Charles Tyson Yerkes, 1837-1905: “Buy Up Old Junk, Fix It Up a Little, and Unload It Upon Other Fellows”

Or, how to make a fortune in public transportation.

Yerkes is one of the Robber Barons who tends to be forgotten amongst the Carnegies and Mellons and J.P. Morgans and Rockefellers of the Gilded Age. For one thing, he died nearly broke and the only hard asset legacy he left is the Yerkes Observatory – high tech in its age,  quaint now.

Forgotten or not, his life was the stuff of scandal, full of material worthy of a novel. Theodore Dreiser found Yerkes so irritating that he wrote three: The FinancierThe Titan, and The Stoic.

Well, who reads Dreiser much any more?  (Kind of surprising, given his taste for the rich and seamy.)

Yerkes was born a Quaker in Philadelphia. His mother died when he was young and father was drummed out of the community for marrying outside the faith.  We can leave it to the psychologists to interpret how this might affect the boy.  In any event, the new home arrangement didn’t stop the elder from becoming a banker of some influence later on, a fact which would help get young George into, and out of, some trouble later on.

George’s first gainful employment of any consequence was as a clerk in grain at age 17.  At age 22 he joined Philadelphia stock exchange. Through his father’s influence, he got some accounts for the city of Philadelphia. He was reckless. He over-extended the money and got caught short when the Great Fire of Chicago sent his investments south, and him with them. Investigation, indictment, incarceration followed.

George tried to get out of it by blackmailing some local politicians, and though they balked at first, more businesslike heads prevailed (among them, U.S. Grant himself) and young Yerkes was pardoned on condition he recant.

Still, Philadelphia was maybe not the best environment for him. He moved to Chicago to get back into grain brokerage business. Chicago was growing and at some point he got his eyes on public transportation. The methodology was simple. Buy up every rail and trolley line around and bribe the local governments to maintain the monopoly. Then jack up the price. It worked well enough for some years, but ambition again got the better of him.

Once upon a time, Illinois had statesmen, among them Governor Peter Altgeld. He turned down a half million dollar bribe to grant Yerkes perpetual monopoly. Between this and other baffles to his ambitions, Yerkes upped stakes and plied his trade in other cities, including New York and London, where he was instrumental in getting the London Underground started, this through a complicated web of crooked finance that this time bested even J.P. Morgan.

So much for crimes against the people.  In his private life, he liked art and set about creating a seriously strong collection. More than art, however, he like women.  A lot. Not surprisingly it got him into a good deal of trouble.

His second wife, the former Mary Adelaide Moore, was a country girl from rural Illinois. She must have been something because a year after spontaneously picking up the seventeen year old minx at a railway stop in Egypt, Illinois, she had gotten a ring of his first wife’s finger and on to hers.

And, to his everlasting dismay, she would not give it up for love or money.

Yerkes’ modus operandi with women was to set them up for as long as they interested him and when they stopped doing so, to pay them off. If they became inconvenient he would have his team of lawyers arrange third parties to seduce the women, surprise the happy couples, and suggest that the women would be better off on her own.

It didn’t play well even in Chicago, and after he sold up in 1899, the family moved to New York City where Mary hoped they might find an easier fit into society.

They didn’t.

His reputation did not help, her manner – loud and blowsy –  even less.  He built the requisite house at 864 Fifth Avenue (reports of its decoration call to mind the Guccione Mansion). Yerkes did his best. He somehow managed to finagle a ten day guest membership in the Metropolitan Club; The man who had arranged it was later brought before the board and reprimanded.

Tales of Mrs. Yerkes were legendary. This country girl who managed to get a ring from the old reprobate made a spectacle of herself. Addison Mizner claims to have been present when, from the box seat of a production of A School For Scandal, she declared that the woman on stage could not possibly be Lady Teazle because, “I have a picture of Lady Teazle right in my mansion. It’s an original, it cost a lot of money, and it right. Lady Teazle wears a yellow dress in that picture. This woman here has a pink dress. She is not lady Teazle.”

Poor Yerkes begged her for a divorce, having set eyes on a new sweetheart, the beautiful Emilie Grigsby of Kentucky, but Mrs Yerkes had a heart of stone.  Yerkes died of kidney failure in 1906; a month later his widow married the far younger and even more outrageous Wilson Mizner. The marriage lasted a year.  There were many reasons, and it didn’t help that probate showed Yerkes’ debts to outweigh the assets by millions. Mrs Yerkes was left with $US 163,363. Good money, but nothing near what she (or Mizner) had expected. She died, basically of stress, in 1911.

Ms Grigsby, on the other hand, fared rather better. More on her next time.


5 thoughts on “Charles Tyson Yerkes, 1837-1905: “Buy Up Old Junk, Fix It Up a Little, and Unload It Upon Other Fellows”

  1. Pingback: Emilie Busbey Grigsby, 1879-1964: How to Not Marry a Millionaire | A History Blog by Bruce Ware Allen

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