Rings for Mourning Alexander Hamilton, 1804

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The sudden death in July, 1804 of Gen. Alexander Hamilton from wounds suffered during his infamous duel with Col. Aaron Burr shocked a country, and left his family and friends reeling. Overwhelmed with grief, his new widow Elizabeth did not attend the funeral.  She struggled to face life without the man she'd loved and supported, and told others that she longed to die as well. Not only was she left with seven surviving children -  the youngest still a toddler - but she had also inherited her husband's considerable debts.

And yet, despite all this, the rituals of death and mourning were observed by the grieving family. Mourning clothing was ordered and worn; Eliza continued to wear a version of the same high-waisted black mourning dress for the rest of her long life. Calls and letters of condolence were received and answered. Before the general was buried, Eliza would have cut and saved locks of his hair.

Hair was among the most precious and treasured of mementos in the 19thc, a lasting link to the deceased. As I shared here, strands of Hamilton's hair were still being given to admirers by his son decades after the general's death. For the family and closest friends, the hair became the centerpiece of mourning rings.

These are two surviving examples of mourning rings ordered by the family to honor Hamilton shortly after his death. The ring, above right, was presented by Eliza to one of her husband's friends. Made of gold with a double shank band, the ring includes a braided swatch of Hamilton's hair, preserved under a crystal. Now in the collection of the New-York Historical Society, the ring has survived with its original dome-topped presentation box, covered in red leather and lined with blue and white velvet.

Mounring ring. Credit MoAR.jpg

The second ring, above left, and right, has remained in the Hamilton family, and is currently on loan and on display at the Museum of the American Revolution as part of their “Year of Hamilton” . This ring, also gold, features the precious hairs loosely wound together beneath a bevelled crystal, and surrounded by bands of white and black enamel. According to the description, the ring was worn as a pendant, suspended on a ribbon through the gold link added to the ring. The ring was said to have descended directly through the Hamilton-Schuyler family, and is believed to have been worn either by Eliza herself, or one of her daughters.

One thing that I find interesting about both rings are the inscriptions inside. Both are engraved with Hamilton's name, the date of his death, and his age at his death: "46 yrs. 6.mo.", which would make his birth year 1758. Most modern scholars, however, believe that he was born in 1757, or even 1755. Why the discrepancy? The current theory is that Hamilton was self-conscious about entering college at an age older than most of his classmates, and may have shaved a few years from his age before he arrived in New York to begin his studies at King's College. In any event, it's intriguing to think that his wife either didn't know the truth herself, or chose to perpetuate the incorrect date long after it would have mattered.

Above right: Mourning ring, maker unknown, 1805, New-York Historical Society; photo courtesy of N-YHS.

Above left: Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton's Family Mourning Ring, maker unknown, c1804, photo courtesy of Clifton & Anderson.

Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.

Brave Peggy Schuyler, 1781

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As much as I love reading about history, there are times when the tangible scars of a long-ago incident are infinitely more memorable than a thousand written words. A long time ago (oh, in the last century or so), when I was still in elementary school, my parents took me to Historic Deerfield as part of a family vacation. All the details of that trip are long gone from my memory except for one incredibly powerful object: the "Old Indian House Door" from the 17thc Capt. John Sheldon House.

The door survived the infamous 1704 Deerfield Raid by the French and their Native American allies, a massacre that killed fifty English men, women, and children, made captives of dozens of others, and left the town in ruins. The Sheldon House door stands as a mute testament to that harrowing day, with its broad beams hacked to form a ragged hole through which the French fired their muskets on the inhabitants. I recall the door being displayed complete with a tomahawk in place, but I might be imagining that. In any event, the door fed my nightmares for years. Still does.

That door has yet to appear in any of my books, but I thought of it immediately while I was researching my new historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton. I've written before about the Schuyler Mansion, the house in which my heroine Eliza Schuyler Hamilton was raised (hereherehere, and here.) Originally known as The Pastures in the 18thc, the elegant brick mansion was surrounded by a large estate that overlooked the Hudson River.

But even The Pastures didn't entirely escape the American Revolution. Gen. Philip Schuyler, Eliza's father, first served in the Continental Army, and later in the war continued to advise his close friend Commander-in-Chief General George Washington. By the summer of 1781, the majority of the fighting had moved south, but the general's importance still made him a target to the enemy, and a small group of soldiers was assigned to the house to guard the general and his family. At the time, this included not only his wife Catharine and their younger children, but also his two older, married daughters, Angelica Church and Eliza Hamilton (both of whom were pregnant and visiting while their husbands were with the army), and Angelica's two children.

On a warm evening in August, the house was attacked by a group of local Tories and Native Americans. While the guards attempted to fight them off, the family fled upstairs to barricade themselves in one of the bedchambers until help arrived. Too late Catharine Schuyler realized to her horror that her youngest child, a baby also named Catherine, had been left asleep downstairs.

Bravely - or impulsively - the third daughter, twenty-two-year-old Margarita (better known as Peggy) raced back downstairs to rescue her baby sister. Challenged by the attackers who were now ransacking the house, Peggy thought quickly, and told them that armed reinforcements were on the way from the town. As she raced up the stairs with her sister in her arms, one of the attackers swung a tomahawk at her, catching her skirts and and hacking a deep gouge into the banister.  Soon afterward, reinforcements did indeed arrive, the general and his family were saved, and Peggy was lauded as a heroine.

Today some of the details of the attack are suspected to have been 19thc embellishments. But there's no doubt that the raw tomahawk gouge remains in the banister, above left, carefully preserved over the centuries as proof. The gouge has grown wider over time as early 20thc visitors who were intrigued by the story carved out slivers of the railing for themselves as souvenirs. But as I ran my fingers over it, I couldn't help but picture brave Peggy Schuyler, her skirts flying and her baby sister wailing, as she faced down the enemy who'd dared attack her home.

Photograph of the Schuyler Mansion staircase, ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott.

Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton (and yes, Peggy as well) in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.