Monday, May 2, 2011

Morris-Jumel Mansion (1 of 2): 162nd St and St. Nicholas Ave

The Morris-Jumel mansion was built in 1765 (the oldest remaining house in Manhattan), by British Colonel Roger Morris and his wealthy American wife, Mary Philipse (whom it is rumored captured George Washington's interest when he was 24), as their summer home.  Known originally as Mount Morris, this northern Manhattan estate stretched from the Harlem to the Hudson Rivers and covered more than 130 acres. Loyal to the British crown (Mary was one of only three women accused of treason to the revolutionary cause during the American Revolutionary War), the Morrises eventually returned to England after the American victory.

During the war, the mansion's location on the second highest point in what is now Manhattan provided indispensable views of the Harlem River, the Bronx, and Long Island Sound to the east, New York City and the harbor to the south, and the Hudson River and Jersey Palisades to the west, and proved to be a strategic military headquarters for George Washington (see photo at left for view of his recreated bedroom/office and notice the pillow and bundle on the floor that was for Washington's constant attendant and servant, William Lee) and then the British (and Hessian mercenaries).

President Washington and his family returned to the Mansion on July 10, 1790, and dined (in the room shown at right) with members of his new cabinet. Guests at the table included future Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as well as founding fathers Alexander Hamilton (later killed by another resident of the mansion--Aaron Burr) and Henry Knox. It was thought that President John Quincy Adams was also present at this dinner, but recent research has proven otherwise.

The next notable residents of the mansion was Stephen Jumel and his wife Eliza.  Eliza was quite a character, and the telling of her life brings a bit of the Harlequin romance or soap opera to the house.  It is known that she and her family were evicted from Providence, RI for running a house of ill-repute.  In other words, it is believed that she was a prostitute.  When they moved to NYC, Eliza strategically decided to become an actress (considered tawdry and low class work back then) so that she would be thrown in the path of rich men.  All worked in her favor when she met Stephen Jumel and convinced him to marry her  and make her "an honest woman" when he thought she was on her death bed.  "Miraculously" she made a full recovery and they married.  She tried to convince NYC society that she came from a noble French family and demanded to be called Madame Jumel, but NYC wasn't buying it.  Although they enjoyed her grand parties, few really befriended her.  Even her claimed bedroom set from Napoleon Bonaparte (perhaps purchased at auction although Eliza claimed they were gifts from Napoleon himself) did not really impress NYC high society (see photo at left of Eliza's bed which was thought to have been a gift from Napoleon to Josephine).

After Stephen's death, Eliza ran his business and was surprisingly success (quite a feat when women of the day had little in economic rights).  She was so successful that she attracted the attention of Aaron Burr, then former Vice President and well-known ladies man (but perhaps most famous for having killed Alexander Hamilton in a pistol duel).   

Aaron Burr had run up a great deal of gambling debt and decided at age 77 he could make all of his financial troubles disappear with this union (see Aaron Burr's bedroom in above right photo).  For her part, Eliza thought she would certainly rise in social status by marrying a former Vice President.  They were married in the front parlor of the house (pictured above) and had a reception in the beautiful octagonal room at the east end of the house (pictured at right).  
Unfortunately, it quickly became clear to Eliza that Mr. Burr was squandering her money so within a year she filed for divorce (scandalous at the time).  Amazingly, on the morning when the divorce was to become finalized, Mr. Burr had a freak accident and stepped on a pitch fork and died.  So rather than being a divorcee, for her later Grand Tour of Europe with her grandchildren when Eliza was 80 (see photo of painting at above left), she was introduced in the French court as the widow of the former Vice President. What an amazing survivor she was!  All toll, she lived in the mansion for 55 years, passing here after suffering in the end of dementia, at the age of 90.

For more information on the mansion, its history, architecture or residents, please visit Morris Jumel Mansion.  There are also educational workshops, children's programs and other interesting things that are also definitely worth a look.  I really enjoyed the historical fiction writing workshop I attended (and about which I will write next).

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