Category Archives: US history

A Prostitute’s Progress*

Eliza Bowen Jumel Burr (1775-1865)

It is said that Betsy Bowen was born in a brothel in Providence, RI. Following in her mother’s profession, she would later claim to have been born on the high seas to a French naval officer & his aristocratic English wife. While still a teenager, she abandoned an illegitimate son & moved to New York City. She kept her past a secret when she met & married the wealthy French Caribbean plantation owner & wine merchant Stephen Jumel in 1804. Without children of their own, they adopted Eliza’s sister’s illegitimate daughter, Mary Bowen. In 1810 they purchased a magnificent Georgian style Palladian mansion in Washington Heights as a country summer home, now known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

In 1815, she traveled to Paris & became accepted as a Bonapartist sympathizer, going so far as to offer Napoleon safe passage to New York after his defeat at Waterloo, which he declined. Her opinions & actions in France proved too controversial, & she was asked to leave the country by King Louis XVIII.

In 1826, Eliza returned alone to America with power of attorney over her husband’s fortune. Between his wealth & her wise investment of it, Jumel became the wealthiest woman in America after his death in 1832.

Fourteen months after her first husband’s death, Jumel married the controversial former United States Vice President Aaron Burr in the octagonal parlor of the mansion.  She filed divorce proceedings against Burr in 1834, saying he had squandered her money on Texas land deals & committed adultery “at divers times with divers females.” Burr at the time was 78 years old; Eliza was 58. The divorce became final on the day of his death, September 14, 1836. Eliza’s divorce had stipulated that she could remarry at any time; however, Burr could not marry before her death. Her lawyer was Alexander Hamilton.

While never achieving her desired ranking in New York polite society due to her controversial background, nevertheless, Eliza became a member of the New York Society Library, which gave her a venue as a patron of the arts. She became the first woman in America to form a significant collection of paintings. But her past fueled a controversy sparked by an exhibition of her collection at the American Academy of Fine Arts in 1817.  While this exhibition provided New Yorkers with a rare opportunity to view Old Master paintings, it exposed tensions between elitists & populists, Francophiles & Americanists, & male & female purveyors of culture. [Macleod, Dianne Sachko  “Eliza Bowen Jumel: Collecting & Cultural Politics in Early America,” Journal of the History of Collections  13 (2001) 1:57-75]

Jumel lived the rest of her life in the Manhattan mansion, & died at age 90 in 1865. She was buried in Manhattan at the Trinity Church Cemetery & Mausoleum. The Morris-Jumel Mansion, at Edgecombe Avenue & 160th Street, is a short walk from the cemetery.  Stephen was laid to rest at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street, below Houston.

DeMarrais, John  “Madame Jumel Comes to Worcester”

*Hancock, Marianne  Madame of the Heights: The Story of a Prostitute’s Progress Mt. Desert, ME: Windswept House, 1998

Macleod, Dianne Sachko   “Eliza Bowen Jumel: Collecting & Cultural Politics in Early America,” Journal of the History of Collections  13 (2001) 1:57-75

Minnigerode, Meade  Lives & Times: Four Informal Biographies; Stephen Jumel, Merchant; William Eaton, Hero; Theodosia Burr, Prodigy; Edmond Charles Genet, Citizen


early American salon culture

Gilbert Stuart Portrait of Anne Willing Bingham 1797

A renowned literary coterie in 18th century Philadelphia — Elizabeth Fergusson, Hannah Griffitts, Deborah Logan, Annis Stockton, & Susanna Wright — wrote & exchanged poems & maintained elaborate handwritten commonplace books of memorabilia. Through their liberal hospitality they initiated a salon culture in their great country houses throughout the Delaware Valley.  Susan M. Stabile (Memory’s Daughters: The Material Culture of Remembrance in 18th Century America.  Ithaca: Cornell, 2004) shows that these female writers sought to memorialize their lives & aesthetic experiences—a purpose that stands in contrast to the civic concerns of male authors in the republican era. Drawing on material culture & literary history, Stabile discusses how the group used their writings to explore & at times replicate the arrangement of their material possessions, including desks, writing paraphernalia, mirrors, miniatures, beds, & even coffins. As she reconstructs the poetics of memory that informed the women’s lives & structured their manuscripts, Stabile focuses on vernacular architecture, penmanship, souvenir collecting, & mourning.

Elizabeth Graeme hosted Pennsylvania’s young literati at her weekly parties in Philadelphia or at her country house, Graeme Park, in Horsham (Bucks County). In the post-Revolutionary period, Anne Willing Bingham became the arbiter of fashion & intellectual conversation at her home, “Lansdowne,” in Philadelphia (3rd & Spruce Sts.). Even Thomas Jefferson, who hated salons in the Parisian mode, felt compelled to attend because the finest minds in the Republic gathered in the Bingham’s parlor.

Annis Boudinot Stockton, New Jersey’s great saloniere in Princeton, taught Martha Washington how to run a republican court, when hosting the Continental Congress (of which her brother Elias Boudinot was president) at her estate, Morven, in 1781.

Branson, Susan. These Fiery Frenchified Dames: Women & Political Culture in Early National Philadelphia. Phila: U of P, 2001.

Kerber, Linda K.  Toward an Intellectual History of Women: Essays Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1997

MacLean, Maggie  “Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson 1739-1801,” in History of American Women

Norton, Mary Beth   Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 Ithaca: Cornell, 1996

Otter, Samuel   “Philadelphia Experiments.” American Literary History 16 (2004) 103-16

Ousterhout, Anne M.   The Most Learned Woman in America: A Life of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson University Park: Penn State, 2004

Shields, David S.   “The Early American Salon,” Humanities 29 (Jan/Feb 2008) 29

Boudinot, Elias

Born in Phila. in 1740, baptized by George Whitefield. President of the Continental Congress, & for a time President of the United States in Congress Assembled (some have claimed him as the first president of the US, a distinction he shares with John Hanson). After the Constitution was ratified, he served as a U.S. Representative & then Director of the U.S. Mint.
Retiring from politics, Boudinot was a trustee of the College of New Jersey (what is now Princeton Univ.). His views on religious tolerance, opposition to slavery, & the perceived demise of religious life in the country led him to found the American Bible Society in 1816. That same year, he published Star in the West, suggesting that Native Americans were the lost tribes of Israel.
Boudinot, a hyper-Federalist, believed that the rise of Jefferson with his heretical religious views & dangerous democratic leanings could only mean the decline of the United States. He reacted against Thomas Paine’s pamphet, The Age of Reason, which among other things sought to discredit the accuracy & infallibility of the Bible & advocated a natural religion, by penning a pamphet of his own, The Age of Revelation.
He married Richard Stockton’s (signer the Declaration of Independence), sister, Hannah, while Stockton married Elias’ sister, Annis. Boudinot died in Burlington, NJ in 1821, & is buried in Saint Mary’s Episcopal Churchyard with his wife.

North, Eric M. Rediscovering Elias Boudinot,” Bible Society Record (May 1954) pp. 72-73

Dorothy Ripley (1767-1832) Believe It or Not

independent, intinerant evangelist from Whitby, England; travelled to the United States on a mission to join the fight against the exploitation of African slaves — to proclaim “the joyful tidings of salvation” to “Ethiopia’s children” living under “base tyranny” — the indigenous natives, & others marginalized [e.g., in prisons, almshouses, etc.] in the new Republic. In her An Account of Rose Butler (1819), written under the pseudonym of “Benevolus,” she also inveighed against the “immorality” of capital punishment.

Assured of her divinely appointed call to preach the Gospel, nevertheless, she constantly was confronted by malicious misogyny & vituperative censure, especially among the patriarchal established clergy. Even when she met with occasional approbation & acceptance, she found herself, for example, thrown into jail for holding a revival that New York City termed “inciting a riot.”

She crossed the Atlantic at least 7 times, travelling up & down the eastern seacoast from Rhode Island to South Carolina, presenting her cause to politicians & on plantations.  On her first trip in 1802, after disembarking, she immediately travelled to Washington to seek an audience with President Jefferson, where she informed him of her anti-slavery views & intentions for ministry, especially among slave women.

house-of-repOn January 12, 1806 she became the first woman to speak in the in the newly constructed Hall of Representatives when she delivered a sermon. Jefferson & Vice President Aaron Burr were among those in a “crowded audience.”  Sizing up the congregation, Ripley concluded that “very few” had been born again & broke into an urgent, camp meeting style exhortation.

Ripley preached in the chamber at a time when it was used frequently by itinerant missionaries & clergy from local congregations. Until the mid-19th century, the House Chamber was often utilized as a place of worship.  Jefferson would  often, through his two terms, ride a horse from the White House to the Capitol in order to attend church services in the House of Representatives.  The House of Representatives, the Treasury Building, & the Supreme Court chambers continued to be used as churches until well after the Civil War & Reconstruction, with preachers of various denominations, including Roman Catholics, conducting services.

Although she drew from her Wesleyan background [she was the daughter of a Methodist lay preacher, who had accompanied John Wesley on preaching tours] & Quaker sentiments, she maintained no membership in any particular denomination, which afforded her the autonomy from denominational dictates.  Her Wesleyan theology is reflected not only in her preaching about, but working for social justice; a doctrine of atonement which assumes universal salvation; the assurance of one’s salvation, & Wesley’s holiness doctrine of sanctification.  Her “inner light” mystical experiences found resonance with her Quaker friends.

Ripley, Dorothy   The Bank of Faith & Works United.  Phila.: J. H. Cunningham, 1819
Everson, Elisa Ann   “’A Little Labour of Love’: The Extraordinary Career of Dorothy Ripley, Female Evangelist in Early America,” PhD diss. Georgia State Univ., 2007
Smith, Margaret Bayard.  Forty Years of Washington Society. Ed. Gaillard Hunt. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1906
Warner, Laceye   Saving Women: Retrieving Evangelistic Theology & Practice Waco, TX: Baylor, 2007