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Escapades in High Society

CBR_Logo2The 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?

9781613733806_eliza jumelEliza 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.

Margaret Oppenheimer

Author Margaret Oppenheimer

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.

Two-Star Review

November 2015, Chicago Review Press
History
$29.95, hardcover, 347 pages
ISBN: 978-1061373-380-6

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Walk This Way

CBR_Logo2Pedestrianism:
When Watching People Walk
Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport
by Matthew Algeo

Having lost a bet over who would become the next U.S. president, Edward Payson Weston walked from the Boston Statehouse to the country’s capital in Washington, DC—roughly 478 miles—to see Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1860. Though, in the end, he would miss the inauguration by mere hours, Weston’s walk attracted wild attention, earning him supporters and sponsors all along his route.

pedestrianism 9781613743973Little did Weston know that his feat would launch a national obsession with walking: This was the beginning of pedestrianism, a sport that would precede baseball as America’s pastime, drawing tens of thousands of spectators to its ever-more-lavish races and events in American and British arenas.

Matthew Algeo’s latest book, Pedestrianism, published by Chicago Review Press, offers a comprehensive study of the development and celebration of this little-known sport, which experienced a surge of popularity in the 1870s and 1880s. Algeo, whose previous books include The President Is a Sick Man and Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure, closely examines the culture of competitive walking and the frenzy into which it threw spectators—both American and British—in its heyday, exploring the physical, emotional, and political effects the sport had on the communities it touched.

Algeo delves deeply into the characters and achievements of the most famous pedestrians in this unusual history. He also offers a broad historical context, illustrating the circumstances that allowed the phenomenon of competitive walking to take root in late nineteenth-century society—proving that sometimes reality really is stranger than fiction.

In these pages, readers will find stories about a variety of competitive walking races, the results of which were telegraphed across the country and printed in bold headlines in extra editions of newspapers. Algeo also describes how the sport spawned some of the country’s first celebrity athletes, people whom spectators would pay a quarter or fifty cents to watch walk around in circles for days on end, marking the beginning of modern spectator sports. And, of course, he details the many races that captured the attention of so many people, the likes of which included Mark Twain, who himself attempted to take up the sport.

algeo

Author Matthew Algeo

Though the descriptions of the famous races begin to blend into one another midway through the book (it seems you had to be there to really get the appeal of the spectacle), Algeo’s study of pedestrianism still manages to entertain. He captures the spirited atmosphere of the famous six-day races, vividly recreating the rowdy crowds and high-stakes competition. He paints the major players in such a way that they stand out from one another, more like fictional characters than textbook renderings, and he is deft in recreating the nineteenth-century world they come from.

It is exactly that deft treatment of this unusual world that allows the book to be a success. Pedestrianism was not born in a bubble and, although Algeo certainly delves deeply into the characters and achievements of the most famous competitors and their fans, it is in putting the phenomenon in context that Algeo shines. Without that bird’s-eye view, as intriguing as it is, the sport of pedestrianism might not carry enough weight to warrant an entire book. But, as an odd new lens through which to view this segment of American and British sport and history, this amusing retelling of that strange pastime works just fine. All in all, Algeo’s mastery of the time period and his approachable writing style turn an obscure pocket of sports history into an interesting weekend read.

Three-Star Review

April 2014, Chicago Review Press
History/Sports
$24.95, hardcover, 262 pages
ISBN: 978-1-61374-397-3

—Reviewed by Sarah Weber

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WWI and Women of Action

CBR_Logo2Women Heroes of World War I:
16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics
by Kathryn J. Atwood

It was nearly a century ago, in June 1914, when Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro–Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in an episode that would lead to the start of World War I. During the next four years, the Great War would see more than 37 million military and civilian casualties, including more than 8.5 million killed.

CRP Atwood 9781613746868Millions of those casualties were women. Some were victims of mass murder, some victims of malnourishment due to food shortages, some by accident. But a number of those victims were women who had served as resisters, medical personnel, spies, journalists, and even soldiers. It is these women that Kathryn Atwood profiles in her latest book, Women Heroes of World War I.

Written for a young adult audience, Women Heroes of World War I focuses on just sixteen of the millions of women who served—either officially or unofficially—during the war. Just as their male counterparts, these women were eager to serve, some out of fervent nationalism, some out of a lust for glory, some out of a sense of adventure. But each of the women profiled in this easy-to-read book was bold and in many ways ahead of her time.

In a day and age when women were expected to serve solely as housewives, taking care of children and home, the sixteen women Atwood focuses on helped shift views and expectations of female roles. Indeed, World War I in general served as a massive shift in the way women were perceived, in the duties and roles they were expected to play, and in the ways in which their capabilities were viewed. Women, who were once rarely seen working outside the home, suddenly rushed to fill positions vacated by men leaving for the front, taking up jobs in government, agriculture, munitions factories, and shipbuilding. A smaller number became nurses, medics, spies, and even soldiers.

Women Heroes of World War I looks at several women who embodied a progressive attitude during the war. The book sticks with women from Allied countries (no women from the Central Powers are featured), and readers will find stories of exemplary women from such countries as Australia, England, France, Russia, Serbia, and the United States. From teenagers who assisted soldiers as guides and nurses to adventurous peasant women who fought on the frontlines to journalists who risked life and limb to report from enemy nations, this accessible collection commemorates the largely forgotten contributions these women made during a war that is itself often overlooked despite the fact that it was the deadliest event of the twentieth century at the time.

Arranged in four parts, the book is a collection of sixteen features, each of which stands alone. Readers can easily digest the short features, quickly working through each part. Sidebars and pull quotes lend additional insight and information, often serving to illuminate broader issues about the war in general. Each chapter ends with a “learn more” box which points readers to various resources for additional information (although it should be noted that many of the materials listed are decades old and likely not easy to locate).

Atwood_authorphoto

Author Kathryn Atwood

Many of the stories are told in a rather matter-of-fact style, although some notes of adventure, bravery, and derring-do pop through now and again. Although not necessarily designed to be read from beginning to end in one stretch, which might be a little tedious, taken together the features do combine to serve as an inspiration, particularly to younger girls. As such, Women Heroes of World War I has something of a “girl power!” attitude, a flavor that might well spark some readers to action in their own lives, whether on a local level or perhaps on a grander scale.

Indeed, it is toward the end of the book, when Atwood quotes attorney and journalist Madeleine Zabriskie Doty, that the essence of these features comes into full view. “The courage of the little band of women I had met,” Doty says, “was stupendous.”

This, then, is the key message of the book: that women, regardless of age or era, have much to contribute to the world, whether during wartime or peacetime. In sharing these stories, Atwood has done the women featured a great service—letting their lessons in courage live on a century later. She also has done her reader a great service—reminding them that nothing, and particularly not gender, need stand in the way of courage.

Three-Star Review

June 2014, Chicago Review Press
History/YA
$19.95, hardcover, 246 pages
ISBN: 978-1-61374-686-8

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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