Morris Jumel Mansion

She’s the woman who dueled with Aaron Burr and won.  Move over Alexander Hamilton. The life of Eliza Jumel is a tale about a woman who came to New York to make good on the American Dream. Margaret Oppenheimer’s splendid book, The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel:  Marriage and Money in the Early Republic, takes readers along on a tale of intrigue, scandal and innuendo. Far from a steamy beach read featuring men in white wigs, this meticulously-researched tale paints a detailed and scholarly portrait of New York City and the way in which the city’s growth provided fertile ground for the ambitions of its heroine.

Both Eliza and the American Revolution were born within weeks of one another in 1775. Eliza entered the world in Providence, Rhode Island as Betsy Bowen; an infant daughter who would be raised in what was called a “disorderly house.” Here, her mother received men nightly, one of the few options for women of the era with no husband upon whom to depend. Eliza came to New York City to reinvent herself and lead a new life. She did both.

In New York City, Betsy became Eliza, “marrying up” with a union to French businessman, Stephen Jumel. In 1810, they settled into a 140-acre estate originally built by Roger and Mary Morris in what was then called Washington Heights. Eliza re-christened her home “Mount Stephen,” in honor of her husband.

In upper Manhattan, Eliza and Stephen lived an idyllic rural life overlooking the Harlem River. Mount Stephen included a working farm. Eliza and Stephen planted one of New York’s earliest vineyards as well as orchards. Cider was pressed from their apple trees. An elegant boxed garden was filled with flowers, vegetables and fruit. Cliffs on the Harlem River led down to rich oyster beds and fresh seafood. These were served on ice taken from the river in the winter and stored in the estate’s deep ice collar. In short, uptown living was good for Eliza.

After Stephen Jumel’s death, Eliza wished to make the transition from uptown  rural contentment to downtown mover and shaker. For this, Eliza, now a wealthy widow, needed a powerful husband. Enter Aaron Burr.

Just where and how Eliza Jumel and Aaron Burr met is hard to know. Dr. Oppenheimer’s meticulous research did reveal that they both checked out books from the New York Society Library (still operating on 79th Street), on the same day. Eliza’s marriage to Aaron Burr in 1833 was designed to open social doors downtown and bring the creme de la creme of New York society up to her country estate. But even New York women sometimes miscalculate. Aaron Burr, his ambitions, his plans and his debts, did not add up to the social bargaining chip that Eliza had signed on for.

Instead of a step up on the social ladder, the subsequent divorce proceedings the very next year in 1834, brought gossip and scandal, accusations and counter-accusations.  As a woman battling to keep her money and property, Eliza mounted an effective PR campaign that shifted any blame to Aaron Burr. Divorce papers appear to have been filed by Eliza on the anniversary of Burr’s New Jersey duel with Alexander Hamilton.  Rubbing Burr’s reputation in even more New Jersey dirt, Eliza accused him of an adulterous affair in a New Jersey love nest, a short ferry ride across the Hudson River from the Jumel mansion.  New Yorkers were, naturally, taken aback by all these Jersey doings.

Burr stalled the divorce with 15 adjournments and his own accusations of adultery against Eliza.  The marriage was dissolved in 1836. Eliza kept all of Stephen Jumel’s fortune and real estate holdings. The cleverist lawyer in New York City, Aaron Burr, had dueled with Eliza Jumel and lost.  He had the good grace to die shortly thereafter – on Staten Island.

But with the divorce, Eliza lost all possibility of social advancement she did what any social-climbing New York girl would do. She took herself off to Europe where she could again reinvent herself. News traveled slowly in those days.  In Europe, Eliza’s favorite new identity was that of the grieving widow of the American vice president Aaron Burr, who had died after the divorce was finalized.

In an incredible display of prototypical New York chutzpah, Eliza even made a move to collect Burr’s military pension from the Revolutionary War.  She failed, but hey, New York women have always known how to try and make the best of any opportunity.  Likewise, Eliza Jumel’s attempts to repaint her early life in ladylike pastel colors was an abysmal failure.  Scandal followed her to her death – and beyond.

Born two weeks prior to the start of the American Revolution, Eliza Jumel died two months after the conclusion of America’s Civil War. Her remarkably long life of 90 years was echoed by the long journey of her last will and testament through the courts.  This legal odyssey managed to revive and embellish many sordid stories about her rise up the social ladder. She was accused of being morally deranged and killing her first husband, and (our favorite story) identified as the mother of George Washington’s illegitimate son. Spoiler alert:  She wasn’t.

In 1907, her former home became a museum.  Named the Morris-Jumel Mansion, commemorating Roger and Mary Morris, who built the original house, and Eliza Jumel, its most famous resident, it boasts man of the furnishings bought by Eliza and Stephen Jumel.  It is Manhattan’s oldest home, and its furnishings have been restored to their former glory.  Alas, concludes Dr. Oppenheimer, the same cannot be said for Eliza’s reputation.

Eliza was buried in Trinity Cemetery in upper Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River. (Aaron Burr was buried in New Jersey, the site of his birth, Princeton school days, dueling and trysting. Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza are buried in Trinity Cemetery downtown.) She seems to prefer the eastern side of upper Manhattan overlooking the Harlem River and her old estate. Her ghost is said to walk the rooms of the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

Like any New York woman worth her salt, Eliza Jumel is determined to have the final word.  And she might just be able to do that. Columnist Liz Smith has proposed the story of Eliza Jumel as the perfect material for a television miniseries.  Her suggestion is to have the story of Eliza “goosed up” a bit, specifying “more cleavage and sex.”  But perhaps Eliza would be happy with a run on Broadway instead.

Next read about 13 Historic Houses Converted into Museums on Manhattan and New York City’s Presidential Haunts from Washington to Lincoln.