'The Strange Career of William Ellis'

William Ellis had an apartment on Central Park West and a Wall Street office. His frequent trips to Mexico City were by first-class rail.

He corresponded with President Teddy Roosevelt. He hobnobbed with Mexican dictators. He did, or tried to do, deals involving diamonds in Ethiopia and cotton, rubber and hydroelectricity in Mexico.

If Ellis were around today, he might have his own reality show.

But Ellis wasn’t whom he said he was. In Manhattan and Mexico, he was Guillermo Eliseo, a sophisticated Mexican businessman. But in fact he was the son of slaves, born in Victoria, Texas.

Ellis was one of the more prominent, and certainly more interesting, examples of “passing,” in which a member of one race passes themselves off as a member of another.

Karl Jacoby, a history professor at Columbia University, presents Ellis’ intriguing story in “The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire.” Equally intriguing is the history of the post-Civil War Texas-Mexican borderland. Jacoby’s book may well have you searching his bibliography for books on that subject.

Jacoby faced a difficult job in presenting a complete portrait of Ellis. As Jacoby notes, there is often plenty of documentation about slaveholders but little about slaves. Some of the many newspaper accounts of Ellis are shallow; some sound like rewrites of the same story. And Ellis, for obvious reasons, was not forthcoming about his background. He did not keep a diary.

If he did, one doubts he would have been too reflective about his reasons for passing. He was an opportunist, doing what he felt was necessary to succeed. While presenting himself as Mexican at times, at others he was Cuban or Hawaiian. In Mexico, he once said he was the illegitimate son of railroad magnate Collis Huntington.

Jacoby writes that it was “Ellis’ particular genius to grasp the advantages that could accrue to being a foreigner in whatever nation-state he happened to be inhabiting at the moment.”

Jacoby offers little explanation for how Ellis became rich. It had something to do with the formation in 1899 of the Westchester and New York Water Co. and is covered in part of one paragraph.

More is known of his failures. Ellis’ first, and most prominent, was his recruitment and resettlement in 1895 of hundreds of African-Americans from Alabama and Georgia to colonize a cotton hacienda in Tlahualilo, Mexico, 200 miles south of the border. The plan unraveled within months. Many of the colonists got sick with smallpox or “something resembling malaria,” according to an attending physician. The colonists’ return to the United States precipitated a diplomatic rhubarb between the U.S. and Mexico.

Ellis ended his days at age 59 in 1923 at a hospital in Mexico City, where he had gone to try to salvage some failed business deals. Waiting for him in suburban Mount Vernon, N.Y., were his white wife and four children.

Knowing that his time was near, he asked his sister in a letter to remember him as someone who “came into the world fighting for his rights and that of his wife and children and that he went out of life doing the same.”

Jacoby provides a touching coda to his book by bringing together Ellis’ descendants, who had settled in Mexico, and those of his sister, who live in the U.S. The gathering was last year in suburban Los Angeles. The next reunion will be in Mexico.

Tim Bross is a former editor at the Post-Dispatch. He lives in Kirkwood.

“The Strange Career of William Ellis”

By Karl Jacoby

Published by Norton, 368 pages, $27.95