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1882 One Hundred Years Ago

July 2024
1min read

Of the three great pronouncements uttered by “malefactors of great wealth” in the latter half of the nineteenth century, William H. Vanderbilt’s “The public be damned” is surely the most famous. It lacks the insouciance of Boss Tweed’s “Well, what are you going to do about it?” and the moral grandeur of Jim Fisk’s “Nothing is lost save honor”—but it encapsulated, neatly, what was generally feared to be the attitude of the great capitalists of the day.

Vanderbilt was traveling west in three private railroad cars to inspect his lines, which crossed the country. As the train halted at Michigan City, two newspapermen came aboard; John Sherman of the Chicago Tribune and Clarence Dresser, a free-lancer. Vanderbilt agreed to talk to them. They asked him, among other things, about the new train he had instituted to cut the New York-Chicago run to twenty-four hours. “Does it pay?”

“No, not a bit of it,” came the answer. “We only run the limited because forced to by the action of the Pennsylvania Railroad.”

“But don’t you run it for the public benefit?” asked Dresser.

“The public be damned. What does the public care for the railroads except to get as much out of them for as little consideration as possible!”

His words were quoted all over the United States within a few days. “I never said it,” growled Vanderbilt to New York reporters at the end of his trip: “It’s a malign misrepresentation.” But he had indeed said it, in front of witnesses who heard him very clearly.

November 6 —English actress Lily Langtry made her American debut in As You Like It at the Fifth Avenue Theater in New York. Oscar Wilde infuriated all by saying he would rather have discovered Miss Langtry than America.

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