Jeremiah G. Hamilton was a Haitian man who became the first black male millionaire in New York during the 1840s through to the 1850s. Hamilton was a wall street broker who amassed his fortune by ruthless business practices such as counterfeiting and scamming. After being sentenced to death by shooting in Haiti, Hamilton emigrated to New York where he built a fortune.
Hamilton was born in 1806. His place of birth was listed as the West Indies, with Haiti reported as the birthplace of his parents.
In 1828, Hamilton hid in a fishing boat in an attempt to evade Haitian officials. He was discovered to have been transporting thousands of dollars’ worth of counterfeit coins into Haiti on behalf of New York merchants.
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At just 21-years-old, he was sentenced in absentia to death by shooting. He managed to escape after 12 days of dodging Haitian authorities, with $5,000 worth of counterfeit coins. He left Haiti on a ship bound for New York. He had a $300 bounty on his head.
Nicknamed the Prince of Darkness, Hamilton was documented to be literate, charismatic, ambitious and fluent in French. While most black businessmen conducted business with other blacks, Hamilton stepped out of the box and engaged with whites.
In 1835, Hamilton was living comfortably in New York, renting office space on Wall Street.
Hamilton became wealthy by scamming the fire victims who lost property during the Great Fire of 1835. He gained $5 million dollars and took that money and invested in real estate. He purchased 47 lots of land in modern-day Astoria, Hallet’s Cove and docks, wharves and portions of land along the Hudson River leading to Poughkeepsie, NY.
Because of his swindling business practices, in 1830, Hamilton was black-balled from the New York marine insurance firms. In 1843, the Atlantic Insurance Company accused him of attempting to defraud them out of $50,000. Hamilton countered that the insurance company hired a hitman to drown him in the East River. AIC eventually dropped their suit.
Hamilton was involved in 50 court cases in the 1840s and 1850s.
In 1845, Hamilton was ostracized yet again but this time it was by the New Board, the second tier of New York stock exchange. The New Board decided to eject any member who brought or sold shares for him.
One newspaper editor was quoted as iterating, “Hamilton is a colored man; and so, forsooth, his money is not to be received in the same ‘till’ with theirs. Oh, ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
In the 1850s, Hamilton challenged Cornelius Vanderbilt a railroad and shipping entrepreneur, over the authority of the Accessory Transit Company.
Hamilton not only associated with whites on a business level, he married a white woman.
His wife’s name was Eliza Jane Morris and she had her first child with Hamilton when she was 13 or 14 years old. He was reported to be twice her age. The couple had nine more children and were married until Hamilton’s death. Their union was certainly taboo during the 1800s.
Hamilton tried his best to disassociate himself from other blacks. This did not change the fact that he was a black man in America in the 1800s and bound to experience racism at some point in his life.
Despite being associated with whites, to some, Hamilton was a negro which meant he was lower-class.
In one incident during the 1863 draft riots, a group of white men and boys went to Hamilton’s residence in an attempt to hang Jeremiah up to a lamp post.
His wife convinced them he was away and sent them away by coaxing them with liquor, cigars and one of Hamilton’s old suits.
There are no known images of Hamilton. Biographer Shane White said, “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.”
Hamilton died in May 1875 and is buried in his family’s lot in Green-Wood Cemetery.
Actor Don Cheadle just announced that he will be producing and starring in a movie based on Hamilton’s life.