In 1903, Hannah Elias Was The Richest Black Woman in America, Then Her Lover Shot A Millionaire in front of his Park Avenue Home
Hannah Elias Sought Freedom
By Yvette Brown
It seems Hannah Elias sought freedom from many things. Freedom from the constraints of life as a woman. Freedom from the barriers that accompanied blackness in the early 1900’s. Even freedom from her Central Park West mansion in which she attempted to recreate an Egyptian palace. Later on she would seek to escape charges of blackmail and fraud.
Elias led an intriguing and interesting life for a black woman at the turn of the Century. Perhaps the reason why you haven’t heard of her is because she seems to be part grifter, seductress and chameleon. What we do about Hannah Elias is cobbled together from published news reports at the time. You can view a few of the articles here, here and here.
According to news reports of the time local officials and New York’s upper class were SHOCKED to find out Hannah was black and not, Cuban, Indian, Greek or any of the other darker hued groups she claimed association with. This to could be part of the reason the black community has not claimed Hannah, she sought not to claim them. But you can call yourself whatever you wish, but you can’t change the facts. Hannah Elias was born in 1865 in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, one of nine children of a black mixed race couple and not on the banks of the Nile River. She was said to be the brightest of the children as well as being exceptionally beautiful.
In 1903 passing as white was a difficult path yet it afforded the opportunity of employment and a unrestricted life. The fact that other blacks at that time would not divulge your secret or would participate in your “passing” is also what allowed the practice to succeed. When actor Tom Sizemore revealed his black heritage recently, he said his black grandfather cautioned him to never to do so to succeed in Hollywood. His grandfather reportedly told him “if you see me on the street and you have to, feel free to just pass me by”.
The NY Times headline blared “Negress Admits Platt Gave Her Thousands”
Hannah Elias, who is accused by John R. Platt of having blackmailed him out of $685,385, this afternoon will be arraigned in the Tombs Court before Magistrate Ommen.
In total, properties and goods valued at approximately $1MM. Even in todays numbers that is quite a bit of cash. Yet, Hannah who hired her own lawyer and presented her case well, would go on to win the suit brought against her. At the time, the court room was said to be packed with onlookers struggling to catch a glimpse of “negro enchantress” . Hannah did indeed take the stand, she stated her case eloquently and resolutely…… and won. This is quite impressive for a black women in 1904. For someone we believe to have had little education, she was quick-witted and business minded. Hannah worked as a showgirl but also operated a boarding house for other blacks on West 53rd Street when she arrived in New York. She was a hustler, surviving in her own way even before Senator John Platt began giving her large sums of money. What would an intuitive and smart woman like Hannah have been had she had the access to an education?
Four midtown properties, a palatial Central Park West mansion, it all seemed quite fantastic until her black lover shot and killed a rich white man, Andrew Green, as he exited his luxury Park Avenue abode. It was an awful case of mistaken identity, though Platt and Green did not really resemble each other, except both were white and older. Many Black people, though known to be able to spot a drop of black blood in another person of color more than 5 blocks in the distance, apparently still had difficulty telling white folks apart. The white Upper class was aghast. Negroes on Park Avenue, murder and a love triangle. It was this murder that exposed Hannah’s background and possibly encouraged family members of John Platt to force a case against Hannah for fear of being associated or known to be in a relationship with a Negresse. It is said, that Hannah blackmailed Senator Platt, acquiring monies to keep quiet and not expose their relationship and the fact she was black. I do find that hard to believe, apparently many others did as well.
The fact that she was black was as powerful a secret for Hannah as it would have been for Mr. Platt. Hannah had struggled so desperately to hide the fact to maintain her lifestyle, why would she jeopardize her life of comfort? It was said that Hannah was so bent on hiding her true identity that she under went one of the first known plastic surgeries, a rhinoplasty, seeking a less African and more “Grecian” nose. Or it could be that Hannah did threaten exposure with no real intent of doing so and that itself was the grift. Or it might be as some news stories suggest, that Hannah had given birth to Senator Platt’s child. Those are details lost to history.
Andrew Green is described as follows from Wikipedia:
Andrew Haswell Green (October 6, 1820 – November 13, 1903) was a lawyer, New York City planner, and civic leader. He is responsible for the following, as they would not have materialized without his leadership: Central Park, The New York Public Library, The Bronx Zoo, The American Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Mr. Green helped to shape New York as we know it today. His death put a spotlight on all those around him. Soon all they city would know of Hannah and Senator Platt.
Though a fascinating character there is a lot of sadness in Hannah Elias’s story. News articles from that period stated she did not allow blacks in her home for fear of exposure of her secret. Yet she frequented black neighborhoods at night, venturing out shrouded in darkness and covered in veils. Articles also reported rumors that she shared large sums of money with poorer black friends and relations, companions she was never seen with by day. Her lover Cornelius Williams carried on a clandestine relationship in this way with Hannah for years, then was pushed to rage to attempt to murder the supporter of her lifestyle, John Platt.
In the sad ending of this tale, not much else is known about Hannah. She lived a grand life of intrigue and deception. It was about survival and surviving in 1900s America was not easy for anyone with a black background. Yet, in the end Hannah had to live her life as what she feared most…a black woman at the turn of the century in America.
Photo: Vintage photo of women walking near home of Hannah Elias on Central Park West