American Rascal: How Jay Gould Built Wall Street’s Biggest Fortune
The gripping biography of Jay Gould, the greatest 19th-century robber barons, whose brilliance, greed, and bare-knuckled tactics made him richer than Rockefeller and led Wall Street to institute its first financial reforms.
The son of a poor farmer, Gould saw money as the means to give his family a better life, even if he had to pull a fast one on everyone else. At the age of twenty-four, he entered Wall Street and quickly became notorious when he and American financier Jim Fisk paralyzed the economy and nearly toppled President Ulysses S. Grant in the Black Friday market collapse of 1869 in an attempt to corner the market on gold—an event that remains among the darkest days in Wall Street history.
Gould grew his career as a railroad tycoon and, through clever financial maneuvers, gained control over one of every six miles of the country’s rapidly expanding network of railroad tracks—coming close to creating the first truly transcontinental railroad and making himself one of the richest men in America. In the late 1800s, Gould, who was on the board of directors of the Erie Railroad, sought to control it before Vanderbilt could. In an attempt to do so, he, Daniel Drew, and Jim Fisk issued additional shares of the Erie stock while Vanderbilt kept buying the watered shares. Through inside stock manipulation and bribery, Gould gained control of the railroad, but this war, Steinmetz writes, “triggered the country’s first calls for progressive reforms.”
Gould thrived in an expanding, industrial economy in which authorities tolerated insider trading and stock price manipulation because they believed regulation would stifle progress. But by taking these practices to new levels, Gould showed how unbridled capitalism was, in fact, dangerous for the American economy.
[Recorded on January 5, 2023]