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The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire

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To his contemporaries in Gilded Age Manhattan, Guillermo Eliseo was a fantastically wealthy Mexican, the proud owner of a luxury apartment overlooking Central Park, a busy Wall Street office, and scores of mines and haciendas in Mexico. But for all his obvious riches and his elegant appearance, Eliseo was also the possessor of a devastating secret: he was not, in fact, from Mexico at all. Rather, he had begun life as a slave named William Ellis, born on a cotton plantation in southern Texas during the waning years of King Cotton.

After emancipation, Ellis, capitalizing on the Spanish he learned during his childhood along the Mexican border and his ambivalent appearance, engaged in a virtuoso act of reinvention. He crafted an alter ego, the Mexican Guillermo Eliseo, who was able to access many of the privileges denied to African Americans at the time: traveling in first-class train berths, staying in upscale hotels, and eating in the finest restaurants.

Eliseo’s success in crossing the color line, however, brought heightened scrutiny in its wake as he became the intimate of political and business leaders on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Ellis, unlike many passers, maintained a connection to his family and to black politics that also raised awkward questions about his racial status. Yet such was Ellis’s skill in manipulating his era’s racial codes, most of the whites he encountered continued to insist that he must be Hispanic even as Ellis became embroiled in scandals that hinted the man known as Guillermo Eliseo was not quite who he claimed to be.

The Strange Career of William Ellis reads like a novel but offers fresh insights on the history of the Reconstruction era, the US-Mexico border, and the abiding riddle of race. At a moment when the United States is deepening its connections with Latin America and recognizing that race is more than simply black or white, Ellis’s story could not be more timely or important.

304 pages, Hardcover

First published June 13, 2016

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Karl Jacoby

19 books23 followers

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5 stars
53 (22%)
4 stars
97 (41%)
3 stars
62 (26%)
2 stars
12 (5%)
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7 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 49 reviews
Profile Image for Blaine DeSantis.
880 reviews102 followers
August 22, 2016
A very strange book. As a biography this gets about a 1.5* but as for a history of US/Mexican and Black/Mexican relations it is a 4****.
I say this because for at least the first half of the book William Ellis is really nowhere to be found. A mention here or there but most all of this is about those who went back and forth between the US and Mexico and how black slaves could pass themselves off in the US as Mexicans. It was a really informative book with regards to societal situations in the 1800's.
What I gleaned from the book about William Ellis is about Zero. Nothing is really known about his early life and for allegedly being a millionaire he died with huge debts and only $15,000. He seemed more of a con artist or "trickster" as the book calls him near the end. He never really worked but was an idea man. Settling Mexico with former slaves, supplying slaves to work on plantations in Mexico, etc. None of this really worked out. And so I am left with a very incomplete story of the man but a great history of society.
Profile Image for James .
277 reviews
May 16, 2020
What a cool book! Jacoby put together an interesting portrait of a fascinating character who was born into slavery and then took on multiple identities in order to evade racism and in hopes of building a fortune. It started slow and just ended up as absolutely fascinating...
21 reviews
March 7, 2021
I felt like was reading a version of Catch Me if You Can about the complexity of race during the gilded age.
Profile Image for Debbie J.
444 reviews5 followers
October 3, 2016
The Strange Career of William Ellis is a fascinating story. Prior to reading it I had no awareness of an effort to encourage African American emigration to Mexico after Emancipation--or how former slaves would’ve considered such a move feasible.

This isn’t so much a William Ellis biography as an examination of the troubled racial, political, and trade history between the US and Mexico, especially along the Texas/Mexico border. Ellis' life often seems incidental with writer Karl Jacoby trying to shoehorn him into the narrative and elevate his importance to certain minor historical events.

The author has written the book in quite a highbrow style. Those who rarely read scholarly-ish works might find the long, complex sentence structure difficult and a bit of a slog to get through.

However, The Strange Career of William Ellis succeeds as an untold saga that perhaps deserves a place on either the big or small screen. Maybe actor Terrance Howard as the racially-fluid Ellis?
224 reviews4 followers
May 5, 2018
I like history that looks at topics I'm not familiar with. This fit the bill. It primarily covers race relations on the Texas/Mexico border in the 1800s and early 1900s, particularly the concept of "passing" whereby light skinned blacks passed themselves off as a different racial background in order to get around the racial codes. It's the passing part, with its elements of con man skills, that really caught my eye.

It's not a popular history book like Erik Larson might do, so the academic writing might be a little tough to get through for many as it was for me. It's fascinating to see some of the same racial arguments about immigration being made then as we see today. Some things I wasn't aware of popped up like mass immigration of former slaves to escape racial discrimination and violence in the US. Lots of problems for passers were interesting like having to effectively abandon one's family and community in order to pull it off, while then finding it difficult to, say, find a wife as a result.

So while there were lots of interesting bits, I found I just wasn't that interested in the topic. The academic style dragged out the story with detours to satisfy other academics, and if you take all that out there wasn't enough left to the story to fill a book. I had to keep dragging myself back to the book in order to finish. I'd probably be happier with an abridged version.
Profile Image for Julia Hendon.
Author 7 books12 followers
July 8, 2016
William Henry Ellis, born into slavery and emancipated with his family, reinvented himself as Guillermo Enrique Eliseo, claiming to be Mexican, Cuban, and even Hawaiian. These alternative identities let him pass as "not black" in the late 19th century's Gilded Age. Unlike many African Americans who passed, Ellis sought fame and fortune through well publicized financial and political activities. Karl Jacoby draws on a wide range of sources and has produced a readable account of the period. Ellis himself remains somewhat opaque as to his motivations and personality, a consequence of the fact that he left little personal material or writings.
Profile Image for Emily.
131 reviews
July 5, 2016
Very interesting--the author managed to find a lot of information on this enigmatic figure, who obscured his identity throughout a large portion of his life. He didn't just "pass" for white; he called himself Mexican when it suited him, spoke fluent Spanish, and did a lot of business in Mexico. He was an entrepreneur, mostly, but sometimes a bit of a con man, but also a person who wanted to help others get more opportunities. A very interesting man, overall, and a great piece of creative non-fiction by the author.
Profile Image for Morris Massre.
32 reviews1 follower
October 8, 2017
This book is full of speculation and innuendo. Apparently not enough research was done or even available, and for good reason, Ellis wanted it that way. Simple fact is the guy was a con who died penniless. Why Jacoby would portray him as some kind of hero millionaire is beyond me. Jacoby couldn't even explain where Ellis supposedly got his money or started his business. So the guy managed to pass himself off as white? So what? Many have. That doesn't make a book.
Profile Image for Carole.
597 reviews
March 29, 2019
This book is a masterpiece. It brings to life the exploits and experiences of the book’s namesake William Henry Ellis as he, a former slave freed at the end of the USA Civil War, passed as a Mexican, a Cuban, a Hawaiian, and in all those guises not as a Black/African American. Ellis was an economic influencer in Mexico, New York City, and Addis Ababa (!), a man of many projects and schemes to make money and better the Negro’s position and opportunity in two nations, well respected, wealthy, politically astute, and complex to the nth degree. Jacoby’s biography of Ellis is also a compelling history and analysis of race, of what constituted USA-Mexican border life In the late 1800s and early 1900s, of Mexico’s growth and aspirations under Porfirio Diaz’ leadership, and of the sundry ways racism has permeated and shaped both of the bordering republics for 200 years. I am so glad I read it - I’ve learned a lot about a lot. In light of arguments and perceptions of Mexico and Mexicans that have been arising and expanding since the 2016 official onset of the tumultuous Trump administration l think this book will open wide the eyes of any who read it to the lasting impacts of racism on individuals, families, and countries alike. I recommend it!
Profile Image for Sherri.
394 reviews4 followers
January 17, 2018
As a biography this is skimpy, but not for lack of research or effort. The author sets up the geographical and social setting, telling more about the peculiar ideas of race at the turn of the last century. Considering the current political climate concerning Hispanic people it is interesting that a hundred years ago most would be considered white and granted privileges and rights they seldom see today.

William Henry Ellis was a light skinned African American who spoke Spanish and passed as white. Mostly as Mexican, but he claimed Cuban and Hawaiian ancestry when it was a better fit. Since few records survived there's not much to go on besides newspaper stories. Ellis's own words make up a few paragraphs in the entire book.

Jacoby refers to Ellis as a trickster but hustler is probably more appropriate. He was a man who worked to pull himself out of poverty, took risky and questionable opportunities, created an affluent image that attracted attention and changed his alliances when said allies fell out of favor. It isn't meant as an insult. Ellis used the politics of segregation against itself and largely won.
770 reviews
February 20, 2019
It seems almost impossible that William Ellis, a child of black slaves and himself born into slavery, could reinvent himself as a white person. Or rather a Mexican, or a Cuba or Hawaiian. But he did and it only unraveled upon is death. In addition he was the consummate wheeler dealer who claimed great wealth. And at times he achieved that wealth.

So how did he do it? He practiced “passing,” that is passing yourself off as white. He was incredibly successful at this, as were other light-skinned Negroes following the Civil War. He added to his new persona by also speaking fluent Spanish.

Incredibly well researched and wonderfully written, it added to my knowledge of of an aspect of Texas history I knew nothing about. Thanks to my Texas-centric book club member, Ann, for the recommendation!
Profile Image for Empanadani.
155 reviews1 follower
February 7, 2019
I finally read it!

This is not a dense academic read or a dry historical essay. It's such a well-written book that draws you into the world as it was unfolding during the Reconstruction era up until the death of Guillermo Ellis in the 1900s in Mexico and the US. It narrates the story of Guillermo a former enslaved black man in Texas who manages to "pass" as Mexican/Cuban/Hawaiian/white in order to achieve his goals (mostly capitalistic). However, the book also narrates the stories of these two countries--entering the industrial age in the name of "progress," contending with borders and the periphery, nationalism. Basically, a story of nation-building projects. There is much to discuss and I learned a lot. Worth it.

Profile Image for Candida.
1,009 reviews36 followers
June 23, 2020
With everything we see now pertaining to race, right down to the Census, this book is a must read. It isn't dry by any means and gives you a totally different view of the Civil War into the Gilded Age. I personally was completely unaware that this kind of situation was ever a thing, so this book really was an eye opener.
The author mixes lots of explanations of the politics of America and Mexico at a time of the Jim Crow laws were enforced. The author tells us about how race even tore families apart in unexpected ways. This book cleared up a lot of blank spots in my knowledge of historical events.
Profile Image for El C.
37 reviews
June 27, 2018
i would recommend this book only because the historical period it is set in was pivotal to mexican american relationships. Ellis is somehow connected to that historical outcome, sure. But more importanty the mother of all modern american race relations was established within this same period in which the u.s. adopted the pure "white" and just "black" census standards. Ellis is an excellent person to illuminate the political fallout from the u.s. census race theory that is still broadly influential today.
Profile Image for Ali Piccininni.
67 reviews
October 8, 2020
What a wild ride! This book follows the life of William Ellis, who was born as a slave in Texas during the late 19th century. He uses his ambiguous skin color to his advantage as he creates a new identity for himself with the name Guillermo Eliseo to become a successful businessman in Mexico and New York. This book was so much more than I thought it would be! It covers the manmade concept of race, the color line, international affairs, constantly being an outsider, and how hiding one's identity often led to family tension.
Profile Image for Amber.
1,921 reviews
February 4, 2018
I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but I've never really thought about Mexico as a refuge for enslaved people in the US. I had only really considered the Underground Railroad and the north star pointing the way to Canada. This book rectifies that oversight and tells the story of a man who "passed" as Mexican/Cuban/Hawaiian and grew incredibly rich despite the limitations posed by an unfair society.
Profile Image for Rrshively.
1,324 reviews
May 17, 2018
This book tells the incredible story of the former slave who became a millionaire. It includes the reasons why Texas became especially hostile to Hispanics, the politics of the U.S.-Mexico border, the gilded age, resettlement of African Americans in other countries, diplomacy with Ethiopia, the hazards of "crossing to the other side" and much more. It was amusing to find that William Ellis was the sort of con man and flim-flam artist that is still prevalent on Wall Street today.
Profile Image for Jim.
36 reviews3 followers
June 19, 2017
The Strange Career of William Ellis is an interesting book that is simultaneously a biography of William Ellis/Guillermo Eliseo, a study of borderlands history, and a meditation on Americans' unique experience with the understanding of race. It is well worth the read as Ellis/Eliseo is a terrific cipher for the individual American encounters with race and borders.
Profile Image for Jess.
381 reviews13 followers
May 15, 2019
A bit scant as a literal biography, but incredible well-researched information about the history of race relations along and across the Mexican border, including a lot about black americans leaving the south for Mexico. Also a lot about class/race/wealth/etc at the turn of the century in the US through a lens of someone who crossed in and out of these categories depending on circumstance.
Profile Image for Greg Giles.
130 reviews2 followers
February 11, 2021
3.5 stars. A mutli-faceted book that uses biography to peer into issues of race, class, and national identity. Gets a bit dry in parts, and Ellis is sometimes a background figure in his own story (by necessity perhaps, given the lack of extant material). All in all, a very good read. (And don't skip the thoughtful epilogue or the poignant afterword.)
19 reviews
October 14, 2021
Book Clubber noted a passage on page 21 detailing a sort of ethnic cleaning of Mexicans because of their interactions with African Americans. There was also a discussion of “passing” after reading a passage from the book on pages 62-63 when we talked about the laws and the customs of polite society that allowed William Ellis, aka Guillermo Eliseo, to pass.
Profile Image for Sally Shadrach.
41 reviews
March 8, 2022
Read this for a class! Reads more as a history book than a biography. Ellis’s story is fascinating and felt like a movie at times. His actions and their effects on racial perceptions in the early 1900s have had long-lasting effects. Overall, the level of detail and research is astonishing. but like i’m glad to be done reading it 🤭
12 reviews
November 10, 2017
Audio version very difficult to listen to. Narrator put "air quotes" in almost half the book with odd inflection points in almost every sentence - quite distracting. Very little of the book is actually about William Ellis.
Profile Image for Elizabeth McNair Demolat.
138 reviews3 followers
June 19, 2019
Even though this book deals with such complicated and nuanced issues, it was easy to follow. Besides being incredibly fascinating, the book presented so much information that I was completely unaware of. It’s a great nonfiction read.
125 reviews
October 19, 2020
This book followed the very interesting journey of William Ellis with lots of background from the time period. The book got a little slow at some times, but I found the subject matter interesting enough to keep reading!
Profile Image for Joel.
33 reviews3 followers
October 31, 2022
More of a 3.5*. Academic history, replete with many endnotes, but still accessible. An interesting look at how race has been constructed in America, and one Black man’s remarkable success as passing, not as white, but as Mexican.
Profile Image for Carla Bass.
4 reviews
July 21, 2017
Loved it! Well researched and a fascinating account. Great for anyone with interest in Mexico, migration, racial politics and early 20th century economics.
Profile Image for Cindy.
2,384 reviews
October 10, 2017
So many fascinating subjects in this book - Mexican history, Texas history, race relations in Mexico - but it got repetitive at times. Still, it was a good book to listen to while I was quilting.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 49 reviews

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