Elizabeth De Hart Bleecker Diary: October 8, 1800
“This morning Mr. Solomon Roe, Teller in the New York Bank, put an end to his existence by discharging a Pistol through his head—it is said to be in consequences of Olcott’s failure” -Elizabeth De Hart Bleecker, October 8, 1800.
Born into a prominent family and married to a noted, young attorney, Elizabeth De Hart Bleecker spent a lot of time with men who were involved in the intertwined fields of finance, mercantile trades, and banking. Yet, she viewed New York’s bustling capitalist economy, and its effects on the City, in her own way.
As news of Solomon Roe’s tragic suicide spread, many focused their attention on the tawdry details of financial machinations and frauds that led Roe to take his own life. They zeroed in on what Bleecker and many others had started to call “Olcott’s failure.” Bleecker made a solemn entry in her diary.
What actually happened between Roe and Nathaniel Olcott is not totally clear. Olcott fled New York around October 6, and newspapers quickly began advertising a $2000 reward for his capture. When Olcott was found in Carlisle, Pennsylvania a number of weeks after Roe’s suicide, he had $8,000 on him. His captors were surely disappointed. Everyone knew that Olcott had fled New York with a six-figure sum. A few days before Roe’s suicide, at least two men were trying to track Olcott down for fleecing them. The Bank of New York also complained that he had absconded with some $118,000 in bank notes, given as an advance by a teller. The teller was Solomon Roe.
In his suicide note, which was also a sort of last will and testament, Roe maintained that he was not in on Olcott's scam. He claimed he was duped. Some in the press agreed. Others defended Olcott. A jury wighed in, and they concluded that Olcott, Roe, and one other man had conspired to take money from the Bank of New York, but planned to put it back. This wishy-washy conclusion could hardly be called a verdict. The case unsurprisingly devolved into very convoluted legal proceedings.
New York newspapers followed developments in Olcott’s disappearance, capture, and trial quite carefully. Little mention was made of Roe, with the exception of one piece published in the New York Gazette that mourned the “amiable” fellow and blamed the rise of speculation schemes and financial grasping for his untimely death.
Though we know Bleecker was not immune to following sensational and tawdry criminal cases, she seems to have ignored new details about Olcott’s failure as they came to light. The story of the failure thus appears entirely different in Bleecker’s diary than in the newspapers. What for journalists was mostly a story of high-flying financial mischief, for Bleecker was one of simple, human tragedy.
I learned about Roe's death, and the economic roles and influence of Bleecker and other elite women in early New York, from Alisa Wade, "An Alliance of Ladies: Power, Public Affairs, and Class Construction in Early National New York City," (Ph.D. Diss., Graduate Center of the City University of New York, 2016). The Olcott failure is treated in Bruce H. Mann, Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 247-48.
About the Early American Manuscripts Project
With support from the The Polonsky Foundation, The New York Public Library is currently digitizing upwards of 50,000 pages of historic early American manuscript material. The Early American Manuscripts Project will allow students, researchers, and the general public to revisit major political events of the era from new perspectives and to explore currents of everyday social, cultural, and economic life in the colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods. The project will present online for the first time high quality facsimiles of key documents from America’s Founding, including the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Drawing on the full breadth of the Library’s manuscript collections, it will also make widely available less well-known manuscript sources, including business papers of Atlantic merchants, diaries of people ranging from elite New York women to Christian Indian preachers, and organizational records of voluntary associations and philanthropic organizations. Over the next two years, this trove of manuscript sources, previously available only at the Library, will be made freely available through nypl.org.