- 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
After several days of lying in sentinelled state at Portland’s city hall, where services included a choral rendition from Handel’s Messiah by 300 voices, Peabody’s remains went by special train to Peabody, Massachusetts. (It was his old home town of South Danvers, which in 1868 had gratefully changed its name in honor of its famous son.) There was a flurry of excitement and controversy when it was rumored that Robert E. Lee (who had known Peabody briefly but fondly) might attend the final funeral there; but Lee was ill and sent his regrets—to the satisfaction of those who felt that a man like Lee had no ceremonial business north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But the young Prince Arthur, Queen Victoria’s third son, who had recently come from a tour of Canada, appeared with his retinue for the ceremony, which took place in the South Congregational Church on February 8, after another week of lying in state—this time at the Peabody Institute Library. Numerous American dignitaries were also present: the governors of Massachusetts and Maine, mayors of half a dozen cities, the trustees of the Peabody benefactions from at least as many different other places. The first great American philanthropist had been an unconscionable time aburying, but at length he was put to rest in a granite sarcophagus he himself had ordered six months before.
Among the elegies from well-known persons in various parts of the world there was one from Victor Hugo. “Yes,” wrote the famous French author, “America has reason to be proud of this great citizen of the world and great brother of all men—George Peabody. … Like Jesus Christ, he had a wound in the side: this wound was the misery of others. It was not blood that flowed from this wound: it was gold which now came from a heart. … It is on the face of [such] men that we can see the smile of God.” It was a tribute no doubt somewhat too Gallic in its expression for American taste, but the sentiment, nonetheless, seemed appropriate.