Review: Prince of Darkness by Shane White

3 Stars

Review for ARC copy received through NetGalley.  All opinions are my own and the ARC status in no way impacted my impartial review of the material.

Prince of Darkness is the story of one of the first African American millionaires.  Jeremiah G. Hamilton was a contemporary of Cornelius Vanderbilt and may of the other well-known movers and shakers of antebellum Wall Street.  He was even mentioned in Vanderbilt’s obituary.  But with one exception, that his contemporaries already knew, Jeremiah G. Hamilton was black.  He was worth an estimated $2 million.  So how does an African American man go from very poor, possibly slave, beginnings to one of the richest men in America?  That’s the story that Shane White has set out to tell us.

This is nearly an impossible task.  Records from the early 1800’s are hard to come by even if you’re white, they’re nearly impossible if you are a minority, especially if you are black.  The only people who seem to have good records about their lives are the wealthy and important white men at the top of the food chain.  So how do you go about researching someone like Jeremiah Hamilton?  Public records.  A long and arduous process of combing through court documents, newspapers, diaries and other source material from the early 1800’s to Hamilton’s death in 1875.

Being rich didn’t keep him safe from racism.  He was attacked on both sides.  Blacks thought he was disingenuous and dishonest just like his white contemporaries.  He wasn’t always honest in his money making schemes and he wasn’t above taking advantage of people and situations to get ahead.  He uses an epic disaster in 1836 to further his own business needs.  But he wasn’t really any different from the rest of the elite of this era.

There is a lot of history covered in this book and it can be easy to get a little lost.  There was a lot of time spent tying everything together and there was a lot of backstory covered both about Hamilton and about the era in which he came to power.  The source material is as good as you’re going to get for that time period, but can be taken with a grain of salt because of the time it was written.  The news outlets of the 19th century was more like the tabloid outlets of today.  Most stories have a very anti-Hamilton and anti-African slant to them.  It’s still hard to get a true picture of who Hamilton was because our predecessors were so horrible at keeping records for anyone other than their white bosses.  But it’s not much different today is it?

If you’re a history buff, you will be interested in this book.  The research is well done and the story itself is interesting.  I think it would have been interesting to have lived in 1830’s New York and meet a character like Jeremiah Hamilton.

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Filed under Biography/Memoir, Historical

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