J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

The Legend of Mme. Jumel

Ben Carp alerted me to this gossipy Gothamist article by Danielle Oteri about Eliza Jumel, long-time owner of the Morris-Jumel Mansion in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan. A taste:
Eliza Jumel’s New York Times obituary [from 1865] states that her mother died shortly after giving birth and that she was placed in the care of “a good woman, and many clergymen visited her comparatively humble dwelling, so that the early years of the little one were passed amid good influences.”

In fact, Eliza “Betsy” Bowen was born in either 1773 or 1775 to a mother who worked as a prostitute for a black madam in a Providence, Rhode Island brothel.

Though the means of her ascent aren’t entirely clear, Jumel left Providence in the early 1790s for New York, then a town of 60,000 people. She worked as an actress, and seems to have used her considerable wit and beauty to gain access to many of the city’s elite.

However, her obituary claims that Eliza was brought into these circles when she eloped to New York with Col. P. Croix; that she attended the inauguration of George Washington, was best friends with Benedict Arnold’s wife, and inspired Patrick Henry to fall in love with her. The obituary also claims she was present at the first session of the Continental Congress in 1774, which would have made her exceedingly distinguished for a 1-year old.
Jumel did have some genuine top Revolutionary connections. Her house, abandoned by its Loyalist owner, was Gen. Washington’s headquarters for a short time in 1776. Her second (documented) husband was Aaron Burr; when that marriage soured, she had the dramatic sense to hire Alexander Hamilton’s son as her attorney.

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