Friday, February 10, 2012

The Harlot Who Was Dickens’ Muse, or, Even Greater Expectations

by Katherine Ashe

This is the story of a British author’s inspiration. It happens his muse was an American woman. She fits into the history of British letters for she was the inspiration for Miss Havisham, the bitter spinster jilted at the altar who is the central character of Great Expectations. Just how far may an novel depart from the facts of its inspiration? Very far indeed.

Granted, Dickens met her when she was an old woman, a wealthy dowager living in a mansion in New York City’s then fashionable Harlem. She was Madame Jumel, widow of the wealthy French liquor importer, Stephen Jumel, and wealthy even more in her own right, for she had cornered the Manhattan real estate market just as farms were being divided into the blocks now demarcated from 14th Street to 34th Street. She was, by her own effort, the richest woman in the western world.

She entertained Charles Dickens during one of his American tours. And astonished him by showing him her dining room, festooned with cobwebs, scattered with green and rock hard crumbs. For the room was her relic of the night she entertained Joseph Bonaparte, the Emperor of France’s brother.

Also, in her household was a little girl, actually her sister’s granddaughter, whom she was training to entrance men with her charms. A little boy was even provided for the child to practice upon. Thus Eliza Jumel came to inspire the character of the raddled, embittered, jilted-at-the altar Miss Havisham, of Great Expectations.

Dickens noted what he saw, and wrote the story that sprang to his mind. But the truth of Madame Jumel could not have been further from Miss Havisham.

We know the actual details of Eliza’s life because, after her death, the son, George Washington Bowen, whom she left in Providence, Rhode Island, to be brought up in the brothel of Mother Freelove Ballou, sued to gain her estate. A parade of witnesses, from her own servants in New York, to the Governor of Rhode Island himself who, from his childhood, remembered her as Betsy Bowen, the tart of the dockyards.

The revelations left New York scandalized, titillated, entranced. Madame Jumel was eccentric, yes. A few years before her death she had offered charity to homeless men during an economic crash. The men found themselves dressed in uniforms (designed and paid for by Madame) and being drilled daily by the lady herself astride her charger. She was preparing to invade of Mexico and make herself an empress. If this sounds like utter madness, it wasn’t quite. She was carrying forward the plans of her second husband, Aaron Burr.

What was Madame’s heritage? She was born Eliza (Betsy) Bowen, the daughter of a servant girl who, very unfortunately, previously had become pregnant and was cast into the streets of Providence. There she was first rescued by a brothel owner named Solomon Angel (one would not dare to make these names up) who handed her on to Mother Freelove.

In 1775 the now confirmed harlot, Phoebe, attracted the attention of a gentleman visiting Providence, and he took such an interest in her that he gave her enough money to stay off the streets for a while. During her time of absence from her profession, Phoebe discovered she was pregnant, and the child she bore was Eliza. The father, she informed Eliza, was none other than George Washington.

While still sheltered from life on the streets, Phoebe married a fisherman named Bowen, and the baby Eliza was given his name. But Bowen soon fell from his boat in a drunken stupor and was drowned.

Phoebe and Eliza were back at Mother Freelove’s, where Eliza, or Betsy as she was being called, grew to be a lively beauty and a great asset to the establishment. That is, until a French sea captain named DelaCroix, finding her not only winsome but quite intelligent as well, lured her to France. There he taught her French, and she joined several other of his protégées in his remarkable business.

Betsy, speaking French now, was set up by Captain DelaCroix in New York City and passed off as his wife. The aim was to entrap rich men into affairs with this lonely, lovely French wife. Then the captain would appear in the midst of a scene flagrant and the fearful lover would find himself the victim of blackmail. Charming, n’est pas?

New York City was prosperous and merry in these early years of the 1800’s, and Eliza’s victims included the very best people. But there were two men who escaped being her victims: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Hamilton, because gossip had it he as a love-child of George Washington’s – hence Eliza may have considered him her brother – and she did have SOME standards, you know.

Burr, because she fell in love with him, and he got rid of Captain DelaCroix for her and set her up in a career in the theater.

On the stage she was not nearly the success she had been in the boudoir, but she did well enough to dazzle an acquaintance of Burr, the liquor importer Stephen Jumel, a Frenchman with his own fleet of ships. Her French was sufficiently convincing even to fool him.

Soon Eliza gave up the stage and was installed as Jumel’s mistress, with the clothes, the coach, the house: all the accoutrements of a wife except the legality. Why did Burr give her up? He was pursuing a political career. A career that would bring him repeatedly into tied vote with Thomas Jefferson for the Presidency of the United States. He couldn’t afford a woman with Eliza’s reputation. But there’s every indication that he loved her, and her acquisition by Jumel may have done nothing to slow him down—at first.

Secure and rich, Eliza now set her sites to the next step up: official marriage to Jumel. The businessman was frantically summoned to return at once from a trip to Washington. What he found was Eliza, pale, coughing her last, attended by his doctor and a priest. History has it that, in tears, he begged his mistress if there was anything he could do for her in these, her last moments, and she murmured, “Yes, Stephen, make an honest woman of me.” The priest was there, the rite was performed, and Eliza leapt from her deathbed screaming, “I’m Mrs. Jumel!”

Jumel was known for his practical jokes. He took this one in good part, and married Eliza again, properly in a church.

It was about this time that Burr found his access to his beloved curbed. The doors of the Jumel house were mysteriously closed to him. And it was at this time that his exchange of letters with Alexander Hamilton, which led to their fatal duel, commenced. The letters show Burr being vague in his complaint. He had withstood Hamilton’s politically aimed slanders for years without wincing, but now he was implacable but rather vague. Hamilton tried every means to appease his opponent, until at last Burr accused him of having irreparably impaired his private life. He demanded Hamilton “give satisfaction” and the duel took place on the cliff at Weehawken, New Jersey. Was the cause Eliza? Had Hamilton hinted to Jumel an ongoing relationship that caused Burr’s banning from the Jumel house?

After the duel, which brought on Hamilton’s slow death, Burr retreated to Washington to serve out his term as Vice-President of the United States. He had been the runner-up in the Jefferson/Burr presidential election and Vice Presidents then were the number two winner.

Dueling was of course illegal, officially Burr had murdered Hamilton, but in Washington, so long as he was serving in office, Burr couldn’t be touched by the law. His term finished, he fled west-- to found an army to invade Mexico and establish a dominion for himself. Unfortunately, Jefferson took fright, imagine the army was intended to abduct HIM. The law was sent after Burr and he was brought back ignominiously (he was a small man) tied on a lawman’s saddlebow. But accusations didn’t stick, and Burr ended exiled to France.

What was Mrs. Jumel doing all this time? Finding herself in such happy circumstances, she went to Providence hoping to rescue her sister. Their mother was dead by this time: shot as a squatter in an illegal shack. The sister, Eliza discovered, was also dead, found floating in Providence’s harbor. But she had left a little girl, named Eliza, who was beginning the cycle of their family’s sad history again, as a servant. Madame Jumel bought little Eliza out of servitude and made her an adoptive daughter.

Then she set about creating what was probably the first historical restoration in the United States, now known as the Morris Jumel Mansion (it claims to be the oldest house in Manhattan and can be can be visited:

Why did Eliza do this? Built in 1765, this magnificent home of a royalist, Roger Morris, had been abandoned as the Continental Army moved into New York, and it came to serve as George Washington’s headquarters.

After the war it had degenerated into a country inn. Eliza persuaded Jumel to buy it, then spared no expense in restoring it, and magnificently furnishing its octagon ballroom. For this was to be the occasion of her entry into New York high society.

It was a grand event, no doubt. But it backfired. A guest brought a friend who was none other than the Governor of Rhode Island, who remembered Eliza as Betsy of the dock and streets, and he told Jumel a bit of his wife’s early history.

Years later, the servants reported how Jumel confronted Eliza – and she fought back. Had she not been a good wife? A good mother to their adopted daughter? How dare he take the word of a stranger above what he knew of her himself! And she brought from her capacious skirt’s pocket the little pistol he had given her. Jumel was reduced to tears, begging her not to shoot. Indeed, how could he have been so foolish? So cruel? Could she forgive him? If she only would forgive him, he would take her and little Eliza on a trip to France on his flagship named for her, the Eliza.

Eliza relented and put away her gun. And the Jumels went to France on the Eliza.

But nothing in Eliza’s life could be so ordinary as a shopping trip to Paris. Approaching her port of la Rochelle, the Eliza was battered by storms and driven south, taking shelter in the Gironde, near Bordeaux, to make repairs. There, a boat filled with magnificently uniformed French officers hailed them and asked to come aboard.

It seemed that Napoleon had just lost the Battle of Waterloo. He was intending to flee to America but his ship was trapped at La Rochelle, unable to leave harbor because of the storm. The American ship had been seen trying to beat her way in, then turning south. The Emperor’s aide de camp, Lelande, had been sent to see if that American ship could be found, and if it would be willing to rescue Napoleon and take him to where he might start a new life. The vanquished Emperor hoped to retire to a farm in New Jersey.

Of course the Jumels agreed. But by the time Lelande reached La Rochelle, the British had closed off the harbor. In despair, Napoleon had surrendered. In thanks, he sent Lelande back to the Jumels with a gift; his coach and his personal effects, all that remained of his earthy possessions.

The Jumels entered Paris in the Emperor’s wreath-emblazoned coach – and they were the only ones who knew what had become of Napoleon. Soon they were deep in efforts to free the Emperor, and Eliza was the darling of the Paris aristocracy. Forget about those parvenu snobs in New York City!

But soon the Jumels were near bankruptcy, attempting to fund the Emperor’s restoration.
There was the house in New York, and Stephen’s warehouses, they were worth something. Eliza insisted that only she knew the mansion’s worth, so she should return and see to its sale, while Stephen remained, seeing to their interests in Paris.

In New York, the first person Eliza contacted was Aaron Burr, who was returned from his French exile and had a small law practice now in Lower Manhattan. Burr advised Eliza to keep the house and rent it, and sell the warehouses. He would guide her in her investments of the proceeds. Thus Eliza got into the business of real estate speculation. How much was Burr’s work and how much Eliza’s will never be known, but in a few years she could move from her miserable room in a Long Island farmhouse back into her mansion with riches to spare.

Stephen returned from France. Life was idyllic; the mansion’s hilltop lands stretched down on each side to the Hudson and the East River, and the view from the master bedroom’s balcony reached (with a spy glass) to the harbor. Stephen, elderly now, loved his land, and rode the hay wagon up to the house with the last load of haying. He slipped off, broke his arm, the arm became gangrenous and soon he died.

Eliza was a very rich widow. Burr wasted little time. He brought a clergyman to visit. Aaron Burr and Eliza Betsy Bowen Jumel were married. During their divorce proceedings, which happened fairly soon afterward, she said he had forced her and embarrassed her into marrying him. And she accused her hasty husband of infidelity already.

It seemed that Burr, still entranced by the opportunities out West, sold one of Eliza’s carriages and its fine team of horse, and gave the proceeds to a woman who was leading a group of settlers westward. In a terrific argument in the mansion’s hall, Eliza insisted the woman was his mistress. He swore she was not, and then and there suffered a stroke. Crippled, barley able to speak, Burr insisted on being taken from the house, down the length of Manhattan to his office.

Paralysed, poverty-stricken, unable to pay his office’s rent, he ended living at the mercy of a kind woman innkeeper on Staten Island. It was there that Eliza’s lawyer, Alexander Hamilton Junior, handed Burr the final papers of divorce. Burr took the documents, saying, “I have always loved women…” and died. One might say he died at the hands of his victim Hamilton’s son.

Did Eliza regret her actions? She took up Burr’s project of invading Mexico and made it her own. But she died in her bed, composing a polite letter to a friend.

Madame Jumel, the inspiration for Miss Havisham, was a far cry from a jilted and embittered spinster.

Katherine Ashe is the author of the Montfort series; Montfort The Early Years, Montfort The Viceroy; Montfort The Revolutionary and Montfort The Angel with the Sword. Her radio series on Eliza Jumel, The Richest Woman in the Western World, starring Kathleen Widdoes, was broadcast on Public Radio in 1992.


  1. This is quite amazing. A mini novel in itself!

  2. Wow! I have not heard this woman's story before. Incredible!

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. She was my great, great aunt.
    Thank you.


  4. She was my great, great aunt.
    Thank you.



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