Financial History Issue 116 (Winter 2016) | Page 17

Photo Trish Mayo The Jumel crypt at Trinity Cemetery & Mausoleum in Upper Manhattan. In Paris, Jumel took pleasure in building a sizable collection of European paintings. She socialized with aristocrats at the court of Louis XVIII and received a bow of recognition from the king. The economy was shaky, however, collapsing first under the Panic of 1819 and then the Panic of 1825. Stephen put his and his wife’s country home in New York and the 36 acres of land immediately surrounding it in trust for Eliza, possibly at her urging. They would be hers for life, free to manage as she wished. Even if Stephen predeceased her, she would not have to worry about spending her widowhood in penury. But for a woman who had known poverty, a mansion and 36 acres were not enough. Jumel acted to ensure her future security. In 1826 she returned to the United States from France to look after her and Stephen’s other American investments: farmlands in Washington Heights and central New York, and their Broadway and Liberty Street buildings. Using a power of attorney Stephen had given her, she put almost all their remaining real estate — including the valuable downtown parcel — in trust for herself for life. Thus she transmuted herself into a rara avis: a married woman who was a landed proprietor in her own right. In 1828 her husband left France to rejoin her in the United States. His death, on May 22, 1832, increased her wealth. She collected on old debts he was owed by insurance companies and the French government for ships seized during the Napoleonic wars. Then she fought his brother and sister in court to keep as much of the money as possible, investing her takings in real estate in soon-to-boom Saratoga Springs. She improved the Broadway and Liberty Street property in Manhattan, too, replacing two three-story buildings with three five-story structures that would ensure her a comfortable income from rents. Using a tactic popular among widows, she probably funded this last initiative with money that was in the mansion at the time of her husband’s death, spending it secretly before the estate was inventoried. Jumel proved a careful steward of her wealth. She kept her land and properties leased, moving swiftly to evict tenants who stopped paying rent and pursuing them in court for the monies due. If she was unable to lease a piece of agricultural acreage, she would find a farmer willing to work the land in exchange for half the profits from the crops he raised. There is evidence that she kept up with developments in scientific farming: surviving leases for her Saratoga lands show that she paid for clover, timothy and plaster to improve the soil.3 She made only one truly disastrous decision when it came to guarding her financial security. That was her choice of a second husband. On July 1, 1833, only 13 months after Stephen’s death, Jumel remarried at the age of 58. Her new spouse was former Vice President Aaron Burr. Although his reputation was blighted — he had killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804 and then made a quasi-legal attempt to seize Spanish lands in Texas and Mexico, for which he was tried and acquitted in federal court — Burr was born into the American elite, able to move in social circles to which Jumel had long craved entry. At 77 he remained a brilliant lawyer and a man of great charm. Yet Burr was also a chronic debtor. He squandered money as fast as he could borrow it and then kept borrowing more. His new wife’s fortune was not exempt. He spent Jumel’s money with abandon. A year after the marriage, she filed for divorce. Since the only ground for severing a marriage in New York in 1834 was adultery, she arranged for a servant of Burr’s to testify to having observed her employer disporting himself with a lover one month after the marriage. Burr fought back with manufactured evidence of his own, accusing Jumel of adultery with eight men — a divorce would not be awarded if the complainant in the case had been unfaithful. Jumel had the more convincing story. She won her case. The unhappy episode cost Jumel $13,000 that Burr ran through during the first few months of their union — the equivalent in buying power of $378,000 today — not to mention the legal fees for the divorce. Later, however, she turned the brief marriage into an asset. Traveling in Europe as Mrs. Burr, widow of the vice president, she used her status to arrange a good marriage for a much-loved greatniece. When she died in 1865, she was worth at least $1 million — approximately $15 million today. Jumel is not a heroine without blemishes. In spite of the wealth she attained, she could be tightfisted, depriving servants of what they were owed. She put herself first, when push came to shove. When she placed most of the Jumel lands in trust for herself, she left her loving husband with practically no property of his own. Although she may have acted to protect their holdings from his creditors, her actions were also self-serving. It is hard to say whether protecting their joint assets or ensuring her future was her primary motivation. » continued on page 39  |  Winter 2016  |  FINANCIAL HISTORY  15