Growing up in a family with many members who earned their livings on Wall Street and with many ancestors and relatives who had done the same, I—as might be expected—very early heard stories of business that I found as fascinating as the tales of military action I was soaking up at the same time. The novelist Thomas Hardy explained that “war makes rattling good history,” but it was James Gordon Bennett, the founder of the New York Herald, who explained why business makes the same.Read more »

Business Scandal

Overrated For a hundred years the armor-plate scandal of the 1890s has been offered up as a definitive example of corporate greed. In fact it’s a better example of government incompetence. Read more »

Why Enron Always Happens

And how history shows it’s actually good for us

THERE’S AN OLD JOKE ABOUT A COMPANY’S NEEDING TO hire a new accounting firm. The chief executive invites the heads of eight firms to come in for interviews and he hires one right away. A friend asks him how he did it. “Simple,” the chief executive replies. “I just asked each of them one question. How much is two plus two?”

“That’s easy,” the friend says.

“Sure it is. Seven of them said four. So I gave the job to the eighth. He said, ‘What number do you have in mind?’” Read more »

The American Heritage

A ranking of the forty wealthiest Americans of all time (Surprise: Only three of them are alive today)


1839-1937 Read more »

To the Swiftest

Steamboat competition was about more than speed.

If the Olympic Games demonstrate anything, it is that the urge to be the fastest lies deep in the human soul. And from the earliest days of humankind this urge has had its practical rewards beyond mere glory. The fastest caveman, after all, caught the most gazelles. Read more »

Managerial Babble

A letter written by Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1818 is my second-favorite business letter. Vanderbilt was then twenty-four, and he wrote to his employer, Thomas Gibbons, the owner of a ferry that ran between New Brunswick and New York City, about a competitor named Letson. Vanderbilt at that time captained the ferryboat Bellona, and his wife, Sophia, added to the family’s income by running a popular riverside hotel, Bellona Hall, in New Brunswick. Read more »

Exit Lines

About to die at the untimely age of forty-four in 1883, Dr. George Miller Beard, a Connecticut physician and pioneer in neurology, remarked: “I should like to record the thoughts of a dying man for the benefit of science, but it is impossible.” And with those words, Dr. Beard passed beyond further speech. Regardless of their inner thoughts, we do at least know what many individuals uttered before giving up the ghost.Read more »

The Commodore Left Two Sons

—and America’s greatest fortune up to that time, some $100,000,000. The legal battle that followed, full of tarts and torts and turnabouts, might have been plotted by Dickens


When Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt expired in New York City on January 4, 1877, with members of his family gathered about his bed singing “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” he was by far the richest man who had ever died in the United States of America. He had gone to bed for the last time early in May of the previous year. After nearly eighty-three years of strenuous living, his staunch body was finally exhausted by a multitude of ailments, any one of which might have killed an ordinary person. Read more »

Dynamic Victoria Woodhull

Her past was shady but her conscience was excellent,
and all in all she played a big part in the emancipation of women


Mrs. John Biddulph Martin, widow of a rich English banker and sister of the Viscountess of Montserrat, lived to the ripe old age of 89 and, in 1927 died in the odor of sanctity, much esteemed for her charitable works. Which was a scandal in the eyes of those who esteemed themselves as right-thinkers.

Read more »