Jerry Hamilton, better known as Jeremiah G. Hamilton, was a broker, a black man whose very existence flies in the face of our understanding of the way things were in nineteenth-century New York. Although a pioneer, far from being some novice feeling his way around the economy’s periphery, he was a Wall Street adept, a skilled and innovative financial manipulator. Unlike later black success stories, such as Madam C. J. Walker, the early-twentieth-century manufacturer of beauty products often assumed to be the first African American millionaire, who would make their fortunes selling goods to black consumers, Hamilton cut a swath through the lily-white New York business world of the middle decades of the nineteenth century. In this domain his depredations soon earned him the nickname “Prince of Darkness.”
No one will ever erect a statue honoring Jeremiah Hamilton—he was not a saint; indeed, he was at least as aggressive and ruthless as most antebellum businessmen. Rumors of counterfeiting and scams against insurance companies dogged him until he died, partly because even the more far-fetched stories often had elements of truth to them. Not that the ethics or business practices of many of his contemporaries could bear too much scrutiny, but Hamilton was the one saddled with the title “Prince of Darkness.” Wall Street was never going to be a level playing field for the trailblazing African American. Yet for all that, brokers and merchants generally were more interested in the color of the black man’s money than his skin. Not that Hamilton gave a damn one way or the other: he simply brushed aside all obstacles placed in his way, or connived to get around them, and carried on amassing his fortune.
Yet, for all his celebrity, Hamilton retained an aura of mystery. Although no one was certain where he came from, those claiming to be in the know persisted in whispering startling stories about a murky past. Shrewd judges agreed that the story of Jeremiah Hamilton’s life, told properly, would make riveting reading. Some even hinted they might tell it. James Gordon Bennett, acerbic editor of the New York Herald, almost admiringly admitted in 1836: “Jerry Hamilton is one of the most remarkable men of his race and we shall give a historical sketch of his life and adventures one of these days.” He never did, more is the pity. A consideration of the black broker by perhaps the most astute newspaperman of the century could not have been anything but a revelation. Seven years later, a hostile Moses Beach, editor of the New York Sun, dismissed Hamilton as little more than “a walking forgery.” Even he had to admit, though, that it was regrettable “the world could not have his full history.” Beach, content as he often was with name-calling, never supplied any such accounting. This too was unfortunate, for he knew more than enough to pen a revealing sketch of the elusive black broker.
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