In 1880, plutocrat Henry Clay Frick and a group of rich Pittsburghers bought the South Fork Dam, an earthen dam that formed an artificial Lake Conemaugh in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Originally built to service a canal system, the dam was abandoned when railroads superseded canals, and was sold to private interests. Frick and his fellows formed the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a private resort for the wealthy based around the dam’s lake and shoreline. The club opened in 1881, and its well-heeled members mingled in its clubhouse and their cottages around the lake as they enjoyed nature.
They modified the dam, and lowered it to accommodate a road. To ensure that that the lake never ran out of fish, a screen was placed in the spillway that allows controlled release of water from a dam. The screen did more than stop fish from leaving the dam: it also trapped debris that clogged the spillway. That was bad because when the dam was built, it had a system of pipes and valves to lower water levels in an emergency. That system had been sold as scrap metal, and never replaced. Between that and the clogged spillway, there was no way to release water in case of an emergency. Such an emergency occurred on May 31st, 1889, and killed thousands in what came to be known as the Johnstown Flood.
Thousands Died So These Tycoons Would Not Run Out of Fish
In late May, 1889, western Pennsylvania experienced the heaviest rainfall ever recorded there: 10 inches fell in 24 hours. As water levels in Lake Conemaugh rose ominously on May 31st, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club’s manager led laborers in a frantic attempt to unclog the dam’s spillway. They failed, and efforts to dig a new spillway were equally fruitless. Around 2:50 that afternoon, the dam, which contained nearly four billion gallons of water, began to collapse. A wall of water forty feet high and as wide as the Mississippi River rushed downstream at speeds of forty miles per hour, and destroyed all in its path. The torrent sucked people from their homes, swept trains, and slammed massive piles of debris into bridges and buildings.
2209 people perished, including 400 children. Bodies were washed as far away as Cincinnati, 400 miles away. More than 1600 homes were demolished, and the damage exceeded $4.5 billion in 2023 dollars. It was America’s deadliest non-hurricane flood. As the shock wore off, it was replaced by anger as people’s gazes turned towards those responsible. However, the private resort’s rich owners were never held accountable. They claimed that their dam modifications made no difference because they had only lowered it by one foot, and their lawyers argued that the flood was “an act of God”. Evidence emerged in 2013 that they had actually lowered the dam by three feet, which drastically increased the risk of a breach. That came too late for the victims: they lost every case against the resort’s owners, and the tycoons walked off scot-free.
In ancient Greece and Rome, when people wanted to say that somebody was loaded, they said that he was “as rich as Croesus“, after a sixth century BC Lydian king who had been the first to mint coins. In the late Roman Republic, one man, Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 – 53 BC) grew so wealthy that people changed the phrase, and punned that somebody was “as rich as Crassus“. Whether or not he was as rich as Croesus, Crassus was Rome’s wealthiest man and one of its key figures. He used his deep pockets to amass power, and was lavish in his sponsorship of politicians. Their numbers included Julius Caesar, whose political rise Crassus financed.
With Caesar and Pompey the Great, Crassus entered into a power sharing agreement known as “The First Triumvirate”, which effectively made the trio the masters of the Roman Republic. Crassus became fabulously rich because he was a shrewd businessman, and a notoriously avaricious one. He started on the road to fabulous wealth through an alliance with the dictator Sulla. Crassus bought the confiscated properties of executed enemies of the state in rigged auctions for a fraction of their value. He even had the names of those whose properties he coveted added to the lists of the proscribed, slated for execution and confiscation of property. He made even more money through other unscrupulous methods.
Rome in Crassus’ days was full of fire-prone buildings, and fires were a common occurrence. However, the city had no public firefighters, so Crassus formed a private firefighting company manned by his slaves. When a fire broke out, he rushed to the scene with his firefighters, and on the spot, offered to buy the burning building or those nearby that were threatened by the flames at literally fire-sale prices. To get at least something for their property was preferable to nothing if it was reduced to ashes, so the distressed owners often agreed. Through such shady methods, Crassus became Rome’s greatest property owner. By the 70s BC, he was Rome’s richest man. As seen above, he leveraged his wealth into power, and divvied up the Roman Republic with Caesar and Pompey.
However, Crassus wanted to be more than just a rich man. He craved military glory such as that enjoyed by his partners. Unlike them, Crassus’ main military accomplishment was defeating Spartacus’ slave rebellion. Defeating slaves paled in comparison to Pompey’s and Caesar’s deeds. To win glory of his own, Crassus decided to invade Parthia, a newly established wealthy kingdom that ruled Persia and Mesopotamia. Parthia did not seem a difficult nut to crack: a decade earlier, Pompey had easily defeated other eastern kingdoms. With an army of 50,000, Crassus invaded Parthia in 53 BC. As seen below, things went wrong from the start.
Lavish Spending Could Not Buy This Ancient Tycoon What He Craved the Most
Crassus’ guide, secretly in Parthian pay, took the Romans on an arid route that left his army parched and exhausted by the time they reached the town of Carrhae in today’s Turkey. There, they encountered a Parthian army of 1000 armored heavy cavalry and 9000 horse archers. It did not go well for Crassus. Although they greatly outnumbered the Parthians, the Romans were demoralized by the hard march and by Crassus’ poor leadership. Parthian archers whittled the Romans with arrows from a safe standoff distance, and used their super mobility to ride away to safety whenever the Romans advanced on foot. Morale plummeted as casualties mounted. Crassus finally ordered his son to drive off the horse archers with the Roman cavalry and an infantry detachment.
The Parthians feigned retreat, Crassus’ son rashly pursued, and was slaughtered with all his men. The Parthians returned, and taunted the Roman army and Crassus with his son’s head mounted on a spear. Crassus abandoned thousands of his wounded, and retreated. The Parthians invited him to parley, and offered safe retreat in exchange for Roman territorial concessions. Crassus was reluctant, but his army threatened to mutiny if he did not negotiate. The parley went badly, violence broke out, and Crassus was killed. To mock his greed, the Parthians poured molten gold down the rich Roman’s throat. Out of his 50,000 man army, only 10,000 made it back to Roman territory.
The Billionaire Who Went to Lavish Extremes to Wreck an Ex’s Career
Few would be surprised to learn that Howard Hughes (1905 – 1976), the billionaire recluse, eccentric, and all around weirdo, was not a nice guy. It is the lavish extremes to which he went – and the extreme pettiness involved – in order to pull off some of his nastiness that are surprising. Like when he bought a major movie studio to which an ex-girlfriend was contracted, just so he could wreck her career. Hughes’ victim was Jane Greer (1924 – 2001), a film noir actress who made a splash in the 1940s with femme fatale roles in movies such as Dick Tracy, Out of the Past, and The Big Steal. In 1942, when she was eighteen, Greer caught Hughes’ eye when he saw her modeling in Life magazine.
Jane Greer’s mother worked for the War Department, and she saw to it that her daughter was one of three young women chosen to model uniforms for the new Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1942. When her modeling appeared in the June 8th, 1942, issue of Life magazine, many across the country were smitten, and not least among them was Howard Hughes. Infatuated, he sponsored Greer and sent her to Hollywood to become an actress. When she showed an interest in other men, it enraged Hughes. He figured that he had made her, and that he thus had the right to break her. As seen below, he went to lavish extremes to possess – and then punish – her.
There’s Lavish Spending, Then There’s Collecting People Level of Lavish Spending
Howard Hughes liked to collect people – especially beautiful women – like normal folk collect stamps. So he signed the teenager to a personal contract. “Personal contract” was as creepy as it sounds: soon after she signed, Hughes told the teenaged model that he never wanted her to marry anyone. At first, that was no problem for Greer, who initially liked Hughes. As she put it years later: “I found him rather endearing, like a child. His idea was to go to the amusement park … He won a large collection of Kewpie dolls for me“. When Greer welcomed the attentions of other men, however, Hughes was furious.
Greer was fine with Howard Hughes taking her out to amusement parks – at least for a while. Things got awkward, however, when she welcomed the attentions of other men who saw her as a woman and not a child, and had more in mind than amusement park trips. Hughes wasn’t the only one smitten by Greer’s 1942 modeling photo. Star crooner Rudy Vallee was also infatuated, and tried to get her address from Life magazine. The magazine refused, but Vallee persisted, and when he eventually found it, things got complicated. Greer might have liked hanging out with Hughes, but a rich man who treated her like a child with trips to amusement parks was no competition to a star singer who romanced her like a woman. Rudy Vallee swept Greer off her feet, and after a whirlwind courtship, they wed in 1943.
Howard Hughes seethed with jealousy when Jane Greer got married. Whatever the legality of the “no marriage” clause in the personal contract that Greer had signed, Hughes had meant it, and felt betrayed. So he set out to wreck her career, and his wealth gave him the means to do so. Howard Hughes had brought Jane Greer to Hollywood and got her acting lessons. To punish her interest in other men, he kept her shelved with no screen tests or acting gigs. So she sued to get out of her personal contract to Hughes, bought it back, and joined RKO – one of Classical Hollywood’s Big Five studios.
Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC), founder of the imperial Qin Dynasty, was king of the Chinese state of Qin in the Warring States Period. He ascended the throne as a child, and when he reached his teens he wrested power from the regents who had governed in. To consolidate his power, he massacred palace plotters who tried to usurp his prerogatives. He then went on the warpath, pushed back the northern barbarians, conquered all adjacent Chinese states and consolidated them under his rule, and declared himself the first emperor of a united China.
To keep the nobility in check, Qin Shi Huang kept those he favored in the capital. He controlled them with pensions and fancy titles, and transformed them from an uncontrollable warrior class into dependents and tame courtiers. Then he abolished all aristocratic titles and ranks, except for those created and bestowed by him. The rest of the nobility were killed or put to work – and he had everybody working. With unchecked power and the resources of an entire empire to draw upon, Qin Shi Huang grew megalomaniacal.
He launched huge projects with lavish amounts of forced labor. 700,000 workers toiled on his tomb for 30 years. The famous Terracotta Warriors site, discovered in the 1970s and now open to tourists with its thousands of life size statues, is but a fraction of his gigantic tomb complex. The bulk of it is yet to be unearthed. Millions more labored to dig canals, level hills, make roads, and build over 700 palaces. The biggest project of all was the Great Wall of China, which did double duty: keep the barbarians out, and the Chinese who sought to flee the emperor’s heavy taxation and oppressive rule, in.
Another manifestation of Qin Shi Huang’s megalomania was his pursuit of immortality drugs. He went to lavish extremes to fund searches for a “Life Elixir” that would keep him alive forever. That included a major expedition with hundreds of ships that sailed off into the Pacific in search of a mythical “Land of the Immortals”. It was never heard from again. He also patronized alchemists who claimed that they were close to the Life Elixir, but their R&D was hobbled by a lack of resources. That problem, Qin Shi Huang generously put to rights.
One of those charlatans gave the emperor daily mercury pills, as a life-prolonging intermediate step in his research for immortality drugs. They would supposedly tidy Qin Shi Huang over until the Life Elixir was ready. The daily mercury doses gradually poisoned the emperor, and he gradually grew insane. He turned into a recluse who concealed himself from all but his closest courtiers, listened constantly to songs about “Pure Beings”, ordered 400 scholars buried alive, and had his son and heir banished. Rather than prolong his life, Qin Shi Huang shortened it in his pursuit of immortality, and died of mercury poisoning at the relatively young age of 49.
Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, better known to history as Gilles de Rais (1404 – 1440), was a French aristocrat from Brittany. He was a respected knight, and a national hero who rose to prominence as Joan of Arc’s chief captain and right hand man. Then his true nature was revealed, and his celebrated career was cut short, along with his head, when it was discovered that, away from the limelight, he was a monster. De Rais’ family, the House of Montmorency, was one of France’s oldest, most respected, and most distinguished aristocratic families. From an early age, Gilles seemed to live up to the high expectations of a scion of such an illustrious clan.
By age fifteen, de Rais had distinguished himself in a series of wars of succession that wracked the Duchy of Brittany. He distinguished himself even more in Anjou, where he fought for its duchess against the English in 1427. By the time Joan of Arc emerged on the scene in 1429 to challenge the English, Gilles de Rais was one of France’s most celebrated military men, despite his youth. He was assigned to Joan of Arc as one of her guards, and fought in several battles at her side. He particularly distinguished himself in her greatest victory, the lifting of the English siege of Orleans.
Gilles de Rais accompanied Joan of Arc to Reims for the coronation of King Charles VII. His Majesty made de Rais Marshall of France – a distinction awarded to generals for exceptional achievements. De Rais had inherited significant landholdings and estates from both his father and maternal grandfather. He married a rich heiress, which match brought him even more land, and made him one of France’s greatest magnates. He retired from the military in 1434, but it soon emerged that he was not as good at money management as he was at managing men in battle.
De Rais dissipated his fabulous wealth with a lavish lifestyle that rivaled that of the king. Within a year of his retirement, he lost most of his lands. His family secured from the king a decree that forbade de Rais from mortgaging what was left. To raise more cash, he turned to alchemy, hoping to figure out a way to turn base metals into gold. He also turned to Satanism, hoping to gain knowledge, power, and riches, by summoning the devil.
Gilled de Rais also turned to the serial assault and murder of children. In 1440, an increasingly erratic Gilles got into a dispute with local church figures, and things escalated until he eventually kidnapped a priest. That triggered an ecclesiastical investigation, which unearthed some horrific stuff. Apparently, the once celebrated national hero had murdered children – mostly boys, but also the occasional girl – by the hundreds. He lured kids from peasant or lower class families to his castle with gifts, such as candies, toys, or clothes. He would initially put them at their ease, feed and pamper them, then lead them to a bedroom where he and his accomplices seized their victims.
As he confessed in his subsequent trial, de Rais liked to watch their terror, when he explained what was in store. And what was in store was none too good. Suffice it to say that it that it involved torture and sodomy, and ended with the child’s murder, usually via decapitation. The victims and their clothes were then burned in the fireplace, and their ashes dumped in a moat. De Rais and his accomplices were condemned to death. He was executed on October 26th, 1440, by burning and hanging, simultaneously. His infamy inspired the fairy tale of Bluebeard, about a wealthy serial wife killer.
The Spoiled Rich Kid Who Turned Ancient Athens Upside Down
Alcibiades (450 – 404 BC) was a brilliant and unscrupulous Athenian politician and general. A relative of Pericles, he did not share his famous kinsman’s probity or commitment to democracy, and was the most dynamic, adventurous, and catastrophic leader of Classical Athens. Born into a wealthy family, his father was killed when Alcibiades was a toddler. Pericles became his guardian, but was too busy with his duties as a statesman to provide the boy with the necessary guidance. Alcibiades thus grew into a dissipated man, whose gifts of brilliance and charm were counterbalanced by self-centeredness, irresponsibility, extravagance, and debauchery. Growing up, Alcibiades was considered Athens’ most beautiful youth. Pederasty was widespread and acceptable, and he was passionately pursued by many, and showered with flattery and lavish gifts.
Even Socrates was among his admirers. When the Peloponnesian War began, Alcibiades quickly gained a reputation for courage and military talent. He also became known as a charismatic and persuasive speaker in the Athenian Assembly. A hawk, by 420 BC he had become one of Athens’ generals, and strongly opposed reconciliation with Sparta. In 415 BC, he convinced the Assembly to send a massive expedition to invade Sicily and conquer Syracuse. On the eve of sailing, however, statues of the god Hermes throughout Athens were desecrated. Suspicion fell upon Alcibiades, whose dissolute clique had a reputation for drunken vandalism and impiety.
Alcibiades demanded an immediate trial. Instead, his enemies allowed the expedition, whose ranks were disproportionately comprised of Alcibiades’ supporters, to sail on with the charges still hanging over him. Then, after the city had been largely emptied of Alcibiades’ partisans, a ship was sent to Sicily, summoning him to return home and face trial before an Assembly in which his enemies were now a majority. Rather than obey the summons, Alcibiades fled and defected to Sparta. He reportedly advised the Spartans to adopt the strategy that led to the near complete annihilation of Athens’ Sicilian expedition – the force he had organized, convinced Athens to send to Sicily, and whose men he once led. It was the most catastrophic, and bloodiest, defeat suffered by Athens during the war.
Of the tens of thousands of Athenians who took part, precious few ever saw Athens again. Those who were not massacred were enslaved, then sent to Sicilian quarries where they were worked to death. Alcibiades also convinced the Spartans to abandon their strategy of marching into Attica each campaigning season, to burn and loot, then retreat and repeat the cycle the following year. Instead, he had the Spartans establish a permanent fortified base in Attica. That allowed them to exert direct pressure on Athens year round. He also went to Ionia, where he stirred up a revolt against Athens by her allies and subject cities in Asia Minor.
Despite the valuable services he rendered Sparta, Alcibiades wore out his welcome after he was caught in bed with the wife of King Agis II. He fled again, this time to the Persians. Alcibiades convinced them to adopt a strategy to prolong the war as long as possible, and keep Athens and Sparta too busy fighting each other to challenge Persia’s interests. Back home, Athens reeled from the string of military catastrophes that Alcibiades had helped inflict on his city, and political turmoil led to an oligarchic coup. However, the Athenian fleet remained pro-democracy, and in the chaos, Alcibiades used his charisma to persuade the fleet to take him back. From 411 to 408 BC, he led the Athenian fleet in a dramatic recovery, and won a series of victories that turned the war around.
Suddenly, it was Sparta that was on the verge of collapse. Alcibiades returned to Athens in 407 BC, where he received a rapturous welcome. His earlier treasons were forgiven and temporarily forgotten, and he was given supreme command to conduct the war. However, the Athenians turned on Alcibiades a few months later, after a minor naval defeat when he was absent from the fleet. He fled again. Since he had burned bridges with all sides, he holed up in a fortified castle in Thrace for a while. Then he fled even further away to take refuge in Phrygia. However, a Spartan delegation traveled to Phrygia, and convinced its Persian governor to have Alcibiades murdered in 404 BC.
Hatice Sultan (1660 – 1743) had a lavish wedding for the ages. The daughter of Sultan Mehmed IV, and sister of sultans Mustafa II and Ahmed III, she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. In 1675, fourteen-year-old Hatice was married to Musahip Mustafa Pasha, the Ottoman Navy’s Admiral of the Fleet. Her imperial family and the groom pulled out all the stops to make sure that the princess would kick off her marriage with celebrations of unrivaled opulence. The wedding, which took place in Edirne, lasted for twenty days, and the city was decorated with artificial trees that featured silver leaves. The biggest one was about sixteen-feet-wide, and was pulled by 200 slaves. To avoid navigating the city’s warren of twisting streets, all buildings in its path, including houses, were razed.
There were parades, fireworks, wrestling, and other athletic contests, in addition to daily banquets and ceremonies. Musicians, artists, and actors were brought in from all across the Ottoman Empire and beyond, to put on concerts, and other performances. The bride’s dowry was carried by eighty-six mules, each covered in expensive fabrics. Their haul included an abundance of diamonds, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and other jewelry and precious stones. That was aside from delicate porcelain, gold candlesticks, pearl-covered stools, and the era’s finest and most expensive shoes, slippers, and boots. Also prominently featured were the priciest Persian rugs, carpets, beds and table cloths. It was the era’s most lavish marriage celebration, bar none.
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