The Prostitute’s Daughter Who Got to Know Monarchs
The story of Eliza Jumel is one of the most enigmatic and convoluted tales that I have ever encountered. She was an unusual woman for many reasons, not the least of them being the many myths about herself that she concocted. According to one, she was born of an aristocratic English mother, a Mrs. Capet, in the cabin of a French frigate en route to the West Indies, whose captain, when the mother died in childbirth, delivered the infant into the care of an elderly lady named Thompson in Newport, Rhode Island, where she was raised in humble but respectable circumstances.
Or, version no. 2, she was born in a poorhouse in Providence, Rhode Island, and adopted by a Mr. Bowen, whose name she bore. At age seventeen, yet another story goes, she eloped to New York with a British officer, a Colonel Peter Croix, and being beautiful and charming, was accepted into the society of the time, and so made the acquaintance of Aaron Burr, Benedict Arnold, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, and witnessed both the first session of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and Washington’s inauguration as president. But if she witnessed the first session of the Congress, she must have done it from the womb. And if she met any of the Founding Fathers, she would have been a babbling infant. There are as many accounts of her origins as there were early biographers, and not one of them can be trusted.
The most commonly accepted account today has her born in Providence in 1775 to Phebe Kelley Bowen, a prostitute, and her sailor lover who died at sea. How she spent her childhood isn’t clear. She may have been taken in by local families or been raised in a poorhouse. She is even said to have worked as a cleaning girl—but not as a prostitute—in the brothel where her mother worked, and subsequently may have turned to prostitution herself. Certainly it was a rough childhood, and one with meager promise. Little wonder that she later invented a tale about a birth on the high seas to an aristocratic mother who then conveniently died. And little wonder too that she became obsessed with acquiring social status and wealth.
In time Eliza Bowen made her way to New York, perhaps because a prominent citizen of Providence, fearing exposure of their liaison, paid her to leave town. In New York she became an actress and in time a kept woman, neither profession likely to win entrée into polite society. But she was beautiful, and if she lacked formal education, she had a keen native intelligence and therefore aimed high.
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