In the book “Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires”, Hannah Elias is mentioned as one of the six African-American millionaires. Between 1830 and 1927, a small group of African-American men and women overcame the status quo and succeeded in spite of a system that was against them. They lived prosperous lives acquiring wealth and status. Out of the 4,047 millionaires in the United States at the time, six were African American. Elias was one of the six.
One of the richest Black women in America in the 1900s, Elias built a real estate empire in Harlem using her lover’s money. A sex worker who later became a landlord, many were amazed to learn that she was African American as it was rare to see Black people having a large amount of money and other valuable things.
Elias was born in Philadelphia to a Black mixed-race couple with nine children. Her father Charles Elias was a “negro with Indian blood in him” while her mother Mary Elias was “almost white”. By 1884, at the age of 16, Elias was working as a sex worker at a resort to make ends meet. And that was when she met a rich glass-factory owner called John R. Platt, who was in his late 60s.
Platt, the last president of the New York volunteer fire department, and Elias would start a secret relationship. Along the way, Elias got married and moved to a boardinghouse in east Philadelphia to live with her husband. She gave birth to a child but gave the child up for adoption. Elias reunited with Platt in 1896 after, unexpectedly, they met again at a massage parlor. Platt later said he believed Elias was single and set her up in the boardinghouse business while giving her large sums of money.
During their private romance, Platt often called himself “Mr. Green” when secretly visiting Elias at her luxurious home on 230 Central Park West. But in 1903, Cornelius Williams, an admirer of Elias, mistakenly murdered a man known as Andrew H. Green, thinking he was Platt. Platt told a New York court the following year that Elias threatened to use the sensational circumstances of the murder to extort money from him.
That year, 84-year-old Platt accused Elias of extorting from him the huge sum of $685,385. He told the court that she threatened to tell his married daughters and her husband of their adulterous affair. Platt said he was compelled to give her money that included a lawyer’s fee for her divorce.
Platt first refused to swear out a criminal warrant but changed his mind on June 8, 1904. Police officers subsequently broke into Elias’s home and arrested her as crowds, including her wealthy Central Park West White neighbors gathered to watch. At the time, she said: “I have no fear. I have done no wrong, and every one of the poor people I have helped is praying for me in the time of my affliction.”
Her arrest made the headlines. The local tabloids referred to Elias as “ebony enslaver” and “The Negro Enchantress”. Her neighbors got to know that the woman they had lived with for three years was not “Cuban” or “East Indian” as they thought but was Black. Elias was arraigned in Tombs Court on June 10, 1904, where she was held on $50,000 bail.
Her Japanese houseboy, Kato, spoke to the press, insisting that Elias never extorted money from Platt. He argued that it was Platt who showered Elias with money. “Indeed, according to Kato, she had been the victim of white men (including the lawyer who handled her divorce) who threatened to make public her irregular relationship with Platt,” one account noted.
At the end of the day, Elias won the case in court. Reports said Platt was jeered when he left the courtroom. His family however went on to file a civil suit against Elias. That court case in 1905 also made headlines as people learned of how Elias became Platt’s mistress and how Platt allegedly paid $20,000 to the lawyer who secured her divorce. The public would also get to hear claims that Platt had even given Elias his deceased wife’s watch and pocketbook.
Elias won the 1905 case as well when the court ruled that there was no proof of threats. It also said judges “did not have the duty of enforcing immoral contracts.”
After both trials, Elias moved to Harlem. There, she worked with Black real estate developer John Nail to turn the neighborhood into an enclave for Black residents of New York.