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King of the Robber Barons

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Robber Baron: 1: an American capitalist of the latter part of the 19th century who became wealthy through exploitation (as of natural resources, governmental influence, or low wage scales)

Jay, born Jayson Gould to John Burr and Mary Gould as a small, feeble baby, was the robber baron’s robber baron. He was the king manipulator of Wall Street. Although he was not the only snake on Wall Street, he was the most calculating, manipulative, and strategizing of them all.

December 6, 1892, surrounded by few family members and even fewer friends, Jay Gould lay cold in his casket. Joseph Pulitzer wrote, “…his is not a death to cause the public sorrow.” He was well hated, well despised, and left this world with few people on his side. And so the book begins, describing the aftermath of his death. Edward J. Renehan, Jr. then proceeds to explain Gould’s life, his complicated and tragic childhood, and from his first business dealings to his last.

Gould was born to a farmer and his wife in a small community in the Catskills. His mother died when he was nearly five; subsequently, John Burr’s next two wives followed in Mary’s fate, all before Jay was nine. He was reared, then, by his four older sisters who constantly doted on him. His father’s poverty weighed on him and he was a very studious boy. His love for knowledge opened for him a world of opportunity, not of formal education, but in the shrewd life as a robber baron. We learn of his first business transaction to take over the rights to a new map from a man who attempted to swindle him when he was just sixteen. After writing the History of Delaware County, a book to be used in local schools, he left for New York City. Here he began his life swindling, bribing, and conniving. From tanning, Gouldsboro, the Swamp, to diving head first into acquiring the Erie Railroad Company, to his final acquisitions of interest in the Western Union and the elevated railways in New York City, Gould schemed and manipulated his way to the end.

Although Gould was seen as a heartless man, Edward J. Renehan, Jr. desires for his readers to see the softer, sweeter side of Jay Gould, if one does exist. Renehan does an incredible job in showing this side of Gould, although Gould himself desired for the only public face he had to be that of a villain. In the first few chapters, we see the meager home life he had. Being born to a poor farmer and losing his mother had great impact on him. He despised farming, and he did not leave this thought a secret. He often used school work as an excuse so he didn’t have to tend to the cows, gather sap, or press apples. He was a deliberate student, desiring the make the most of his studies and often described as self-reliant and self-respecting. He left home at thirteen to continue his studies. Jay Gould was not a man given to laziness, he was determined, he was hard working. He continually kept in correspondence with each of his sisters, and throughout his life, family was of the highest importance.

Jay Gould saw that the tanning industry was increasing, and he partnered with Zaddock Pratt. As he opened a new tannery, Gouldsboro, he kept impeccable records, and reported every action to his superior. The relationship between them was very similar to that of a father and son; Gould respected Pratt, desiring to learn every detail of the business from Pratt. Economic panic and slow start in the tannery caused great tension between the two, but this was not Gould’s fault. He never behaved underhandedly, although he was speculated to have ‘cooked the books.’ Gould, as always, did what was best for him and the company, seeking to better manage and improve profits. He eventually bought Pratt out of the business and partnered with Charles Luepp and David Lee, both involved in the most influential brokerage house in the Swamp.

As in all of Gould’s business dealings, conflict inevitably arose. In the wake of a disagreement between Luepp and Lee and Gould, Luepp, who was paranoid and had hallucinations, commits suicide. Historians and biographers, focused on villianizing him, say that the economic disaster bankrupted Gould and in essence, led Luepp to his death. Of course, the blame does not rest on the shoulders of Gould. Gould remarked that Luepp was a victim to his own demons.

This is just one example of Renehan sheltering Gould from the cruelty of previous historians, biographers, and editorialists. He dedicates nearly an entire two chapters, Everything but a Good Name and Ambition Satisfied, to the personal side of Gould. Describing his relationships between his immediate and extended family and his charitable side, the intent is for us to see Gould as a real man; a man whose unprincipled, manipulating

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