October 1, 2022

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Hannah Elias – Business Woman, One of the Wealthiest In Early 1900s

Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History lived an African American woman named Hannah Elias who went on to become one of the wealthiest Black women of the early 1900s, using money acquired freely and unconventionally by an “admirer” and then multiplied it by rental properties and owning a boarding house.


Hannah Elias was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1865 to an African American man (who was biracial) named Charles Elias who was a Steam Navel Waiter and a housekeeper named Elizabeth Elias. She had many brothers and sisters, and of them, she was one of the youngest, one of the because she as a fraternal twin to her brother David.

Not much is known of her before the age of 14 when she worked as a servant before being arrested for stealing a cape and being sentenced to four months in jail at Eastern Penitentiary. After her release, she had no home, so she ended up working at a brothel to support herself because it was the only way she could…until at turn of events that led her to meeting John R. Platt in around the years 1886 and 1889.

How Hannah Elias Acquired a Fortune & Real Estate Mogul

Once Hannah Elias met John R. Platt, he’d become smitten by her, needing to meet up with her much over the course of years. Hannah, being biracial, passed as a Spanish woman, not an African American, at the time they met[1]. He later found out that she was actually married to a man named William C. Davis, a Black man. Hanna Elias and Davis had gotten married on February 5, 1895, according to Manhattan, NY Marriage Index Certificate # 3454.

By the time 1897 came around, Hannah and William C. Davis had already divorced, and John R. Platt admitted that he gave her loads of money freely for years after that, to the tune of nearly $1 million dollars if one estimates, which is approximately $33 million today. One could easily assume that he was completely in love with her, but knew he had to keep their relationship completely secret.

With the money he gave her, Hannah Elias was able to become a real estate mogul and business woman, renting out rooms in a boarding house which she owned, which is in the area of what is known as Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall and Times Square today. She rented out rooms in the boarding house which multiplied her fortune.

Hannah Elias Accused of Extortion by her “Admirer” – the Older, Wealthy White Retired Merchant John Platt

Hannah Elias, who was in her early 40s, was accused of extortion and by her elderly admirer named John R. Platt who was a wealthy, retired and a 84 year old white man who caused her whole arrest[2]. He’d over time gifted her thousands, starting six months after his wife passed away. He would give her thousands of dollars at a time, and even gave her money to purchase some of her homes. All in all, Platt had admired and loved her so much that he gave her so much month that she had to keep it in 15 separate banks.

In court, upon questioning, Hannah Elias stated that he wasn’t able to leave her in his will, so he had to give her the money up front. He would even place ads in the paper to locate her when he came back in from out of town, from visiting the South, and she would reply with her own ad in the paper so he would know where to find her. The ads were in code. Throughout the extortion trial, Elias stated that Platt always treated her very well and gave her money all the time.

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This was clearly not an extortion. This was a wealthy man who wanted to give her his entire world, and she didn’t have to threaten him to do it. Some of the homes/mansions she’d owned were due to the money that John R. Platt freely gave to her which was more than $100,000 which equals millions today. They are listed below:

  • a flat on 41st street and Broadway
  • a home on 138 West 68th Street -$18,500
  • 236 Central Park West – $45,000
  • 166 West 72nd Street – $49,500

He even gave her his deceased wife’s merchandise. In total, Hannah Elias was to keep approximately $700,000 given to her by her “admirer” because he was a terrible witness, couldn’t recall anything he’d done over the decade’s long affair[3].

In reality, her and Mr. Platt were probably married, although all was somehow hidden. It was hidden from his relatives – all of them. The whole thing is just confusing. According to NY City Department Records Certificate 42713 on Ancestry, Hannah Elias was married to John Platt, and although she failed to mention who the father of her second child was, it is clear that the father was listed as John Platt. (This record could be accurate or by error).

Their daughter according to record was named Gwendolyn Toyo Elias Platt, sometimes listed without the Platt name[4]. She was born October 15, 1902 in New York and lived at the location of her home above at 236 Central Part West Street which is the connection between this census record and the confession of home ownership during this time by Mrs. Hannah Elias herself when questioned during trial. This this would prove that this record of marriage and child is accurate if and only if recorded correctly[5].

There was actually a Black man by the name of Cornelius Williams who claimed to have been in love with Hannah and actually shot an affluent man by mistaken identity, believing it was Mr. Platt who he blamed to have kept him from seeing her. He was placed in an asylum for the rest of his life being found to be clinically insane with no real relationship with Hannah Elias, but his arrest proved that Pratt and Hannah did indeed have a very real affair.

She did not have to give him the money back, to the total of approximately $700,000. It was rightfully hers, outside of the $110,000 that was in a trust to a person named Dugan[6]. The accusations were thrown out, unsubstantiated[7].

“Your Honor, I think the parties to this miserable scandal ought to be allowed to stew in their own grease. There is no evidence before you that will possibly serve to hold this woman on a charge of extortion. I recommend she be discharged.” – Assistant District Attorney Rand

The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland)11 Jun 1904, Sat Page 2

Hannah Elias’ Disappearance from New York

There is no death record of Hannah Elias, and since her life was so jumbled, there isn’t much factual information to share about growing old or her death. It is said that she left to Europe with a new man, however, after that, no one knows.

All in all, she ended up one of the wealthiest Black Women of that time, though her life was full of twists and turns, while still never being conclusive.

Black Entrepreneur History has tried to piece together more of her life with articles and clippings to the best of our ability with sources. There may be items that will need to be updated, changed or removed in the future or as more information is discovered.

Sources

  1. The Manning Times (Manning, South Carolina)08 Jun 1904, Wed Page 4
  2. New York City Department of Records & Information Services; New York City, New York; New York City Birth Certificates, Certificate # 42713
  3. The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) 19 Jan 1905, Thu Page 2
  4. New York City Department of Records & Information Services; New York City, New York; New York City Birth Certificates
  5. New York City Department of Records & Information Services; New York City, New York; New York City Birth Certificates; Borough: Manhattan; Year: 1902.
  6. Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) 09 Feb 1905, Thu Page 1
  7. The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland)11 Jun 1904, Sat Page 2

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