- Historic Sites
The First Great Cheerful Giver
George Peabody made fourteen million dollars and gave nine million away —with no tax deductions to urge him on
June 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 4
In England, after one hundred years, Peabody’s charitable project still nourishes. Today London’s Donation Fund, with a capitalization of nearly £3,000,000 and a board of governors headed by Sir Charles J. Hambro of Hambros Bank, runs five thousand flats inhabited by some eighteen thousand tenants, ranging, according to a recent annual report, from bagmakers, brewers’ men, and costermongers to lamplighters and needlewomen.
There were other Peabody benefactions which, while relatively minor, grew to be exceedingly fruitful. A fine example was the $150,000 that he gave to Yale. This founded the Peabody Museum of Natural History, the leading institution of its kind in New England. During its first quarter-century it was run by Professor Othniel Charles Marsh, a nephew of Peabody’s who had persuaded his uncle to put up the money for it. Marsh, whom Peabody generously supported far beyond Yale’s judicious stipends, was a pioneer in vertebrate paleontology. Thanks to his discoveries and vast collections in this field, gathered chiefly in the western states, “The Peabody’s” accumulations of fossil vertebrates are extraordinary to this day. If the uncle had no other memorial, the nephew’s museum would suffice. As early as 1868, when it had been paid for but not yet built, George T. Dole, a Yale man of the 1830’s, delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Yale College an original poem, “Yale Revisited,” in which he anticipated A grand Museum, where, in bright array,f The Cabinets their rich stores shall display and went on to immortalize its founder .
But who the rich Maecenas that supplies Funds, this idea to fitly realize? One whom no College ever graduated, Nor classic institution cultivated: From a New England common school sent forth, He stands, at length, with magnates of the earth, A prince of merchant princes; aye, a prince Of the high order of beneficence.
Let all the rich, who mean, when they shall die, To do great things by way of legacy, How to make sure a worthy end, and see, And taste the pleasure, learn of PEABODY.
It was only a year later that the “prince of merchant princes” was himself dead, having by that time seen and tasted the pleasure of a great many of his good works. He had also been suitably rewarded with much esteem and praise in high places, perhaps even more notably in England than in the United States. Congress had ordered a medal struck in his honor in 1868; but Queen Victoria had offered him a baronetcy (which he refused), and had presented him with a miniature enamel portrait of Her Majesty wearing the Koh-i-noor Diamond, the Order of the Garter, and a jewelled cross given her by Prince Albert. It was inscribed, “Presented by the Queen to Geo. Peabody, Esq., the Benefactor of the Poor of London,” and it is said to have cost its donor $70,000. There was also a statue of Peabody, unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1869 on Threadneedle Street, in the heart of the London financial district.
Peabody was given three impressive funerals, and—elaborately embalmed—spent over three months between deathbed and grave. During the first of these obsequies, held in Westminster Abbey, London shopkeepers lowered their blinds and closed up shop. The mourners included Prime Minister William Gladstone, and an obituary sermon was delivered by the Bishop of London. After thirty days of lying in state in the Abbey, the body was transported to the United States, on the Queen’s order, by Great Britain’s newest and biggest warship, H.M.S. Monarch . There was some grumbling in America about the propriety of this. On the whole, however, it was taken as a gesture of Anglo-American friendship to relieve the tension caused by American reparation claims for the depredations of the British-built Alabama against Union ships during the Civil War. President Grant dispatched the U.S.S. Plymouth to accompany the Monarch as an escort, and on January 25, 1870, the two ships steamed into the harbor at Portland, Maine—chosen over Boston because its deeper channel could accommodate the big Monarch .