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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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