- The Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street's First Black Millionaire by Shane White
Shane White's The Prince of Darkness ends, like many biographies, with the death of its central subject. But in that conclusion, White emphasizes the peculiarity of Jeremiah G. Hamilton with a statement from one of the announcements of his death: "The notorious colored capitalist long identified with commercial enterprises in this city is dead and buried" (317). White has crafted a compelling narrative around the little-known Jeremiah Hamilton, reassembling his extraordinary life through scattered, fragmentary records. The Prince of Darkness is a new story of a black man whose life illuminates important aspects of the intertwined histories of racism and capitalism in the early republic.
Jeremiah Hamilton seems to have arrived in New York City in pursuit of profit. In the late 1820s, that pursuit included a counterfeiting venture that linked Hamilton with New York merchants and Canadian counterfeiters in an attempt to forge and pass Haitian coins. When the scheme was uncovered, Hamilton earned notoriety through coverage in white and black newspapers. He also seems to have earned the valuable trust of other unscrupulous businessmen because he refused to publicize the names of his co-conspirators. Hamilton's wealth and infamy grew in the early 1830s as he turned to insurance fraud, receiving payments for policies on several merchant ships that wrecked under mysterious or controversial circumstances. By 1835, insurance companies had united in an agreement not to insure any vessels in Hamilton's name, and the broker had earned the disparaging, racializing nickname "Prince of Darkness."
Shane White reconstructs Hamilton's biography largely through newspapers and court proceedings, a challenging project made possible by Hamilton's scrapes with the law, his own litigiousness, and his stunning public presence as a wealthy, confident man of color. White is explicit about the limits of his sources and accomplishes a great deal by contextualizing Hamilton's story, touching on the histories of Wall Street, the 1835 Great Fire of New York, the birth of the tabloid news, and the 1863 Draft Riots. In his narrative of Hamilton's work, White emphasizes that businessmen in the early republic were often unprincipled and uninterested in the bounds of law, and that Hamilton was part [End Page 187] of this early capitalist milieu. He tells us that Hamilton's "maneuverings . . . were impressively creative [and] devastatingly effective," and that Hamilton showed remarkable knowledge and skill in navigating finance and law in order to carve out a space as a wealthy black businessman in the slaveholding republic (58). For all his savvy, another marker of Hamilton's typicality as a businessman was that he overinvested in real estate in the 1830s and went bankrupt in the Panic of 1837.
Still, while Jeremiah Hamilton strove to secure status through finance and the courts, and while Shane White positions Hamilton within the narrative of early republic capitalism, the book does not lose sight of the distinguishing fact of Hamilton's blackness. Jeremiah Hamilton lived with the restrictions of black political and civil rights that emerged alongside gradual abolition in New York. His marriage to a young white woman and his friendships with white news editors angered observers as much as his business practices. His close friendship with Benjamin Day, editor of the New York Sun, produced one of the strangest events of Hamilton's life. In 1843, Day stood trial on charges of libel, and among the plaintiff's accusations was that Day kept company with men of bad character, men like the Prince of Darkness. The plaintiff's counsel tied Hamilton's supposed immorality to his blackness, asking one witness explicitly: "Do you know whether Jeremiah G. Hamilton is a negro?" (204) The plaintiff sought to prove that Hamilton was dishonest because he wore a wig of straight black hair in an effort to conceal his true racial identity. In response, counsel for Day suggested that Hamilton might...