Jumel, Eliza Bowen (1775–1865)

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Jumel, Eliza Bowen (1775–1865)

Infamous American beauty and second wife of former vice-president Aaron Burr. Name variations: Betsy Bowen; Eliza Brown. Born in 1775 in Providence, Rhode Island; died on July 16, 1865; daughter of John Bowen and Phebe Kelley; married Stephen Jumel, on April 9, 1804 (died 1832); married former vice-president Aaron Burr, on July 1, 1833 (divorced 1836); children: (illegitimate) George Washington Bowen (b. October 9, 1794); (adopted) Mary Eliza (the illegitimate daughter of Eliza Jumel's half-sister Polly Clarke).

Although Eliza Jumel claimed that her family name was Capet and that her mother died in childbirth while on a ship traveling to the West Indies, she was in fact born to one Phebe Kelley in Rhode Island in 1775. Her father John Bowen was a sailor, and it is unclear if her parents were married. Bowen was also the father of Eliza's older sister, although probably not of her two younger siblings; he was not around much and had drowned in Newport harbor by the time Eliza was 11. Her mother supported the family mainly through prostitution until she married, or remarried, in 1790. Eliza, known as Betsy, was at that time living on her own and most likely supporting herself as a prostitute. She had an illegitimate son, George Washington Bowen, in October of 1794 and gave him to foster parents when she moved to New York City a few weeks later.

Information about the next five years of her life is sketchy, although she may have been the wife or mistress of Jacques de la Croix, a French sea captain. However, by 1800 she was living under the name of Eliza Brown in a mansion at Whitehall and Pearl streets as the mistress of Stephen Jumel, a wealthy French wine merchant who had moved to New York five years previously. Although Stephen was popular with New York society, Eliza was ostracized even after the couple married in 1804.

By 1810, the Jumels had moved into a 19-room mansion in Washington Heights. The house was renowned in the city and had been one of George Washington's headquarters during the Revolutionary War; however, neither this fact nor the couple's extravagant entertainments were enough to win them acceptance into society.

The Jumels left for France with an adopted daughter, Mary Eliza (the illegitimate daughter of Eliza's half sister Polly Clarke ), on June 1, 1815. In France the couple found the acceptance they longed for among Parisian aristocrats. Stephen also learned more about his wife's scandalous early life, however, and in 1816 she returned to New York without him. Jumel lived in the New York mansion with her daughter for five years before returning to Stephen in France. Once again she took up her social role, but by that time her husband's money had begun to run out. In 1826, he sent her back to New York with instructions to sell the property there and send him the money. Jumel did sell the property for a large sum, but kept the money herself. Nearly broke, Stephen came to New York in 1828 and on May 22, 1832, fell from a haycart and died.

The following July, Eliza Jumel married 77-year old Aaron Burr. The former vice-president, notorious both for the 1804 duel in which he had killed founding father Alexander Hamilton and for an unrelated trial on treason charges (at which he was acquitted), was sorely in need of funds. The marriage appears to have been based on Jumel's desire for social acceptance and Burr's desire for money, and was never a happy one; she began divorce proceedings just a year after the wedding. The divorce was granted on September 14, 1836, the day Burr died.

Jumel spent the next 28 years moving around the New York area, chasing after and being rebuffed by society until gradually she grew more reclusive. In 1843, her daughter died, and Jumel's son-in-law, Nelson Chase, and two grandchildren were virtually her only visitors until a permanent falling-out deprived her even of them. Her last years were spent in the deteriorating mansion in Washington Heights, "half-in-sane" and seeing no one but her servants. She died on July 16, 1865, around the age of 90, and was buried in Trinity Cemetery.

Eliza Jumel left most of her estate to charity, but the courts set aside her will on the basis of mental incompetence; her illegitimate son made an unsuccessful claim for the estate, and it was eventually awarded to Nelson Chase and his children. The Jumel mansion, bought in 1903 by the City of New York, is one of Manhattan's historical landmarks.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Karina L. Kerr , M.A., Ypsilanti, Michigan