- Robber Baron: The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes
Robber Baron, John Franch's biography of Charles Tyson Yerkes, provides a fascinating window into the workings of laissez-faire capitalism. Yerkes, one of the most notorious self-made men of nineteenth-century America, embodied the drive, avarice, and [End Page 851] unscrupulousness of his age—taking each to its limits. Robber Baron is an academic work that should appeal to a wider audience. Yerkes's dealings are fascinating: the same men did business with him time after time as they tried to get the better of each other financially. When one group had had enough, there were always others willing to risk joining him in new endeavors. Franch's narrative of the ups and downs of Yerkes's career is well written and has considerable dramatic tension.
Born to the solid middle class, Yerkes aspired to great wealth and social status. He began his career in his hometown of Philadelphia, making his first fortune in stock speculation, banking, and corrupt dealings with city and state politicians involving the public's money. Franch makes clear that Yerkes played by the rules of a game already in progress; although, he played it better than most and made powerful enemies. He ran afoul of reformers and feuding politicians in Philadelphia, was convicted of larceny and embezzlement, and spent several months in jail. He obtained his early release from prison using the same system that convicted him: by threatening to tell what he knew about powerful politicians, he obtained a pardon.
While nineteenth-century Americans endlessly reiterated the need for a spotless reputation in business, this was also the country of second chance. Yerkes rebounded from this reversal, eventually moving on to Chicago where he played a major role in developing the transportation infrastructure of the city. Like other businessmen, he tried many ways to make money before he found the area in which he had the greatest ability, urban transit. He developed streetcar service on the north side of Chicago and built the city's famous Loop to connect all the elevated railroads. The well-known corruption of the Chicago city council and the Illinois legislature made this a comfortable milieu for Yerkes to navigate. Major figures in Chicago business and banking, including Marshall Field and George Pullman, participated in his schemes, although they and the leaders of polite society would not meet him socially. Outcast because of his jail term, he was free to live in ways that other Victorian "gentlemen" were not—to divorce a first wife to marry a younger woman and to have a small army of mistresses without fear of negative publicity.
In Chicago, too, Yerkes ran afoul of reformers bent on cleaning up local politics, but this time he escaped with his fortune and freedom intact. He had seen Chicago solely as a place to make money and built a mansion in New York that he filled with a fabulous art collection. Yet, he spent little time in New York, going on to his final great work—building London's subway system. Franch notes that Yerkes took part in a new stage of American capitalism, the search for [End Page 852] investment opportunities abroad. Although reviled in Chicago, Yerkes's reputation faired better in London. In part because bribery of public officials was not the norm, Londoners got more for their tax dollars and fares.
The title, Robber Baron, makes clear Franch's thesis—that whatever good men like Yerkes did, the price others paid for their avarice was unacceptable. Yerkes had a vision for urban transportation, understanding the need for new technologies and coordinated and integrated systems. But, the watered stocks and inflated construction contracts through which he amassed his fortune left those transportation systems bankrupt and in disrepair.
There are no previous biographies of Yerkes, although he figures in many works on the development of urban transportation systems and political corruption and was the inspiration for Theodore Dreiser's trilogy: The Financier, The Titan...