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jay gouldEnlarge Jay Gould (1836-1906)

Jay Gould was neither the richest nor the most successful of the financiers who dominated American business after the Civil War. But as a symbol of an era, his eminence is undisputed. Fellow investors may not have liked Gould's flinty, calculating style, or approved of his sharply competitive tactics on the stock exchange, but they had to respect his shrewdness.

Much of Gould's fortune was derived from buying and selling railroads, manipulating their stocks, and selling off their assets. Allied with James Fisk, he gained control of the Erie Railroad in the late 1860s, in part by bribing members of the New York legislature to pass legislation that would prevent its merger with Cornelius Vanderbilt's New York Central. Then he looted the Erie by watering its stock and netting millions for himself. After litigation ended Gould's hold on the Erie, Gould next turned his attention westward and became a major shareholder in several railroads, including the Union Pacific, the Kansas Pacific, the Denver Pacific, the Central Pacific, and the Missouri Pacific. By 1890 Gould owned approximately one-half of the rail system in the Southwest. Brazen and unscrupulous to the end, Gould died with few friends at fifty-six.

Eastman Johnson (1824-1906)
Oil on canvas, 1896
On long-term loan to the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution from Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, New York University Art Collection, New York City