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Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of…
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Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall…

by Shane White

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I really wanted to love this fascinating story of a black man who managed to break the racial barriers to become one of the wealthiest men of his generation. Unfortunately, while the facts are interesting, they were put together in such a way that I found myself unable to read more than a page at a time without falling asleep. Hamilton lived quite the life for a free black man, but the actual specifics are frustratingly few. This leads to more speculation that one might like about a subject who was a frequent visitor to the New York court system. Mr. White does an adequate job of presenting the barriers Hamilton faced but all in all, this is a disappointing snoozefest.
  jmchshannon | Dec 6, 2015 |
Heads I win, tails you lose

This stunning portrayal of life in 1800s New York, and in particular the trials and tribulations of a black/mulatto broker, is a rude awakening. It is rude because New Yorkers see themselves as fair and evenhanded, part of an almost unique melting pot, where anyone can play if they pay. Not so in the 1800s, especially if your hair was “wooly” and your skin dark. New Yorkers compared unfavorably to southerners in their snotty mistreatment of other races. For an intelligent, hustling nonwhite, the battle in the financial marketplace was multiplied by the prejudice of the courts and threats in the streets. Jeremiah Hamilton overcame all of it to be the first American millionaire who wasn’t white. He found the angles, timed his moves and leveraged everything and everyone. He made enemies by the carload.

And money.

Hamilton bullied his way onto Wall St. He was as clever, sharp and underhanded as any of his white counterparts. He made a living claiming insurance for losses, mostly at sea, and mostly in court. He battled prejudiced judges and juries, favoritism among whites, and a clearly uneven playing field. When attacked in person, in court or in print, he always hit back harder, which shocked white New York. He totally distanced himself from nonwhites, had his own circle of white friends, married a white woman, and disported himself as a wealthy white. Any one of which could have cost him his life.

The great achievement of Prince of Darkness is Shane White’s ceaseless digging. Reading the many daily newspapers of Hamilton’s lifespan, the court records, government records, and following all kinds of slim leads, he draws in parallel characters and stories for context. His research stretches to the books on Hamilton’s shelf, listed in his bankruptcy filing, and those on his library card, some 250 more. White paints a remarkable and memorable picture of someone who lived the moment and lived it large. White interjects himself from time to time, explaining the lengths he had to go, the assumptions and the choices he had to make along the way. The effect is to make the reader a partner, giving us the choices made of uncertainty, though White tells us which way he leans.

What White never reveals is how on earth he ever even discovered the existence of Jeremiah Hamilton. An Australian history professor in Sydney is not the most likely to stumble across the obscure 19th century independent Wall Street broker. This is a man who left no photos, no portraits, no documents or ledgers, and who was forgotten as soon as he left the scene in 1875. There are no books that profile him, no documentaries celebrating him, and no institutes honoring him. It makes this book a real achievement.

David Wineberg ( )
1 vote DavidWineberg | Aug 11, 2015 |
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"A prominent historian brings to life the story of a man who defied every convention of his time by becoming Wall Street's first black millionaire in pre-Civil War New York, marrying a white woman, owning railroad stock on trains he was not legally allowed to ride and outsmarting his contemporaries,"--NoveList.… (more)

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