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

Karl Jacoby (Author)


A black child born on the US-Mexico border in the twilight of slavery, William Ellis inhabited a world divided along ambiguous racial lines. Adopting the name Guillermo Eliseo, he passed as Mexican, transcending racial lines to become fabulously wealthy as a Wall Street banker, diplomat, and owner of scores of mines and haciendas south of the border. In The Strange Career of William Ellis, prize-winning historian Karl Jacoby weaves an astonishing tale of cunning and scandal, offering fresh insights on the history of the Reconstruction era, the US-Mexico border, and the abiding riddle of race in America.

Product Details

W. W. Norton & Company
Publish Date
June 06, 2017
5.4 X 1.0 X 8.0 inches | 0.6 pounds

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About the Author

Karl Jacoby is a professor of history at Columbia University. The author of two previous books, he has won the Albert J. Beveridge Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among many other honors. He lives in New York.


William Ellis was a chameleon, a trickster, and a man determined to shape his own identity. With enormous skill, Karl Jacoby uncovers this tremendous subject, revealing Ellis's lies, and crafting a powerful new narrative about the porous borders of class, race, and national identity in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American life. Deftly moving between the improbable details of Ellis's biography and the larger political and cultural stories of the day, Jacoby demonstrates how one man's life can help us understand the past in an entirely new way.--Martha A. Sandweiss, professor of history, Princeton University, and author of Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line
[A] titillating historical detective story.
[E]legantly written...fascinating.--Vladimir Alexandrov
[Jacoby] presents Ellis' intriguing story...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.
A work of admirable sleuthing...Jacoby has assembled a portrait of a man who deliberately sought to cover his own tracks.
Fascinating...[an] important slice of American history.--Karen M. Thomas
An irresistible account of one of the great tricksters of his time, a fearless border and barrier-crosser, an artist of the great escape.--Alma Guillermoprieto