In Prince of Darkness, The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire, Shane White, the Challis Professor of History and an Australian Professorial Fellow in the History Department at the University of Sydney specializing in African-American history, provides a vivid account and reveals the larger than life story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, a black man – or perhaps more accurately, a mulatto – who defied every convention of his time. White presents a stunning portrayal of this black broker and life in 1800s New York. Through cunning and resourcefulness, Hamilton maneuvered his way into a white business world that despised and conspired against him. Hamilton’s life offers a way of viewing and considering, from the unusual perspective of a black man, business life in 1800’s New York.
Though he showed up in New York City in the wake of scandal, no one could say for sure where Jeremiah G. Hamilton had come from. Some sources said he was born in the Caribbean – perhaps Cuba or Puerto Rico – which he admitted to, but he also claimed Richmond, Virginia, as his first home. Nobody knew, however, because Hamilton spent most of his adult life blending facts and fiction to advance his business interests and stay one step ahead of creditors and the law.
We are introduced to Hamilton in 1828, in his early twenties, during his involvement in a counterfeit scam in Haiti. Evading the authorities he escapes to New York with the help of locals, however, not without notice as newspapers of the day covered his shenanigans quite extensively. Once in New York Hamilton bullied his way onto Wall Street where his sharp wit, cleverness and underhanded ways were keys to ensuring he found success, but rubbed many that encountered him the wrong way.
As a broker, Hamilton made a living claiming insurance for losses, mostly at sea, and often in courts of law. As might be expected, he battled racist judges and juries, and was forced to apply his craft on an uneven playing field. When confronted, whether it be in court, in person or in print, he wasn’t afraid to retaliate, and to do so with a vengeance. For a city and business community that was more accustomed to docility from blacks, Hamilton provided unexpected shocks. He not only distanced himself from non-whites, had his own circle of white friends and married a white woman, he conducted himself as if he was a wealthy white businessman. Though an astute, hard charging businessman, Hamilton was certainly no saint. His singular focus, making more money, led him to shun other blacks and invest in companies that overtly practiced racism.
Though there are no known photographs or portraits of Hamilton, no personal documents or ledgers, and no books or films that document his life, White is able to paint a remarkable and memorable picture of a character who lived the moment, lived it large and exploited the opportunities that came his way. Through the reading of numerous daily newspapers during Hamilton’s lifespan, government records, court records and the faintest of leads – and apprising readers of assumptions he had to make along the way to fill in the inevitable gaps – White tells the tale of a fascinating character. Hamilton died in 1875 in a comfortable and elegant residence – rare for most, particularly for people of color – he shared with his wife and family.
Prince of Darkness, The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire is available at Amazon in Kindle, Hardcover, Paperback and Audible formats.