Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Robber Baron

Does the name Jay Gould ring a bell? You'll probably find the names Vanderbilt or Morgan more familiar; like them Gould was a financier whose interests included railroads, telegraphs, and, not incidentally, cornering the gold market. Or, just another nineteenth-century Robber Baron.

In 1868 he gained control of the Erie Railroad and in 1869 began a convoluted plan to increase freight rail traffic to the east by first trying to gain control of the gold market to drive up the price of wheat, which would in turn cause farmers in the midwest to ship more of their crops to the Atlantic coast. Though he made an small profit from his manipulations, his finagling caused the Black Friday crash in the gold market on September 24, 1869, and Gould ultimately lost more than he gained in the aftermath of litigation.

He was forced out of the Erie less than three years later, and made to repay more than 7 million dollars to the railroad for illicit securities transactions. But like a 19th-century Donald Trump, Gould would rise again, buying and consolidating small railroads, culminating with the Union Pacific and his gaining control of nearly fifteen percent of the nation's rail lines. During this time he also controlled the Western Union company. But he was an autocratic businessman, and, given his history, it isn't surprising that few people liked him.

Gould Mausoleum, Woodlawn Cemetery
March, 2008

He died in 1892 at the age of fifty-six of, according to the newspaper accounts of the times, 'consumption', or what we call 'tuberculosis' today. Ironic, that a man who left 72 million dollars to his family, was killed by the same disease that also claimed thousands of residents of the slums of New York that year.

But none of those other victims were entombed atop their own hill in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, in a granite Greek temple sealed with massive bronze doors whose handles feature lions holding thick metal rings in their mouths. Thirty columns support the roof, and the branches of the cemetery's immense and ancient weeping birch tree tickle one corner. Interestingly, there is no name chiseled anywhere, no identifiers, just the lions, and above them on each door a single angel. The tomb sits on a rise in the center of a 250-foot diameter circle. No other stones or markers note the site.

(Image of Jay Gould from the
George Grantham Bain Collection, Print and Photographs Collection, Library of Congress)


Sharon said...

I like the new header! and such an interesting subject.
How did you know it was the Gould mausoleum? From the books about Woodlawn?

Gene said...

Wowza! Some serious money, even more in those days. Interesting that his name doesn't appear anywhere on that massive monument, because clearly a small ego was not amongst his traits.

Julie said...

That is a massive amount of money in those days, Neil. 72 million. Golly.

So, in the middle of the 19th century, there was a thriving secutities market capable of bein manipulated. We have learnt zilch over the years, I fear.

I wonder what his family thought of him, or whether they simply took the money and ran. Surely this is the Gould FAMILY mausoleum, not just a towering ediface to the ego of one person. Hah! It would be good if he were in there alone.

What a fascinating look into power and money and the human psyche.

hamilton said...

That is an interesting bit of irony you pointed out. So all his millions could not save him in the end.

Sondra said...

WELL at least they made him repay...not like today where they get slammed in the press and get a slap on the wrist from the legal system...greed doesnt PAY..
HE has a very handsome resting place he in there alone I have to wonder of does he share with other family members?

The Paw Relations said...

What an interesting post and such an amazing resting place.

Death has no concerns over wealth and stature. We're all the same in his eyes.

Herding Cats

s.c said...

Very interesting story and I must agree with Paw Relations. Thanks for showing us.

Kathy said...

Quite a monument to someone who was not well-liked. He probably planned it himself!