Stephen Girard was born on May 20th, 1750 in a suburb of Bordeaux, France. As a child he had little education and lost sight in his right eye- but neither slowed him down. Beginning in 1764, Girard sailed from France to the West Indies and back again and, like his father before him, became a sea captain upon his return in 1773. The next year, he visited New York and began trading to and from New Orleans and Port au Prince.
In 1776, Girard settled as a merchant in Philadelphia. Later that year, he met Philadelphia native Mary Lum and soon the two were married. Girard bought a home for himself and his wife in Mount Holly Township, New Jersey. However, just seven years after they wed, Mary started to have sudden, erratic emotional outbursts and violent rages. In 1785, she was diagnosed with incurable mental instability and in 1790 Girard committed her to the Pennsylvania Hospital as an incurable lunatic. Although he was initially devastated that his wife had fallen ill, Stephen Girard ultimately hired a series of housekeepers, whom he also took as mistresses.
(Continued from Left) In 1793, Philadelphia was overwhelmed by an outbreak of the Yellow Fever. While many of his contemporaries fled to avoid illness, Girard stayed in Philadelphia to care for the sick and dying. In addition to personally tending to the ill, he supervised the conversion of a mansion outside of the city into a hospital and recruited many volunteers to nurse patients back to health.
The effects of the second Yellow Fever Outbreak were fading from the city when, in 1811, the charter for the First Bank of the United States expired. On May 9, 1812 Stephen Girard purchased most of its stock, the building and the furnishings inside. He opened his own bank on May 18, 1812; the quick turnaround was facilitated by his having hired the cashier from the First Bank, George Simpson.
Later that same year, the United States government was on the brink of financial collapse from funding the war of 1812. Girard became their principal source of credit as he placed nearly all of his resources at the disposal of the government. Additionally, he underwrote up to 95% of the war loan issue which allowed the United States to carry on the war.
On December 22nd, 1830, Stephen Girard was hit by a horse and wagon while crossing the street at Second and Market Streets. The wheel of the wagon ran over the left side of his face, lacerating his cheek and ear and damaging his good eye. At 81 years old, he got up unassisted, went home and had a doctor dress his wound. Although he remained out of sight for two months afterward, Girard fully immersed himself back into the banking business. Sadly, he never recovered. Stephen Girard died on December 26th, 1831.
Stephen Girard was initially buried in the vault that he built for his nephew at Holy Trinity Catholic cemetery. Twenty years later, however, his remains were reinterred in the Founder’s Hall vestibule at Girard College.
Stephen Girard was thought to be the wealthiest man in America at the time of his death and, as posited by Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther in The Wealthy 100, was the fourth wealthiest American of all time only behind John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John Jacob Astor.
Since Girard and Mary never had children, he left nearly his entire fortune to charitable and municipal institutions of Philadelphia and New Orleans. His endowment for establishing a boarding school for “poor, white, male” orphans in Philadelphia allowed for the formation of Girard College. Although Girard’s will was contested by his family, it was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in a landmark case entitled Vidal et al. vs Girard’s Executors (43 U.S. 127, 1844).
Learn more about Stephen Girard in our campus museum at Founder's Hall!
Walk-in Tours: Walk-in visitation (no appointment required) is accommodated THURSDAYS from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. for individuals or groups of up to 9 people, free to the public. Groups of 10 or more people must make an appointment and will be charged a fee.
Tours by appointment: Tours for groups of 10 or more may be planned by reservation Monday-Friday and on weekends with special arrangements. Public group tours of Founder’s Hall are $12/per person; $5 for students. Public group tours of Founder’s Hall and the Chapel are $15.
For appointments, please call 215-787-4434 or contact us via email at email@example.com.
To learn more about our school history and historical collections, please click here.
Historic Resources and Founder’s Hall 215-787-4434
Director of Historical Resources/Founder’s Hall - Kathy Haas