If America had been asked who were to be her most munificent givers in
the nineteenth century, she would scarcely have pointed to two grocer's
boys, one in a little country store at Danvers, Mass., the other in
Baltimore; both poor, both uneducated; the one leaving seven millions to
Johns Hopkins University and Hospital, the other nearly nine millions to
elevate humanity. George Peabody was born in Danvers, Feb. 18, 1795. His
parents were respectable, hard-working people, whose scanty income
afforded little education for their children. George grew up an
obedient, faithful son, called a "mother-boy" by his companions, from
his devotion to her,--a title of which any boy may well be proud.
At eleven years of age he must go out into the world to earn his living.
Doubtless his mother wished to keep her child in school; but there was
no money. A place was found with a Mr. Proctor in a grocery-store, and
here, for four years, he worked day by day, giving his earnings to his
mother, and winning esteem for his promptness and honesty. But the boy
at fifteen began to grow ambitious. He longed for a larger store and a
broader field. Going with his maternal grandfather to Thetford, Vt., he
remained a year, when he came back to work for his brother in a
dry-goods store in Newburyport. Perhaps now in this larger town his
ambition would be satisfied, when, lo! the store burned, and George was
thrown out of employment.
His father had died, and he was without a dollar in the world. Ambition
seemed of little use now. However, an uncle in Georgetown, D.C., hearing
that the boy needed work, sent for him, and thither he went for two
years. Here he made many friends, and won trade, by his genial manner
and respectful bearing. His tact was unusual. He never wounded the
feelings of a buyer of goods, never tried him with unnecessary talk,
never seemed impatient, and was punctual to the minute. Perhaps no one
trait is more desirable than the latter. A person who breaks his
appointments, or keeps others waiting for him, loses friends, and
business success as well.
A young man's habits are always observed. If he is worthy, and has
energy, the world has a place for him, and sooner or later he will find
it. A wholesale dry-goods dealer, Mr. Riggs, had been watching young
Peabody. He desired a partner of energy, perseverance, and honesty.
Calling on the young clerk, he asked him to put his labor against his,
Mr. Riggs's, capital. "But I am only nineteen years of age," was the
This was considered no objection, and the partnership was formed. A year
later, the business was moved to Baltimore. The boyish partner travelled
on horseback through the western wilds of New York, Pennsylvania,
Maryland, and Virginia, selling goods, and lodging over night with
farmers or planters. In seven years the business had so increased, that
branch houses were established in Philadelphia and New York. Finally Mr.
Riggs retired from the firm; and George Peabody found himself, at the
age of thirty-five, at the head of a large and wealthy establishment,
which his own energy, industry, and honesty had helped largely to build.
He had bent his life to one purpose, that of making his business a
success. No one person can do many things well.
Having visited London several times in matters of trade, he determined
to make that great city his place of residence. He had studied finance
by experience as well as close observation, and believed that he could
make money in the great metropolis. Having established himself as a
banker at Wanford Court, he took simple lodgings, and lived without
display. When Americans visited London, they called upon the genial,
true-hearted banker, whose integrity they could always depend upon, and
transacted their business with him.
In 1851, the World's Fair was opened at the Crystal Palace, London,
Prince Albert having worked earnestly to make it a great success.
Congress neglected to make the needed appropriations for America; and
her people did not care, apparently, whether Powers' Greek Slave, Hoe's
wonderful printing-press, or the McCormick Reaper were seen or not. But
George Peabody cared for the honor of his nation, and gave fifteen
thousand dollars to the American exhibitors, that they might make their
display worthy of the great country which they were to represent. The
same year, he gave his first Fourth of July dinner to leading Americans
and Englishmen, headed by the Duke of Wellington. While he remembered
and honored the day which freed us from England, no one did more than he
to bind the two nations together by the great kindness of a great heart.
Mr. Peabody was no longer the poor grocery boy, or the dry-goods clerk.
He was fine looking, most intelligent from his wide reading, a total
abstainer from liquors and tobacco, honored at home and abroad, and very
rich. Should he buy an immense estate, and live like a prince? Should he
give parties and grand dinners, and have servants in livery? Oh, no! Mr.
Peabody had acquired his wealth for a different purpose. He loved
humanity. "How could he elevate the people?" was the one question of his
life. He would not wait till his death, and let others spend his money;
he would have the satisfaction of spending it himself.
And now began a life of benevolence which is one of the brightest in our
history. Unmarried and childless, he made other wives and children happy
by his boundless generosity. If the story be true, that he was once
engaged to a beautiful American girl, who gave him up for a former poor
lover, the world has been the gainer by her choice.
In 1852, Mr. Peabody gave ten thousand dollars to help fit out the
second expedition under Dr. Kane, in his search for Sir John Franklin;
and for this gift a portion of the newly-discovered country was justly
called Peabody Land. This same year, the town of Danvers, his
birthplace, decided to celebrate its centennial. Of course the rich
London banker was invited as one of the guests. He was too busy to be
present, but sent a letter, to be opened on the day of the celebration.
The seal was broken at dinner, and this was the toast, or sentiment, it
contained: "EDUCATION--a debt due from present to future generations."
A check was enclosed for twenty thousand dollars for the purpose of
building an Institute, with a free library and free course of lectures.
Afterward this gift was increased to two hundred and fifty thousand
dollars. The poor boy had not forgotten the home of his childhood.
Four years later, when Peabody Institute was dedicated, the giver, who
had been absent from America twenty years, was present. New York and
other cities offered public receptions; but he declined all save
Danvers. A great procession was formed, the houses along the streets
being decorated, all eager to do honor to their noble townsman. The
Governor of Massachusetts, Edward Everett, and others made eloquent
addresses, and then the kind-faced, great-hearted man responded:--
"Though Providence has granted me an unvaried and unusual success in the
pursuit of fortune in other lands, I am still in heart the humble boy
who left yonder unpretending dwelling many, very many years ago....
There is not a youth within the sound of my voice whose early
opportunities and advantages are not very much greater than were my own;
and I have since achieved nothing that is impossible to the most humble
boy among you. Bear in mind, that, to be truly great, it is not
necessary that you should gain wealth and importance. Steadfast and
undeviating truth, fearless and straightforward integrity, and an
honor ever unsullied by an unworthy word or action, make their
possessor greater than worldly success or prosperity. These qualities
Soon after this, Mr. Peabody determined to build an Institute, combining
a free library and lectures with an Academy of Music and an Art Gallery,
in the city of Baltimore. For this purpose he gave over one million
dollars--a princely gift indeed! Well might Baltimore be proud of the
day when he sought a home in her midst.
But the merchant-prince had not finished his giving. He saw the poor of
the great city of London, living in wretched, desolate homes. Vice and
poverty were joining hands. He, too, had been poor. He could sympathize
with those who knew not how to make ends meet. What would so stimulate
these people to good citizenship as comfortable and cheerful
abiding-places? March 12, 1862, he called together a few of his trusted
friends in London, and placed in their hands, for the erection of neat,
tasteful dwellings for the poor, the sum of seven hundred and fifty
thousand dollars. Ah, what a friend the poor had found! not the gift of
a few dollars, which would soon be absorbed in rent, but homes which for
a small amount might be enjoyed as long as they lived.
At once some of the worst portions of London were purchased; tumble-down
structures were removed; and plain, high brick blocks erected, around
open squares, where the children could find a playground. Gas and water
were supplied, bathing and laundry rooms furnished. Then the poor came
eagerly, with their scanty furniture, and hired one or two rooms for
twenty-five or fifty cents a week,--cab-men, shoemakers, tailors, and
needle-women. Tenants were required to be temperate and of good moral
character. Soon tiny pots of flowers were seen in the windows, and a
happier look stole into the faces of hard-working fathers and mothers.
Mr. Peabody soon increased his gift to the London poor to three million
dollars, saying, "If judiciously managed for two hundred years, its
accumulation will amount to a sum sufficient to buy the city of London."
No wonder that these gifts of millions began to astonish the world.
London gave him the freedom of the city in a gold box,--an honor rarely
bestowed,--and erected his bronze statue near the Royal Exchange. Queen
Victoria wished to make him a baron; but he declined all titles. What
gift, then, would he accept, was eagerly asked. "A letter from the Queen
of England, which I may carry across the Atlantic, and deposit as a
memorial of one of her most faithful sons," was the response. It is not
strange that so pure and noble a man as George Peabody admired the
purity and nobility of character of her who governs England so wisely.
A beautiful letter was returned by the Queen, assuring him how deeply
she appreciated his noble act of more than princely munificence,--an
act, as the Queen believes, "wholly without parallel," and asking him to
accept a miniature portrait of herself. The portrait, in a massive gold
frame, is fourteen inches long and ten inches wide, representing the
Queen in robes of state,--the largest miniature ever attempted in
England, and for the making of which a furnace was especially built. The
cost is believed to have been over fifty thousand dollars in gold. It is
now preserved, with her letter, in the Peabody Institute near Danvers.
Oct. 25, 1866, the beautiful white marble Institute in Baltimore was to
be dedicated. Mr. Peabody had crossed the ocean to be present. Besides
the famous and the learned, twenty thousand children with Peabody badges
were gathered to meet him. The great man's heart was touched as he said,
"Never have I seen a more beautiful sight than this vast collection of
interesting children. The review of the finest army, attended by the
most delightful strains of martial music, could never give me half the
pleasure." He was now seventy-one years old. He had given nearly five
millions; could the world expect any more? He realized that the freed
slaves at the South needed an education. They were poor, and so were a
large portion of the white race. He would give for their education three
million dollars, the same amount he had bestowed upon the poor of
London. To the trustees having this gift in charge he said, "With my
advancing years, my attachment to my native land has but become more
devoted. My hope and faith in its successful and glorious future have
grown brighter and stronger. But, to make her prosperity more than
superficial, her moral and intellectual development should keep pace
with her material growth. I feel most deeply, therefore, that it is the
duty and privilege of the more favored and wealthy portions of our
nation to assist those who are less fortunate." Noble words! Mr.
Peabody's health was beginning to fail. What he did must now be done
quickly. Yale College received a hundred and fifty thousand dollars for
a Museum of Natural History; Harvard the same, for a Museum of
Archaeology and Ethnology; to found the Peabody Academy of Science at
Salem a hundred and forty thousand dollars; to Newburyport Library,
where the fire threw him out of employment, and thus probably broadened
his path in life, fifteen thousand dollars; twenty-five thousand dollars
each to various institutions of learning throughout the country; ten
thousand dollars to the Sanitary Commission during the war, besides four
million dollars to his relatives; making in all thirteen million
dollars. Just before his return to England, he made one of the most
tender gifts of his life. The dear mother whom he idolized was dead, but
he would build her a fitting monument; not a granite shaft, but a
beautiful Memorial Church at Georgetown, Mass., where for centuries,
perhaps, others will worship the God she worshipped. On a marble tablet
are the words, "Affectionately consecrated by her children, George and
Judith, to the memory of Mrs. Judith Peabody." Whittier wrote the hymn
for its dedication:--
"The heart, and not the hand, has wrought,
From sunken base to tower above,
The image of a tender thought,
The memory of a deathless love."
Nov. 4, 1869, Mr. Peabody lay dying at the house of a friend in London.
The Queen sent a special telegram of inquiry and sympathy, and desired
to call upon him in person; but it was too late. "It is a great
mystery," said the dying man feebly; "but I shall know all soon." At
midnight he passed to his reward.
Westminster Abbey opened her doors for a great funeral, where statesmen
and earls bowed their heads in honor of the departed. Then the Queen
sent her noblest man-of-war, "Monarch," to bear in state, across the
Atlantic, "her friend," the once poor boy of Danvers. Around the coffin,
in a room draped in black, stood immense wax candles, lighted. When the
great ship reached America, Legislatures adjourned, and went with
Governors and famous men to receive the precious freight. The body was
taken by train to Peabody, and then placed on a funeral car, eleven feet
long and ten feet high, covered with black velvet, trimmed with silver
lace and stars. Under the casket were winged cherubs in silver. The car
was drawn by six horses covered with black and silver, while corps of
artillery preceded the long procession. At sunset the Institute was
reached, and there, surrounded by the English and American flags draped
with crape, the guard kept silent watch about the dead. At the funeral,
at the church, Hon. Robert C. Winthrop pronounced the eloquent eulogy,
of the "brave, honest, noble-hearted friend of mankind," and then, amid
a great concourse of people, George Peabody was buried at Harmony Grove,
by the side of the mother whom he so tenderly loved. Doubtless he looked
out upon this greensward from his attic window when a child or when he
labored in the village store. Well might two nations unite in doing
honor to this man, both good and great, who gave nine million dollars to
[The building fund of L500,000 left by Mr. Peabody for the benefit of
the poor of London has now been increased by rents and interest to
L857,320. The whole of this great sum of money is in active employment,
together with L340,000 which the trustees have borrowed. A total of
L1,170,787 has been expended during the time the fund has been in
existence, of which L80,903 was laid out during 1884. The results of
these operations are seen in blocks of artisans' dwellings built on land
purchased by the trustees and let to working men at rents within their
means, containing conveniences and comforts not ordinarily attainable by
them, thus fulfilling the benevolent intentions of Mr. Peabody. At the
present time 4551 separate dwellings have been erected, containing
10,144 rooms, inhabited by 18,453 persons. Thirteen new blocks of
buildings are now in course of erection and near completion. Indeed,
there is no cessation in the work of fulfilling the intentions of the
noble bequest.--Boston Journal, Mar. 7, 1885.]