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‘Lack of documentation’ no more on Hamilton’s life story

By Terri Schlichenmeyer
On October 25, 2015

Follow Jeremiah Hamilton’s shady past as he climbs to the top,
burning bridges and living the good life in the 1800s.
Credit: Macmillan

Your numbers weren’t picked last night and now you’ve collected another worthless lottery ticket. No shopping spree or mortgage payoff for you. You’ll have to go to work and get your incredible wealth just like everybody else. Or, as you’ll read in “Prince of Darkness” by Shane White, you could become rich the old-fashioned way: through deceit.

Nobody knew for sure where Jeremiah G. Hamilton had come from; he showed up in New York City in the wake of scandal. Some sources said he was born in the Caribbean, which he admitted to, but he also claimed Richmond, Virginia, as his first home.

Nobody knew for sure, though, because Hamilton, an African-American man, spent most of his adult life hiding facts and creating fiction.

Wherever he got his start, Hamilton launched himself early: in 1828 and barely into his 20s, he was involved in a counterfeit scam in Haiti that would’ve meant death had he been caught. With the help of locals, he escaped and arrived in Gotham, but not without notice: newspapers of the day splashed the story on their pages, but Hamilton managed to stay mum on who’d helped him.  

Almost immediately, he started borrowing money in a “frenetic, almost desperate” way, money he had no intention of paying back, which ultimately landed him in court.

There were at least 10 lawsuits against him between 1830 and 1835 and there may’ve been more. Then came The Great Fire of 1835 in which dozens of acres of Manhattan were burned to the ground, along with the records of several businessmen who’d been convinced to invest with him. Hamilton denied the transactions, kept their $25,000 and gained the moniker of “Prince of Darkness.”   

For the rest of his life – even after being forced to declare bankruptcy – Hamilton always landed on his feet, “shunned” other African Americans and even invested in companies that overtly practiced racism. He died in 1875 in a “comfortable and elegant” residence he shared with his White wife and family.

So why are history books silent on Hamilton’s story? That’s a question author White had, after he discovered Hamilton’s name and began digging. Could it have been due to the color of Hamilton’s skin?

It’s possible, said White, but in “Prince of Darkness,” he also indicates that the lack of documentation may’ve been because Hamilton ruffled the feathers of White financiers and investors and didn’t appear to care that he’d done so.

That lack of concern in the face of the racism that Hamilton surely endured would be an interesting story in itself, but White embellishes the tale with an abundance of history and extensive biographies of other influential people of Hamilton’s time.

That’s good to a point, but it can also occasionally make the book incredibly dull. I found my mind wandering much more than I might’ve liked.

Is this book worth reading? I think so, but you may want to give it a rest now and then to regenerate yourself. Start it, take a break and repeat as necessary and you might find “Prince of Darkness” to be a great read.

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