Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, it is common knowledge that some Hamilton men “can’t say no to this.” Alexander Hamilton‘s infamous affair with Maria Reynolds, a married woman living in New York when the Founding Father was climbing the political hierarchy, is immortalized in Hamilton: An American Musical. However, the promiscuous scandals surpassed Alexander. Decades after his death, a prostitute met the descendant of the Founding Father in a brothel and duped him into marriage using an infant purchased from a baby farm.
On July 28th, Untapped New York Insiders are invited to virtually listen to Bill Shaffer, author of The Scandalous Hamiltons and Untapped New York tour guide, to hear about the fascinating true story behind one of the great scandals of the Gilded Age. Along with discovering the secrets of Robert Ray Hamilton’s scandal, listeners will learn about the beginnings of tabloid journalism, the history of baby farming, and the socioeconomic divisions of the Gilded Age. Become a member today (use code JOINUS for your first month free).
Discover Hamilton Family’s Scandals
An excerpt from the book provided below introduces, Eva, the daughter of an alcoholic woodcutter who entangles herself with Ray, the great-grandson of Alexander Hamilton. Her actions will make front-page headlines nationwide and ignite the rest of the story.
Excerpt from The Scandalous Hamiltons by Bill Shaffer
The streets just inland from the boardwalk of Atlantic City were filled with quaint Victorian inns and cottages that featured steeply gabled roofs, cupolas, and long, shaded porches that wrapped around their shingled exteriors. These innkeepers offered accommodations on only one or two floors, providing an option for those vacationers who sought both a quieter respite and more privacy than could be found at the beachfront hotels.
The Hamiltons rented two rooms on the second floor of one of these inns on Tennessee Avenue—Noll Cottage—upon their arrival from the West Coast in mid-July. Ray and Eva occupied one room, Nurse Donnelly the other, with baby Beatrice shuttled between the two. For six weeks, the proprietress of the cottage, Elizabeth Rupp, bore witness to increasingly boisterous arguments between Ray and Eva, excessive drinking by both Eva and Mrs. Donnelly. To the presumed relief of Mrs. Rupp, the Hamiltons were scheduled to return to New York on the morning of August 26, 1889.
Both Ray and Eva were up before the sun on the morning of their departure, rising at 3:00 a.m. to pack. They were awake only briefly before another argument ensued. Over the course of their nearly four-year relationship, Ray and Eva had not spent that much time together—for the most part, they only saw each other the two or three days a week when Ray returned from Albany to New York City. But after being in each other’s company without a break for eight months, Ray had grown weary of his wife. Eva’s constant demands for money to feed her insatiable appetite for clothes and fine jewelry only added to the strain in their relationship.
The night before their scheduled departure, and after less than a year of marriage, Ray asked Eva for a formal separation, offering her $5,000 per year in expenses and a promise to provide for Beatrice in whatever way his infant daughter needed. Ray told Eva that if she refused his offer, he would return to New York alone and she would receive nothing. The country girl who grew up in poverty and who had become too accustomed to living in luxury, possessing the finery she could only dream about in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, refused her husband’s offer. Eva countered that if Ray followed through on his proposal, she would make public what had long been whispered about by his inner circle—that the silk-stocking heir of one of the most famous names in America was besotted with a prostitute.
During Ray’s bachelor days, the New York City Police Department stated that “startling as is the assertion, it is nevertheless true, that the traffic in female virtue is as much a regular business, systematically carried on for gain, in the city of New York, as is the trade in boots and shoes, dry goods and groceries.”
As the sun rose on the morning of their departure and the other guests at Noll Cottage made their way to the dining room for breakfast, Eva ordered Mrs. Donnelly to go out and buy a bottle of whiskey. The arguments and threats exchanged between the Hamiltons on that Monday morning were not new to the baby nurse, nor was Eva’s request for alcohol.
When Mary Ann Donnelly returned at 9:00 a.m., her breath bathed in alcohol and holding a whiskey bottle only two-thirds full, Eva summarily fired her for drunkenness and insubordination. The nurse exploded—”You she-devil!” she bellowed—accusing Eva of immoral behavior and intimating to Ray that Eva and Josh were more than friends. The volume of the shouting coming from the Hamiltons’ room increased as Ray attempted to act as referee between the two volatile women. Eva, enraged by the nurse’s accusations, picked up Beatrice’s metal bathtub and flung it at Mary Ann, narrowly missing her head. The basin made a loud clanging sound as it bounced off a wall and spun to a stop on the floor. Ray implored Mrs. Donnelly to return to her room until he and his wife could resolve the situation.
Eva continued drinking throughout the morning, beside herself that Ray hadn’t fully taken her side against Mary Ann Donnelly. In the adjoining room, Mrs. Donnelly drank from her own stash of brandy. Baby Beatrice slept soundly in her crib as Ray attempted to bring the conversation back around to the separation agreement with Eva. She finally admitted that she would not entertain any agreement that didn’t start at a minimum of $6,000 a year.
Shortly before noon, the waitstaff at Noll Cottage busied themselves setting the dining room for lunch. Starched linens were laid across tables, wineglasses and silverware made a gentle clinking sound as they were set in place, and the aroma of roasted meat and fish drifted from the kitchen. As the first guests unfolded their napkins and studied their menus, the routines of everyone on the property came to a halt when the sound of heavy footsteps, crashing furniture, and, finally, a deep thud was heard from the second floor above them.
One of the waiters, who had little doubt about where the noise came from, rushed up the stairs and kicked in the door of the room occupied by the Hamiltons. Eva stood near the bed, gripping a double-edged knife with an elongated bone handle—what was known as a Mexican dagger. She was being restrained by Ray, partially wrapped in a bed sheet that covered his slashed and torn clothes. Mary Ann Donnelly lay crumpled on the floor, clutching her stomach, her dress and apron matted with blood.
Discover Hamilton Family’s Scandals
After seething in her room for two hours after being dismissed, Mary Ann Donnelly had returned to the Hamiltons’ room one last time—not to discuss the situation further with Eva, but to throttle her. She had grabbed Eva by the shoulders and pushed her backward as Ray tried in vain to separate the two alcohol-fueled antagonists. Eva grabbed Mary Ann’s hair, Donnelly pushed back, and they ended up with their fingers in each other’s mouths, careening heavily across the floor in an awkward, drunken tango. Eva broke free, grabbed the knife from Ray’s partially packed trunk, and waved it wildly at both her husband and the nurse. Ray managed to dodge Eva’s slashes, but the heavyset, stumbling Mary Ann Donnelly was not as fortunate. Eva’s dirk plunged deeply into the nurse’s abdomen, missing her intestines by an eighth of an inch.
The diners on the main floor of the cottage scattered upon hearing Mary Ann Donnelly drop to the floor above them, and an urgent call was placed to the Atlantic City Police Department. William Biddle was the first officer to arrive at 135 Tennessee Avenue. He pushed through the onlookers who had already assembled on the street, stepped onto the shaded front porch, and was directed to a back room on the ground floor. Mary Ann Donnelly had been brought downstairs by the cottage staff and was lying on a cot in a back room, blood oozing from her stomach. Biddle asked if she knew who had cut her.
Between gulps of air, Mrs. Donnelly spit out, “You know who did it. It was that woman upstairs and I want her arrested. If I die, she’ll hang for this.” By Biddle’s reckoning, the woman was near death and he called for a doctor to be summoned immediately.
Mrs. Rupp directed Biddle up the stairs to the scene of the incident. He walked into the bedroom, its furniture in disarray, bed linens and clothing strewn on the floor. Robert Ray Hamilton stood silently next to his wife. Biddle asked Mrs. Hamilton if she had stabbed the woman downstairs on the cot.
Eva coolly responded, “I sent for you. I want that woman arrested. Her name is Mary Ann Donnelly and I will appear against her at the police station.” Biddle ignored her response and repeated his question. This time Eva replied matter-of-factly, “I did it and I’m sorry I didn’t finish her.”
Unclear of exactly what had transpired, Officer Biddle arrested both Ray and Eva Hamilton without incident and had them placed in the small holding cell at the Atlantic City police station. Eva was held without bail; Ray was released on a $600 bond and both were ordered to appear for arraignment the following day. News of the stabbing spread quickly, first by the guests at Noll Cottage, and then from the crowd gathered outside, to seemingly the whole of Atlantic City. Newspaper reporters from New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore descended on the Jersey shore by nightfall. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “The sole topic of conversation here is the stabbing of the servant of the woman who calls herself Mrs. Hamilton, and many visitors who the cool weather would otherwise drive away are kept here by the exciting affair.” Their stories were picked up by the Associated Press and splashed on page one of daily newspapers from coast to coast the next morning.
Tuesday, August 27, 1889
Atlantic City’s imposing City Hall stood two blocks north of Noll Cottage, at the corner of Tennessee and Atlantic Avenues. Framing the entrance to its four-story Romanesque façade, a clock tower rose another forty feet above the top-floor offices, capped by a steeply pitched copper roof. While Ray Hamilton spent Monday night in the comfort of the cottage, Eva slept in the City Hall jail. They were less than a quarter of a mile from each other, but the gulf that had opened in their relationship now far exceeded their physical distance.
The small courtroom in City Hall was normally used to adjudicate misdemeanors and petty crimes. It had no grand, raised dais for a judge to look down authoritatively upon the parties involved in a particular case—the presiding judge, Justice Albert W. Irving, sat at a small wooden table at the front of the room. Two additional tables, one for the prosecution and one for the defense, faced the judge, and a smattering of chairs for other interested parties lined the back wall of the room.
The morning after the stabbing, every inch of the cramped courtroom was filled with the curious—nattily dressed vacationers in sharp suits and straw boaters stood cheek to jowl with Atlantic City locals, all of them awaiting the arraignment of the progeny of one of the most well-known families in America and his notorious wife. When the clock struck ten o’clock, Justice Irving called the court to order.
Eva Hamilton was a study in contradiction when she was led into the courtroom from a side door, appearing at once nervous, yet seeming to revel in the attention of the onlookers. She wore a breezy summer ensemble of blue and white, reminiscent of a sailor suit, accented with diamond jewelry. The normally dapper Ray Hamilton looked as if he had slept in the clothes he was wearing, the gravity of the situation showing on his haggard face. He bore little resemblance to a man who lived a life of privilege. When Eva was seated next to him, he treated her with complete indifference, hardly deigning to notice her presence.
The entire proceeding lasted less than an hour, and Eva was remanded to the Atlantic County jail at Mays Landing until a grand jury could be impaneled to bring full charges. Ray was released on his bond, with permission to leave the jurisdiction. Whether motivated by a vengeful desire to see Eva sent to prison, or a dose of compassion for his troubled wife, Ray chose to remain at City Hall until she was put on a train for the short ride to the county jail.
At two o’clock in the afternoon, a jailer called out “Time’s up!” through the bars of Eva’s cell. Constables William and Pettit flanked the prisoner as she leaned on Ray’s arm for the short walk around the corner from City Hall to the Camden & Atlantic Rail depot, one block away on South Carolina Avenue. A porter from Noll Cottage trailed the entourage with a large valise filled with Eva’s clothing and accessories—being kept behind bars was no reason to sacrifice one’s sense of fashion.
The train rolled out of Atlantic City and chugged through the dunes and scrub pines inland from the Jersey shore, stopping at Absecon and Ponoma before reaching Egg Harbor City and branching off to Mays Landing. A reporter managed to grab a seat in the same car as the Hamiltons and strained his ear just enough to overhear Eva tell Ray, “You know I told you before I left New York that if you did not discharge that nurse there would be murder committed. But don’t worry about me, Ray. They won’t keep me in jail long.”
Ray, Eva, and the constables were met at the station by Sheriff Smith Johnson and escorted to the prison. The Atlantic County Jail in Mays Landing, designed by renowned Philadelphia architect, Thomas Ustick Walter, stood two stories tall with a charcoal-color, slate roof. Ten windows, fitted with steel bars, flanked the blackened iron door. After one last embrace at the jailhouse door, Eva was led down the hallway to her assigned cell and Ray returned to Atlantic City on the next train.
And if the day had not already provided its fair share of titillation, a telegram addressed to Ray Hamilton that arrived in the late afternoon at Noll Cottage added to an increasingly perplexing puzzle. It was sent from Reading, Pennsylvania, and arrived at the Western Union office in Atlantic City at 5:34 p.m. The local telegraph operator transcribed the missive as follows:
You can obtain very important information concerning the child you testified that Mrs. Hamilton is the mother of by presenting in person this message at Western Union telegraph office Fourteen north Sixth St Reading Pennsylvania where you can obtain address of written advice at once if you desire interview.
To learn more about this lesser known Hamilton scandal, attend Bill Shaffer’s webinar, read his book The Scandalous Hamiltons, or follow him on Twitter @bilshaffer or on Facebook at Bill Shaffer Books.
Discover Hamilton Family’s Scandals
Next, check out the top 10 secrets of Hamilton Grange!
The above excerpt is from The Scandalous Hamilton’s by Bill Shaffer, copyright Kensington Books, 2022.