The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel: A Story of Marriage and Money in the Early Republic

The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel: A Story of Marriage and Money in the Early Republic

by Margaret A. Oppenheimer


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The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel: A Story of Marriage and Money in the Early Republic by Margaret A. Oppenheimer

Born Betsy Bowen into grinding poverty, the woman who reinvented herself as Eliza Jumel was raised in a brothel, indentured as a servant, and confined to a workhouse when her mother was in jail. Seizing opportunities and readjusting facts to achieve the security and status she so desperately craved, she obtained a fortune from her first husband, a French merchant, and nearly lost it to her second, the notorious vice president Aaron Burr. Divorcing Burr promptly amid lurid charges of adultery, she lived on triumphantly to the age of ninety, astutely managing her property and public persona.

By the end of her life, “Madame Jumel” was one of New York’s richest women, with servants of her own, an art collection, an elegant mansion, a summer home in Saratoga Springs, and several hundred acres of land. After her death, a titanic battle over her estate went all the way to the United States Supreme Court . . . twice.

As the feud over her fortune riveted the nation, family members told of a woman who earned the gratitude of Napoleon I and shone at the courts of Louis XVIII and Charles X. Their opponents painted a different picture, of a prostitute who bore George Washington’s illegitimate son, a wife who defrauded her husband and perhaps even plotted his death. Now Eliza Jumel’s real story—so unique that it surpasses any invention—has finally been told.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613733806
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 11/01/2015
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Margaret A. Oppenheimer holds a PhD in art history from New York University. She is the author of The French Portrait: Revolution to Restoration and articles in Apollo, the Metropolitan Museum Journal, The Magazine Antiques, and other publications. She volunteers as a docent at New York's Morris-Jumel Mansion, Eliza Jumel's former home.

Read an Excerpt

The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel

A Story of Marriage and Money in the Early Republic

By Margaret A. Oppenheimer

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2016 Margaret A. Oppenheimer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61373-383-7



Most nights Betsy would have heard the buzz of voices rising from the rooms below. Occasionally men might shout a toast or bellow a bawdy song. But the bursts of noise, the clinking mugs and rattling dice, would have been the normal backdrop of her life.

She might have half awakened once or twice to the sound of footsteps on the stairs. There would be a man stumbling with drink, and a woman, giggling and whispering to him — Esther perhaps, or Debby or Black Bets, or even Betsy's mother, Phebe. But then she could turn over and go back to sleep.

The night of July 22, 1782, would have been terrifyingly different. Furious rioters swarmed into the house. Reports of a similar incident, in which a "Bastille of Iniquity" was stormed and "gutted of its contents," allow us to envision the chaos. "Furniture, beds, clothing, &c." were "entirely destroyed." "Petty-coats, smocks, and silks, together with the ... feather beds" were "strewed to the winds." "Mother Cary and her innocent Chickens" were "turned out to the inclemency of a midnight air." The house "in a short time was intirely rased [sic] to the ground floor" — just as was the one in which Betsy had been living.

Brothel riots, such as the one in Providence, Rhode Island, that ensnared seven-year-old Betsy Bowen and her mother, Phebe, were rare but not unknown in eighteenth-century America. Communal attempts to enforce social norms, they most often occurred when local authorities could not or would not act. They might happen when a customer felt cheated or a girl was thought to have been lured in against her will.

The cause of the riot in Providence is unknown. But the city had changed dramatically since the outbreak of the American Revolution in ways that must have upset long-term residents. On the face of it, Providence was still a pastoral place, looking much as a clergyman had found it in 1754, with "two streets of painted houses" on the northeast side of the Providence River, surmounted by "a most delightful hill, gradually ascending to a great distance, all cut into gardens, orchards, pleasant fields, and beautiful enclosures." There was "a fine harbor of shipping," "a well-built bridge," and, on the southwest side of the river, a suburb "less elegant than on the northeast, but [containing] two or three streets of well-built houses." Yet this pleasant New England settlement was bulging at the seams. Wartime Providence was filled with refugees from Rhode Island's largest city, Newport, which was occupied by the British from late 1776. Young men had left for the armies, and others had arrived. By 1781, American troops and their French allies were encamped outside of Providence. Rhode Island College (Brown University today) had been turned into a military hospital.

Already a magnet for transients, the growing city attracted yet more. Men worked on farms, in the shipyards, or for the army. Women became laundresses or servants in wealthy households, took a boarder or two into their rented rooms, or sometimes sold themselves. Taverns and brothels sprung up to serve soldiers and sailors, not to mention local residents looking for feminine company. Houses that hosted "females of ill fame" attracted "large Collections of Men of dissolute Character" who disturbed the city's "quiet & peaceable Inhabitants."

The dwelling Betsy and Phebe had lived in, an old jail converted into a residence, had come to the attention of the authorities as early as 1780, when four women residing there — including the aptly named Judah Wanton — were determined to be people of "bad character and reputation." The four were pushed out, but the women who replaced them followed the same profession.

* * *

The morning after the riot that destroyed the building, Jabez Bowen, deputy governor of Rhode Island (no relation of Phebe and Betsy), wrote a letter to the Providence Town Council. "Gentlemen," he began, "You cannot be uninformed of the riot last night and that a dwelling house in the compact part of town was entirely destroyed."

The councilmen were at least partially to blame, he implied: "We have good and wholesome laws. We have chosen officers to execute them; if they are not faithful to do their duty, they ought to be displaced with disgrace and others elected in their room who will be more faithful." In the meantime, action was required to deal with the aftermath of the riot. Bowen lived in Providence himself and knew what the town had become at night.

The council members must convene immediately, he instructed. They "should order all the people that dwelt in the old gaol to appear before them," "break up the wicked nest by ordering all that are not inhabitants [of Providence] to leave," and surprise "all [the] other bad houses." We must "all exert ourselves," he added with a flourish, "for the restoration of order and virtue in our town."

Later that day, town sergeant William Compton and one of his constables stepped out, warrant in hand. "In the name of the Governor and Company of the State of Rhode Island &c You are hereby commanded to Summon & Require the Following persons ..."

Elizabeth Gardner's name was near the top. Described variously as "an Indian or Molattto [sic] woman" — no one was quite sure which she was — Gardner (whose first name was actually Sarah) had been a thorn in the side of the town council for more than a decade, earning her living by prostitution and producing a quiver full of children. She had been ejected from Providence before — but she always came back.

Patience Ingraham appeared on the list as well. She was "to be examined on a Charge of keeping a Common, ill-governed, and disorderly House, and of permitting to reside there, persons of Evil Name and Fame, and of dishonest conversation, drinking, tippling, Whoring, and Misbehaving themselves to the Damage and Nuisance of the town and great disturbance of the public Peace." Her two female lodgers were summoned also, along with a Mrs. McCollough "at the House of Joseph Willson."

Then there was another name Compton would have recognized: "Margaret Fairchild, alias Margaret Bowler." A former slave who lived in Providence, Bowler had been the leaseholder at the old jail-turned-residence, but thanks to the prior night's riot, that building was gone.

* * *

On Wednesday morning, July 24, the town council met at the statehouse, a handsome brick building fronted by a spacious lawn. A long walkway terminated at the imposing central door. Theodore Foster, the clerk of the council, took the minutes as Bowler was examined. She stated

that she was the servant of Major Fairchild, who verbally gave her her Freedom ... about five years ago. That she hath lived in different Parts of the Town, having kept House [i.e., rented rooms to others] the whole of the time. That she hired the old Gaol House of Mr. Joshua Burr, and agreed to pay him fourteen hundred dollars paper currency Rent per Year, when she first went into it. That When the House was pulled down by the Mob on Monday Night last, there were with her, lodging in the House, Phebe Bowen and her daughter Betsy — another white woman in company with the said Phebe Bowen, called Debby — a Negro Woman called Black Bets, belonging to Sandwich, and a Mulatto Girl about eighteen or nineteen years of Age, called Esther, who hath since gone to Smithfield.

It was no coincidence that three of the six residents of the brothel were black or biracial. The rising tide of abolitionist sentiment in New England meant that a growing number of slaves were being given their freedom. Yet employment possibilities for people of color, especially women, remained scarce and poorly paid.

Phebe Bowen's prospects — and those of her daughter Betsy — were little better than those of the darker-skinned occupants of the house. Phebe was by birth a resident of Taunton, a town near Boston in the province of Massachusetts Bay. Her parents, John Kelly and Hannah Owen Kelly, were unable to support her, it seems. By the time she was four or five years old, she was living in North Providence with her maternal grandfather, John Owen. Soon she was sent to Providence proper to stay with a married sister — perhaps Owen was unwilling to be burdened with the care of a young child. If so, her sister was equally unenthusiastic. When she moved away, she left Phebe behind.

From then on, Phebe was "bound out" — apprenticed — as a servant in exchange for her room and board. It was an unstable existence. Most families needed an extra hand only sporadically, perhaps when there was a new baby in the cradle or extra spinning on hand. A bound-out girl's master might send her to help out in other households when he didn't need her services, offloading the costs of feeding and clothing her onto the hosts. Phebe — a young, vulnerable girl whose parents were absent or already dead — had worked in five different homes by her early teens.

She told her story matter-of-factly:

After my Sister Removed from Providence, I then went out and lived with John Brown Riger, and from thence I went and lived with Abraham Whipple, and from thence I went to Dwell with James Lovet, and from said Lovets I went and lived with John Nash, and from thence back to said Lovets again and now I live at David Wilkinsons.

Phebe spoke these words at a meeting of the town council in the then-brand-new statehouse on September 29, 1769. She was fourteen, impoverished, illiterate, and pregnant.

The purpose of that audience was to determine her place of residence. In early America, people who could not support themselves became the responsibility of the town in which they had legal residence, gained by birth, marriage, purchase of real estate, or completion of an apprenticeship. To save money, nonresidents who committed crimes or appeared likely to need financial support were "warned out" of the municipality to which they had migrated, with the threat of fines or corporal punishment if they returned. Often they were escorted to their town of origin, whose officers would be obliged to take on their care.

Phebe, born in Massachusetts, had no claim to the benevolence of the authorities of Providence. Oddly, however, although she was rejected from being an inhabitant of the city, the council did not order her escorted back to Taunton. Perhaps her pregnancy was sufficiently advanced to make travel inadvisable.

Another solution was available, and Phebe grasped it. On Wednesday, November 1, in the meeting house of the First Congregational Society of Providence, she married her child's father, a sailor named John Bowen. A married woman took her residency from her husband, and crucially John was a local man. The right to live in Providence — for as long as he lived — may have been the most meaningful gift John ever gave Phebe.

Another sort of gift — namely, the infant John Thomas Bowen — arrived before the end of the year. Two more children followed. Mary — always called Polly as a child — entered the world some two and a half years later, in 1772. Betsy, the youngest — officially, Elizabeth — was born on April 2, 1775; she would joke many years later to her great-niece "that she had come near being an April fool." The opening salvos of the Revolutionary War were fired less than three weeks after her birth: at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.



The war disrupted the American economy, halting trade between the colonies and Britain. Food shortages were common in Revolutionary Providence, and life was difficult when Betsy was a child. Given that she and her mother were lodging in a brothel by 1782, it is unlikely that John Bowen provided much financial support for his family. Even had he wanted to help them, sailing was one of the worst-paid trades.

The Bowen children would have to contribute to their own maintenance. John Thomas and Polly, unmentioned during the inquiry that followed the brothel riot, may have been "working out" already from time to time, at the ages of thirteen and ten, respectively. John Thomas was old enough to plow and plant on one of the farms surrounding Providence, if he were not already serving an apprenticeship. Polly could have obtained temporary, live-in jobs doing housework and spinning. Betsy, the youngest child, was still with Phebe, but the riot had left her and her mother homeless.

Three bills submitted to the Providence Town Council in 1784 hint at the Bowen family's precarious financial situation. From February 7 to April 27, Betsy and her sister Polly lived in Providence's workhouse, boarded at the expense of the town. The reason for their stay is unknown, but the workhouse was a last resort. New England town officers preferred to support needy families with inexpensive "outside relief" consisting of small gifts of food or wood.

Institutionalization was reserved chiefly for the "unworthy" poor — as alcoholics, vagrants, and the lazy or shiftless were defined. These individuals would be forced to work for their room and board, relieving the town of the expense of their support. Men and women arrested for minor misdemeanors (such as a drunken spree or violating an order to leave town) were funneled into the workhouse too, confined in a secured area known as "the cage."

To some extent, however, the name "workhouse" was a misnomer. The building in Providence was referred to originally as a "Work house or [emphasis added] Alms house," and retained the supplemental function of providing short-term relief for the destitute. Surviving bills for board, such as those for Betsy and Polly, reveal that a handful of desperately poor townspeople swelled the institution's population each winter. These unfortunates — chiefly women and children unable rather than unwilling to earn a living — seem to have been placed in the workhouse as the most cost-efficient option to shelter them during the coldest months of the year. For Betsy and Polly, then, the institution — as lonely and desolate as it may have been — would have functioned as a refuge rather than a punishment. Perhaps Phebe had a broken bone or serious illness in 1784 and could not care for her children.

Whatever the reason for her absence, it was transitory. A year later, she and her two daughters were living with forty-nine-year-old Patience Ingraham, a widow scraping out a life on the margins of society. She had been "examined, cautioned, and reprimanded" two years before "for keeping a House of bad Fame." The atmosphere inside her home at night could not have been very different from what Betsy had known at the old jail.

At least Ingraham had several children under the age of fourteen who could offer Betsy companionship by day. It might have been her daughters Sarah and Susannah who showed Betsy around the house, as James, the youngest child, toddled behind. An inventory drawn up in 1785, which lists the contents of the house although not the layout or number of rooms, suggests that it was a modest home containing several of the multipurpose rooms common in eighteenth-century New England. Upstairs were five beds — some merely mattresses on the floor — probably divided between two bedchambers, as well as a candlestand and a flour barrel filled with odds and ends. There were two spinning wheels, one broken. A small stock of linen and woolen yarn testified that the other still functioned.

The layout of the first floor is conjectural, but it appears that there was at least a parlor — a room that combined the functions of best bedroom and place to entertain guests — and a family room, typically called a keeping room or hall, that could be used, like the parlor, for cooking, eating, and sleeping. Two or three beds were divided between these rooms. Several trunks and a maple desk contained clothing and bedding. Tinware, crockery, and iron cookware, described summarily in the inventory, would have been arranged near the fireplaces. A lean-to kitchen may have been attached to the back of the house; if not, all of the cooking would have been done in the parlor and keeping room. The contents of the home — old-fashioned furniture and well-worn linens — were valued at barely £10.

At night, guests would have gathered in the small downstairs rooms. With her new lodger, Phebe Bowen, Ingraham continued to ply the only trade she knew.


Excerpted from The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel by Margaret A. Oppenheimer. Copyright © 2016 Margaret A. Oppenheimer. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Beginnings,
2. A House of Bad Fame,
3. A Death in the Family,
4. The Making of a Merchant,
5. Transitions,
6. Reinvention,
7. Marriage,
8. Mrs. Jumel,
9. Bloomingdale,
10. The Fortunes of War,
11. Mount Stephen,
12. France Beckons,
13. An Imperial Interlude,
14. Paris,
15. The Collector,
16. Separate Lives,
17. Indecision,
18. Place Vendôme,
19. The Panic of 1825,
20. All About Money,
21. Deception,
22. The Reunion,
23. An Arranged Marriage,
24. Enter Aaron Burr,
25. A Calculated Courtship,
26. An Optimistic Beginning,
27. The Unraveling,
28. The Duel,
29. Financial Shenanigans,
30. The Widow's Mite,
31. A Second Family,
32. Madame Jumel,
33. Eliza Burr Abroad,
34. A Romantic Widow,
35. The End of an Era,
36. A Disputed Inheritance,
37. Proliferating Pretenders,
38. Enter George Washington,
39. On the Home Front,
40. Murder Most Foul?,
A Note on the Sources,
Image Credits,

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