Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds

Khalid Elhassan - April 12, 2022

Some rich Gilded Age tycoons wanted to establish a secretive and private resort in which to relax and enjoy nature, so they bought a dam and its lake in the mountains of western Pennsylvania. They modified the dam to suit their leisure, but the modifications weakened its main function: the ability to hold back water. When the region was inundated with heavy rains in 1889, the dam collapsed, and thousands were killed downstream in the resultant flood. Not a single magnate was held accountable in criminal or civil court. Below are thirty things about that and some other bad things done by rich folk throughout history.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Henry Clay Frick. Library of Congress

30. America’s Gilded Age Rich Modified a Private Dam, Resulting in a Collapse That Killed Thousands

In 1880, industrialist Henry Clay Frick and a group of rich Pittsburgh magnates bought the South Fork Dam, an earthen dam that formed an artificial Lake Conemaugh in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Originally built by the Commonwealth to service a canal system, the dam was abandoned when railroads superseded canals and was sold to private interests.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 Hunting and Fishing Club, a secretive and 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 the pleasures of nature.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
The clubhouse for the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. Wikimedia

They had modified the dam, and lowered it to accommodate a road. To make sure that the lake never ran out of fish, a screen was placed in the spillway – a structure that allows the 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 especially bad because when the dam was built, it had a system of relief 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 it killed thousands in what came to be known as the Johnstown Flood, after the chief town struck by the disaster.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Path of the Johnstown Flood. National Park Service

29. These Rich Folk Got Thousands of People Killed, but None Were Held Accountable

In late May, 1889, western Pennsylvania experienced the heaviest rainfall ever recorded there, when up to 10 inches fell in a 24-hour period. As water levels in Lake Conemaugh rose ominously on May 31st, the manager of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club led laborers in a frantic attempt to unclog the dam’s spillway. They were unsuccessful, and efforts to dig a new spillway were equally fruitless. Around 2:50 that afternoon, the dam, which contained nearly 4 billion gallons of water, began to collapse. A wall of water 30 to 40 feet high and as wide as the Mississippi River rushed downstream at speeds of up to 40 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.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Aftermath of the Johnstown Flood. WJAC

2209 people were killed, including 400 children, and bodies were found as far away as Cincinnati, 400 miles away. More than 1600 homes were demolished, and the damage exceeded $4.4 billion in current 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 modifications of the dam 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 brought against the resort’s owners, and the tycoons walked off scot-free.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Aftermath of the Johnstown Flood. History Network

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Gunther Quandt. Bundesrachiv Bild

28. The Rich Family Behind BMW

Bavarian Motor Works (BMW) is known today for high-quality luxury automobiles. When it was founded, however, and until 1945, it was more known for its aircraft engines. The company, which today makes a living off the innocent pursuit of manufacturing luxury cars and motorcycles, is a multinational with plants in Germany, the US, UK, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. Less known is that its major shareholders, the seriously rich Quandt family, were close friends and admirers of Hitler and the Nazis.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Hitler touring a BMW plant in Munich, 1935. New York Post

After a 2007 TV documentary aired unpleasant revelations about BMW’s activities during the Third Reich, the Quandt family launched an investigation into the company’s Nazi past. To their credit, the current generation of Quandts, unlike many other companies with Nazi ties, eventually came clean and did not duck the issue or sugarcoat things. They commissioned a respected German historian to research the company’s past, and set him loose on BMW’s and the Quandt family’s archives and files. The study’s conclusion proved awkward. In a nutshell, the family patriarch Gunther Quandt, and his son Herbert, were up to their necks in collaboration with Hitler’s regime.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Slave workers at a BMW plant. Pinterest

27. BMW Used Thousands of Slave Workers During WWII

The study commissioned by the Quandt family resulted in a 1200-page report that concluded: “[t]he Quandts were linked inseparably with the crimes of the Nazis … The family patriarch was part of the regime“. Among other things, the Quandts profited from the Nazis’ “Aryanization Program”, which stripped Jews of their property and turned it over to Germans approved by the new regime. BMW’s owners benefitted greatly from Aryanization: dozens of businesses were seized from rich Jews and handed over to the already rich Quandts.

BMW and the Quandts to the Third Reich and its military that Hitler Named Gunther Quandt a Wehrwirtschaftsführer, or “Leader of the Defense Economy”. During World War II, at least 50,000 slave workers from concentration camps were forced to toil in BMW and other Quandt family enterprises to manufacture weapons and fulfill armaments contracts. Many of them died from the inhumane working conditions. Some from avoidable accidents, some from neglect, some were starved, and others were executed for workplace infractions.

Related: Famous Companies That Collaborated With Nazi Germany.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby. Encyclopedia Britannica

26. The Rich Aristocrat Who Overthrew a Dynasty With a Betrayal

Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby (1435 – 1504) was a rich English magnate with extensive landholdings in northwest England, which he dominated almost as an independent ruler. As such, his support was sought after by both the Lancastrian and Yorkist branches of the Plantagenet dynasty during the Wars of Roses (1455 – 1487). At the tail end of the conflict, when King Richard III of York was the reigning monarch, Stanley brought the protracted strife to a decisive end with a timely betrayal.

Richard had been crowned in 1483, after the death of his brother Edward IV. Edward had named Richard guardian and regent for Edward’s son and successor, the twelve-year-old Edward V. Richard however declared Edward’s sons illegitimate, and imprisoned his nephews in the Tower of London. There, they disappeared and were likely murdered. Richard then crowned himself king. He was challenged for the throne by Henry Tudor, the last viable male descendant of the rival Lancastrian line, who landed in England in 1485, after years of exile.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Henry Tudor. Wikimedia

25. Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

King Richard III gathered his forces to face the threat of Henry Tudor, and marched out to meet his challenger. The King’s forces included a big contingent commanded by key Yorkist loyalist and supporter Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby. The earl was conflicted, however: his family had been Lancastrians, but he had defected to the Yorkists. He was handsomely rewarded for that switch with lands and estates that made him and his already rich family even richer. He was also appointed to powerful positions in the royal government, and was thus indebted to the Yorkists.

However, Stanley also happened to be married to Henry Tudor’s mother, so he was the challenger’s stepfather. Stuck between the rock of loyalty and the hard place of peace and tranquility in his own house, Stanley decided to play both sides. So he secretly contacted his stepson to explore defection. King Richard however found out, and seized Stanley’s son as a hostage for the Earl’s good behavior and insurance against treachery. He then ordered Stanley to join the Yorkist army with his contingent, which the earl reluctantly did.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
The Battle of Bosworth, by Philip James de Loutherbourg. Wikimedia

24. A Betrayal That Decided a Battle and a War

The Yorkist and Lancastrian antagonists met at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22nd, 1485. However, Thomas Stanley was still undecided. So he kept his contingent away from the fight, off to one side of field, while he waited to see which side looked like a winner. A livid Richard III sent Stanley a message in which he threatened his son unless he immediately attacked the Lancastrians. The Earl replied: “Sire, I have other sons“. Richard ordered Stanley’s son executed, but the order was not immediately carried out, and before long it was too late. Stanley eventually made up his mind that Richard was losing the battle, and ordered an attack – against the king and his Yorkist forces.

That decisively tipped the scales in favor of Henry Tudor, and against Richard. The Yorkist monarch launched a final desperate attack and tried to reach and cut down his challenger, but got cut down himself. After Richard’s death, Stanley found his fallen crown in some shrubs, and personally placed it on the head of Henry Tudor, henceforth Henry VII. Stanley’s stepson and new king of England brought the Plantagenet Dynasty to an end after centuries of rule and replaced it with his own Tudor dynasty. The new monarch generously rewarded the treacherous earl for his double-cross, and made the already rich magnate even richer.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
American industrialist, aviator, and film producer Howard Hughes (1905 – 1976) sits in the cockpit of the Spruce Goose, a massive sea plane designed and built by Hughes, Los Angeles, November 6th, 1947. Life Magazine

23. Few Would be Surprised to Learn That This Rich Tycoon Was Not Always a Nice Guy

It is unlikely that a whole lot of people 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 extremes to which he went – and the extreme pettiness involved – in order to pull off some of his nastiness that are surprising. Like that one time when the rich tycoon 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. 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 reasoned that he had made her, and that he thus had every right to break her.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Jane Greer, center, modeling a Women’s Army Corps uniform in 1942. KHOU

22. A Creepy Tycoon and a Teenager

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, including Howard Hughes. The eccentric tycoon liked collecting 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, the rich Hughes told the teenaged model that he never wanted her to marry anyone. At first, that was no problem for the inexperienced 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 not happy.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Rudy Vallee. Wikimedia

21. A Rich Man Whose Object of Affection Was Stolen by a Sexier Man

Jane Greer was fine with Howard Hughes taking her out to amusement parks – at least for a while. Things got awkward, however, when Greer 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 captivated by Greer’s 1942 modeling photo. Star Crooner Rudy Vallee was also smitten, and tried unsuccessfully to get her address from Life magazine. The magazine refused, but Vallee persisted, and when he eventually found it, things got complicated.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Jane Greer in 1947. Wikimedia

Greer might have liked hanging out with Hughes, but a rich 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. That left Hughes seething with jealousy. 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 went from doting to destructive, and set out to wreck Greer’s career. The fact that he was so rich gave him the means to do so.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Jane Greer with Robert Mitchum in ‘Out of the Past’. Associated Press

20. Wrecking an Ex Girlfriend’s Career Out of Spite

Howard Hughes had brought Jane Greer to Hollywood and got her acting lessons. When she showed an 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, managed to buy it back, and joined RKO – one of the Big Five studios of Classical Hollywood. Greer had a run of successful films with RKO – until Hughes bought the studio to wreck her career. He called Greer to his office, and told her he would not use her anymore.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
RKO logo. Imgur

Since I was under exclusive contract to Howard at RKO, that meant I would not be able to work for anybody else, either. I told him directly that this meant that he was ruining my film career. He replied by saying, ‘Yes, that’s right’“. Greer managed a few roles, but only when Hughes could find nobody else. After six years of barely any work, she paid the final installment to buy out her contract. By then, however, Hughes had already cost Greer her best and most lucrative acting years.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Stede Bonnet. Barbados and the Carolinas Foundation

19. A Rich Planter’s Mid-Life Crisis

Stede Bonnet (circa 1680 – 1718) was nicknamed “The Gentleman Pirate” because he had been a prosperous plantation owner in Barbados and an army major before he turned. He earned his fame – or infamy – not because of his success as a pirate, but because of the remarkable incompetence, he displayed after he took up a career in piracy that he had no business pursuing. In hindsight, it was clear that he should leave such work to roughnecks better suited to its travails and vicissitudes. Born into a rich family of landed gentry, Bonnet had led a peaceful life for years, and lived with his wife in a profitable Barbadian sugar plantation.

Then, out of the blue in 1717, in some type of mid-life crisis, Bonnet came up with a bizarre solution to escape marital difficulties and boredom at home. He bought a ship, named it the Revenge, and outfitted it with cannons. Bonnet hired a crew of 70 sailors, then sailed off into the deep blue to become a pirate. As might be expected from a rich dilettante who took to piracy on a whim, Bonnet was not very good at it. He soon revealed himself an incompetent sailor and worse leader, who managed to seize only a few small prizes off the Carolinas and Virginia. The fact that Bonnet paid his crew regular and generous wages – the only pirate captain to do so – was the only thing that kept them from deposing him and electing another captain in his stead.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard. Avast

18. Playing at Pirate Ended Badly for This Rich Man

Stede Bonnet came across Blackbeard in Florida, who befriended the rich planter and convinced him to give up command of the Revenge because of his utter incompetence at piracy. Bonnet transferred to Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, where he remained as a guest. His own ship, Revenge, was taken over by one of Blackbeard’s lieutenants, whom the crew accepted as their new captain. Soon thereafter, Bonnet accepted a royal pardon and a royal commission to go privateering against Spanish shipping. However, he decided to return to piracy in July, 1718.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Execution of Stede Bonnet. Way of the Pirates

Hapless as ever, Bonnet thought that he could mask his identity if he adopted the alias “Captain Thomas” and changed the name of his ship to Royal James would suffice to mask his identity. It did not work. After just a month, a British naval expedition came across Bonnet at anchor in the Cape Fear River estuary, and after a fight, captured him and his crew. Bonnet managed to escape, but was recaptured soon thereafter, and taken to Charleston. There, he was tried and convicted on two counts of piracy, sentenced to death, and was hanged on December 10th, 1718.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
The Marquis de Sade. Smithsonian Magazine

17. The Original Rich Sadist

Donatien Alphonse Francois, Comte de Sade, better known to history as the Marquis de Sade (1740 – 1814), was a rich French aristocrat. He became so notorious for his deviant sexual practices, perversions, and erotic writings which combined pornography with philosophy and violent sexual fantasies, that his name gave rise to the terms sadist and sadism. De Sade was a pervert who is known to history only for being a pervert. He did write about politics and philosophy. However, if not for the sexually deviant things that he did, and the sexually deviant things that he wrote about really liking to do, little would be known today about history’s most famous Marquis.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
‘Justine’, one of the works for which the Marquis de Sade was imprisoned. Wikimedia

An advocate of radically unrestrained freedom, de Sade’s sexual fantasies emphasized violence, criminality, and blasphemy. That, and his real-life indulgence in criminally violent sexual practices, kept him behind bars in prisons and insane asylums for most of his adult life. On and off, he spent 32 years behind bars, including 10 years in the Bastille. Most of his writings were penned while he was incarcerated. It all began with an early addiction to prostitutes, and addiction to mistreating them. In the early 1760s, he first appears in the record after numerous Paris prostitutes complained of his mistreatment. That led to several short jail stints, before he was exiled from Paris to his countryside residence. The details of the abuse are murky, but the fact a French aristocrat ended up behind bars during the Ancien Regime, based on his treatment of prostitutes, indicates seriousness.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
The Marquis de Sade. Factinate

16. A Series of Perverted Scandals

The Marquis de Sade’s first big scandal occurred in 1768. That year, he lured a street beggar to his home with an offer of a housekeeping job, then tore off her clothes, tied her to a sofa, and alternated between flogging and pouring hot wax on her. His victim finally escaped out a second-floor window, but his rich and influential family made the ensuing investigation go away with a royal decree that removed the case from the jurisdiction of the courts. Another scandal followed in 1772, when de Sade and his body servant sodomized prostitutes in Marseilles after they incapacitated them with doses of Spanish fly.

They skipped the trial, fled to Italy, and were sentenced to death in absentia. They were caught and imprisoned in Savoy, but escaped after a few months and hid in de Sade’s rural castle in southeast France. There, de Sade had a high turnover of employees. He frequently hired youngsters as domestics, only for them to quit within a short time, with complaints of the Marquis’ sexual predation and mistreatment. When the parents of local boys and girls complained to the authorities, de Sade was forced to flee to Italy once more, until things quieted down.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
The Marquis de Sade imprisoned. Wikimedia

15. The Marquis de Sade Ended His Days in a Mental Asylum

The Marquis de Sade returned to France in 1776 and resumed his perversions, which steadily intensified, with one scandal following another in quick succession. Finally, the authorities tricked de Sade in 1777 to come to Paris to visit his sick mother. Unbeknownst to him, she had actually died, and when de Sade showed up, he was arrested and locked up in a royal fortress’ dungeon. He was kept there, in harsh conditions, until 1784, when he was transferred to the Bastille. There he remained until transferred to a mental asylum, just two days before that famous prison was stormed in 1789 at the start of the French Revolution. He was released in 1790 amidst France’s revolutionary turmoil.

De Sade took to the new order, and took to calling himself “Citizen Sade”. Within months, he got himself elected to the National Convention as a representative of the far left. He barely survived the Reign of Terror, during which he was imprisoned for a year. He emerged from jail in 1794 utterly destitute. In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered his arrest for pornographic and blasphemous novels he had written a decade earlier, and had him imprisoned without trial. In 1803, his family had him declared insane and transferred from prison to a mental asylum. There, he continued to write and stage plays with inmates as actors. His writing career finally to an end in 1809, when the police ordered de Sade kept in solitary confinement and deprived him of pen and paper.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Maria Bickford. The Law Book Exchange

14. A Rich Scion Who Scandalized Massachusetts

When he was in his early twenties, Albert Jackson Tirrell, the scion of a rich family from Weymouth, Massachusetts, scandalized society. He left his wife and two children to be with Maria Bickford, a married prostitute who lived in a Boston brothel. Tirrell fell in love with Mrs. Bickford, who seemed to return the affection, although it did not stop her from continuing her profession. That did not sit well with him, and it was a constant bone of contention between the pair throughout their relationship. That relationship came to an end on the night of October 27th, 1845, when loud noises were heard from Mrs. Bickford’s room.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Albert Tirrell trial. Cloudinary

Soon thereafter, the brothel owner awoke to the smell of smoke and discovered that somebody had set three fires in his establishment. After he doused the flames, the proprietor entered Mrs. Bickford’s room, to discover that she had been brutally murdered. She had been savagely beaten, and her throat was slit from ear to ear with a razor that cut so deeply it almost severed her head. Suspicion immediately fell on Tirrell, who as per multiple witnesses was the last person known to have seen her alive. He had been seen to enter the victim’s room that evening after her last customer had departed.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
The murder of Maria Bickford. National Police Gazette

13. A Scandal That Titillated Mid-Nineteenth Century America

A bloody razor was found near Maria Bickford’s corpse, along with pieces of Tirrell’s clothes and broken-off sections of a distinctive cane known to belong to him. Police immediately began a search for the young man, but he had fled. He had last been spotted as he bargained with a livery stable keeper, reportedly saying that he was “in a scrape” and needed to get away. Tirrell was eventually tracked down to New Orleans, where he was arrested on December 6th, 1845, and extradited to Massachusetts to face trial for murder. The story quickly became a local and national sensation.

It combined the salacious details of adultery, and the class divide briefly bridged between a scion of a rich and respectable family who abandoned his wife and children for a prostitute. All capped off with a gruesome murder, nationwide manhunt, arrest, and trial. Tirrell’s parents hired Rufus Choate, a former US Senator and respected Boston lawyer known for his creative defense strategies. At the trial, prosecutors called in numerous witnesses who established strong circumstantial evidence that Tirrell was the culprit. The defendant’s lawyer, Choate, emphasized that the evidence was circumstantial and that nobody had seen Tirrell actually murder the victim. He then built his defense on the then-innovative sleepwalking defense.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
A nineteenth-century prostitute hands her card to a passerby. Evans Picture Library

12. A Novel Defense

Rufus Choate argued that Albert Tirrell was a chronic sleepwalker, and if he did kill Mrs. Bickford, he must have done so while in a somnambulistic state. As such, he would have been unaware of his actions and so could not legally be held responsible for them. Defense witnesses testified that they had spoken with Tirrell on the morning of the murder and that he seemed to be in a trance, sounded weird, and appeared “in a strange state, as if asleep, or crazy“. Another witness testified that he had spoken with Tirrell upon his arrival in his hometown of Weymouth, when he claimed to be on the lam from an adultery indictment. When the witness informed Tirrell of Mrs. Bickford’s murder, he seemed genuinely shocked.

Choate also attacked the victim and her character. He argued that after she had ensnared the hitherto innocent Tirrell with her charms and seduced him away from his wife and children, she might have committed suicide. As Choate pointed out, it was not uncommon for prostitutes to kill themselves in disgust and despair over their lifestyle and profession. It was an argument that resonated with the jurors’ cultural mores in early Victorian America. It was a time of disquiet over the recent proliferation of “fallen women” handing their cards to passersby on city streets. So it was not difficult to convince them that the victim was as morally culpable as her killer.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Rufus Choate. National Portrait Gallery

11. A Rich Man Who Got Away With Murder

After Choate delivered a six-hour closing argument, the jury retired to deliberate, and returned two hours later with a not guilty verdict on grounds that Tirrell was unaware of his actions at the time, and was thus not legally responsible. Other defendants in subsequent years were acquitted based on a sleepwalking defense. Ironically, America’s first successful sleepwalking defense was probably a sham. People in a somnambulistic state are capable of complex actions. However, Tirrell’s failed attempts to torch the brothel after the murder demonstrate that he sought to destroy evidence of his crime and cover his tracks.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
The Albert Tirrell scandal became a nineteenth-century sensation. Imgur

Such behavior indicates that Tirrell was well aware of his actions and their consequences. Sleepwalkers though do not try to destroy evidence of their crimes while sleepwalking. The rich scion was probably guilty of the murder of Maria Bickford. He was certainly guilty of the attempted arson of the brothel and the consequent attempted murder of its occupants, or at least the reckless endangerment of their lives. Today, it is highly unlikely that a defendant in similar circumstances would be acquitted on a sleepwalking defense.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Gilles de Rais. Wikimedia

10. The Rich Hero Who Turned Out to be a Monster

Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, better known to history as Gilles de Rais (1404 – 1440), was a rich 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 an outright monster. De Rais’ family, the House of Montmorency, was one of the oldest, most respected, and most distinguished aristocratic families in France. From an early age, he seemed to live up to the high expectations of a scion of such an illustrious clan.

By age fifteen, he had distinguished himself militarily in a series of wars of succession that wracked the Duchy of Brittany. He distinguished himself further 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, de Rais was already one of France’s most celebrated military men, despite his youth. He was assigned to The Maid of Orleans as one of her guards, and fought in several battles at her side. He particularly stood out in her greatest victory, the lifting of the English siege of Orleans. He then accompanied her to Reims for the coronation of King Charles VII, who made de Rais Marshall of France – a distinction awarded to generals for exceptional achievements.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Gilles de Rais. Pinterest

9. Great at the Management of Men in Combat, Not So Great at Money Management

Gilles 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 extensive holdings, 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 the management of men in battle. It did not take him long to dissipate his fabulous wealth with a lavish lifestyle that rivaled that of the king. Within a year of de Rais’ retirement, he lost most of his lands, and his family secured from the king a decree that forbade him from mortgaging what was left.

To raise more cash, de Rais turned to alchemy, hoping to figure out how to turn base metals into gold. He also turned to Satanism, hoping to gain knowledge, power, and riches, by summoning the devil. Another thing he turned to was the serial rape, torture, and murder of children. In 1440, an increasingly erratic de Rais got into a dispute with local church figures, and things escalated until he eventually kidnapped a priest. That triggered an ecclesiastical investigation that unearthed some horrific stuff. It turned out that the once-celebrated national hero had been murdering children – mostly boys, but also the occasional girl – by the hundreds.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
The execution of Gilles de Rais. Bibliotheque Nationale de France

8. The Real-Life Monster Behind a Fairy Tale One

Giles de Rais’ modus operandi was to lure children 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 would seize their victims. As he confessed in his subsequent trial, de Rais got a sadistic kick out of watching their fear when he explained what was in store. What was in store was none too good.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Bluebeard, a fairy tale character inspired by the real-life crimes of Gilles de Rais. Wikimedia

Suffice it to say that it involved torture and sodomy, and ended with the child’s murder, usually via decapitation. The victims and their clothes would then be burned in the fireplace, and their ashes dumped in a moat. After de Rais confessed, he and he and his accomplices were condemned to death. The rich aristocrat and discredited hero was executed on October 26th, 1440, when he was burned and hanged, simultaneously. His infamy inspired the fairy tale of Bluebeard, about a wealthy serial-wife killer.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Nelson Bunker Hunt. Express News

7. The Rich Brothers Who Came Up With a Batty Scheme to Get Even Richer

American oil tycoon H. L. Hunt (1889 – 1974) was one the world’s wealthiest men, with a lock on much of the East Texas Oil Field, one of the world’s biggest oil deposits. His sons Nelson, William, and Lamar – the last a founder of the American Football League and Major League Soccer – were also super-rich. Especially Nelson, who made a bundle from Libyan oil. However, Nelson Hunt became a crackpot, and feared US government conspiracy to steal his wealth. So to protect his fortune, he decided to buy a whole lot of silver, and hoard it in Switzerland.

Then he decided to buy all the silver, and persuaded his brothers to join him in a bid to corner the global market on it. By 1979, the Hunt brothers owned about half the world’s transportable supply of silver. The Hunt brothers went on a silver buying spree in the 1970s. When they ran out of money, they borrowed heavily to buy more silver. By 1979, they had accumulated about 100 million troy ounces – almost 7 million pounds – of the stuff. That was almost half the world’s transportable supply. Then they discovered that they had made a catastrophic miscalculation.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Charting the Hunt Brothers’ speculation. SD Bullion

6. Speculation That Created an Asset Bubble

The Hunt brothers’ speculation caused the price of silver to spike by over 800%, from $6 an ounce in early 1979, to over $50 by early 1980. The rich siblings grew even richer, and made about $4 billion in paper profits. In reality, however, they had simply created a huge asset bubble that was bound to burst sooner or later. The Hunts’ speculation created a global silver craze. As silver prices doubled, trebled, quadrupled, and continued to rise, people around the world began melting silverware.

Thieves went on a silver stealing spree. Tiffany’s ran ads that attacked the brothers’ speculation for making silver unaffordable to consumers. The Hunts created a bubble market for silver. It was a bubble in which they themselves, as the world’s biggest silver hoarders, were most at risk. The Federal Reserve, whose mission includes averting such bubbles, stepped in and issued a rule specifically targeted against the Hunts. It banned banks from lending to precious metal speculators. As a result, the bubble swiftly burst.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
The Hunt brothers, from left to right, William, Lamar, and Nelson. New York Daily News

5. A Burst Bubble

The Hunt brothers’ bubble market burst on March 27th, 1980, which came to be known as “Silver Thursday”. Prices collapsed, and the Hunts almost immediately lost over a billion dollars. Their family fortune survived, however, and the brothers pledged most of it as collateral for a rescue loan package. Unfortunately for them, the value of their family assets declined steadily throughout the 1980s. By 1985, their net wealth had dipped from over $5 billion just before Silver Thursday, to less than a billion. Still rich, but things were not headed in the right direction for them.

Then things got worse, especially for the genius behind the silver hoarding plan, Nelson Hunt. The brothers hung on throughout much of the 1980s, but their luck ran out in 1988. That year, they lost a lawsuit that accused them of conspiracy related to their silver speculation, and were hit with hundreds of millions in liability and fines. Nelson Hunt was hardest hit, and he broke the record for the biggest personal bankruptcy in America’s history. His assets were seized and sold to satisfy creditors, including his oil fields, house, bowling alley, and a $12 million coin collection.

Related: Historical Figures with Unforeseen Downfall and Misfortune.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Marcus Licinius Crassus. Ancient History Encyclopedia

4. From “Rich as Croesus” to “Rich as Crassus

In the ancient and classical Greco-Roman world, when people wanted to say that somebody was really wealthy they would say he was “as rich as Croesus“, after the 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) had grown so wealthy that people began to change the phrase, and pun that somebody was “as rich as Crassus” to denote that somebody was quite prosperous.

Whether he had ever grown as rich as Croesus – and it is quite possible that he might have become even richer than the Lydian monarch – Crassus was the late Roman Republic’s wealthiest man and one of its leading figures. He used his deep pockets to amass power, and sponsored politicians. Their numbers included Julius Caesar, whose political rise Crassus financed. With him 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.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
Ancient Rome. Rome Vacation Tips

3. A Seriously Shady Businessman

Crassus became fabulously rich because he was a shrewd businessman, and a notoriously avaricious one. He got 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 arranged to have 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 his day 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 would rush to the scene with his firefighters, and on the spot, offer to buy the burning building or those nearby that were threatened by the flames at literally fire-sale knock-down 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.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
The First Triumvirate. Short History

2. A Rich Man’s Quest for Glory

By the 70s BC, Crassus had established himself as Rome’s richest man. H leveraged his wealth into power and entered into the First Triumvirate, with Caesar and Pompey, to divvy up the Roman Republic. However, Crassus wanted to be more than just a rich man. He also craved military glory such as that enjoyed by his partners. Unlike them, Crassus’ main military accomplishment had been to defeat Spartacus’ slave rebellion. In Roman eyes, defeating slaves paled in comparison to Pompey’s and Caesar’s deeds. To win the 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, and there was little reason to assume the Parthians would be any tougher. With an army of 50,000, Crassus went to war against Parthia in 53 BC. Things went wrong from the start. His guide, secretly in Parthian pay, took Crassus 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.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
The Roman defeat at Carrhae. Military Wiki

1. The End of Rome’s Richest Man

Although they greatly outnumbered the Parthians, the Romans were demoralized by the rigors of the march and by Crassus’ poor leadership. Parthian archers whittled the Romans with arrows from a safe standoff distance, and used the superior mobility afforded them by their horses to retreat 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.

Rich People From History Who Committed Shady and Evil Deeds
The Battle of Carrhae. Battles of the Ancients

The Parthians returned, and taunted the Roman army and Crassus with his son’s head mounted on a spear. Crassus retreated, abandoning thousands of his wounded. 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.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Atlas Obscura – The Modern Movement to Exonerate a Notorious Medieval Serial Killer

Botting, Douglas – The Pirates (1978)

Business Insider, May 17th, 2016 – Here’s the Story of How the Hunt Brothers Tried to Corner the Silver Market

Cordingly, David – Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates (1997)

Coward, Barry – The Stanleys, Lords Stanley, and Earls of Derby, 1385-1672: The Origins, Wealth, and Power of a Landowning Family (1983)

Cracked – 4 Stories of Ridiculously Evil Rich People From the Past

Encyclopedia Britannica – Giles de Rais

Encyclopedia Britannica – Marquis de Sade

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Volume II (1994)

Guardian, The, August 28th, 2001 – Jane Greer

History Collection – 18 People Who Allegedly Sold Their Souls to Pure Evil

History Network – How America’s Most Powerful Men Caused America’s Deadliest Flood

History of War – Thomas, Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby c. 1433 – 1504

Johnstown Pennsylvania Information Source Online – Archived New York Times Coverage of the Johnstown Flood, June 1 – 7, 1889

Knappman, Edward W., et al. Great American Trials (1994)

Law Buzz – Sleepwalking: A Defense to Murder First Used in 1846

Lely, Gilbert – The Marquis de Sade, a Biography (1961)

Los Angeles Times, August 28th, 2001 – Jane Greer, Star of Film Noir ‘Out of the Past’

McCullough, David G. – The Johnstown Flood (2004)

Moss, Jeremy R. – The Life and Tryals of the Gentleman Pirate, Major Stede Bonnet (2020)

New York Post, March 7th, 2016 – BMW Admits ‘Regret’ Over Using Nazi Slave Labor During WWII

Plutarch – Parallel Lives: Life of Crassus

Priceonomics – How the Hunt Brothers Cornered the Silver Market and Then Lost it All

Schaeffer, Neil – The Marquis de Sade: A Life (2000)

Smithsonian Magazine, April 30th, 2012 – The Case of the Sleepwalking Killer

Telegraph, The, September 29th, 2011 – BMW Dynasty Breaks Silence Over Nazi Past

Wikipedia – Albert Tirrell

Wolf, Leonard – Bluebeard: The Life and Times of Gilles de Rais (1980)