim who preyed mostly on other blacks in and around the Five Points, by the early 1840s the best-known slum in the world. In truth, there were scores of black con men just like him, living off their wits and a glib tongue. At regular intervals an irresistible white mark would come into view and be taken down. In this case, the black man and a couple of confederates had lured some dupe from out of town into a rum cellar and filched twenty-five dollars from his pocket. Next morning the victim raised hell. The Points was rife with stool pigeons and informers, and someone always talked. Late the previous night the police had gone straight to a well-known haunt to arrest the three black men. Not that the reporter was much concerned with the humdrum details of the crime or the arrest. What had caught his fancy was that this African American had taken the name John Jacob Astor. He had his lead item for the next day’s paper.
The idea of a black John Jacob Astor appealed immediately to the reporter. Police roundsmen had considerable latitude in the way they wrote their copy. A lively and often-irreverent take on the business before the city’s courts became one of the signature features of most antebellum New York newspapers, particularly the Herald, this man’s employer. Editors welcomed humor, often a very broad humor, and a black Astor had potential. In this instance the writer exercised restraint. All he had to do was insert an exclamation mark mid-sentence -— “. . . seeing the name of John Jacob Astor! John Owen, and Thomas Lowrie, charged with high way robbery.” The piece’s italicized caption -—“What’s in a Name?” -— telegraphed to readers that there was a joke. And the joke worked because a black John Jacob Astor was an oxymoron.
The reporter’s quip would lose little of its punch over the rest of the century. Most white Americans viewed African Americans as irrelevant to economic progress, a people left floundering off to one side of capitalism’s onward rush. Few would have disagreed with the comment of one irritated letter writer to the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer: “Negroes are a blotch of the darkest hue on the character of the ‘first commercial city.’ ” White Americans struggled especially with the very idea of a wealthy black man, associating all African Americans with slavery and poverty. Nevertheless, within a decade of the Herald reporter’s story, New York had its first publicly acknowledged black millionaire. In a March 1852 issue of Frederick Douglass’ Paper, the black intellectual and activist James McCune Smith referred to Jerry Hamilton as “the only black millionaire in New York.” Although McCune Smith scorned him for his single-minded pursuit of the dollar, he and other members of the black intelligentsia such as Frederick Douglass had to concede the degree of Hamilton’s success. He thus became not just the first African American, but also one of the earliest Americans, to be labeled a millionaire. At his death, twenty-three years later, dozens of newspapers from as far afield as Ohio, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas and California acknowledged that Hamilton was the richest colored man in the country -- as one of them put it, he had “accumulated a colossal fortune of nearly two millions ($2,000,000) dollars.”
Jerry Hamilton, better known as Jeremiah G. Hamilton, was a broker, a black man whose very existence flies in the face of our understanding of the way things were in nineteenth-century New York. Although a pioneer, far from being some novice feeling his way around the economy’s periphery, he was a Wall Street adept, a skilled and innovative financial manipulator. Unlike later black success stories, such as Madam C. J. Walker, the early-twentieth-century manufacturer of beauty products often assumed to be the first African American millionaire, who would make their fortunes selling goods to black consumers, Hamilton cut a swath through the lily-white New York business world of the middle decades of the nineteenth century. In this domain his depredations soon earned him the nickname “Prince of Darkness.” Others, with even less affection, simply called him “Nigger Hamilton.”
No one will ever erect a statue honoring Jeremiah Hamilton -- he was not a saint; indeed, he was at least as aggressive and ruthless as most antebellum businessmen. Rumors of counterfeiting and scams against insurance companies dogged him until he died, partly because even the more far-fetched stories often had elements of truth to them. Not that the ethics or business practices of many of his contemporaries could bear too much scrutiny, but Hamilton was the one saddled with the title “Prince of Darkness.” Wall Street was never going to be a level playing field for the trailblazing African American. Yet for all that, brokers and merchants generally were more interested in the color of the black man’s money than his skin. Not that Hamilton gave a damn one way or the other: he simply brushed aside all obstacles placed in his way, or connived to get around them, and carried on amassing his fortune.
The black man cut a familiar figure downtown in the city’s financial quarter. In 1836, according to the Courier and New-York Enquirer, he was “well known in Wall street.” Four years later, a Herald writer described him, backhandedly, as “a ‘highly respectable’ colored gentleman of some celebrity in Wall Street,” and a New York Sun reporter identified him as being “commonly known as the colored broker of Wall st.” Any reader of New York newspapers in the 1830s and 1840s could scarcely avoid coming across stories mentioning Hamilton -- there were scores of articles and thousands of words detailing various incidents and controversies in which he was involved. Not only did his picaresque comings and goings make him grist for the mill of the newly invented penny press, but he also was acquainted with several of the editors and, on occasion, found himself drawn into their internecine strife. The iconoclastic firebrand Mike Walsh acknowledged in the Subterranean: “We do not know much of Hamilton, beyond his newspaper reputation.” Walsh then settled a few of his own scores by adding: “But it requires very little discernment to see that he is far ahead, both in talent and character to the miserable wretches of the Sun and the Herald.”
Yet, for all his celebrity, Hamilton retained an aura of mystery. Although no one was certain where he came from, those claiming to be in the know persisted in whispering startling stories about a murky past. Shrewd judges agreed that the story of Jeremiah Hamilton’s life, told properly, would make riveting reading. Some even hinted they might tell it. James Gordon Bennett, acerbic editor of the New York Herald, almost admiringly admitted in 1836: “Jerry Hamilton is one of the most remarkable men of his race and we shall give a historical sketch of his life and adventures one of these days.”He never did, more is the pity. A consideration of the black broker by perhaps the most astute newspaperman of the century could not have been anything but a revelation. Seven years later, a hostile Moses Beach, editor of the New York Sun, dismissed Hamilton as little more than “a walking forgery.” Even he had to admit, though, that it was regrettable “the world could not have his full history.” Beach, content as he often was with name-calling, never supplied any such accounting. This too was unfortunate, for he knew more than enough to pen a revealing sketch of the elusive black broker.
Hamilton encouraged the mystery surrounding him and his past. After all, in a society as sensitive about race as antebellum New York, there was little point in someone with his appearance trying to fade into Wall Street’s background. At different times and to different people he intimated that he came from Richmond, Virginia, or from somewhere in the Caribbean, perhaps Haiti or Cuba or even Puerto Rico. An easy charm deflected too close a scrutiny of his studied vagueness about the past. However, he was decidedly leery when anyone did start prying into his history, particularly into any of his business dealings. In October 1841, the Sunday Flash announced: “We’re preparing a sketch of Jeremiah G. Hamilton for the Gallery of Rascalities and Notorieties series.” This teaser was part adver- tisement, more the opening move of an extortion attempt. Anyone threatened with such a public shaming knew that the editor usually would be amenable to negotiate whether or not he published. Blackmail was a lucrative sideline for many antebellum tabloids. A worried Hamilton dispatched Benjamin Day, his best friend and founder of the New York Sun, to sort things out with the Sunday Flash. As the phlegmatic newspaperman discovered, the forthcoming article was about to blacken Hamilton’s character, charging him “with all sorts of offences.” Unruffled, Day simply called in a favor, and the editor of the Flash spiked the piece -- it never appeared in print. There were things that Hamilton did not want anyone to know about his life and that no one ever will know.
His celebrity was at its height in the 1830s, 1840s, and into the 1850s, tapering off in the last decades of his life. After a flurry of obituaries in 1875, the black millionaire was very soon forgotten. There was no context in which to remember him. Hamilton was part of no one’s usable past. He was always too unusual a figure to fit comfortably into any history of Wall Street. More importantly, the black broker and the city’s race leaders disdainfully had avoided one another -- he was never going to feature in any African New Yorker story of racial struggle and survival. Remarkably quickly, Hamilton was relegated to the waste bin of history -- and there, until now, he has stayed.
American historians have not noticed Hamilton’s prominence in his lifetime and have evinced almost no interest in him. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, only four authors have mentioned his name in their published works. And these most fleeting of references are mostly mistaken or misleading. One writer, describing gold rush steamers and the Accessory Transit Company in the 1850s, reported that Hamilton, whom he never questioned was anything but white, “was said in the press to be a son-in-law of [Cornelius] Vanderbilt.” Two more recent historians of the New York draft riots of 1863 referred very briefly to an abortive attack on Hamilton’s house on the second night of violence. For the first, Hamilton “was actually a white man, but he had spent nearly all his life in the West Indies, and his deeply tanned complexion made his neighbors believe he was black.” The second described Hamilton as a “West Indian broker.” Most revealing of all, the editor of a recent compilation of James McCune Smith’s writings reprinted from Frederick Douglass’ Paper the article in which the black intellectual referred to Hamilton as the “only black millionaire in New York.” Glossing this statement, he darted off on a tangent: “As McCune Smith probably knew, the wealthiest blacks in the country in 1850 were southern ‘black masters’ -- light-skinned cotton and sugar planters in Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, who were accepted as whites because of their wealth and proslavery principles.” Perhaps. But McCune Smith’s reference to the situation in New York was not an accident: his twenty-first-century editor’s remarks are a small but telling sign of how implausible Jeremiah Hamilton’s existence still appears to historians.
And there, of course, is the rub. What fascinates about these fleeting glimpses of Hamilton is that the authors had no idea who they were dealing with. There was no reason why they should. All of the usual tools historians rely on, such as biographical dictionaries and various reference books, would have been of no help. Each had stumbled across Hamilton at a particular moment in time, be it some point in the 1850s or July 1863. He was peripheral to their interests, and, perhaps led astray by assumptions, they interpreted the sources in front of them. So, for the record: Hamilton’s relationship with Cornelius Vanderbilt may have been a tad tortured, but he was not his son-in-law; Hamilton was not “white,” whatever that might have meant; and Hamilton’s dark complexion was not acquired thanks to a West Indian suntan, nor did that tanned visage fool his New York neighbors into thinking him black. No matter how inconvenient it is for accepted views of nineteenth-century New York, Jeremiah Hamilton was a wealthy African American who lived and worked in the city for just over forty years. Furthermore, the only way to come to any sort of understanding of the man is to piece together all, not just one or two, of the scattered fragments and shards left of his life. He needs to be considered whole.
Shane White is a Professor of History at the University of Sydney. This is an excerpt from his new book, Prince of Darkness:The Untold Story of Jeremiah Hamilton, Wall Street's First Black Millionaire (St. Martin's Press). Citations have been omitted.