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
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 | www.MoAF.org
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.