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George Peabody

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

constitute greatness."

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

bless humanity.

[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.]