Richest BusinessRichest Billionaires
Net Worth:
$105 Billion
May 20, 1750 - Dec 26, 1831 (81 years old)
Banker, Sailor, Entrepreneur, Businessperson
United States of America
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What was Stephen Girard's net worth?

Stephen Girard was a French-born, naturalized American philanthropist and banker who had a net worth equal to $105 billion modern dollars at the time of his death in 1831. After adjusting for inflation he is one of the richest Americans of all time, based on the ratio of his fortune to contemporary GDP. Having no children of his own to care for (his only daughter died in infancy), he devoted much of his fortune to philanthropy, particularly the education and welfare of orphans. His legacy is still felt in his adopted home of Philadelphia, most notably in the founding of Girard College, a school for orphaned boys in Philadelphia.

In 1811, after the charter for the First Bank of the United States expired, Girard purchased most of its stock as well as the building, and opened his own bank called, "Girard Bank." Girard was a sole proprietor of this bank and thus avoided Pennsylvania state law that prohibited an unincorporated association of persons from establishing a bank. Girard hired George Simpson, the cashier of First Bank, to be the cashier at his new bank and with seven other employees opened for business on May 18, 1812.

Girard's bank was a principal source of government credit during the War of 1812. Towards the end of the war, when the financial credit of the US government was at its lowest, Girard placed nearly all of his own resources at the disposal of the government and underwrote up to 95% of the war loans issued, which enabled the US to carry on to war. After the war, he became a large stockholder in the Second Bank of the United States. The company, Girard Bank, went on to merge with Mellon Bank in 1983 and was largely sold to what is now Citizens Bank two decades later.

Early Life

Girard as born in Bordeaux, France on May 20, 1750. He lost the sight of his right eye when he was eight and had little education.

His father was a sea captain, and Stephen Girard became a licensed sea captain in 1773, eventually landing in the port of Philadelphia in May of 1776 and settling there as a merchant. That same year he met Mary Lum, a Philadelphia native and the two soon married. By 1785, Mary had started to succumb to sudden, erratic emotional outbursts and her mental instability and violent rages eventually led to a diagnosis of mental instability that was not curable. Although Girard was devastated with this news, he eventually took a mistress, Sally Bickham in 1787 and in 1790. He ultimately committed his wife to the Pennsylvania Hospital as an incurable lunatic.

(Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)

Building a Trading Empire

In Philadelphia, Girard established himself as a successful merchant. His ships sailed across the Atlantic and the Caribbean, trading goods like coffee, sugar, and food staples. By the late 1780s, Girard's entrepreneurial acumen had led him to amass a considerable fortune. He strategically diversified his investments, purchasing real estate in Philadelphia and extending credit to other businesses.

A Major Player in Finance

The financial Panic of 1812, which led to the closure of the First Bank of the United States, offered Girard an opportunity to further solidify his influence. He purchased the majority of the Bank's stock, effectively turning the institution into his private bank. As one of the primary financiers of the War of 1812, Girard played a significant role in stabilizing the American economy during a period of financial crisis. His financing helped the United States government fund military operations and secure a favorable peace treaty.

Philanthropy and Girard College

Despite his financial success, Girard lived modestly. He chose to invest his wealth in philanthropic causes, particularly focusing on education. In 1831, he left the majority of his fortune, estimated to be around $7 million, to charitable and municipal institutions in Philadelphia. His most notable bequest was the endowment for Girard College, an innovative, free boarding school for orphaned boys. The school, which opened in 1848, still operates today as a full-scholarship independent college preparatory school for students from families with limited financial resources.

Handling the Yellow Fever Epidemic

In 1793, when a yellow fever epidemic devastated Philadelphia, Girard stepped in to manage the crisis, displaying selflessness and bravery. He volunteered to supervise the city's hospital and care for the sick, despite the significant risk to his own health. This episode is emblematic of Girard's commitment to public service and his dedication to the city of Philadelphia.

All net worths are calculated using data drawn from public sources. When provided, we also incorporate private tips and feedback received from the celebrities or their representatives. While we work diligently to ensure that our numbers are as accurate as possible, unless otherwise indicated they are only estimates. We welcome all corrections and feedback using the button below.
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