- Historic Sites
Mephistopheles Of Wall Street
December 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 8
When Gould first came to Wall Street, in the early 1860s, there was little law limiting the actions of speculators or business managers, and a dog-eat-dog financial market was flourishing there as never before. But Gould did not create these conditions; rather he exploited them with a genius that none of his contemporaries could match. In the ruthless, every-man-for-himself world of mid-nineteenth-century Wall Street, Jay Gould was as ruthless as necessary and far more creative than most. Moreover, his genius was seldom revealed in his conversation. Gould had early learned the advantages that listening has over talking, and he was always notably quiet, an unnerving trait. His intellect nonetheless leaked out through his extraordinary dark eyes. “While you speak,” wrote Harper’s Monthly , when Gould was still only in his early thirties, “he listens, and looks at you with eyes which freeze and fascinate.” To put it bluntly, Gould was scary.
It hardly helped Gould’s public image that so capable a mind and so intense and introspective a personality was contained within a body of almost pathetic inadequacy. Gould stood only five feet two inches tall and he struggled most of his life with sickness and poor digestion. Tuberculosis was to kill him when he was only fifty-six. “He was almost the thinnest man I ever met,” remembered the journalist William A. Croffut in his memoirs. “I saw him take the plunge in the Turkish bath at Saratoga. His arms were small, his chest was hollow, his face was tawny and sallow, and his legs! Well, I never before saw such a prominent ‘bull’ that had such insignificant calves. Perhaps—perhaps you could not put a napkin ring over his foot and push it up to his knees; I am not certain.”
Gould could have made himself respected with a good PR campaign. He chose silence instead, and his reputation has never recovered.
Gould’s immense financial success was certainly resented by the many who lost money because of him in the great game of Wall Street, while his shyness and puny body were unlikely to make him popular with people outside the bosom of his family. But it was well within Gould’s capability to make himself respected, perhaps even admired, with a good PR campaign and a few splashy charitable donations. John D. Rockefeller accomplished exactly that for himself a generation later. Gould chose silence instead and let his reputation be what his enemies might make of it. It has not recovered in a hundred years.
I once found a clipping from the back pages of some newspaper pasted into a copy of Gould’s History of Delaware County . (Written when he was only nineteen, Gould’s 426-page book is still the definitive work on the early history of the western Catskill region where he was born.) There was no indication what newspaper the clipping might have been from, only a penciled notation that seemed to indicate it was printed in 1909, seventeen years after Gould’s death.
The article told of an incident when Gould was traveling out West. His train had stopped briefly to take on water and coal at a depot and Gould got out to stretch his legs. Noticing a crowd standing outside a church on a nearby hill, he wandered up to investigate, for it wasn’t a Sunday. He discovered that the mortgage holder was foreclosing on the church and that an auction was being held to dispose of the property. When Gould learned that the mortgagee would settle for fifteen hundred dollars (well over twenty thousand dollars in today’s money), he took a roll of bills out of his pocket and bought the lien.
“Stranger,” someone asked Gould, “what are you going to do with the claim you’ve just bought?” Gould wanted to know who was asking, and the man replied, “Why, I am a steward of this church. The members and Sabbath school scholars are in the church, with the presiding elder and pastor, on their knees, praying God to come to our help and save the church.”
“Mr. Gould,” the clipping continues, “said nothing, but, taking the receipted bill and cancelled lien, he gave them to the steward, and turning toward the depot walked rapidly back to his train. The steward entered the church, now free, and told his people what the Lord had done, and they sang the doxology on their knees. Then they went out into the streets to find the stranger. They soon found that the little man was none other than Jay Gould. His train had gone, and only a cloud of dust on the far-away prairie indicated where their benefactor was.”
While unverifiable, for me the story has the ring of truth about it. So even if the Mephistopheles of Wall Street would do nothing to improve his public image, I see no reason why I should not do a little something for it.