November 30, 1853

George Peabody Thanks Danvers

PRIMARY SOURCE: Speech, 1866.
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On this day in 1853, George Peabody thanked the citizens of South Danvers for naming the high school in his honor and immediately set up a $200 account "to be expended as rewards of merit to the pupils." Fifteen years later, the town changed its name to Peabody as a tribute to its distinguished and generous native son. Born into a poor family, George Peabody received little formal education. He began an apprenticeship in a drygoods store at the age of 11. By the time he was in his forties, he had made a fortune in investment banking. He was an extraordinary philanthropist, donating almost $10,000,000 — the equivalent of $130,000,000 today — for education, libraries, museums, and homes for the working poor.

His funeral was held at Westminster Abbey, a rare honor for a foreigner. On the day of the service, church bells tolled in Boston and Baltimore.

Born in 1795, George Peabody was 11 years old when he was apprenticed to Captain Sylvester Proctor, who owned the general store in South Danvers. Later in life, Peabody attributed much of his success to what he had learned on his first job. He also remembered the kindness the Proctor family had shown him. Many years later, when the Proctors encountered financial difficulties, he settled all of the family's debts and assumed responsibility for their expenses.

This was a pattern he followed in virtually all of his philanthropic endeavors — establishing institutions or funds in places he had lived or to which he had a connection, and helping on a personal level, too. He had no children of his own and paid for the education of all his nephews and nieces.

After completing his apprenticeship, he turned down a job offer from Captain Proctor and moved to Newburyport to work at his brother's drapery shop. The brothers' relationship was tense. Even at 15, George was the more skillful money manager. After the Great Fire of 1811, which destroyed more than 250 homes and businesses in Newburyport, George relocated to Washington, D.C., where he and an uncle opened a drygoods store. A partnership with Elisha Riggs followed, and when that trading business outgrew its premises in D.C., Riggs and Peabody moved to Baltimore. George Peabody would live there for the next 20 years.

This was a pattern he followed in virtually all of his philanthropic endeavors — establishing institutions or funds in places he had lived or to which he had a connection, and helping on a personal level, too.

Peabody prospered. He was driven, hard-working, attentive to detail yet able to see the big picture, and willing to take calculated risks. In 1827 he left on his first business trip abroad. In the next decade, he settled in London and founded his own investment firm, George Peabody & Co. In 1854 he formed a partnership with fellow American, Junius Spencer Morgan. Morgan's son, the future banking tycoon John Pierpont Morgan, began his career as an apprentice with the company in London and then became its representative in New York.

In the 1850s, with his fortune secure, George Peabody began to give away large amounts of money. In all, he founded or contributed to libraries and lecture halls in seven communities to which he had ties. In Baltimore he founded the first academy of music established in America; the Peabody Institute became a world-renowned conservatory.

At the urging of his nephew, paleontologist Othniel Marsh, in 1866 he endowed two museums of science, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard and the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale, and created professorships at both. The following year, he gave $140,000 to two Salem organizations which merged to form the Peabody Museum, now the Peabody Essex Museum.

At the urging of his nephew, paleontologist Othniel Marsh, in 1866 he endowed two museums of science, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard and the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale, and created professorships at both.

After the Civil War ended, he created the Peabody Fund for Southern Education, with a donation of $2,000,000. Designed to "promote and encourage the intellectual, moral, and industrial education of the destitute children of the Southern States," the Fund did not distribute its resources equitably, with black schools receiving less than white ones or nothing at all. In 1914 the trustees dissolved the fund and redirected the money to departments of education at southern universities and to what is now the Southern Education Foundation for African American Education.

Peabody lived the last 32 years of his life in London, where he gave $2,500,000 to create affordable housing for the working poor, a gift Queen Victoria called "wholly without parallel." One of the largest charities in London, the Peabody Trust now provides homes for 27,000 people, as well as employment training.

George Peabody died in November 1869. His funeral was held at Westminster Abbey, a rare honor for a foreigner. On the day of the service, church bells tolled in Boston and Baltimore. Outside the Abbey, "the gaunt, famished London poor . . . gathered in thousands to testify their respect for the foreigner who had done more than any Englishman for their class, and whose last will contains an additional bequest to them of £150,000," wrote the New York Times. His body lay at the Abbey for a month before the Royal Navy's newest and largest warship, the Monarch, carried it home. As he had wished, he was laid to rest in his native Peabody.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Northeast region of Massachusetts.

Sources

"George Peabody, The Great Benefactor," by Ruth Henderson Hill for the Centennial of the Peabody Institute, Peabody, MA, 1953.

George Peabody: A Biography, by Franklin Parker (Vanderbilt University Press, revised edition, 1995).

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