The Scandalous Hamiltons by Bill Shaffer

In his forthcoming work, The Scandalous Hamiltons: A Gilded Age Grifter, a Founding Father’s Disgraced Descendant, and a Trial at the Dawn of Tabloid Journalism (Citadel Press, 2022), author Bill Shaffer recounts the riveting true tale that captured the attention of American newspaper readers from coast to coast during the final decade of the nineteenth century. Filled to bursting with a wide variety of true crimes ranging from stabbing, baby farming, and forgery and set to a constant backdrop of deception, Shaffer’s book focuses on a hitherto forgotten scandal the engulfed one of the United States’ most prestigious families: the Hamiltons.

Born in New York City in 1851, Robert Ray Hamilton was the eldest son of decorated General Schuyler Hamilton, the great-grandson of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, and through his illustrious family tree, connected to many great and wealthy families of New York. Robert Ray Hamilton was one of the most eligible bachelors of the age, himself a respected businessman and politician, serving as a member of the New York State Assembly. However, in 1889 in was revealed that he had married Evangeline L. “Eva” Steele (also known as Eva Mann), a woman with a notorious and shady past who had ensnared Hamilton by claiming that he was the father of her child, duly christened Beatrice Ray Hamilton. Eva’s scheme played out well for only a short time however, as after only a few months of marriage Robert Ray sought a divorce from Eva. If this wasn’t enough, at the same time Robert had broached the subject of divorce with Eva, and much larger scandal erupted when in a fit of rage Eva stabbed her daughter’s nurse, Mary Ann Donnelly, while summering in Atlantic City, NJ. The story did not end with the stabbing by Eva and the divorce, but continued to unfold for over a decade, all of which is deftly recorded by Shaffer.

A contemporary etching of Robert Ray Hamilton

What is perhaps most captivating about this book is the author’s ability to tell the story chronologically in a way that does not bely what great scandal will unfold next. Given the outlandish schemes concocted by the ever-lying Eva, the reader maintains an open mind to expect any possibility as the Hamilton story unfolds. Every suggested rumour, especially in the latter part of the work, no matter how far-fetched is entertained until substantial proof is given to the contrary. Just like newspaper readers over a century ago, the readers of today are presented with an entertaining story that at times verges on incredulity but is in fact entirely verifiable. Undeniably the nature of early tabloid journalism is the cause of this sensationalism about the scandal and subsequent court battles, but Shaffer always tempers the theatrics of the press with the black and white facts of the case, which on their own need no embellishment or exaggeration.

Eva and the American Journalist Nellie Bly who secured a sought-after interview with Eva while she was in prison in 1890.

Drawing extensively from the available sources, especially newspaper accounts, Shaffer is able to tell story of Robert Ray Hamilton and Eva Mann in great detail. However, from a historian’s perspective, it would have been interesting to read more about the author’s research process, and the problems, if any, that he had in putting the pieces of the tale together. Although a popular audience may care little about the process of mining the archive for material, it might have been of interest to some to hear more about the gaps in the historical records, the collections accessed, and the specifics about the document collections that have survived and are vital in fleshing out the characters and events of this work.

Today the Hamilton name is synonymous with the illustrious Alexander Hamilton, recently given new life on the stages Broadway, but at the turn of the century, during the gilded age, it was another Hamilton whose name was making headlines. Although there were attempts by the family to minimize the scandal that was engendered by Robert Ray Hamilton, or more specifically the conniving Eva, at the time the story broke it was front page news for weeks, and the names of both Hamilton and Mann frequently reappeared in the press in the years that followed. At every chance possible newspapermen invoked these names which were guaranteed to sell papers. Entertaining from cover to cover, The Scandalous Hamiltons is an ideal read for any true crime lover, drawing attention to one of gilded age America’s most fascinating stories.

A typical Manhattan, New York street scene during the Gilded Age – Getty Images

Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021, he began a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspects of Britain and its global empire, including the Caribbean, with his PhD research focusing on poor white communities in St. Vincent and Barbados. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, collecting vintage photos, rug-hooking, and thrifting.

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