New York City in the late 19th century was spilling over with new immigrants as well as Americans who wanted to start over with a clean slate, whether to advance themselves or take advantage of others. William Henry Ellis was born into slavery on a cotton plantation in Victoria, Texas. But in New York, he became Guillermo Enrique Eliseo, a “fabulously rich” banker from Mexico. Columbia University history professor Karl Jacoby tells us about Ellis’ new identity in an account from his book The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire. Not only did Ellis convince people he was someone else, but he was surrounded by others who did the same.
To escape the Jim Crow South, the young William Henry Ellis relocated to Manhattan in the 1890s. Fluent in Spanish from his childhood along the Mexico border, he soon persuaded his new acquaintances that he was from a well-to-do Mexican family—an enticing pose to Wall Street investors at a time when almost every item in the U.S.’s burgeoning consumer economy owed its origins in one way or another to Mexican resources, from the Mexican copper used to electrify American cities to the Mexican rubber that went into making tires for the newly invented automobile.
Ellis’s remarkable talent for reinvention made him arguably the first African American on Wall Street (his only known rival for the crown being Jeremiah G. Hamilton, a black man who made his fortune in the 1840s, when Wall Street was still in its formative stages). Yet as his experience in New York demonstrates, even an accomplished trickster like Ellis, who managed to evade the defining phenomenon of his age—the color line—could himself be tricked, especially when sex and scandal were added to the maelstrom of shifting identities that was Gilded Age New York.
Read more about Ellis and the other impostors who both befriended and used him, at The Daily Beast. -via Digg