Long After Alexander Hamilton's Death, His Son and Rival Aaron Burr Dueled in Divorce Court
On July 11, 1804, U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury, in an ill-fated duel. The incident ended their longstanding rivalry—but Hamilton's son appears to have had the last word against his father's nemesis during a divorce trial.
Alexander Hamilton Jr., the second son of Hamilton and his wife Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, was an attorney. He’s remembered for serving as a general during the War of 1812 and as a U.S. attorney for east Florida, among other accomplishments [PDF]. Lesser-known, however, is the fact that Hamilton Jr. served as divorce lawyer for socialite Eliza Bowen Jumel, Burr’s second wife, in 1834, and formally accused Burr of adultery and other charges.
Burr’s first wife, Theodosia Bartow Prevost—the mother of his daughter Theodosia—died in 1794 from stomach cancer, leaving Burr without his best ally and confidante. A decade later, he fatally shot Hamilton, and his reputation was sullied even further with later charges of conspiracy and high misdemeanor. With his political and legal career ruined, Burr was in the market for a strategic marriage, which might be why he decided to marry Jumel, a rich widow, in 1833.
Like Hamilton (and unlike Burr), Jumel came from humble origins and had climbed her way to success in Manhattan. Born in either 1773 or 1775, she was raised in a brothel in Providence, Rhode Island, and later forged an acting career in New York. In 1804, she married Stephen Jumel, a wealthy French wine merchant. (It's been rumored that Jumel tricked him into the nuptials by pretending to suffer from a fatal illness.)
The two purchased and lived in a 1765 mansion that briefly served as George Washington’s headquarters during the American Revolution. But in 1832, the 70-year-old Stephen Jumel died, leaving his widow—now the wealthiest woman in America—with his fortune. A year later, Jumel married Burr, who was now in his late seventies and reportedly dependent on his friends for money.
While the marriage cemented Jumel's position among Manhattan's upper echelons, the couple ended up separating after just four months of marriage. Needing a whip-smart lawyer, Jumel enlisted Hamilton Jr. to file for divorce.
Jumel alleged that Burr had committed adultery "at divers times with divers females," and also that he’d squandered her fortune. Meanwhile, a servant named Mariah Johnson testified she had caught Burr red-handed, according to Nancy Isenberg’s 2007 biography Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr. (Isenberg argues that Johnson had been bribed, and Burr himself argued that having affairs with younger women was "according to the law of nature impossible," considering his old age.)
The divorce was long and drawn out, and seemingly punctuated with periods of fighting and reconciliation. Burr's health was deteriorating during this time, and according to one story, Jumel "had him brought to the house and that for weeks, he lay, night and day, on an old sofa that had been Napoleon's, before the fire in the great drawing-room," according to artist and writer William Henry Shelton. (Shelton served as curator of Jumel's estate, a historic landmark that's today known as the Morris-Jumel mansion, and wrote a comprehensive history of the house in 1916.)
That said, "this claim is more traditional than probable," Shelton added, "as it would be just in the period of the divorce trial, during which they were hurling correspondents at each other, and, on the part of Burr, in unfair proportion of four for one.”
After three long years, during which Burr suffered from several strokes, his divorce was finalized by Judge Philo T. Ruggles on September 14, 1836—the same date as Burr's death at the age of 80.
Jumel never remarried, and she died nearly 30 years later, in 1865, at the age of 90 or 92. It's said that her ghost haunts the Morris-Jumel mansion, which is named after both Jumel and its original builder, British military officer Roger Morris.
Hamilton Jr. died in his home in 1875, at the age of 89, following a long illness. But the ghosts of Burr and Hamilton's infamous feud seem to have died with him—two descendants of the pair are reportedly kayak and canoe buddies in Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood.