10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History

10 True Rags to Riches Tales from American History

Larry Holzwarth - May 24, 2018

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