Founder’s Hall Museum
Stephen Girard was born on May 20, 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 and became a sea captain in 1773 like his father before him. 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. Over the years, his household also contained apprentices, members of his housekeepers’ families, nieces and nephews, and both free and enslaved servants.
Yellow Fever and War of 1812
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 a 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.
Death and Estate
On December 22, 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 26, 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 through our catalogs and online resources or a visit to Founder’s Hall. The Stephen Girard Awareness Initiative also hosts a number of useful resources.