Madam Eliza Jumel (nee Elizabeth Bowen) a Providence native, has been posthumously inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame as part of the 20-women inductee class chosen in observance of the centennial of the Nineteenth (Women’s Rights) Amendment.
Sixteen ladies have been previously inducted for their various achievements in the 19th or 20th centuries with three more to follow Jumel, namely historians Florence Simister and Florence Markoff (at our upcoming April 3, 2022 ceremony) and pioneer attorney Ada Sawyer, (June, 2022 at the Rhode Island Bar Association luncheon) Rhode Island’s first member of the Bar Association.
Jumel’s induction was arranged in coordination with the staff of the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the New York City home of Madam Jumel, which is now an elegant house museum. A copy of her biography is attached.
Dr. Patrick T. Conley
President, Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame
State of Rhode Island, Historian Laureate
Eliza Jumel (nee, Elizabeth Bowen)
Eliza Jumel (nee, Elizabeth Bowen) was born in Providence on April 2, 1775 the daughter of Phebe Kelly and John Bowen, a sailor. After her parents separated, Phebe lived in poverty. To survive she worked in a mixed-race brothel in which her two young daughters, Elizabeth, and Mary, were raised. In 1785, when the town council closed Phebe’s “disorderly house” Betsy and her sister were sent to the “workhouse” directed by the Overseers of the Poor. Eventually Betsy was indentured to the family of sea Captain Samuel Allen. In 1798, Phebe died of yellow fever during the great Providence epidemic of that year.
In the ensuring years, Elizabeth “Betsy” Bowen would burst out of poverty and transform herself from a lowly caterpillar into a prominent social butterfly known to New Yorkers as Madam Eliza Jumel. In that role she has become the heroine of a fascinating biography by Margaret Oppenheimar, appropriately titled The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel: A Story of Marriage and Money in the Early Republic (2016).
In 1803, twenty-eight-year-old Betsy moved from Providence to New York City and changed her name to Eliza Brown to put her past behind her by assuming a prominent Providence surname. She lost no time. By April, 1804 she had met and married Stephen Jumel, a wealthy French merchant, ten years her senior, who was headquartered in New York City. In 1810, the couple acquired a mansion with sweeping views of the Harlem River. It had been built by Colonel Roger Morris and served as George Washington’s headquarters in September 1776 during his New York Campaign. Today the well-preserved Morris-Jumel Mansion is museum.
During the twenty-eight years of Eliza’s marriage to Stephen Jumel, which was terminated in May, 1832 by his death in a carriage accident, the couple had no children, but they raised Eliza’s niece, Mary. The marriage was not smooth sailing and was punctuated by Stephen’s frequent business trips to France and elsewhere.
The union, though turbulent, was not without its pleasant trips to Europe and the American South. The couple also acquired an elegant summer home in fashionable Saratoga Springs, New York.
After Stephen’s sudden death, his wealthy widow was courted by the notorious Aaron Burr, the former U.S. vice president who in 1804 had killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Eliza, seeking to preserve her social standing, married Burr on July 1, 1833, less than fourteen months after Stephen’s tragic death. At that time, she was fifty-eight years of age. This marriage of mutual convenience was terminated on July 8, 1836, on the basis of Burr’s alleged adultery, in an acrimonious divorce proceeding. Thereafter, Eliza acted out her role in New York society as one of the city’s richest women in her own right. She died at her mansion on July 16, 1865 at the age of ninety.
Even in death she did not relinquish the spotlight. A feud among her heirs and bogus claimants to her estate lasted for decades and litigation concerning it reached the U.S. Supreme Court twice. Unfortunately, the battle tarnished her reputation and revealed her humble origins.
Eliza’s biographer, Margaret A. Oppenheimer, has offered the best summation for the life of this complex and resourceful woman: “Although Eliza was in some ways a difficult woman, her determination intelligence, and strength of character were what allowed her to survive and thrive in spite of the disadvantages of her youth. The affection of her niece and great-niece testify to her ability to form loving bonds.”
“Her contemporaries would have been less disturbed by her ascent into the upper class had she been a more conventional ‘womanly’ woman- a lady who hid her emotions and ambitions beneath a veneer of delicacy, gentleness, and charm. That was not a façade Eliza could maintain for long. But on her own terms, she achieved much: financial security, a certain social status, a landed estate, and an elegant home staffed with servants. She rose far above the social class to which she was born, attaining the upward mobility thought to exemplify the American experience, but in reality, so hard to achieve.”
Patrick T. Conley