Financial History Issue 116 (Winter 2016) | Page 16

The press was on hand when 78 lots of the famous Jumel estate — among the last to be sold — were auctioned at New York City’s Real Estate Exchange on April 3, 1888. The commentary from a reporter for the New York Herald was as breathless as the sale room itself: “So immense was the crowd that it was difficult for the auctioneer’s clerks and the representatives of the press to attend to their work. Several of the numerous ladies present had to be taken either to the gallery or to some of the auctioneer’s stands to save them from being actually crushed.” Not only were professional men of every ilk in attendance, from politicians and lawyers to bookmakers and tavern keepers, but “heirs of estates adjacent to the property offered came in troops, and families with cousins and aunts only swelled the mass in such a manner as to make the atmosphere of the Exchange almost intolerable.”1 The properties up for sale had been owned by a New Yorker, then practically a household name, but mostly forgotten today. Born in poverty in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1775, Betsy Bowen had fought her way up from the workhouse and indentured servitude to become Madame Eliza Jumel: a well-traveled grande dame conversant in two languages, an art collector who claimed friends at the French court, the wife (briefly) of a vice president of the United States and a landed proprietor who owned a good chunk of Upper Manhattan. By the time she died at age 90 on July 16, 1865, she was one of New York’s wealthiest women. Her real estate holdings in the city were immense. In the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, Jumel owned an elegant mansion built in 1765, as well as unimproved acreage that added up to a staggering 783 city lots. Farther downtown she possessed two 20-by-60-foot built-up lots on the northwest corner of 41st Street and Seventh Avenue, just south of what would become Times Square. Most remuneratively, she had holdings Previous page: Eliza Jumel in Rome in 1854, with a great-niece and great-nephew, whom she raised. Painted by Alcide Ercole. Photo: Tom Stoelker. Courtesy Morris-Jumel Mansion. By Margaret A. Oppenheimer The country home Eliza and Stephen Jumel purchased in 1810, today a museum. in the Financial District: 150 Broadway (three blocks north of Wall Street) and just around the corner, 71 and 73 Liberty Street. All three buildings were leased profitably as retail space and offices. Nor should we forget her upstate coda: 175 city and rural lots — amounting to more than 200 acres of land — in the bustling resort town of Saratoga Springs, together with a comfortable summer home, Rose Cottage. In a testimony to the drawing power of longevity and wealth, The New York Times honored her with an obituary of over 3,000 words. Jumel attended George Washington’s inauguration, the Times said, and was called by Benjamin Franklin his “fairy queen.” She charmed Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette, and enchanted Patrick Henry, too.2 True? None of it. But the legends obscured a more interesting story — the remarkable rise of a self-made woman. The classic American rags-to-riches story has a male protagonist: a poor boy who works his way to wealth. The model didn’t work for poor girls, because the jobs available to them paid poorly and offered little upward mobility. Marrying up was uncommon, too. Without birth or money to offer, young women from struggling households rarely attracted potential husbands better off than they were themselves. Eliza Jumel was the rare exception, a poor girl who made good. Her success demanded a rare mix of determination 14    FINANCIAL HISTORY  |  Winter 2016  | and intelligence, coupled with a willingness to do whatever it took to get ahead. The young Betsy Bowen began her ascent by moving to New York City. There, where no one knew her, she shed her old identity, rebranding herself more elegantly as Eliza. She worked at least briefly as an extra in the theater. What she achieved was not star status on the stage, but something better for a woman who hoped to advance in the world. She met — whether at the theater or in the neighborhood where she lived — a wealthy, French-born merchant, Stephen Jumel. Their marriage in 1804 — a connection she knitted without parents to negotiate for her, financial assets to flaunt or prominent family connections to offer — vaulted Eliza into the upper middle class. The Jumels purchased a country seat in today’s Upper Manhattan as well as swaths of farmland and the parcel of prime downtown real estate at the corner of Broadway and Liberty Street that would one day be the most valuable item in Eliza’s estate. Jumel enjoyed the trappings of prosperity. She kept a carriage, worshiped at Trinity Church (after a strategic conversion to Episcopalianism) and gave a niece, Mary, whom she and Stephen took into their home as an adoptive daughter, all the advantages of a genteel upbringing. Acceptance into New York’s elite circles proved elusive. But her origins weren’t as closely scrutinized when the little family moved to Stephen’s native France after the fall of Napoleon 1.