Great American Rogue, Aaron Burr’s visits to Greenpoint

013-1859_2 Aaron Burr by John Vanderlyn

I came across this wonderful story in the May 4th, 1890 Brooklyn Eagle. It may or may not be true, but  a Brooklyn old-timer claimed  it as neighborhood lore. At any rate it is a wonderfully salacious story.

I cannot put an exact date on the tale, but it reasonable to surmise that it was in the  early eighteen thirties. It seems that the infamous Aaron Burr, who would go down in history as the Vice President who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, spent some time in Greenpoint. Although at this time there were probably under a hundred people living in  the area, one of them was a beautiful young lady whose family had a house on what was once Pottery Hill, near present day Java and West Streets. Burr seemed to visit the young lady regularly on secret meetings, despite the fact that Burr would have been somewhere in his seventies. The article mentions that ” many a night he wandered around the hillside, breathing in her ear love and devotion.” The Greenpoint neighbors, however, were observant and tongues began to wag.

Before we continue with the story let us stop for a second and examine the exploits  of the infamous duelist.

Aaron Burr is no ordinary historical figure. He was the son of the President of Princeton University and a legitimate hero of the American Revolution. He   became a lawyer and a New York politician and soon skyrocketed to the vice-presidency, while  almost seizing the presidency. Burr challenged and killed Hamilton ruining his political career. He then  organized a Western  expedition to  perhaps to break up his own country or at least to dismember a foreign empire. He  allied himself in this venture with a man, James Wilkinson, who was both the commanding general of his country’s army and at the same time a paid secret agent of the foreign empire. He  was eventually accused of sedition by Willkinson, ordered seized by the president , captured, and brought back  to stand trial for treason, though finally acquitted by the opinion of the chief justice of the country. He  fled his country in disgrace, only returning years later to live out his life in obscurity.

Did I mention that he was  also extremely good-looking? Though small, Burr had lynxlike eyes that charmed everyone he met.He  was a notorious womanizer and frequent patron of prostitutes  who left broken hearts (and numerous offspring) scattered over two continents. He was simultaneously a loving father and a libertine. He ran up huge debts and fled the country to escape his creditors. He was a suave and genteel aristocratic  and women could not resist him, even in his seventies!

At the same time Burr was courting in Greenpoint, he was also wooing America’s richest woman Madame Jumel. She was a perfect match for Burr,  with a history equally rich in scandal. Born in a brothel in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1775, as Betsy Bowen, Jumel  was the daughter of a prostitute and followed in her mother’s footsteps.  Betsy attained a higher status in that profession, that of kept woman. Her first liaison was with a prominent man in Providence who kept her exclusively for himself in a brothel. She was sixteen when their liaison began. When she became pregnant, her protector took her child and paid Betsy to leave town. She decided to start a new life in New York City where she got work as a poorly-paid supernumerary in the opera.

Eventually, she changed her name to Eliza. She accepted the protection of a French sea-captain, Emile de la Croix, and took his name. When he returned to France, Eliza went with him. She was accepted by Napoleonic society and became the toast of Paris. She returned to New York alone about 1804, determined to start a millinery business with her newly acquired knowledge of French fashion. She rented a shop in the basement of Stephen Jumel’s wine shop. Her business, however,  failed and Eliza turned her shop assistants into prostitutes, becoming their madam.

Stephen was attracted to his tenant and Eliza wasted no time. She became his mistress and moved into his house. Stephen was aware of her past, but in the French spirit of laissez-faire, he didn’t mind. Eliza wanted more than protection from Stephen, she wanted marriage. She knew that it was only as a married lady that she would be accepted by New York society.

One day when Stephen was away on business, a rider caught up with him with the news that Eliza was dying. Stephen immediately headed back to New York. When he arrived, her doctor and his priest assured him she would not live out the night. Eliza made a deathbed request of Stephen that he save her immortal soul by marrying her before she died. His priest was there, time was of the essence, so Stephen married her on the spot. Miraculously, Eliza recovered, some say she was never in danger, and tricked Stephen into marriage. The truth will never be known. However, Stephen did not feel betrayed. He remarried her in a ceremony in Old Saint Patrick’s Church after her recovery. Stephen invited all his society friends, none came.

Jumel went to live in France and gave Mme. Jumel power of attorney over his holdings. Shrewdly, Mme Jumel became rich and when Stephen died in 1830 she became rich. One of the legacies of their marriage is Manhattan oldest extant house, the Morris Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights.

Mme Jumel soon began a romance with Burr, however, word of his Greenpoint dalliances soon got back to Jumel who decided that she would secretly follow Burr to Greenpoint. She concealed herself and observed the tender meeting between Burr and her rival. At some point she could no longer control herself and she confronted Burr and the young lady with a torrent of abuse. Burr’s fair young companion beat a hasty retreat. Mme Jumel administered some caustic words of contempt and then commanded him to escort her back to Manhattan.

Mme Jumel had the satisfaction of marrying Burr, though she was nineteen years his junior at fifty-eight. Not surprisingly, Burr proved to be a bad husband and after only four months she sued him for divorce on the grounds of infidelity. The Brooklyn Eagle article makes no mention of what became of the fair young Greenpointer.

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