Aaron Burr was a successful lawyer and politician who was Thomas Jefferson’s vice-president at the time, in 1804, he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Burr thought Hamilton (based on reports from a third party) had participated in a smear campaign against him during a gubernatorial campaign. Burr demanded an apology. Hamilton, while not admitting to the smear, refused. Hamilton’s death ended Burr’s political career. It did not, however, end his rather colorful adventures.
In 1833, at age 77, Aaron Burr married 58 year old Eliza Jumel and moved into what is now the Morris Jumel Mansion museum.
The house was built in 1765 by a British officer named Roger Morris. The Morris family left in 1775, at the beginning of the Revolution, and George Washington used it as his headquarters during the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776. It later also served as headquarters for British General Henry Clinton. After the Americans won the war, the house was confiscated from the British Morrises and became a tavern. On July 10, 1790, President George Washington took his cabinet — which included John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison — there for dinner. It was bought in 1810 by Stephen Jumel, Eliza’s first husband, and was remodeled by them in the Federal style.
It’s now the oldest house in Manhattan and it, like Hamilton Grange, has felt some of the Hamilton effect. The director of the museum allowed Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author/composer/librettist of Hamilton, to work on the musical in Burr’s bedroom. Best decision ever. There’s been a benefit performance of Hamilton to raise funds for Morris Jumel, and Leslie Odom Jr., the actor who plays Burr in the show, has performed at the house.
When we were there, Burr’s bedroom had an odd art piece installed in it. The description said: “In Burr’s room, the ‘chaos of nature imposes itself on the space.’… Aaron Burr was accused of treason when he acted upon a plot to conquer land in what is now the southwestern United States. Here, nature has its vengeance.”
Why Burr married Eliza Jumel is clear: her money. Why she married him is less clear. By then, he’d not only killed Hamilton, he’d also tried to take over the American southwest and had been tried for treason for it by President Thomas Jefferson. He was acquitted and fled to Europe to avoid creditors, where he indulged in a rather dissipated life financed by friends. Not exactly what one would consider the best husband material. But Eliza had been born to a working class Irish Catholic family and spent time as a maid and an actress before she married her wealthy merchant first husband. It’s thought that after Stephen’s death, she married Burr to improve her social standing. Surely one of the wealthiest women in America had better choices, but there you have it. It didn’t take her long to realize her mistake, however. They separated within the year.
As we were leaving, a staff member told us that the area, now Washington Heights, had once been called Sugar Hill, and had been a neighborhood for wealthy African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance. And that the rather nondescript apartment building across from the house had been home to Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and other music greats.
After the Morris Jumel Mansion, we made our way back to Penn Station, retrieved our bags, and walked the 12 blocks to our hotel at 39th and Lexington.
I have to tell you about our hotel, even though it wasn’t historic, because it was so much fun. The hotel was called POD 39 (there’s a sister hotel, POD 51, on East 51st) and that’s exactly what the room was: a pod. Not a pod like the Japanese hotel pods that look like cryo sleeper chambers in a space ship taking colonists to a planet hundreds of years away. It’s more like an economy class cruise ship cabin, with a bunk bed on one side and a table, a shower and a toilet on the other. If Patricia wanted to move from one end of the room to the other, I had to step into the bathroom so that she could get by. There’s no way I could have gotten Mr. History Tourist to stay there.
This is the view from my top bunk. Even though we had individual televisions at the end of our beds, Patricia and I had to watch the same show because we could each hear the other TV. And even watching the same show, there was an echo effect. We both decided to read instead.
We’d been up since 4:30 am, so we were exhausted by dinner time. Lucky for us, we didn’t have to go further than the hotel lobby, where there was a restaurant called Salvation Taco. We were even too tired to eat, so we had a couple of appetizers and an insanely delicious drink that the waitress called a Mexican hot toddy — mezcal, spiced butter and orange served hot — and called it a day.