Charles Yerkes, telescope benefactor, a stellar scoundrel, author says

Champaign, Ill. -- Robber barons apparently didn't come by their titles easily. Just how hard they had to work – on both sides of the law – to hold onto their empires is revealed in a new book about one particularly ingenious and controversial tycoon.

Even by Chicago's standards at the turn of the 19th century, "streetcar magnate" Charles Tyson Yerkes was an outlaw, a scoundrel who never met a rule, regulation or obstacle he couldn't march over, under, around or through.

So says John Franch, the author of "Robber Baron: The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes" (University of Illinois Press). It is the first biography of the Quaker-born tycoon, who gave Chicago its "el" trains, London its "tube" system and the world its largest refractory telescope.

According to Franch, Yerkes didn't invent corruption in Chicago. He merely perfected it, "bringing order to what had been a chaotic system of bribery."

"After Yerkes' emergence on the scene, corruption in Chicago moved to another level."

Franch, a free-lance writer and an archivist at the University Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, traces the roller-coaster ride of the "traction king" through newspapers, memoirs, credit reports, court filings and bankruptcy records.

Yerkes (1837-1905), a man Franch variously calls "the magnate" and "the financier," won and lost vast sums of money as a broker and later a pioneer in public mass-transit, but like the proverbial cat, he somehow managed to land on his – or someone else's – feet. In his early career he spent seven months in prison for larceny, which instead of persuading him to clean up his act, served as a lesson for how to avoid – at any cost – incarceration for far greater infractions in the future.

From the time of his imprisonment in Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, "Charles was consumed by an almost pathological need for power – power that would give him mastery over his environment," Franch wrote. "He did not intend to become a victim again."

Yerkes' ruthless risk-taking, backstabbing, bribe-paying, take-no-prisoners' reputation earned him the starring role in a muckraking book, "If Christ Came to Chicago," and gritty-realist novelist Theodore Dreiser used him as a model for Frank Cowperwood in what became known as his Trilogy of Desire: "The Financier," "The Titan" and "The Stoic."

"Yerkes definitely belongs in the pantheon of robber barons," Franch said. "He was incredibly unscrupulous, routinely using bribery and at times even employing professional vamps to seduce lawmakers. He even looted his own companies for his personal gain."

Yerkes' Consolidated Traction operations in Chicago demonstrate "his fundamental unscrupulousness," Franch wrote.

"The magnate had bequeathed to the city a magnificent streetcar system – but one that groaned under the load of an insupportable and bewildering thicket of securities. It would take Chicagoans decades to unravel this traction tangle – in a poisonous political climate of distrust and hostility that was another one of Charles' legacies."

Bad as he was, the magnate did have some good qualities. Unlike J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and others, Yerkes eschewed self-serving justifications to excuse his actions.

"He was honest in his dishonesty," Franch said. "Yerkes once admitted that self-satisfaction was his primary aim in life."

The magnate even satisfied his soul, that through art. Yerkes put together a "notable collection" of fine art, Franch said – replete with works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyck. He built fabulous mansions in New York City to display his art, tapestries and rugs, the latter collection judged by art connoisseur Bernard Berenson as "unrivalled."

Described as charismatic, a brilliant conversationalist and devilishly handsome, with "wonderful" blue eyes, Yerkes also was, not surprisingly, a ladies man.

One of his greatest love affairs began during his second marriage and led to his second divorce.

His paramour, Emilie Grigsby, was 19 or 20 years younger, but his equal in sophistication, charm and intelligence. The mansion he built on Park Avenue, a few blocks from his Fifth Avenue palace, was for Emilie – the daughter of a Kentucky slaveholding father and a Cincinnati brothel-running mother.

Yerkes also financed the building of a magnificent fountain in Lincoln Park, donated animals to a local zoo and loaned paintings and sculpture to the Art Institute of Chicago. As a director on the board of the Chicago World's Fair he helped make that event "an artistic and financial success," Franch said.

But arguably his greatest contribution was to astronomy – by subsidizing the 40-inch-telescope and observatory for which he was genuinely praised in his own time. Franch's book was sparked by a visit to the Yerkes Observatory in Lake Geneva, Wis., when he was an undergraduate at Illinois. He and other members of the astronomy club were given a tour by Richard Dreiser, said to be a distant relation of Theodore Dreiser.

"The magnificent observatory inspired in me an interest in the structure's namesake. I subsequently read Theodore Dreiser's 'Trilogy of Desire' and was hooked."

Then, after learning that "there was as yet no non-fiction biography of Yerkes, I decided to write one," Franch said.

It would take him about 10 years, squeezing writing in while working full-time.

Franch finds it "somewhat amazing, considering what a fascinating figure he was," that there hasn't been a biography of Yerkes until now.

Part of that he attributes to the fact that most of Yerkes' personal papers were burned shortly after his death. But, there were other ways to reconstruct Yerkes' life.

"Because he was often in trouble with the law, he left a long paper trail winding through the courtrooms of Philadelphia, Fargo, Chicago and London," Franch said, adding that "most of these court records had never been tapped by historians."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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