8 Historical Figures Who Died Broke
8 Historical Figures Who Died Broke

8 Historical Figures Who Died Broke

Larry Holzwarth - November 5, 2017

8 Historical Figures Who Died Broke
Thomas Jefferson at Monticello in 1826, the year of his death. New York Public Library

Thomas Jefferson

Visitors to Thomas Jefferson’s beautiful Virginia estate Monticello are often astounded that the designer and master of the plantation where he died in 1826 left this world penniless and heavily in debt. Shortly after Jefferson died both Monticello and his lesser-known but equally elegant estate named Poplar Forest were sold to help pay the debts of the former third President.

Jefferson, also former Governor of Virginia, and writer of some of America’s most treasured documents, owned thousands of acres of prime Virginia land, all of which were behind in taxes to a cash-strapped commonwealth. His other source of potential income – in the harsh reality of the day – lay in his ownership of several hundred human beings.

Throughout his career as a diplomat in Europe, Jefferson developed a taste for the finer things in life, including expensive furnishings, books (then almost prohibitively expensive), wines and tapestries, and architectural adornments. All of these he acquired for display and use at his home and nearly all were paid for on credit. The prime product of his plantations was tobacco, and throughout his life, decreasing crop yields failed to meet annual expenses, let alone generate disposable income.

After the British burned Washington DC in 1814, Jefferson sold his nearly 6,500 books to the government to re-establish the Library of Congress and to provide an influx of much-needed cash to his coffers. He then immediately began to collect a new library, at great expense. His collection of fine European wines in the Monticello cellars was likely the greatest – and most expensive – in America at the time.

Shortly before his death, Jefferson petitioned the Commonwealth of Virginia to allow him to conduct a lottery to raise funds to pay off some of his debts, which were in excess of $100,000 – over $2.25 million today. After his death Jefferson was buried at Monticello, defraying his final expenses, and his possessions, estates, and slaves were sent to public auction to help settle his debts. Despite the appearance of great wealth Jefferson left little to his heirs besides memories and crushing debts.

8 Historical Figures Who Died Broke
Stephen Foster photograph of unknown date. Library of Congress

Stephen Foster

Stephen Foster was known in his lifetime as a writer of parlor and minstrel songs, eventually composing over two hundred popular tunes. Most of his songs are considered autobiographical, and many are well-known today, including Camptown Races, Old Susannah, Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair and many more. His composition, My Old Kentucky Home, is heard every year moments before the Kentucky Derby is run.

He is invariably linked with Kentucky, but he spent most of his life in Ohio and Pennsylvania, eventually spending his last years in New York City, many miles away from the Swanee River he celebrated in song. It was while in New York in 1864 that the celebrated songwriter collapsed from the effects of a lifelong habit of dissipation.

He was found by friends after he collapsed while drunk and severely injured from his head by hitting a sink as a result of a fall. Some accounts state that he was suffering from a fever, which was a frequently used description of unknown medical conditions of the time. He died in Bellevue Hospital a few days later, with forty cents in his pocket. It was all the estate he left behind.

Despite the enormous success of many of his songs, Foster realized little financially from them, preferring to sell the rights to each at the time of composition for ready cash rather than wait for the royalties which instead enriched his publishers. Foster preferred immediate payment to fund his immediate expenses, one of which was evidently an over-fondness for alcohol. Many of Foster’s songs still enrich American culture but they did little to enrich him in life.

8 Historical Figures Who Died Broke
Nikola Tesla holds a lightbulb illuminated by the wireless transmission of electricity in his laboratory. Wikipedia

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla was an unabashed genius whose design of an alternating current electrical distribution system is still used to provide electrical power to consumers across the globe. Over the course of his life, he obtained over 300 patents worldwide, and his thoughts and experiments regarding the wireless transmission of electrical power led to his creation of man-made lightning, helping to create a public image of a mad-scientist in his lifetime.

Tesla always dressed impeccably, towards the end of his life dining daily at New York’s Delmonico’s or Waldorf-Astoria precisely at eight o’clock. A believer in physical fitness, he usually walked eight miles or more every day, although he slept only two hours each night, fortifying himself throughout the following day with short catnaps.

His patents and work with Westinghouse on alternating current distribution alone should have made him a very wealthy man. They did not because the royalties due Tesla from Westinghouse were prohibitive, and George Westinghouse explained this difficulty to his employee by starkly informing him that it was either Tesla or the company. Tesla signed his patents over to Westinghouse for a lump-sum amount, less than a quarter of a million dollars, which was soon to be exhausted by Tesla’s ongoing experiments and failed attempts at marketing other products of his design. Most were ahead of their time.

By the turn of the 20th century, Tesla was residing in New York hotels, beginning with the prestigious Waldorf-Astoria, running up debts on the hotel and when pressed for collection moving on. Once wealthy from his work, Tesla’s own money was gone, sunk into failed businesses, but he continued to live as if he had the means. He could no longer afford the rent for either offices or living spaces and left a trail of debt behind him across New York City.

By the time he moved into the Hotel New Yorker in 1934, he had stiffed several of Manhattan’s better-known hostelries. That year Westinghouse began paying his debts and a stipend, which Tesla referred to as a consulting fee. He died in the Hotel New Yorker in 1943, leaving behind a wealth of knowledge and theories, but very little cash.

8 Historical Figures Who Died Broke
Benedict Arnold in his Continental Army uniform, as he appeared prior to his betrayal in 1780. Wikipedia

Benedict Arnold

After betraying his country to the British in 1780, Benedict Arnold received a commission in the British Army, with a fair salary for his day, and a one-time payment of just over 6,300 British old pounds sterling, equivalent to about $1.1 million dollars in 2017 money. He also received an annual stipend to offset his lost American holdings.

All in all, it was more than the Biblical 30 pieces of silver received by the traitor to whom Arnold was most frequently compared in America, and it should have been sufficient to set him up for the rest of his life in the British Empire which he served. It was not to be. Arnold would find a life of military frustration, business failures, imprisonment as a spy, and finally near destitution.

Arnold served with the British by leading several raids against his former countrymen, but he was generally ostracized socially by fellow British officers who were put off by his turncoat status. After the war, he made several attempts to gain office with the prestigious East India Company, but his alignment with the political party soon out of power prevented his success.

He tried several business ventures in Canada, leading him to become embroiled in lawsuits by partners who accused Arnold of cheating them, tacitly supported in the public mind by his reputation as a traitor. During the French Revolution Arnold operated a privateer out of the port of Guadalupe, leading the French to imprison him as a British spy and he was only rescued from hanging by the timely arrival of a British fleet.

By 1801, the broken Arnold was declining in health, and the old wounds of the revolution were troublesome. Nearly destitute as a result of failed businesses and multiple lawsuits, including suits over debts incurred in America by his wife, Peggy Shippen prior to their marriage, Arnold found little to give him support in his adopted England. He died in 1801 at the age of 60 and was buried in a churchyard in Battersea. Legend has it that he asked to die and be buried in his American uniform. After settling most of his debts, the estate he left behind – for which he had betrayed his country – was small. His widow was forced to sell their home, its furnishings, and many of his and her own personal property to clear his debts.

8 Historical Figures Who Died Broke
Medal of Honor recipient, movie star, songwriter and entrepreneur Audie Murphy was a victim of then little understood PTSD. Wikipedia

Audie Murphy

Audie Murphy received every combat award which the United States Army could offer, as well as awards from its European Allies France and Belgium, for his heroism as an infantryman during the Second World War. He wrote memoirs of his combat days entitled To Hell and Back and appeared as himself in a film made of the book under the same name.

Murphy enjoyed a film career of just over twenty years, in war films and westerns, and eventually branched into television. Murphy became an accomplished horse breeder and though not a performing musician wrote several songs which were recorded by artists such as Harry Nilsson, Roy Clark, Bobby Dare, Dean Martin, and many others.

In late May of 1971, Murphy was killed in a private airplane crash near Roanoke, Virginia. He was buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, and his widow began what became a 35-year career with the Veteran’s Administration as a clerk, living in a small apartment in Los Angeles. Given that the war hero had enjoyed a lengthy and successful career in entertainment, with a best-selling book, numerous successful films, and television and music success, questions arose over his finances. What happened to Murphy’s money?

Most of his money was lost in poor investments with his horses. Murphy made many bad business decisions regarding his horse breeding investments and the losses contributed to a depression that originated in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting from his combat experiences. He developed a gambling habit that put greater strain on his available funds. He tried to make business deals in areas in which he had little expertise – looking for a quick return – and lost still more money.

In the late 1960s, an oil deal in Algeria collapsed costing Murphy over a quarter of a million, and unpaid taxes to the IRS were troubling him too. Murphy, a child of the depression, had come from a virtually destitute family and sadly died in similar circumstances. After his death, a lawsuit over the causes of the plane crash in which he died eventually afforded his family some financial relief.

8 Historical Figures Who Died Broke
James Madison by Gilbert Stuart about 1821. National Gellery of Art

James Madison

Like his neighbor and mentor Thomas Jefferson, James Madison’s personal fortune was tied up in his Shenandoah Valley plantation in Virginia, a property Madison called Montpelier. During Madison’s administration as president, foreign affairs occupied his attention to an extent which exceeded his predecessors, leading him to request and receive from Congress a declaration of war against England. Madison became the first president to run for re-election during wartime and the first to succeed in retaining the presidency under those circumstances, but it led to his attentions being consumed by the peace negotiations which brought the war to an end.

He was then distracted by the rebuilding of burned Washington DC. It all left him little time to devote to his plantation, which by war’s end had lost considerable value. James Madison went home to Montpelier a much less affluent man than he had been when he left. For the rest of his life, the losses mounted. The value of his crops – mostly tobacco – dropped each autumn and he faced taxes on his land and maintenance costs for his extensive holdings, which included up to one hundred slaves at one time. He also faced the poor management practices of his stepson who was tasked with the day-to-day operation of Montpelier.

Madison was forced to reach into his ever-shrinking pockets to pay for errors of judgment and the purchase of equipment that he personally believed unnecessary. A plainly dressed man all of his life, he also faced significant debts over the wardrobe and other items ordered by his somewhat more flamboyant wife, the internationally known Dolley Madison, who had very definite ideas of her station in life and was determined to meet them with style and acclaim.

Madison’s service as the second rector of the University of Virginia – Jefferson had been the first – saddled him with entertainment and other expenses which he was ill-equipped to incur, but obligated by his position to take on. About one year before his death he began selling his slaves to meet operating expenses, as he dealt with financial pressures which reduced him to despair. His health and his faith in the nation he helped to create were both failing by 1834 and he died, nearly destitute, the following year. His widow sold Montpelier in 1842, leasing half of the remaining slaves to the new owner, which provided her with a small income. By 1850 what remained of Montpelier was limited to the main house and its immediate grounds.

8 Historical Figures Who Died Broke
Daniel Drew lost over $13 million after earning most of it through stock manipulation. Wikipedia

Daniel Drew

Daniel Drew was the epitome of the late 19th-century robber baron, a man who built a personal fortune of over $13 million dollars during that income tax-free era. Rising from a position as a lowly saloon keeper, he built his first fortune purchasing cattle herds and having them driven to New York, where higher beef prices could be found. He then entered the steamboat business, taking on Cornelius Vanderbilt in competition for the local market. The cash he generated was soon put to work in the stock market with Drew speculating first as a partner in a brokerage house and later as a sole investor.

With his rising influence and reputation, he became a board member of the Erie Railroad, and his flagrant and remorseless manipulation of the company’s stock led him to make a fortune by partnering with Vanderbilt when the Erie went into bankruptcy. Although allied with Vanderbilt for a time, he soon found himself opposed to the Commodore, and they battled for control of the Erie and the New York and Harlem Railroads.

Drew was for a time allied with James Fisk and Jay Gould, two other robber barons of note, in his war with Vanderbilt. These two eventually conspired against Drew, using the stock prices to drain him of resources, and Drew lost heavily. By the Panic (economic depressions were called Panics until the 1930s) of 1873 Drew lacked the resources to defend his stock positions and by 1876 the man who just a few years before had $13 million at hand was utterly bankrupt over $1 million in debt and with no cash, property, or other viable assets.

Drew soon found that on Wall Street broke is as good as dead. When he had been flush with cash he was touted as a genius and called Uncle Daniel in the press. After bankruptcy, the former millionaire became a symbol of individual greed on the stock market, guilty of victimizing smaller investors. He was roundly condemned in the press. Drew had been generous with his money when he had some, funding churches and schools in several communities, but found it a friendless life being poor. When he died in 1879 he was completely dependent on his son for his support. His estate was virtually nil.