Robber Barons

Ruthless Businessmen Acquired Great Wealth in the late 1800s

Photograph of Cornelius Vanderbilt
Cornelius Vanderbilt, "The Commodore". Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The term "robber baron" began to be used in the early 1870s to describe a class of extremely wealthy businessmen who used ruthless and unethical business tactics to dominate vital industries.

In an era with virtually no regulation of business, industries such as railroads, steel, and petroleum became monopolies. And consumers and workers were able to be exploited. It took decades of growing outrage before the most flagrant abuses of the robber barons were brought under control.

Here are some of the most notorious robber barons of the late 1800s. In their time they were often praised as visionary businessmen, but their practices, when examined closely, were often predatory and unfair.

Photograph of Cornelius Vanderbilt
Cornelius Vanderbilt, "The Commodore". Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Rising from very humble roots as the operator of one small ferry in New York Harbor, the man who would become known as "The Commodore" would dominate the entire transportation industry in the United States.

Vanderbilt made a fortune operating a fleet of steamboats, and with nearly perfect timing made the transition to owning and operating railroads. At one time, if you wanted to go somewhere, or move freight, in America, it was likely you would have to be a customer of Vanderbilt.

By the time he died in 1877 he was considered the richest man who had ever lived in America.

Engraved portrait of financier Jay Gould
Jay Gould, notorious Wall Street speculator and robber baron. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Starting out as a small-time businessman, Gould moved to New York City in the 1850s and began trading stocks on Wall Street. In the unregulated climate of the time, Gould learned tricks such as "cornering" and quickly acquired a fortune.

Always thought to be deeply unethical, Gould was widely known to bribe politicians and judges. He was involved in the struggle for the Erie Railroad in the late 1860s, and in 1869 caused a financial crisis when he and his partner Jim Fisk sought to corner the market on gold. The plot to take over the country's gold supply could have collapsed the entire American economy had it not been thwarted.

Engraved portrait of Wall Street schemer Jim Fisk
Jim Fisk. public domain

Jim Fisk was a flamboyant character who was often in the public spotlight, and whose scandalous personal life led to his own murder.

After starting out in his teens in New England as a traveling peddler, he made a fortune trading cotton, with shady connections, during the Civil War. Following the war he gravitated to Wall Street, and after becoming partners with Jay Gould, he became famous for his role in the Erie Railroad War, which he and Gould waged against Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Fisk met his end when he became involved in a lover's triangle and he was shot in the lobby of a luxurious Manhattan hotel. As he lingered on his deathbed, he was visited by his partner Jay Gould, and by a friend, the notorious New York political figure Boss Tweed.

Photographic portrait of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller
John D. Rockefeller. Getty Images

John D. Rockefeller controlled much of the American oil industry during the late 19th century and his business tactics made him one of the most notorious of the robber barons. He tried to keep a low profile, but muckrakers eventually exposed him as having corrupted the much of the petroleum business through monopolistic practices.

Photographic portrait of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie. Underwood Archive/Getty Images

The tight grip Rockefeller had on the oil industry was mirrored by the control Andrew Carnegie exerted on the steel industry. At a time when steel was needed for railroads and other industrial purposes, Carnegie's mills produced much of the nation's supply.

Carnegie was fiercely anti-union, and a strike as his mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania turned into a small war. Pinkerton guards attacked strikers and wound up being captured. But as the controversy in the press played out, Carnegie was off at a castle he had bought in Scotland.

Carnegie, like Rockefeller, turned to philanthropy and contributed millions of dollars to construct libraries and other cultural institutions, such as New York's famed Carnegie Hall.