Haitian Jeremiah G. Hamilton defied all social conventions to become the first black millionaire in New York during the 1840s and 1850s. He was said to be the richest black man in America, with a fortune of $2 million, or more than $250 million in modern currency. However, his meteoric rise was not without controversy.
Hamilton was a Wall Street broker who made his fortune through ruthless business practices such as forgery and deception. After being sentenced to death by shooting in Haiti, Hamilton fled to New York and amassed a fortune.
Hamilton was born in the year 1806. His birthplace was listed as the West Indies, with Haiti as his parents’ birthplace.
Hamilton hid in a fishing boat to avoid Haitian officials in 1828. He was caught transporting thousands of dollars in counterfeit coins into Haiti on behalf of New York merchants.
He was sentenced to death by shooting in absentia at the age of 21. After evading Haitian authorities for 12 days, he managed to flee with $5,000 in counterfeit coins. He boarded a ship bound for New York from Haiti. A $300 bounty was placed on his head.
Hamilton, dubbed the Prince of Darkness, was known to be literate, charismatic, ambitious, and fluent in French. While most black businessmen did business with other blacks, Hamilton broke the mold by doing business with whites.
Hamilton was living comfortably in New York at the time, renting office space on Wall Street in 1835.
Hamilton amassed wealth by defrauding fire victims who had lost property in the Great Fire of 1835. He made $5 million and used the money to invest in real estate. He bought 47 lots in modern-day Astoria, Hallet’s Cove, and docks, wharves, and land along the Hudson River leading to Poughkeepsie, New York.
Hamilton was blacklisted from New York marine insurance firms in 1830 due to his deceptive business practices. The Atlantic Insurance Company accused him of attempting to defraud them of $50,000 in 1843. Hamilton responded by claiming that the insurance company hired a hitman to drown him in the East River. AIC eventually abandoned their lawsuit.
In the 1840s and 1850s, Hamilton was involved in 50 court cases.
Hamilton was ostracized once more in 1845, this time by the New Board, the second tier of the New York stock exchange. The New Board of Directors decided to expel any member who brought or sold shares on his behalf.
“Hamilton is a colored man; and so, forsooth, his money is not to be received in the same ’till’ with theirs,” one newspaper editor was quoted as saying. Oh, “the free country and the home of the brave.”
In the 1850s, Hamilton challenged railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt over the authority of the Accessory Transit Company.
Hamilton not only did business with whites, but he also married a white woman.
Eliza Jane Morris was his wife’s name, and she had her first child with Hamilton when she was 13 or 14 years old. He was twice her age, according to reports. They had nine more children and remained married until Hamilton died. Their union was certainly frowned upon during the 1800s.
Hamilton worked hard to distance himself from other blacks. This didn’t change the fact that he was a black man in America in the 1800s, and he was bound to face racism at some point in his life.
Despite being associated with whites, Hamilton was considered a negro by some, which meant he was lower-class.
During the 1863 draft riots, a group of white men and boys went to Hamilton’s house and attempted to hang Jeremiah from a lamppost.
His wife tricked them into thinking he was away and sent them away with liquor, cigars, and one of Hamilton’s old suits.
There are no known photographs of Hamilton. “Hamilton “almost certainly did have photographs taken, and quite likely commissioned a painting, but if any likenesses have survived, they are probably catalogued under’miscellaneous’ or as’subject unknown,” according to biographer Shane White.
Hamilton died in May 1875 and is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in his family’s plot.
Don Cheadle, the actor, has just announced that he will produce and star in a film based on Hamilton’s life.