Death of a Great Olympian

Perhaps this last biographical chapter should be named "Death of a Colonial Olympian." Mount Olympus was the home of the twelve leaders of the ancient world. Surely, Stephen Girard would have been placed among the great leaders of young America—not only for his wisdom, courage and generosity but for his great allegiance to his adopted home. Had Girard not risked his entire fortune during the War of 1812, this country may have had quite another history—that of becoming just another cog in the machinery of the British Empire.
Girard was a hard worker and had every reason to be proud of his work ethic. He once said that death would find him at work, if he was not in bed sleeping.  How many great men and women in history looked upon the frailness of their bodies as impediments, unable to continue their tasks of housing their vigorous minds? Girard with only half as much vision as the average human probably saw twice as much through his extraordinary intelligence. Girard was, however, imperfect as all humans are. He never used his enormous wealth to draw to himself the attention of the world.  My deeds must be my life,” he said. “When I am dead, my actions must speak for me.” He shunned portrait painters and any outward signs of opulence. If he had a fault and he would admit that he had many, it would be that he had little patience that others could not grasp the scope of his vision. He was quick to forgive those who spoke unkindly of him— whether it was a brother, sister, nephew or a business competitor.  
In the book, The Life and Times of Stephen Girard Merchant and Mariner, written by John Bach McMaster, the author wrote:  “At the time of his death, Girard had well passed his eighty-first year. For more than fifty-five years, he had been a resident of Philadelphia; yet such was the secluded life he led, so careful had he been to keep his affairs, both private and business, to himself, that nothing concerning his life was known. The sketches of his career, therefore, which appeared in the newspapers of the city after his death, were wanting in detail and of no value. Stephen Girard died on December 26, 1831 during an influenza epidemic in Philadelphia which had taken a high toll of the city’s population. He contracted the disease that quickly developed into pneumonia and proved to be fatal. His death came about six months after his purchase of the forty-five acre farm.” After lying in a stupor, he arose from his bed. Placing his weak, thin hand on his forehead, he exclaimed: “How violent is this disorder! How very extraordinary it is!” He then died without speaking again.  Girard certainly knew he would not survive his attack of influenza which brought on pneumonia. As he never exhibited any concern for his life, he now displayed no fear of death which was meeting him, as he always hoped, in the midst of active labor.   
Stephen Simpson, Girard’s employee and first biographer wrote:  “As a citizen Mr. Girard discharged his duties with exemplary zeal fidelity and rigor. He was repeatedly elected a member of councils; and gave his time, which to him was always money, to the improvement of the city. As a director of the bank and insurance company, he always did his duty never falling short of his portion of labor and often exceeding it.” The account of the Girard funeral which appeared in the United States Gazette relates that after the members of the family came, the following mourners arrived: the mayor, the recorder of the city, the city councils and the members of a society of which Girard was a member and citizens of Philadelphia.
On the day after his death, the will was opened in order that any directions, or wishes, regarding his funeral might be duly respected. None were found, but it then became known that large bequests had been made to Philadelphia and many charitable and benevolent institutions, and it was decided to formally invite them to be represented at the funeral. Girard was not alone at the moment of his death. His faithful slave, Hannah was at his bedside when he died. She had served Girard for more than fifty years and was generously rewarded in Girard’s will.
At Stephen Girard’s funeral, his long-time friend and business associate Nicholas Biddle said:
 “He has now taken his rank among the great benefactors of mankind. From this hour that name is destined to survive to the latest posterity and while letters and the arts exist he will be cited as the man who with a generous spirit and a sagacious foresight bequeathed for the improvement of his fellow men the accumulated earnings of his life.” It was Nicholas Biddle, Director of the Second Bank of the United States, and Chairman of the Building Committee who recommended that the architect include Grecian columns on the main building.   
         Girard’s death greatly affected the people of Philadelphia. For more than forty years, Philadelphia had not seen so many people in attendance at a funeral. There were about three thousand people crowding the streets. Not since the death of Benjamin Franklin had there been such a large turnout. “There were some prejudices that Girard faced during his lifetime.” Cheesman Herrick wrote.  “He lived in a time when there were intense political, national, racial and religious controversies. That he was a Frenchman brought against him from some quarters a prejudice which was strong against that nation. Girard's religious independence made him the object of intolerance during his life and particularly so after his death. His identification with the pronounced republican views of the time brought much political antagonism upon him; certain it is he had a cordial dislike for the English and after the Jay Treaty he wrote terming it infamous and calling the English a 'worthless and contemptible nation.' After citing some of the indignities which England had heaped upon America at that time and America's seeming supineness he concluded: 'I must say our government deserves it.' As a Frenchman, Girard was naturally identified with the republicans in the demonstration against Jay's Treaty with England."' 
         At Girard’s death his real estate holdings were assessed. He owned prime property and buildings that generated enough revenue to allow his estate to continue growing long after his death.  George Morgan's book, The City of Firsts, A Complete History of Philadelphia, reported that in 1926, Girard's property in the city, excluding Girard College, was assessed at $20 million.
Girard was buried in the vault he built for Baron Henri Lallemand, his nephew, in the Holy Trinity Catholic cemetery at Sixth and Spruce.  Bishop Kendrick refused to permit a Catholic burial mass because the Masons in attendance would not remove their ceremonial aprons.  Twenty years later, his remains were re-interred in the Founder's Hall vestibule at Girard College behind a statue sculptured by N. Gevelot, a French sculptor living in Philadelphia. Dr.   Wagner said that the face was copied from a death mask taken at the direction of Dr. John Y. Clark. He continued that the artist Gevelot had never seen Girard but was obliged to formulate details from descriptions by untrained observers.
          Girard had purchased the property on which Girard College would be built on June 6, 1831; he paid William Parker $35,000 for the forty-five acre farm located on Ridge Road in Penn Township, then in suburban Philadelphia.  By codicil to his will he changed the location for his school to the Peel Hall farm.  William Duane, his lawyer, indicated the change was made because Girard preferred that the College be built outside the congested city.
          The Girardians who read these pages know as well as I the impact Stephen Girard has had on their lives. Thousands upon thousands of us, some still living, many more now dead could form an army of respect, affection and gratitude, walking a hundred abreast through the gates of Girard College, taking months for all to cross the threshold of our former home to pay homage to that lonely man who gave so much and asked so little in return. Those people who have read with interest the history of the American Colonial Period and have not known about this great Olympian, be advised: There once was a man named Stephen Girard.

(Readers: I have learned that Google keeps records of the number of readers of blogs that they host as well as the countries where the blogs are read. I was surprised and pleased to learn that readers in the following countries have followed our Stephen Girard blog: US, Brazil, France, China,
Argentina, Luxembourg, Russia and Ukraine.

Because of the limited space, I have not always been able to credit all the authors I have cited. In my up-coming book, I have provided many notes and a full bibliography. Keep posted and many thanks for your continued attention. j.r.)


  1. In the fifth paragraph, that large bequests had been made to the "city of" Philadelphia and.... city of is missing.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I will address this change on the archived page. It's this kind of comment that I find tremendously useful.