Tag Archives: Manhattan

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” http://theusgenweb.org/ny/otsego/histsketchs/mdmjumel.htm

*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