In a former life, I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation called “Prostitutes in Print: Representations of Prostitution in Popular Fiction from 1720-1780” — if you want to read it, it’s housed amid the voluminous dissertation archives at U Michigan (have at it). At the time, I figured that if I was going to bury my head in text for a certain number of years, it ought to be “interesting” reading.
Sadly I focused all my attention on English ladies of the night, when now I realize that the U.S. had myriad historic “ladies” to investigate — none more amazing than New York’s very own Madam Eliza Jumel.
While her story is retold in conflicting detail, the more “scholarly” assessment is that Jumel was not born in NYC, but she made it her home after an intriguing early start as a child raised in a Rhode Island brothel by a black Madam, a long stint in Paris running with the likes of Ben Franklin and Napoleon, and later marrying the infamous Aaron Burr (yup, the same one that killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel). Girlfriend got around.
New York is filled with these kinds of great stories, and as life would have it, I happen to know the great great great etc. grandson of Aaron Burr, who is currently on the board of the Jumel Mansion and who introduced me to this intriguing woman. The mansion is where Madam Jumel resided when she returned from Paris, amid her enormous farm (now the campus of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital — once home to her flock of 400 merino sheep). It is smack in the middle of Washington Heights off 162nd street. Who knew?
It’s not the first time I’ve learned about an historic figure who inhabited an historic building right in the heart of the City; mere blocks off a main thoroughfare, where you would never in a million years expect to find such a house… or such a history. In fact, I have been blown away in each borough: The Dyckman Farmhouse Museum, built circa 1784, is Manhattan’s last colonial Dutch farmhouse looking over Broadway for the past 200 years; King Manor, on bustling Jamaica Avenue in Queens, named after Rufus King, member of the Continental Congress, signer of the Constitution, and one of the first senators from New York State; Van Courtlandt House in The Bronx, commissioned in 1748 and home to the Van Cortland family. The list goes on and on.
While Madam Jumel was not known as a prostitute per se, her early introduction to New York society came by way of her career as an “actress,” a common euphemism for prostitution in the 18th and 19th centuries. But that’s less interesting than the fact that she was an astounding businesswoman, essentially re-establishing her French husband’s fortune in NYC after squandering it all in France. She was the kind of woman I like to call “High Maintenance…but she maintained herself;” my kinda gal.
This year marks the Jumel Mansion’s 250th anniversary. In years past, neighbors have noted the shady lady who can still be seen walking along the Mansion’s terrace, looking from its windows, and watching the circus that is NYC go on without her.
Morris-Jumel Mansion, 65 Jumel Terrace (just off 162nd street). Use your GPS — it’s complicated.
Stop by and visit; you won’t be sorry you did.