The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel:
A Story of Marriage and Money and the Early Republic
by Margaret A. Oppenheimer
Prostitute, murderer, and gold-digger? Or businesswoman, art connoisseur, and society maven?
Eliza Jumel, née Betsy Bowen, it seems, was all of these things and more, depending on who was doing the telling. Margaret Oppenheimer brings Eliza Jumel and her many facets to life in her historical biography of a woman whose story riveted nineteenth-century New York—if not the entire nation.
Born into poverty in 1775, the woman who became Eliza Jumel spent her early years living in a brothel housed in an old jail that had been converted into a residence. She spent several spells in a work house, became an indentured servant, and eventually made her way to New York. It was there that her transition from penniless wretch to wealthy socialite would begin.
Eliza would eventually marry Stephen Jumel, a wealthy merchant who hailed from France. Years later, after Jumel died as the result of an accident, she would become the second wife of former Vice President Aaron Burr, who, at the time of their marriage in 1833, was practicing law in Manhattan. Eliza would make the most of both marriages, becoming one of America’s wealthiest women by the time she died in 1865.
But her rise from poverty to affluence would be neither a straight path nor one without complications. Eliza Jumel’s life was an intricately woven patchwork of relatives in America and France, a sticky web of colorful characters who would vie for a slice of the sizable estate she had amassed by the time she died: $1 million (about $15 million today) in various assets, including a mansion, a summer home, and several hundred acres of prime real estate. That estate and those characters would lead to numerous legal battles—one of which even reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
Oppenheimer has done an admirable job here of untangling the crazy web of people in Eliza Jumel’s life: former husbands, nieces and nephews, siblings and step-siblings, various in-laws at home and abroad—the people in Eliza’s story are almost too numerous to count. And, as it would turn out, all of those people had their own notions of who Eliza Jumel really was.
Rumor and innuendo seem to have followed Eliza throughout much of her life. Gossip surrounded the story of her marriage to Stephen Jumel, which was considered by many to be an unequal bond that greatly elevated Eliza’s status while doing little for Jumel. Gossip and speculation were part and parcel of Eliza’s life, much of it her own doing as she embellished stories in order to augment her status.
Indeed, status was one thing that Eliza continually sought. Oppenheimer details countless examples by which Eliza would weave colorful tales in order to associate herself, no matter how tenuously, with luminaries of the day such as Napoleon I and Charles X. Contemporary news articles, correspondence, and other materials point to Eliza’s unstoppable penchant for self-aggrandizement. For example, shortly before her death, Eliza invited the Prince de Joinville to visit at her mansion, writing to him that she had known his father, the late King Louis-Philippe of France.
Such letters were not uncommon, as Oppenheimer shares many stories about Eliza’s various escapades in high society. Most of these stories were exaggerated by Eliza herself to show her in the best light possible, and many such tales were planted in newspapers by Eliza, who was very much a shameless self-promoter in her never-ending quest for fame and fortune.
As such, Eliza Jumel is not entirely a sympathetic subject. Although it is easy to admire the rags-to-riches story of a driven, savvy woman who, in many ways, was a woman before her time, Eliza also comes off as cunning, conniving, greedy, and vain. Her determination is enviable while her dishonesty is not. Her ambition is admirable while her duplicitousness is not. Her strategizing is commendable while her scheming is not. (Of course, one wonders if the greed, vanity, duplicity, and scheming would be either overlooked or easily forgiven had Eliza Jumel been a man rather than a woman.)
Regardless of whether readers will find Eliza a character who deserves compassion, The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel does a good job of shining a light on an overlooked bit of history. Although a woman of notoriety at the time, Eliza Jumel’s story is not one that many readers likely will have learned about in history courses. Oppenheimer has woven together a well-researched biography of a woman who, although ahead of her time, has in many ways been lost to history. That said, gaps in the history have left a considerable number of holes, which Oppenheimer often fills with informed speculation, leaving numerous passages hedged with phrasing borne out of educated guesses marked by “it’s possible that” or “it may have been” or “it probably would have” or “it must have been.”
Even so, The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel is an interesting historical biography of a compelling figure, part rags-to-riches story, part history of early America, part court-room drama, colored by gossip and scandal that makes for a good read.
November 2015, Chicago Review Press
$29.95, hardcover, 347 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen