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 he went to sea in 1764, sailing from and, like his father before him, became a sea captain 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. He met Philadelphia native Mary Lum and soon the two were married. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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 thought to be the wealthiest man in America at the time of his death and since he 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.
Learn more about Stephen Girard and Girard College 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.
To learn more about our school history and historical collections, please click here.
For tours and information on Historic Resources and Founder’s Hall, call 215-787-4434 or contact our Director of Historical Resources, Kathy Haas.
Learn why The Wall Street Journal called Stephen Girard "The Father of Philanthropy"
Explore alumni-curated resources on Stephen Girard at Forgotten Patriot
There’s now an easy way to find out more about our objects! The Historical Collections Database contains searchable catalog records for Stephen Girard's personal library and the Stephen Girard Collection of furniture, silver, textiles, and other decorative arts. Additional segments of the historical collections will be added to the catalog as they are completed.
Contact Kathy Haas, Director of Historical Resources, for a research appointment or for assistance searching the collections.