4 Stories Of Ridiculously Evil Rich People From The Past
Even as we enter a new era of income inequality, it's easy to forget how nasty the oligarchs of the Gilded Age could be. We tend to assume they weren't great people, but many of their sins have been lost in the haze of your high school history textbook's most boring chapters. But as we watch our current crop of rich folk muse on things like "Should we replace employee health insurance with a robot that repeatedly tells them to walk it off?" these stories also remind us what unlimited wealth and power can do to a human being.
Hetty Green Was A Millionaire Who Kept Her Children In Rags
Henrietta "Hetty" Green, known by the popular nickname the "Witch of Wall Street," was the kind of miser you probably thought only existed in old cartoons. She was a shrewd businesswoman, but so enraged by the thought of actually spending money that she lived like a bag lady, refusing to bathe and wearing mourning clothes until they literally rotted off her body. You could write it off as eccentricity (Steve Jobs reportedly didn't smell great either), but here's the thing: She had kids, and subjected them to the same treatment.
Green started with a $7 million inheritance, gaining more when her aunt died with a $2 million estate. And she wanted every penny so badly that she presented a forged "original" will for said aunt, though her claims soon fell apart. This earned her a slap on an increasingly dirty wrist, and the brazenly greedy attempt at theft turned the media against her. And so, as one does when they're unlikable, she spent her life lending to banks and buying up mortgages, ending up with $200 million (a billionaire when adjusted for inflation) when she died in 1916. For comparison, J.P. Morgan himself was worth only $80 million, the loser.
When doing business, her staff avoided this Pigpen and her corpse-covered-in-spoiled-mayo stench as much as possible. To dodge tax men, Green (who sometimes used the name of her dog, Curtis, to help her in this cause) constantly uprooted her two Dickensian-dirty children to various cold-water tenements. Green sent those kids to school in hand-me-down rags; when the weather turned cold, she just stuffed their clothes with wadded-up newspaper instead of buying coats.
Now here's where it gets really dark. Her son Ned injured his knee in a sledding accident, and Green refused to pay for medical treatment, forcing him to live in pain for years until the leg turned gangrenous and had to be amputated. In her defense, she held herself to the same standard, for the most part. She suffered a hernia for nearly 20 years before getting the lump of gut meat poked back into place, bitching about the $150 price tag and trying to bail on the bill afterwards.
On one hand, you could say that this all sounds like actual mental illness, but you could just as easily say she was taking the obsessive hoarding of wealth to its logical conclusion. The money brought her no joy or material benefit; she just wanted more and more of it, because at the end of the day, she didn't want anyone else to have it.
Related: 5 Screwed-Up Secrets The Ultra-Rich Don't Want You To Know
Andrew Carnegie And Henry Clay Frick Flooded A Whole Town
One advantage of being wealthy is that you can inflict suffering on your lessers even while you're relaxing. That brings us to the tale of the South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club, a lodge for the super-rich near Lake Conemaugh in Pennsylvania. It had an illustrious roster, a who's who of the robber baron set, with Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie as principal members. The duo decided to spruce up the place, to the ultimate detriment of Johnstown just downriver.
Owning a piece of property like the club meant that they also owned the lake, which meant that by rich-people-can-do-whatever-they-want-somehow law, they also owned the South Fork dam, which made the lake. The structure was narrow, so they Bob Vila'd that old dam and had it lowered to accommodate two carriages. They also neglected to reinstall the drainage pipes that had been sold for scrap decades earlier. Then they netted up the spillway to keep game fish in the lake, because god forbid a millionaire go trout-less. But here's the thing: A net doesn't just catch fish. It catches debris too.
By May 28, 1889, a storm began and the water rose, then had nowhere to go. By the 31st, the dam broke. The resultant flood destroyed Johnstown, flinging entire trains off railroad tracks, smashing houses against houses, piling debris 40 feet high, and sucking families out of buildings into the vortex. By the time the waters receded, over 2,200 people were dead, 1,600 houses had been destroyed, and the damage covered four square miles. The cost to rebuild topped $17 million (around $474 million today).
If you want to know how people reacted in general, The Chicago Herald's headline for the story was "Manslaughter or Murder?" Sensing they had to do something fast, but being too rich and oblivious to realize what the best something might be, the members of the club donated 1,000 blankets to the relief efforts. Afterwards, Carnegie donated $10,000, and he later helped build the town a library. Which might sound nice, until you remember that it was one of 2,509 libraries he had constructed, and he probably would've just built that shit anyway.
Related: The 18 Most Horrifying Things Rich People Got Away With
Russell Sage Allegedly Used A Clerk As A Human Shield, Then Fought Him In Court
Russell Sage was one of the wealthiest men in America, and shockingly, he was also known for being a miser who bravely stood against charity. On December 4, 1891, an anarchist bomber named Henry L. Norcross showed up at his office on the pretense of being a representative of John D. Rockefeller. He told Sage to give him to give him $1.2 million in cash, or he'd detonate the dynamite he held in his satchel. And then, before anyone knew what was happening, the bomb exploded.
Junior clerk Benjamin Norton was blown clear out of the building and landed alive on the sidewalk below, only to be crushed like a Looney Tunes character by the cast iron typewriter he'd been using. Sage, for his part, only had superficial wounds. But another clerk, William Laidlaw, was covered in lacerations and glass shrapnel. The bomber was bone chunks and disharmony, having been turned into what was then known scientifically as "smithereens."
So why do we call Sage the bad guy in this scenario? Well, Sage's version of the story was that he'd been looking for a way to escape when he spotted the oblivious Laidlaw and hoped Norcross would be distracted by him so he could sneak out. Laidlaw, on the other hand, testified that Sage had grabbed his arm and hid behind him, using him as a goddamn human shield. Being that Laidlaw was permanently disabled and the vulture in his 80s only suffered partial hearing loss, it's hard to know where the truth lies.
Laidlaw sued, and juries repeatedly awarded him settlements, which Sage in turn appealed over and over again, eventually winning a decision years later. If he'd paid out, Sage would have cut Laidlaw a check for roughly $75,000 -- nothing to him. Instead, Laidlaw eventually gave up the court fight, too tired and broken to go on. Sure, Sage had his reputation ruined when it became public knowledge what a money-grubber he was, though how much this mattered to the 90-year-old multimillionaire who breathed his last in a mansion is up for debate. Laidlaw, on the other hand, died broke and alone in a home for the indigent in 1911.
Related: 5 Things You Learn About Rich People Working At A Nice Hotel
Jim Fisk And James Jay Gould Singlehandedly Crashed The Economy
Jim Fisk and James Jay Gould ran the Erie Railroad, and having sent ripples through Wall Street once, they had no problem doing it again by coming up with a plan to corner the gold market that seemed straight out of a Bond movie (because a variation on it was later basically the plot of Goldfinger). By the end, they had crashed the stock market, ruined the economy and the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, and gotten away scot-free.
The scheme is complicated, but basically, Gould and friends came up with a way to secretly buy up enough gold that they could drive up the price to whatever inflated rate they wanted. Making it work involved manipulating President Grant into not taking action to stop it (the federal government had its own reserves it could release onto the market if needed). Fisk and Gould's spree thus gobbled up $60 million in bling, and then they watched as prices started to jump.
Gould got word that Grant was onto them, so he turned Judas and began selling his gold off while encouraging Fisk to keep filling his Scrooge McDuck vault. Gold prices rose to $160 an ounce, with Fisk doing his best Jim Cramer yell about how it'd soon beat $200. But then Grant, intending to disrupt the plan, ordered the Treasury to sell $4 million worth of gold, on a day that became known as "Black Friday."
Chaos ensued. The stock markets dropped 20%, speculators were ruined, and farmers watched as their crop prices were cut in half overnight (the roller coaster gold prices screwed their ability to export overseas). The pair of assclowns who engineered the disaster, meanwhile, never felt a thing. An army of lawyers and whoever was in their pockets let them breeze past any pointed fingers. Fisk cut his losses by blaming third-party brokers, and Gould's last-minute sale of inflated gold netted him $12 million in profit -- money which he used to enter the next prime trade for rich fucks at the time: buying the shit out of some railroads.
So the slogan "Crime doesn't pay" always needs an asterisk pointing out that it's entirely possible to scam so much money that they don't consider it a crime anymore.
Andrew McRae has books and eBooks available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. He can also be found on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as writing for Lewtonbus.
For more, check out 7 Famous People Who Are Shockingly Out Of Touch With Reality:
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