Episode 145: InventionLore
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- 22 Jun 2020
Human ingenuity knows no bounds. Along with creating all manner of new technology, and ever more complex levels of knowledge, another thing we are good at inventing is ourselves. And sometimes that alteration can become the stuff of legend.
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He boarded the plane in an era that would look alien to most of us. There was no long wait for the security line or full body metal detectors. There were no checkpoints where ID cards were scrutinized over. He simply paid cash for his tickets, mentioned a fake name and then stepped on board.
Shortly after getting into the air, the man handed one of the flight attendants a note which she quickly tossed unread into her purse.
Man drinking alcohol, handing out phone number was probably something she'd experienced dozens of times before. But this man shook his head and gestured toward her purse. Miss, you better look at that note. He said, I have a bomb. What happened next has gone down in aviation history, the man who identified himself as D.B. Cooper demanded a ransom of two hundred thousand dollars worth roughly one point two million today. And then after landing to collect the money and unload the passengers, he had them take off again.
33 minutes later, he jumped out of the plane and into the pages of history. The story of D.B. Cooper defies explanation, and yet that's all people have been doing for the last 50 years, crafting theory after theory to explain how it all went down and what happened to the man when it was over. Some say he died, while others believe he lived out the rest of his life, slowly spending his small fortune. There have been other legends like his over the years.
Wild West outlaw Jesse James is another, although most historians agree that he was killed on April 3rd of 1882. There are many who think that he escaped death and lived into his old age under an assumed identity. And a similar story has surrounded a contemporary of his Billy the Kid.
But whether or not these rumors are true, they highlights an undeniable fact. We are obsessed with the idea that we can reinvent ourselves, that through the sheer power of our intellect, we might be able to put the past behind us and craft a new self and a new future. And that in the battle between who we are and who we wish we could be, we can actually win.
And when we hear about it, it almost seems like magic right up there with all the great tales of supernatural transformations, except sometimes. It actually works. I'm Aaron Manque, and this is Laura. Mademoiselle Lacroix was a mystery that much was certain she was, according to many born in the middle of the Atlantic while on board a French ship headed toward the British colonies in the New World in 1775, which must have been quite tumultuous for her mother.
What Rhode Island was like when she and her mother arrived wasn't clear, but war was brewing in the colonies, so it couldn't have been relaxing. Still, those who tell her story also add that her mother passed away shortly after giving birth, leaving her newborn daughter in the care of a stranger. That's one version of her story. Others disagree and instead claim that she was born in a Providence, Rhode Island poorhouse, two unnamed parents before being adopted by a local family.
Still others have a different take on Madame Delacroix's birth. They claim she was born inside, one of the busiest brothels in all of Providence where her 18 year old mother had worked for about five years. Those are that's how this version of the story goes on, to claim that Madam Delacroix's father was never in the picture and her mother married another man a few years later before moving the family out of Providence. Years after that, they would move again to North Carolina.
But not Madame de la Croix. No, she was destined for greater things. And so she headed southwest to New York City. Of course, she wasn't born Madame de la Croix. No, she picked that name up sometime around her arrival in New York. That was where she met Peter Lacroix, the captain of a merchant ship that sailed the route between New York and France. In fact, we're pretty sure that Peter took his mistress to France at least once, where she would have been given a taste for French culture.
It certainly instilled an amount of European sensibility in her.
That much is clear. While they were there in New York City, though, the couple lived at the corner of fifth and thirty fourth, close to where the Empire State Building stands today. Their home was described as a handsome wooden structure, which makes it sound like one of those tiny cabins you might see on Instagram. I'm guessing it was a lot less quaint than that, though. She and Peter never married, but many people referred to her as Madame de la Croix because that was the name written on a portrait that she sat for in 1797.
And perhaps she dreamed of making that official of marrying Peter and accumulating a lifetime of Atlantic crossings and stolen days in France. But sadly, Peter died before that could happen. After his death, she began to go by a different name, Eliza Brown. It was a play on her head and passed. Brown was close to her birth father's name of Bone, and Eliza was a more elegant version of her own name, Elizabeth, although her mother had always called her Betsy.
And it was Eliza Brown that built a brand new reputation for herself.
It said that she was known all throughout New York City for her beauty and talents. She found work on the stages of many theaters and became a popular entertainer. By all accounts, she had skill at it, too, and that helped her climb the ladder. But she was also favored by the wealthy men who attended those performances, and it was attention that she welcomed. It earned her a bad reputation, though. Let's just say that she wasn't viewed as a particularly virtuous woman.
But for Eliza, that didn't matter. What mattered was that she was meeting people from a higher social station than her own and they liked her. It was the access that she had been looking for an open door to climb higher and keep reinventing herself. Not that the past didn't rear its head from time to time. There is at least one story of some men from Providence visiting New York and attending a performance only to spot Eliza on the stage and recognize her.
According to one historian, that resulted in the sort of whistles and shouts that suggests that she had a similar reputation back home.
But then things changed sometime around 1800, she met a wealthy wine merchant named Stephen, who had his own story of growth and reinvention. He had previously lived in what is now Haiti, but had been forced out by revolution against the French. And so he had resettled in New York, where he was rebuilding his business and making new connections. And one of those connections was Eliza. Maybe it was her familiarity with French culture or her reputation as a stage performer, whatever the reason, the pair met and fell in love.
And after four years of public courting, they tie the knot on April 7th of 1884. Steven was 50 at the time and Eliza was just 27, and while that's a big gap in time and life experience, they seem destined to be together. Romance, they assumed, would patch up the rest of their differences. But for what Eliza had planned for her future, love wouldn't be enough. To become who she really wanted to be, she would have to make drastic changes.
Eliza wanted to make something of herself. I think we can all relate to that, can't we, that desire to grow beyond the soil we were planted in to leave the path we were set on and blaze a better one. If you've ever dreamed of attending your high school reunion and impressing people with all that you've accomplished. That's our desire to reinvent ourselves hard at work, driving you forward. And for Eliza, that desire played out in a couple of ways at home.
It centered around impressing the crowd she aspired to mingle with to climb up the ladder until she was there. Equal. The problem was nobody had forgotten where she came from, whether the story was that she was born on a ship in the Atlantic or in a Providence brothel, it didn't matter. She hadn't been born into a wealthy family with political power. And that was seen as a handicap among the New York City elite. Eliza and Steven try their hands at all sorts of social tactics, but they continued to be shunned.
Then in 1810, they made a decision that changed much of that. That was the year they bought a new house. But it wasn't just any old house. This was the Roger Morris house. It was a whole estate's actually known as Mount Morris, if you can imagine, a time when Manhattan wasn't covered in a seemingly endless grid of busy streets, try to picture the northern end all covered in fields and trees. And there, just across the Harlem River from the modern Yankee Stadium was the country estate of their dreams.
And it came with social class, too, after it had been built in 1765 by a British military officer named Roger Morris. It was confiscated as part of the Revolutionary War. It was even used by American forces for a brief period of time in 1776. And General George Washington himself moved in and planned his first military victory there, the battle of Washington Heights. Sure, the House spent time in British control, too, but in 1790, Washington returned this time as president of the nation and held his first cabinet meeting there.
Yes, there were a lot of other historic homes in Manhattan and elsewhere. But it's hard to blame Eliza and Stephen for wanting to buy Mount Morris. After all, it must be nice to have Washington on your side. But Eliza was also chasing her dream of a better life outside the newly formed United States. Her husband, Stephen, was a wine merchant with a fleet of ships that bounced back and forth between America and France. And the couple often took trips across the Atlantic to stay in one of his houses there.
But that didn't always work out as planned. You see, France wasn't the most stable of places at the time when they arrived in 1815, for example, Napoleon had just been defeated at Waterloo. According to the story, Eliza and Stephen possessed so much wealth that they had an unusual level of access to the defeated former emperor and even extended an offer of asylum in America. To him, Napoleon was said to have politely declined, but as a way of saying thanks, gifted the couple with his own royal carriage.
Months later, while trying to leave Paris inside that carriage, the Napoleonic symbols on it were enough to get them arrested and thrown into prison. It took the work of the American ambassador to France to free them. But the coast wasn't entirely clear. Being well loved by the nobility made them targets of the working class. And with all of that stress swirling around them like a storm. It naturally caused a strain on their marriage. In December of 1816, the couple reportedly had a fight and when it was over, Iliza boarded one of Stevens ships without him returning home to the United States with a fire in her belly over the next decade.
The couple would spend most of their time separated by the Atlantic while Alysa managed and grew their wealth and in Stephen slowly deeded almost all of his American properties and funds to her, something that was highly unusual for the era that they lived in. By twenty five, she had full control of just about everything, including their Mount Morris estate near Harlem back in France. Stephen was becoming less and less wealthy and he wrote home often asking for Eliza to send funds.
She refused, though, claiming that if they waited just a little longer, their assets would sell for so much more. In May of 1832, Stephen was mortally wounded in a very suspicious accident, the 77 year old is reported to have fallen out of a handcarts onto a pitchfork, which honestly seems incredibly fortuitous for his estranged wife. There's even a rumor that she visited him on his deathbed where she removed his bandages to speed up his death. And although there is no concrete evidence to back up that legend, it certainly illustrates how history has come to view her climb to the top.
But what isn't up for debate is the outcome of Stevens death. On May 22nd of 1832, Eliza Jammal became the richest woman in America. Eliza had stunned her peers and yes, by this point, they were her peers, not only had she managed to climb from obscurity to become the richest woman in the country, but she had also established a reputation for herself as a smart businesswoman. She was to be envied and admired. And as far as Eliza was concerned, she had no complaints about either.
In the years that followed Stevens death, she transported the remainder of his belongings back from France and soon enough that historic mansion was becoming a palace, her obsession continued to be Napoleon. And everywhere you looked, there were traces of the former emperor artwork that had once belonged to him clocks, chandeliers, you name it. Mount Morris had become a little slice of France in America. Alysa had reinvented herself, proving that the dream is possible, but she wasn't finished quite yet because while she was applauded for her business mind and admired for her bank account, she wasn't yet respected for her power.
And the only way she could think of to attain that power was through another marriage marriage to someone who could finally give her the access she wanted a place in the highest levels of society. In 1833, just a year after Stevens death, she found that useful man, he was much older than her at roughly 78 years old, but that was all right to fully reinvent herself. Alysa needed to focus on his power, something he had plenty of. After all, he had served the nation in one of its loftiest positions and was one of the most respected attorneys in the country.
His name, Aaron Burr. Yes, the Aaron Burr, who served as the vice president to Thomas Jefferson. And yes, the Aaron Burr who squared off with founding father Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1884, a duel that ended with Hamilton's death. He came with baggage for sure. So much baggage. But he was also the sort of powerful figure she needed to climb higher. But their marriage wasn't smooth sailing. It became very clear early on.
Burr was in it for the money, slowly and sometimes without permission. He tried to take control of her finances and after a number of months of fighting him off, she ended up taking him to court over it. A short while later, she filed for divorce. Eliza would go on to spend the next 30 years of her life spending her money, wielding her power and traveling between her many homes, there is a lot more to it than that, of course.
But in general, she was a woman on the move who had reached the top of the mountain through sheer tenacity and the power of her will. But one thing she stopped doing was staying at Mount Morris by herself. It seems that when she and Steven purchased the estates all those years ago, she had negotiated a lower price because of the rumor that it was haunted. Back then, it was a convenient piece of leverage to use to her advantage. Now, though, it had come back to haunt her literally, and the experiences had frightened her out of the house.
The rumor had been that the ghost of a Hessian soldier could be seen on the main staircase of the house, and that made a lot of sense. The house had been under British control at certain points of the Revolutionary War, and Hessian soldiers were mercenaries hired by the British to bulk up their forces. So it wasn't an out of context idea. Whether or not that was the source of her hauntings won't ever be proved. But that's what the legend says.
Eliza GML passed away in July of 1865 at the age of 90. She had refused to take the path life had given her and instead blazed her own. And while the journey had been challenging, the reward had been more than worth it. She never gave up in all of that tenacity, paid off even after death. You see, in 1984, her former mansion became a museum. And today it's not known as Mount Morris, but as the Morris Jammal mansion.
And ever since it's been filled with unusual experiences, lights that turn on and off on their own, strange sounds that come from seemingly empty rooms and mysterious lights that float through dark hallways in the 1970s. Someone held a seance inside the mansion, and they claim to have heard from Alysa herself, who confessed to removing the bandages from Stephen's wounds, which led to his death.
Another seance, this one broadcast over the radio, resulted in a flurry of foul language that got the program shut down. And of course, some people still claim to see that Hessian soldier slowly moving up and down the staircase at night. But one experience in particular stands out above all the rest. In 1964, a school brought their students to the mansion for a field trip. It was the sort of barely controlled chaos you might expect if you've ever seen a group of young students led through a museum by a handful of teachers.
But something more unexpected also took place. While the students were gathered outside the front door waiting for their tour to begin, some of the students claimed to see an older woman exit the house onto the balcony above the front door. They say she was dressed in a purple gown and when she reached the railing, she leaned over and shouted down to them, Be quiet. She scolded them. My husband is ill and he's trying to sleep. A short while later, one of the students brought it up on their tour, but we're told that the balcony was locked and no one lived in the house anymore.
It wasn't until later in the tour that the answer appeared in front of them. They're inside one of the many rooms of the house, the students were stopped in front of a mannequin, a mannequin wearing a purple gown at its feet was a sign explaining who the dress had belonged to, a person whose name, I'm sure you can guess. Eliza Jamal. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. It's the notion that pressing needs or desperate times often lead people to fresh, creative ways to climb out of the box they're in.
And we can see that idea prominently in the folklore surrounding people who transform themselves. To this day, no one knows of D.B. Cooper survived his jump from the airplane, tantalizing clues have been discovered over the years, such as a few of the bills that were part of the ransom money found in the woods beneath the path of the plane. But the rest of the fortune and the man who stole it seemed to have vanished. Jesse James could have been another of those inventive figures in the late 1940s, a man named Frank Dalton claimed to be the infamous outlaw who had slipped away and lived in secret for decades.
But later, DNA testing on the body buried in Jesse James coffin confirmed it was really him putting that legend to rest. In the case of Billy the Kid, the questions have remained unanswered. A number of people came forward in the decades after his reported death and two of those claims had been taken seriously by historians.
Unfortunately, DNA tests haven't been able to settle the matter for good. But that's the goal of reinvention, isn't it, the paint over the past with the new brighter future to escape the gravitational pull of family or station or whatever other circumstance might be holding you down. And it would be more than a little discouraging to think that no one has ever been able to slip those bonds and soar above it all. Wouldn't it? Thankfully, Eliza Jim'll has proved us right, people can change, they can alter their path and steer towards something better.
Yes, her story is fun and gritty and full of so many neat historical references. But it also gives us hope, something that often seems to be in short supply for many of us. Our presence can still be felt around the mansion she once owned. Aside from the sightings of what many assume are her ghost sightings, which include children too frightened to enter certain parts of the house, there are other, more worldly reminders of her life. Today, the Morris Jumeau mansion is the oldest house in Manhattan, and as a museum, it's home to valuable glimpses of the past.
Perhaps that's why Lin Manuel Miranda spent time there writing portions of his musical Hamilton. But the reminders are outside, too. According to those who live in the area, if you know where to look around Highbridge Park, the long strip of green space that runs between the mansion in the Harlem River, you might just notice some wild grapevines. They are remnants of the vines planted by Eliza's first husband, Steven, to remind him of his home in France.
If you ever visit, go exploring. You never know what you might find. Oh, and one last thing. Alysa married Aaron Burr in 1833 and filed for divorce a year later.
The legal process took another two years, but when it was finished, Burr was devastated. He died the very same day. The divorce was official, and I can't help but wonder if that had anything to do with who Eliza's attorney had been. Burr would have been familiar with him that much is certain. After all, he had killed the man's father. Her attorney. Alexander Hamilton, Jr. History is full of stories of inventive people, those who refuse to play with the cards they were dealt and instead made their own, but sometimes those changes were forced on them by circumstances so unusual that the results have become legend.
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That's by Rakan Dotcoms Law for fifteen percent off Rakan Wireless Earbuds by Rakan Dotcom Iglauer. Surprisingly, we don't have to look too far from today's story to find another example of possible reinvention, but this story doesn't center around Eliza Jimal but her second husband, former vice president Aaron Burr. I think it's safe to assume that his marriage to Eliza at the age of 78 wasn't his first. Indeed, his first marriage happened when Eliza was just eight, way back in July of 1782.
They had a number of children together, but only one of them survived to adulthood, a daughter named Theodosia. And that must have been difficult for her. Yes, I imagine he was grateful that she survived when her siblings did not. But she also shared her name with her mother, who passed away when Theodosia was just 11. So I can see how she was this little reminder to her of all that he had lost. Over the years, he was a highly protective father to her, and she, in return filled in for some of those socially necessary Lady of the House roles such as hosting parties and important guests.
And then in one, she married a wealthy man named Joseph Alston. Although looking back through the lens of burs financial problems, it does make me wonder if the marriage was just about love or something more spendable, as it were. Alston wasn't a slouch, though he would go on to become the governor of South Carolina in 1812, although the road began just a year after their marriage in 1882 when he was elected to the states House of Representatives. So after a brief honeymoon at Niagara Falls, he and Theodosia moved south.
Of course, living so far from her father in New York meant that travel was an order today, she would just board a plane and be eating dinner with him a few hours later in the early eighteen hundreds, though, that sort of journey required sailing up the coast. And I have to imagine that she would have made that trip more than a few times had her father not been in a sort of self-imposed exile living across the Atlantic in England. But in 1812, all of that changed the economics father had just returned home and she was anxious to see him.
There were delays through most of that year thanks to the outbreak of the War of 1812, as well as the death of her son, Aaron, from malaria. But finally, at the end of the year, she was ready to set sail. The ship was a schooner named the Patriots, but thanks to the ongoing war along the coast, it was disguised to look a little bit less official. Historians say that it's imposing cannons, cannons that might have appeared like an effort to pick a fight where stowed below deck.
And the name of the vessel was also painted over. The Atocha boarded the ship on December 31st of 1812, along with two friends, and then it sailed north out into waters known to be home to privateers. And tragically, it was never seen again. Although if the stories are true, that might not exactly be the case. There were theories about the loss, of course, Aaron Burr himself believed it was a tragic shipwreck, but others whispered about an attack by a group of smugglers known as the Carolina bankers who worked out of Nagshead.
It said that they worked by luring ships toward the coast at night where they would crash on the sharp rocks. Then the bankers would just sift through the wreckage for valuable goods. But the most hopeful theory of all is also the one that touches on the idea of a life transformed by fate.
It's a story that was shared by a Native American warrior in a community along the Gulf Coast. This warrior claimed to have stumbled upon a shipwreck along the coast, suggesting that the patriot might have changed course and headed south instead, perhaps to outrun pirates. When the warrior found the shipwreck, he found a lone survivor, a white woman, after helping her. She thanked him for his assistance and then told him her story that she was the daughter of one of the chiefs of the white men, but that he had been exiled and then before journeying off to find a settlement, she gave him a gift as thanks, a gift that the warrior would wear for many years to come, a locket engraved with a single word.
Theodosia. This episode of law was written and produced by me, Aaron Manque, with research by Marcet Crockett's and music by Chad Lawson, law is much more than just a podcast. There is a book series available in bookstores and online and two seasons of the television show on Amazon Prime video. Check them both out if you want more law in your life. I also make two other podcasts, Aaron Monkies Cabinets of Curiosities and Unobscured, and I think you'd enjoy both.
Each one explores other areas of our dark history, ranging from bite sized episodes to season long dives into a single topic. You can learn more about both of those shows and everything else going on over at the brand new home for my new production company, Grim and Mild Dotcom. And you can also follow the show on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Just search for our podcast, all one word and then click that follow button when you do say hi. I like it when people say hi.
And as always, thanks for listening.