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Harlem History–A Scandalous Madame from Back in the Day

July 12, 2013 Leave a comment

jumel2Eliza Jumel is one of Harlem’s most infamous residents—in life and death. The former prostitute turned socialite lived at the Morris Jumel Mansion stretching from 160th to 162nd Streets near St. Nicholas and is buried at nearby Trinity Cemetery. During her long, storied life she befriended the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte and married a U.S. Vice President.

On Sunday, in honor of Bastille Day—France’s 4th of July—learn more about her.

Madame Jumel was born Betsy Bowen in Providence, Rhode Island in 1775. Her mother was a “working girl, but Betsy’s career in the “life” was short-lived. She became pregnant at 19, and headed to New York City with her newborn—and a plan for a new life.

She kept her past a secret when she met and married the wealthy French wine merchant Stephen Jumel in 1804. They moved to the Morris Jumel Mansion shortly after.

In 1815, the couple traveled to Paris. When the French economy soured in the 1820’s, Stephen Jumel’s fortunes did, too. He sent his wife back to the U.S. to sell some of his property. Instead of bailing him out, she used the money to buy her way into New York society.

Now a rich woman, she allowed her husband to live in their New York City mansion until he died in 1832.

At 57, Madame Jumel married Aaron Burr. The controversial former U.S. vice president was 79. The marriage didn’t last, and shortly after their divorce, Burr died in 1836.

Over the years, Madame Jumel tried to hold on to whatever past glory she once had. She even made visits to Europe proclaiming herself as the “Ex-Vice Queen Of America,” but by 1839 she began to withdraw to her mansion. She died in her sleep in 1865. She was buried in Trinity Cemetery and rests there still.

To learn more about Madame Jumel, read her 1865 New York Times obituary. And celebrate Bastille Day this Sunday with a walking tour of Trinity Cemetery honoring Madame Jumel with noted historian Eric K. Washington. Click here to reserve a spot. ($20 or $15 for members of the Municipal Art Society.)

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