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Absolution, Inc.

May 2024
1min read

I realize that John Steele Gordon’s apologia for Jay Gould (“The Business of America,” December 1989) was purposely subjective, but I cannot resist commenting on the 1909 news clipping that would attest to Gould’s churchly charity.

Mr. Gordon suggests that Gould’s reputation suffered because he didn’t care to muster an effective public relations campaign. But the example of good works he cites has a strong smell of press agent about it. It is classic Victorian melodrama, the kind of American folklore used as filler in newspapers one might expect the characters of Our Town to read and take as gospel.

Of course I know full well that at the latter stages of their lives many of the robber barons were quite anxious to purchase some shares of Absolution, Inc. stock, particularly on margin. Some of their reported acts were true, others clearly apocryphal.

Here’s another one on Gould cited in B. A. Botkin’s A Treasury of American Anecdotes . The story goes that the rector of Gould’s church, who was preparing to retire, asked the old rascal for some financial advice. Gould told him to invest in a certain railroad but cautioned him not to tell anyone of the advice he had received. The minister invested in the railroad and to his delight saw the stock rise way beyond his expectations. Then, without warning, the stock plummeted, and the clergyman saw his entire savings disappear.

Gould later matched the minister’s losses and then some. The minister was grateful but confessed that he had broken his promise and told some church members about the inside tip.

Botkin writes that Gould cheerfully replied: “Oh, 1 know that. They were the ones I was after.”

Then there’s the one about Rockefeller always attending three churches in Florida while making sure to go to the black Baptist church first. The reason? The other churches use electricity and gas, but the Baptists burn kerosene oil.

The point is that these guys were always looking for the best real estate deals in heaven, but I think five-foot-two-inch Gould was just too short to box with God.

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