12 Things You Might Not Know About Stephen Girard

The nation's greatest-ever rags-to-riches story took place right here.
Stephen Girard signature and portrait by B. Otis | Public Domain. Girard College, By http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/b3/78/cac9aedc68948434e14f7e05bc9b.jpgGallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0014366.html, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36487291

Stephen Girard signature and portrait by B. Otis | Public Domain. Girard College, wellcomeimages.org via CC BY 4.0

Today is the 225th anniversary of the First Bank of the United States, which was founded by Congress in 1791 to stabilize the government and put an end to the mishmash that resulted from every state having its own currency. The largest investor in the First Bank was Stephen Girard, the richest man in the nation. When, after 20 years, Congress shut the bank down, Girard purchased it and its assets and promptly opened his own Girard Bank. He’d go on to increase his fortune and singlehandedly rescue the nation during the War of 1812. Here, just a few highlights from his long, extraordinary life:

1. Stephen Girard was born in 1750 in Bordeaux, France, to a seafaring father and his wife. The oldest of nine children, he had no formal education. His mother died when he was 12, and after his father remarried, Girard left home, becoming an apprentice officer in 1764 at age 14. By age 23, he had earned command of his first ship, a brigantine named Sally.

2. Girard lost the vision in his left eye while he was still a boy; one story says he was sitting at a bonfire when someone tossed in a clamshell, which exploded and wounded him with a splinter. The injured eye reportedly became “a repulsive-looking abnormality” that left the short (five-foot-six) redhead shy and socially withdrawn.

3. Girard’s success at sea led to his licensure in the French Merchant Marine. He sailed to New York in 1774, became acquainted with that city’s merchants and seamen, and began to import coffee and sugar from the West Indies to the Colonies while selling Colonial goods abroad. When the British blockade of 1776 prevented him from a return to New York, he sailed instead to Philadelphia, where he took up residency just as the Revolution began. That same year, he met and married an 18-year-old beauty, Mary Lum, and moved with her to Mount Holly, New Jersey, where they opened a store and provisioned the Colonial army.

4. In 1778, Girard became an American citizen. His fortune continued to grow through the Revolution as he evaded the British blockade and continued to run his shipping enterprises. He began to trade with China and profited from the central government regulation of shipping brought about by the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. But his world was blighted by his young wife’s battles with mental illness. In August 1790, he had Mary permanently committed to Pennsylvania Hospital as an “incurable lunatic.” (She may have been bipolar.) She lived there for the next 25 years, with Girard sparing no expense as to her upkeep; she had a private suite of rooms on the first floor. After her committal, Mary gave birth to a daughter who died in infancy. Girard disavowed paternity of the child, claiming he hadn’t had relations with his wife recently. He never remarried and had no children. Mary was buried in an unmarked grave on the hospital grounds after her death in 1815.

5. While Mary was still alive, Girard took into his household a mistress, Sally Bickham, and also took Sally’s younger brother under his wing, educating him in the business of trade. When, after nine years, Sally married and left Girard, he soon took another mistress, Polly Kenton, a laundress 26 years his junior. He was then reportedly worth $250,000 and on his way to becoming a millionaire. In addition to his shipping endeavors, he was selling arms to South American revolutionaries, including Simón Bolívar, and acquiring land that included a farm in what is now South Philadelphia, in the area now known as the Girard Estates.

6. When Congress created the First Bank of the United States in 1791, Girard invested heavily; by 1811, he was the largest investor. After Congress failed to renew the bank’s charter in 1812, Girard bought the bank and its assets, becoming the nation’s most powerful banker almost overnight. When the War of 1812 broke out, Girard lent the government $8 million, risking his entire fortune without asking concessions. He literally kept the government solvent until the Treaty of Ghent in 1814 ended the war.

7. In 1793, when a yellow fever epidemic struck the city, Girard took charge of the city’s hospital for the poor at Bush Hill. Decrying the popular treatment of bleeding and purging espoused by the city’s leading physician, Benjamin Rush, and refusing to believe the disease was passed from patient to patient (he was right; it spread via mosquito bites), he instead gave his charges wine and lemonade, staffed the hospital with French emigres, spent his own fortune to maintain it, emphasized cleanliness, and himself nursed the sick and buried the dead.

8. As his fortune grew, Girard invested it, mostly in real estate. Among his holdings: nearly 30,000 acres in Schuylkill and Columbia counties in Pennsylvania that he bought by accident at auction. The land held valuable coal and timber; its coal licenses are still producing. He also owned “the choicest land and buildings” in what is now Old City, including entire city blocks, as well as factories, warehouses, piers, and 404 two-story and 71 three-story homes in South Philly.

9. Girard bought his farm in “the Neck,” as South Philly was then known, in 1797. It had formerly been the property of George Seckel, who used the 75 acres to introduce and cultivate the Seckel pear. An 1830 report citing Girard’s farm as one of the finest in the nation noted that its pear orchard was “second to none,” that Girard was an early adopter of turpentine and bandages to heal tree wounds, that his crops included figs and the first artichokes grown in America, and that his greenhouse was filled with lemons, oranges, and citrons.

10. In 1827, after 31 years together, Girard and Polly Kenton parted ways. Three years later, at age 79, he began investing in railroads, surmising, rightly, that they’d be valuable in transporting coal. In 1998, Forbes magazine placed Girard fourth on its all-time list of richest Americans, behind only John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt and John Jacob Astor, and estimated that his wealth made up .67 percent of the total U.S. economy. Business Insider estimated his peak wealth at $105 billion.

11. Girard died at age 81 on December 26th, 1831, either of the flu or, as another story has it, of injuries he’d suffered when he was hit by a wagon at 2nd and Market streets a year earlier. In his will, he established Girard College, a boarding school for “poor, white, male orphans” on land he owned in Fairmount. His will specifically forbade any clergy from teaching at the school or even entering its campus and established a 10-foot-high wall around the school to protect students from the worldly vices outside.

12. Girard’s relatives contested his will and lost, though their case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1844 by no less than Daniel Webster. In 1968, after a lengthy legal battle, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students should be admitted without regard to race or color; in 1982, girls were admitted for the first time.

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