10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History

10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History

Larry Holzwarth - May 24, 2018

The story of a person rising from grinding poverty to financial wealth and social success is a tried and true theme in novels and films, popular for centuries. It was a storyline followed by Dickens in Oliver Twist and in dozens of works by Horatio Alger. It was a storyline lived by many too. American history is filled with stories of individuals who were either born into poverty or found themselves facing it, only to rise above it to legendary success. Some of these people founded great companies, or created works of literature or art which outlived them. The rags to riches story is not a uniquely American one of course, but it is a part of the great American idea of the land of opportunity.

Each of these Americans used widely different talents to achieve great success, despite seemingly impossible odds which they faced. All of them achieved a status in society which their humble beginnings could have denied them. Luck was a part of their stories. They took risks and played the odds, and made themselves into respected and wealthy icons of their professions. All of them worked in many fields before finding the one which brought them riches and fame.

10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History
Horatio Alger made his literary reputation publishing fictional tales of rags to riches in the United States. Library of Congress

Here are ten true rags to riches stories from American history.

10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History
A lobby card for the first film version of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. Wikimedia

Jack London

Jack London never knew for certain who his father was. His mother attempted suicide while pregnant with him, and his later research found that the man who was believed to be his father claimed to be impotent. At the age of 13, London began working in a San Francisco cannery. Bored with the work and the conditions he used borrowed money to purchase a small oyster boat. He poached oysters (harvesting them without a license) until the wear and tear on his boat rendered it unseaworthy, after which he joined Fish Patrol, engaged in catching those who poached oysters, known as oyster pirates. He then joined a seal ship on a voyage to and from Japan.

In 1893 London returned to Oakland, California and after losing jobs in a jute factory and at a power plant for the newly electrified streetcars, he took to riding the rails as a hobo. London spent time in jails for vagrancy and took temporary jobs as a sailor and boat handler before returning to California, entering high school and finally earning admission to the University of California at Berkeley in 1896. He spent much of his time studying at a bar where he worked part-time, meeting the personalities on which he would later base many of the characters in his short stories and novels. In 1897 he left Berkeley, never obtaining a degree, and joined in the Klondike Gold Rush.

The Klondike was where London found his first success, though not from the mining of gold. Stories which he wrote based on what he observed and experienced there became popular in the newspapers and magazines of the day. Though London developed scurvy while in the Klondike he continued to write. His return to California in 1898 coincided with the expansion of magazine publication due to reduced costs of both paper and printing. Within a few years London was a widely read and influential writer, and with the 1903 publication of the novel The Call of the Wild one of the best known writers in the world.

London worked as a war correspondent during the Russo-Japanese War, covered the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco as an eyewitness, and spent most of his time when he wasn’t cruising to Hawaii in his yacht on a 1,000 acre ranch in Sonoma County. He tried to make the ranch a profitable business and used his writing successes to fund its expansion, but ultimately the ranch failed to make a profit. A fifteen thousand square foot mansion London had built on the ranch burned to the ground just as it was nearing completion. By 1915 London, though one of the wealthiest and most celebrated writers in the world, was suffering from several disabilities, alcoholism among them.

Jack London died on his ranch in 1916. His death was from the combined effects of uremia, alcohol and morphine addiction, and several other tropical ailments acquired during trips to Hawaii. He was one of the first writers to acquire a fortune simply through writing and his work continues to be adapted in films and television. London was both a socialist and a racist, referring to Chinese immigration in his work as “the yellow peril” but his work sold well and continues to appear in anthologies and school reading lists. He used the experience of his own poverty to build his characters and plots throughout his career, and they made him rich.

10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History
John D. Rockefeller at the age of 18, as his storied career was at its beginning. Project Gutenberg

John D. Rockefeller

The man who eventually became the richest in America was the son of a con-man, philanderer, bigamist, and accused rapist who eventually abandoned his family after several moves, most of them to avoid debtors. Eventually John attended high school in Cleveland, Ohio and completed a course in bookkeeping at Folsom’s Commercial College. At the age of 16 Rockefeller began his business career as a bookkeeper’s assistant at a salary of fifty cents per day (about $13 today). Rockefeller quickly learned the practical aspects of calculating costs, especially those regarding the transportation of goods. It was 1855.

By 1859 Rockefeller had saved enough money to enter into a partnership, and he spent the Civil War years tending to his business, supporting the Republican Party, and hiring substitutes to avoid the draft. In 1863 Rockefeller and his partner shifted their business interests from produce to oil to take advantage of the hefty subsidies the government paid for oil. The partnership built an oil refinery. It was the general practice of the day to sell only the kerosene which resulted from refining, disposing the rest by dumping it into streams or lakes. Rockefeller and his partners sold everything, gasoline, kerosene, lubricating oil, paraffin, and tar.

By 1868 Rockefeller and his partners, his brother William and Henry Flagler, owned two refineries and a subsidiary company in New York for marketing their products. Together they comprised the largest oil refining operation in the world. Rockefeller established the procedure of borrowing for the purpose of investment and expansion and reinvestment of the profits from the steadily growing company. As other refiners also grew the supply of kerosene, then used chiefly for lighting, exceeded demand and profits began to decline. In 1870 Rockefeller dissolved the partnership and created a new company, Standard Oil of Ohio.

Rockefeller began purchasing smaller refineries which were operated less efficiently than his own and used his leverage as a major supplier of kerosene to control shipping rates. As kerosene became less expensive it became an affordable source of lighting for the masses. In 1872 there were 26 refineries in Cleveland which competed with Standard Oil, within four months Rockefeller acquired 22 of them. Eventually Standard Oil was producing more than 300 different oil based products, and owned its own rail cars, distribution pipelines, and delivery systems. Standard Oil of Ohio refined about 90% of the nation’s oil.

Eventually Rockefeller became the target of reformers and trust busters. Rockefeller expanded into the mining of coal and iron, and labor unrest at his many enterprises led to workers being killed by company security agents. Rockefeller fell into disrepute with much of the public. As electrification reduced the market for kerosene the automobile increased demand for gasoline and his fortune kept growing. His philanthropic activities have long been overlooked by those who condemned his monopolistic business practices but he gave $80 million to the University of Chicago, endowed the Rockefeller Foundation with $250 million, and gave millions more to other charities and schools.

10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History
Harland Sanders (right) at work is his Corbin restaurant in the early 1930s. Wikimedia

Harland Sanders

Harland Sanders was born on an Indiana farm, which his father struggled to operate after breaking a leg, eventually taking work as a butcher in Henryville, Indiana. When his father died in 1895 Harland’s mother found work in a cannery and the upkeep of the farmhouse and his two younger siblings became the boy’s responsibility. Sanders learned to cook before he was seven, by the age of ten he was working as a farmhand. Their mother was often gone for long periods of time and Sanders and his siblings found food as they could. When his mother remarried in 1902, Sanders found his new stepfather incompatible, and by 13 he was living on his own, dropping out of school in the seventh grade.

Sanders worked as a farmhand, a painter, and eventually as a streetcar conductor in New Albany, Indiana. In 1906 he lied about his age and joined the army, in which he served as a teamster. After being discharged the following year he went to Alabama, where an uncle helped him get a job with the Southern Railway. In 1909 he went to work for the Norfolk and Western Railway, rising to the position of fireman. Married and with three children, Sanders studied law at night via correspondence courses and eventually practiced law in Little Rock, his legal career ending after a courtroom brawl with his own client.

Sanders sold insurance for a time, operated a ferry boat across the Ohio River to Louisville, and used the proceeds to start a business manufacturing lamps, which failed. He then sold tires, losing that job in 1924, and then operated a gasoline station in Nicholasville, Kentucky. When that station was closed Sanders was offered another by the Shell Company in North Corbin, KY. At that station, Sanders began offering meals to customers in the portion of the station which was set aside as his living quarters. He purchased a motel in Asheville, North Carolina and when his North Corbin gas station was destroyed in a fire he rebuilt the property as a restaurant.

World War 2 ended tourism due to gas rationing and Sanders lost his motel, and after serving as a cafeteria manager for the government he returned to the North Corbin restaurant and motel, which his mistress had managed in his absence. In 1952 Sanders franchised his recipe for frying chicken in pressure fryers and the first Kentucky Fried Chicken opened in Salt Lake City. Sanders did not create the name, the purchaser of the first restaurant, Pete Harman, did. Sanders closed his North Corbin operation and relocated the company headquarters to Shelbyville, KY in 1959. Through the early years of the 1960s KFC franchises grew to over 600, including in Canada, Mexico, and England.

In 1964 the seventy-three year old Sanders sold the company for $2 million, and continued to earn royalties and appearance fees as the company’s spokesman and symbol. He later became embroiled in legal disputes with the company and after changes were made to the menu and some of the recipes used – particularly gravy – Sanders was a vocal critic of the company and the food. He also sued the company for the use of the Colonel Sanders image with products he did not create. Sanders died in 1980 at the age of 90, and was buried in Louisville. At the time of his death there were more than 6,000 KFC stores in 48 countries around the world.

10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History
The first Grand Central Station in New York was built by Vanderbilt’s New York Central. Wikimedia

Cornelius Vanderbilt

The still vast Vanderbilt fortune, which touches every American state in some manner or another, began with a single impoverished boy with minimal education. Vanderbilt was 11 when he was forced to quit school to work on his father’s ferry, which operated in New York Harbor. At 16 he was given a two-masted shallow draft bark to operate as a ferry on his own, with half of the earnings going to his father, the owner of the bark. Vanderbilt ferried passengers and freight, competing with the other ferry captains who typically bid for loads or riders. He undercut the other bids, and his competitors took to calling him the Commodore.

With his share of the earnings Vanderbilt purchased another vessel and began trading. In 1817 Vanderbilt retained his own businesses when he went to work as a business manager for a steam ferry company. He quickly learned the complexities of running a large business and became adept at understanding legal affairs. By the mid-1820s Vanderbilt was opening his own steamboat lines from New York to other points up the Hudson and to other East Coast cities. He also began a long business relationship with Daniel Drew.

When the discovery of gold created gold fever in the late 1840s Vanderbilt began to concentrate on ocean going shipping. By that time he controlled most of the shipping and docks along Long Island Sound and much of the railroad freight traffic feeding New York City. Vanderbilt used cutthroat tactics to take over shipping lines and railroads, driving down the value of competitors’ stock by cutting prices, forcing them to lower their own to compete. He also purchased large tracts of real estate in Manhattan. After establishing steamship lines across most of the Isthmus of Panama he started a passenger and freight shipping line to Panama.

Vanderbilt continued to deal with competition ruthlessly, either driving his rivals out of business or acquiring them. In the 1850s he acquired a major shipyard and a steam engine manufacturer. During the Civil War Vanderbilt donated his largest largest steamship, named for himself, to the Union Navy and later had it converted to a cruiser to hunt the Confederate raiders which were built in Great Britain. He continued to expand his holdings in railroads, and by the end of the American Civil War he dominated the shipping and rail industries on both coasts, controlling several different railroads, and was able to manipulate shipping costs across the country.

In 1870 he gave $1 million dollars (equivalent to about $18 million today) to found Vanderbilt University, established by his second wife’s cousin. He donated to numerous churches and charities in New York, including purchasing a church for his second wife’s congregation, though he attended a different church. When he died his fortune was approximately $100 million, $95 million of which he left to his son William and to William’s sons. The rest of the fortune was doled out in a manner which reflected his attitudes towards his remaining children, his youngest son received but the income from a $200,000 trust. The great Vanderbilt houses were built by his heirs, the Commodore lived modestly for his means all of his life.

10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History
Elvis Presley and Liberace in Las Vegas in 1956. Associated Press

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley was born just over a half-hour following the birth of a stillborn twin brother, in a two room house in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935. His father Vernon earned what little living he made doing odd jobs and demonstrating a decided lack of motivation. Elvis knew the pinch of hunger as a child and his mother was frequently forced to accept charity from churches, friends, and the government. When Vernon went to jail for eight months for attempting to pass an altered check the family was forced to move in with relatives. Elvis was in grade school in 1945 when his teachers recognized his singing talent during the morning prayers which were prevalent in the day.

Elvis made his first public singing performance after his teachers urged him to enter a singing contest, in which he later said he placed fifth. He received a guitar the same year and learned some rudimentary chords. The following year, with his family then living in a mostly black neighborhood, Elvis began to develop a taste for the hillbilly music which he learned to play and sing, though when he did so at school he was often sneered at by his fellow students. The sneers extended to bullying. Among his few friends was the brother of hillbilly singer Mississippi Slim, who had Elvis play on his radio program in Tupelo.

When the Presley’s relocated to Memphis in 1948 they stayed in rooming houses until finally receiving a government housing two bedroom apartment. In 1950 Elvis took a job as a theatre usher, and he continued playing with other like-minded young musicians. Elvis took a series of jobs in Memphis, his income going to flashy clothes that he saw in shop windows in Beale Street, the heart of blues music in Memphis. By the mid-fifties he had overcome much of his shyness over performing publicly and had even made some early recordings, though nothing had caught on with the public. That changed when he recorded That’s All Right in July 1954.

Elvis Presley’s rise from that point was meteoric. By the end of the decade he was one of the most famous Americans in the country, appearing on stage, on television, and in motion pictures. His record sales skyrocketed as did sales of other Elvis merchandise, which according to the Wall Street Journal was more than $22 million in 1957 alone. After just one year at RCA his records accounted for 50% of the company’s total sales. After military service in the late 1950s Elvis returned to the business of recording and performing, though mostly on television and in the motion pictures which he made. He never achieved the massive response he had generated prior to his military service.

Elvis was generous with friends and family all of his life, as well as with the members of his large entourage. He still managed to leave a sizable estate, which has continued to earn large sums decades after his death. In the early 21st century there were over 15,000 licensed Elvis products which generated income for his estate, and for five consecutive years he topped Forbes list of the most income generated by a deceased celebrity. Graceland, his mansion outside of Memphis, is visited by hundreds of thousands of fans annually, many of whom make the trip to nearby Tupelo, where they can also visit the shotgun shack where he was born, and was once too poor to continue to live there.

10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History
The official White House portrait of Andrew Jackson as President, long after his days of poverty. The White House

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson’s father died in a logging accident three weeks before the future President was born in 1767, and his mother and brother were forced to live with Jackson’s aunt and uncle in the Waxhaws region of the Carolina backcountry. Jackson’s only schooling came from two priests, as he and his brother worked their uncle’s property. During the Revolutionary War both boys were taken prisoner by the British when they refused to clean the boots of a British officer. Jackson was struck in the head and hand by the officer’s sword and for the rest of his life bore the scars from the encounter and a fierce hatred of anything British.

The imprisonment led to smallpox, and after they were released Jackson’s brother died from complications of the disease, which also nearly killed Jackson. His mother died shortly thereafter, and Jackson was alone in the world, with no immediate family and penniless. He was fourteen. Living with his uncle he received some basic schooling, learning to read and write, and tried for a time to be a saddle maker. Success eluded him. At the age of 17 he went to Salisbury, North Carolina, to be tutored in law, and in 1787 he was admitted to the North Carolina Bar after being examined by several lawyers in that state. He then moved to Nashville.

In Nashville Jackson participated in the land speculation of the time, which included establishing claims on land which by existing treaty were reserved for the Cherokee and Choctaw Indians. Most of Jackson’s wealth was accumulated through land speculation, which after he defeated the tribes at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend during the War of 1812 became open to settlement by the whites. Jackson also became active in politics and served as attorney general, Representative to Congress, in the United States Senate, and a Judge on the Tennessee Supreme Court. During his political career he began the construction of his plantation home, The Hermitage, in Tennessee.

Jackson prospered as a planter, breeder of horses, and merchant from his Tennessee estate. The slave quarters on the Hermitage were larger and better furnished than was the norm for plantations of its size, and Jackson was known to give his slaves money, allowing them to purchase from the peddlers and merchants who visited the plantation. Some slaves were provided with guns (which was against the law in most slave states, including Tennessee) to allow them to hunt and he also provided them with fishing equipment. The Hermitage, which mainly grew cotton as a cash crop, was a profitable operation and Jackson expanded his holdings there, as well as being co-owner of another plantation in Mississippi.

Jackson, in life and in death, was one of the most controversial American Presidents. His performance as a soldier, politician, and lawyer has generated debate among scholars, he generally being rated as one of America’s greatest leaders or one of the most disreputable. That he managed to raise himself from being a penniless orphan of fourteen to one of the nation’s leaders was nonetheless a notable achievement. After his death the Hermitage fell victim of poor management and ceased to be profitable. In 1893 the last descendants of the Jackson family moved away from the plantation and the house and remaining grounds eventually became a museum, and still is today.

10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History
Henry Aaron learned to play baseball on the streets of Mobile. Alabama in the 1930s and 1940s. Library of Congress

Henry Aaron

Before the steroid era in baseball distorted forever the records of the game, Henry Aaron, known to all as Hank Aaron, was baseball’s all-time leader in career home runs, with 755 over the course of a twenty-three year career in Major League Baseball. Most of his career came before the high salaries ushered in by free agency and long term contracts. Aaron came from a poor family but managed to accrue a fortune of several millions through both baseball and business. Of Aaron’s seven siblings one, his brother Tommie Aaron, played in the Major Leagues with him.

Aaron was born in the poor black section of Mobile known as Down the Bay, the third of the eight children which eventually made up the family. His father worked as an assistant to a boilermaker in the Mobile drydocks and also owned a small tavern. As a small boy the family could not afford baseball equipment, and Aaron made his own bats out of scraps of wood he found or fallen limbs, using bottle caps and other items as targets to hone his batting eye. Aaron batted crosshanded in his youth, mostly because he had nobody to coach him otherwise, and it was the most comfortable swing for him.

When he was eight the family moved to Toulminville, a more middle class neighborhood, and Aaron began playing in neighborhood ballparks, and developed a lack of interest in school as his baseball skills became more refined. He played baseball and football at Central High School (segregated) for two years before moving on to the Josephine Allen Institute, a private school where he concentrated on baseball. In 1951 at the age of 18, Aaron quit school and signed to play with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues. He played part of one season for the Clowns before his contract was purchased by the Milwaukee Braves.

Aaron remained with the Braves for most of the rest of his career, and encountered the racism from other players and fans that all of the newly arrived black players experienced, including being forced to eat in separate facilities and not being allowed to stay with the rest of the team in some hotels. In 1966 when the Braves relocated to Atlanta he experienced a repeat of much of the racism directed at him personally and in 1974 as he closed in on Babe Ruth’s career record he felt it yet again, that time including death threats.

Aaron joined the Braves’ front office after he retired as a player and entered into business, acquiring and later selling several automobile dealerships throughout Georgia, and a chain of restaurants across the United States. In 2014 the former little boy who couldn’t afford a baseball gave one away, autographed, to all purchasers of a vehicle at his Hank Aaron BMW dealership in the Atlanta area. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and built a fortune estimated at more than $25 million dollars from his investments and businesses, about what his peak years would have been worth to a major league baseball club today in terms of a year’s salary.

10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History
Andrew Carnegie rose from poverty to make millions in the telegraph, railroad, and steel industries. Then he gave it away. Project Gutenberg

Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie was born poor, in a one-room weaver’s cottage in the Scottish town of Dunfermline. When he was thirteen the family decided to leave then famine ridden Scotland and migrated to Allegheny, Pennsylvania, which was a thriving town with a sizable Scottish population when they arrived in 1848. Carnegie took a job as a bobbin boy, changing the spools of thread on looms. He was paid today’s equivalent of about $37 per week, working twelve hours per day every day but Sunday. His father went to work at the same mill, having failed to establish himself as a weaver of damask.

Carnegie began working as a telegraph messenger the following year, and established the style of meeting and favorably impressing men in a position to assist him in his career. By 1853 Carnegie was working on telegraph equipment for the Pennsylvania Railroad, six years later he was the superintendent of the Western Division. Carnegie was by then making enough money to begin investing, and he invested wisely for the most part, in industries which fed the growing railroads, iron works, steel, and coal. He also expanded his investments in the telegraph, which grew alongside the rails.

In the early part of the Civil War Carnegie pushed the railroads and telegraph into Northern Virginia at the behest of the government. He invested in companies to build railroad bridges and he and several other iron manufacturers opened Pittsburgh’s first steel rolling mill. It was after the war that Carnegie left the railroad industry and concentrated his focus on steel and iron. Already a successful businessman by any measure, it was the steel industry in which Carnegie made his huge fortune. By the end of 1889 US production of steel was the largest in the world and a goodly portion of the industry belonged to Andrew Carnegie.

When Carnegie sold his holdings to John Pierpont Morgan in 1901 he realized the equivalent of $6.6 billion, making him one if the wealthiest men in the world. He then proceeded to give his fortune away. He continued to run his remaining businesses outside of the steel industry and began to award communities all over the United States funds to build libraries, in many cities several branch libraries were built with his money. Carnegie also began writing himself, his essay Wealth was published in the United States and after a request from William Gladstone republished in England as The Gospel of Wealth.

Carnegie presented the argument that wealth should be given away to promote the betterment of society, a responsibility of the wealthy in the days when there was no income tax and little in the way of government funded social programs. Carnegie’s views led to a surge in philanthropy during the Gilded Age and he donated more than $350 million of his own money over the years. He built over three thousand public libraries, helped found Carnegie Mellon University, and paid for about 7,000 church organs around the world. He was the prototype of the poor immigrant who worked hard and achieved the American dream, after which he tried to provide assistance to those who desired to follow in his path.

10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History
John Jacob Astor built a fortune from furs and real estate which still ranks him as one of the richest men of all time. Wikimedia

John Jacob Astor

John Jacob Astor arrived in the United States by way of England after learning the basics of building musical instruments in his native Germany. While aboard ship he met an American fur trader who described the money which could be made purchasing furs from American Indians and selling them to customers in Europe. Astor arrived in New York at the age of 20, intent on entering the fur trade, but needing money to purchase the trade goods with which to barter with the Indians. He worked for a time as a meat cutter at a butcher shop owned by his brother in New York, until raising enough money to begin his venture.

In the late 1780s Astor began trading in the fur business by purchasing hides from the Indians and processing them for use himself, before selling them to London fur merchants. By the end of the decade his profits were enough that he opened his own fur shop in New York. In 1794 Astor began to import furs from the North West Company in Montreal and export them to England, as the Napoleonic Wars on the continent disrupted trade there. Trade was further disrupted by the United States’ embargo of British goods in 1807 and by the war of 1812, but Astor’s fortune continued to grow through his own shop, and through his embarking in the opium trade with China.

Astor founded the Pacific Fur Company in 1811, and funded the expedition which reached Fort Astoria on the Columbia River where his fur outpost rivaled Canada’s Hudson Bay Company in shipments. After the war of 1812 ended his fur business grew enormously, as general peace settled upon Europe and the Americas and trade expanded. Astor reorganized his companies and built the Robert Stuart House on Mackinac Island as headquarters of the American Fur Company. He also built a townhouse in Manhattan to house his growing family. Astor began to invest some of his fur profits in Manhattan real estate as New York City expanded to the north.

In the 1820s and 1830s the profits from the fur companies were enormous as the business boomed. Astor recognized the trends in fashion which would reduce the demands for furs, as well as the pressure on the supply moving the sources of furs further away from the trading outposts. He sold his interests in the fur business and began to purchase tracts of land on Manhattan which he in turn leased to others for them to build upon. He became active in the culture of New York City, donated $400,000 to establish the Astor Library, which became the New York Public Library, and supported the arts, befitting a man who started his career as a manufacturer of musical instruments.

Astor’s estate after his death, by far the bulk of which came from his fur businesses, was in the amount of about $20 million dollars. Today’s equivalent would be about $115 billion dollars. The bulk of his wealth went to his heirs, beginning with his son William. John Jacob Astor was the patriarch of the Astor family, which would be socially and professionally prominent in the United States, England, and the European continent for over the next 150 years. Astor used the bounty of the American west to create his first fortune, and the growth of New York City to increase it for two centuries.

10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History
Pulitzer went from sleeping in New York streets to owning vacation homes on Jekyll Island and this one in Bar Harbor. Wikimedia

Joseph Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer was born in Hungary, where his father was a respected and successful businessman whose fortune was lost after his death, leaving his family bankrupt and living in abject poverty. Pulitzer traveled to the United States during the American Civil War, enticed by army recruiters in Boston who paid for his passage. Upon arrival he learned that his passage had been paid from his promised enlistment bonus, with what was left going into the pockets of the recruiters. Dejected, Pulitzer left the Boston recruiting camp and went to New York, where he accepted a $200 bonus to join Sheridan’s Cavalry, where he found a large contingent of German and Hungarian speaking troopers.

After the war Pulitzer found little in the way of work, and slept on the streets or in empty delivery wagons, scrounging for food. He hopped a train to St. Louis, where he discovered a large German community in the post-war city. Pulitzer continued to encounter difficulty obtaining and holding work, in part due to his size and lack of physical strength, a requirement for most labor of the time. He managed to work as a waiter for a time, in different restaurants around the city. During his time off he taught himself English at library.

Eventually Pulitzer landed a job as a reporter with a newspaper that served the German community of St. Louis. He discovered a previously unknown aptitude for the work. After becoming an American citizen he joined the Republican Party, though he became disgusted at the corruption he discovered and switched to the Democratic Party in 1872. That same year he purchased shares in his employer’s newspaper and sold them the following year at a significant profit. In 1878 he purchased two St. Louis English newspapers and merged them into the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Pulitzer used his position as publisher to reshape the paper into a politically powerful voice.

Pulitzer famously practiced yellow journalism, publishing exposes and populist opinions, and the circulation of the paper grew with the city of St. Louis. In 1883 he purchased the New York World, which he expanded through the use of sensationalism, emphasizing crime stories in lurid prose. He was elected to Congress in 1884, but only served half his term, claiming that the business of running his newspapers prevented the execution of his duties to his constituents. He acquired a winter home on Jekyll Island, a summer home in Bar Harbor, Maine, and a yacht to travel between the two, as well as a large home in New York. He ran his papers from all three locations.

Pulitzer was traveling by yacht to Jekyll Island in October 1911 when he stopped for supplies at Charleston Harbor. He remained aboard the yacht, attended by his personal physician, (he had long had serious health issues) and died on October 29, 1911. Pulitzer left Columbia University $2 million ($50 million today) for the establishment of the Columbia University School of Journalism. He had previously helped establish the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. The Pulitzer Prize was created by Columbia in 1917.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Jack London”, by Alex Kershaw, 1999

“Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller”, by Ron Chernow 2004

“The Incredible Colonel”, by Harland Sanders, 1974

“Commodore Vanderbilt’s Life”, by The New York Times, January 5, 1877

“Elvis”, by Dave Marsh, 1982

“Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times”, by H. W. Brands, 2005

“Hank Aaron Biography”, entry by ESPN, ESPN online

“Biography: Andrew Carnegie”, entry by The American Experience, pbs.org

“Astor, John Jacob”, Encyclopedia Britannica

“Joseph Pulitzer”, entry, the Jewish Virtual Library, online