When Jay Gould died in 1892, he left behind a fortune of $77 million, worth over $2 billion in 2020. How did he accumulate such massive wealth?
Jay Gould made his incredible fortune the way so many unscrupulous businessmen did at the time: by being a railroad magnate. The American railroad made dozens of men dizzyingly rich, and Jay Gould was one of the most infamous of them.
Read on to learn more about the fascinating story of Jay Gould.
Riding the Rails
The American Railroad and its initial development is a key part of the nation’s history. It enabled massive industrial and socio-economic development and generated a staggering amount of financial wealth for some.
There were many key players involved in the building and running of the railroads, most of whom were notorious. Some of these players would become known as “robber barons”. These were men that used unscrupulous and controversial means to acquire – and retain – wealth.
One of the best examples of a robber baron was Jason ‘Jay’ Gould. He became known as a shrewd and dastardly businessman, and ultimately personified the label. It’s reported that many of his business tactics would simply be illegal today. There’s one biographical website that states, “… he was often thought to be the most despised man in the nation.”
These robber barons existed to make money, and further their own power and estate. They did this by hook or by crook, forcing slave labor, paying minimal wages, and driving their employees to death. They were masters of the financial world and knew how to play markets to their advantage.
Jay Gould was born in New York, in 1836. At the time, the city was booming, one of the nation’s financial epicenters. It was well on its way to becoming the thriving core of business and trade that it is today. Gould made his start on Wall Street, tapping into the mostly unregulated stock market.
It’s alleged that Gould would bribe judges and politicians as he amassed his fortune, meaning his Wall Street exploits went more or less unnoticed. At least, legally. However, it was through the 1870s that Gould would make the vast majority of his fortune.
He began purchasing great swathes of railroad across the country. Gould was a master of the markets and could almost sniff out an incoming lull, targeting the lower-priced targets. He was shrewd – he knew the railroad would expand and become priceless.
Moving On Up
Jay Gould rode the ebbs and flows of the American dollar, always seemingly ending up on the good side of things. He decided to broaden his repertoire and started acquiring assets away from the American railroad.
He moved into urban transportation and communications. Firstly, he acquired a railroad system that ran through New York City, then the American Union Telegraph company. The latter organization was fused with Western Union. This ultimately led Gould to hold the monopoly over two key aspects of American infrastructure.
There’s a great, but brief video below detailing some facts about Jay Gould.
Where Does It All Go?
When Jay Gould passed away in New York in 1892, he left behind a reported $77 million. In 2020, this fortune would be worth an eye-watering $2 billion. He’d established a firm legacy as one of America’s ‘old money’ founding families, such as the Astors, or the Rockefellers.
However, that money has to go somewhere, but where did Gould’s go? Throughout his life, Jay fathered several children. It was his eldest son who inherited the family millions at the turn of the century. George was considerably less successful than his late father, having whittled the fortune down to barely $30 million when he died.
Although, even that figure may have been inflated. One article published in The Atlantic suggests George’s children may have received just $5 million when he died in 1933. While this is still a considerable sum of money, it’s nothing compared to his father’s wealth.
The vast majority of this loss can likely be attributed to the massive collapse of the Great Depression, which occurred around 1929. This caused million- and billionaires around the nation to lose incredible sums of money, as stock markets crashed almost overnight.
As of 2020, Jay Gould’s legacy persisted, but not his fortune. As one of the founding families behind the American railroad, he arguably helped to build the country itself. Without the infrastructure these tracks provided, entire cities wouldn’t have developed for many more decades to come.