The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel: A Story of Marriage and Money in the Early Republic
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By the end of her life, “Madame Jumel” was one of New York’s richest women, with servants of her own, an art collection, an elegant mansion, a summer home in Saratoga Springs, and several hundred acres of land. After her death, a titanic battle over her estate went all the way to the United States Supreme Court . . . twice.
As the feud over her fortune riveted the nation, family members told of a woman who earned the gratitude of Napoleon I and shone at the courts of Louis XVIII and Charles X. Their opponents painted a different picture, of a prostitute who bore George Washington’s illegitimate son, a wife who defrauded her husband and perhaps even plotted his death. Now Eliza Jumel’s real story—so unique that it surpasses any invention—has finally been told.
notice for Count Henri Tascher de la Pagerie; Shelton, 154–55. The count died at the age of thirty in January 1816. The story that his widow lived with the Jumels in Paris for nine years (Shelton, 155) has no foundation. 18. Testu, Almanach royal, pour les années M. DCCC. XIV et M. DCCC. XV (Paris: Chez Testu, n.d.), 434. 19. NYHS-AHMC, Jumel, Mme. Stephen, A. Noël to Eliza Jumel (English transcript); J. D***, Almanach de 25,000 adresses de Paris, pour l’année 1816 (Paris: C. L. F. Panckoucke,
1789–1816,” New England collectors and collections, ed. Peter Benes (Boston: Boston University Scholarly Publications, 2006), 27. Among eighteenth-century American private collectors, the largest collection may have been Thomas Jefferson’s, with approximately forty-one paintings and a rich selection of prints, watercolors, and stone and plaster busts (Howard, “Thomas Jefferson’s art gallery,” 597–600 [see chap. 15, n. 9]). The collections of James Hamilton and his nephew William Hamilton are less
no prospect of visiting France.13 The letter was deceptive. Stephen owed only trifling sums in America at the time of his death, and his debt to Dr. Eloi Berger—a six-thousand-dollar mortgage on the downtown properties—was not chargeable to the estate. Paying off the mortgage to Berger (an old friend of Stephen’s) was Eliza’s personal obligation under the terms of the conveyance that gave her control of the buildings.14 Eliza concluded her piece of creative fiction politely: I thank you
presence was not enough for her great-aunt. By the following spring, “Madame Burr” had determined that her great-niece and Paul should live permanently in the United States.9 She made the economy, which was beginning to soften, the excuse. Nelson wrote to John Edouard Pery on March 22, 1856, enclosing a bill of exchange for 2,050 francs “for our dear children Paul and Eliza” and a letter “proving to them the necessity that exists, in the present state of their affairs here, that the money we are
neck, stands at a short distance from the family group on the porch. He and Eliza, posed on either side of their relatives and friends, seem slightly isolated from the others.3 The photograph, faded from exposure to light, is tantalizing but unsatisfying. The tiny faces, examined through a loupe, fade into the background instead of moving into sharper focus. The expression on Eliza’s face cannot be read. Cannily she retains her secrets. In spite of her frailty—she stopped sallying out to Sunday