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Monday, September 28, 2020

Diamond Jim: Gilded-Age Greed or Heart of Gold?

Diamond Jim certainly lived large. How should history judge him?

Image from Portrait Collection

By what criteria should we judge people of the past? Their strengths alone? Only their foibles? No more than a few select moments? Or by the fullness of their lives? Is a horse race over when the starting gun goes off or when the last animal crosses the finish line?

It’s not self-evident by our behavior that everyone could honestly answer these questions in the same way. Rushing to judgment on a small slice of knowledge is a national pastime, and it happens for many reasons: to avoid deep thought, to affirm a preconception or ideology, to signal virtue, or to run with the pack, for example. As an economist and historian, I have often noticed men and women who fancy themselves “intellectuals” leaping to conclusions about an entire economic system based upon the flaws of a few people.

One of the most colorful Americans of the storied Gilded Age—from 1870 to 1910—provides a vivid and classic case in point. His name was James Buchanan Brady (1856-1917), known to history as “Diamond Jim” because he wore precious stones in superabundance. I first heard his name from a history teacher who presented Brady as “typical” of the greedy capitalists and capitalism of his day. According to a New York Times story reporting his death in April 1917,

Mr. Brady began to gather jewels about twenty-five years ago. He had a peculiar fondness for diamonds, but his passion extended to all sorts of precious stones. “My pets,” he often called them. He wore a $9,000 watch and in the handle of an umbrella he had set a jewel worth $1,500. His garter clasps, his suspender buckles, and even his underwear were ornamented with jewels.

To translate 1917 dollars roughly into those of 2020, multiply by 21. So adjusted for inflation, that $9,000 watch would go for about $189,000 today.

Brady wore a different, extensive set of jewelry every day of the month. For each set, he paid about $100,000—meaning that in 2020 dollars, he was decked out in more than $2 million of precious stones each day. The $6,500 he shelled out for a pair of rose diamond eyeglasses for his dog would cost more than $136,000 now. No kidding.

Diamond Jim was no braggart. He didn’t boast of his wealth, but then he didn’t have to; the jewels said it all. Brady biographer Parker Morell writes about Jim’s pride of ownership:

Such a spectacular display may not have been in the best possible taste, but according to Jim’s standards, it was the most beautiful thing in the world. As he said on more than one occasion when his more fastidious friends remonstrated: “You fellers can talk all you like about what’s done and what ain’t. As for me, I’ve always noticed that them that has ‘em wears ‘em!”

Today, it’s doubtful anybody so gaudily decked out in dozens of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds could safely walk the streets of the Big Apple for long. But Brady never feared thieves or thugs. In a speech to some 800 members of the New York Society of Restaurateurs one year before his death, he praised the safety of the city:

There is no place in this country, or in any other country today, where a man is more safe than he is in one of the restaurants controlled by you gentlemen. I know that, and I know it well, because night after night and morning after morning I have gone to your places with more valuable jewelry on my person than anyone else in the world, and not once have I lost anything or been molested.

Brady’s critics then and now are quick to point out another extravagance, namely, his ravenous passion for food. At the table, it seemed Diamond Jim would eat anything and everything but the table itself. George Rector, who owned a fashionable seafood restaurant in Times Square, absolutely loved to see his bejeweled friend walk in the front door. He famously claimed that Brady was “the best 25 customers I ever had.” In his entertaining biography, Diamond Jim: Prince of the Gilded Age, H. Paul Jeffers writes:

A typical lunch consisted of two lobsters, deviled crabs, clams, oysters, and beef. He finished with several whole pies. Dinner included a couple dozen oysters, six crabs, and bowls of green turtle soup. The main course was likely to be two whole ducks, six or seven lobsters, a sirloin steak, two servings of terrapin, and a variety of vegetables. . . . Because Jim did not partake in alcohol, all this was washed down with carafe after carafe of orange juice.

In his 2009 book, Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York, author William Grimes breathlessly declared that Diamond Jim exemplified “the rich at play” and “the outsized appetites of a gaudy, grasping, exuberant America.” Take one man’s eccentricities, project them onto millions of others, and then leap to a stunning, negative generalization that fits your ideological narrative: That is the rush to judgment I’m complaining about.

If all you knew about Diamond Jim Brady was his jewelry and his appetite, you might think of him as interesting at best, disgustingly grotesque at worst. You might even buy into the superficial perspective of the Gilded Age fault-finders, the ones who make Brady’s habits into a sweeping indictment of everything capitalist. But you would miss so much of this man’s incredible life that your assessment would be more than a little incomplete. It would be grossly unjust and uninformed.

The fullness of Jim Brady’s six decades of life tells us volumes that should lead most fair-minded people to a more favorable view of him. Here’s a sample:

  • His was a true rags-to-riches story. Raised in poverty, he grew up brimming with ambition and a tireless work ethic. After a stint as a bellhop, he earned his way through the railroad business—from serving as a clerk to a builder of railroad cars to becoming the best salesman of equipment to railroads the industry has ever known. He proudly, and accurately, claimed that he had never spent a dollar until he had earned it.
  • In his spare time he was a savvy investor in stocks and bonds, generating a substantial fortune in those financial instruments. In the process, he encouraged the formation of capital for the building of all kinds of employment-providing, invention-producing enterprises.
  • He knew racehorses too. The focus of his equine interests was the track at Saratoga, New York. He paid $30,000 once for a colt named “Accountant” that the experts thought was worth maybe half that. When Accountant won Jim more than $80,000 in one year at Saratoga (1906), he earned the right to crow, “I didn’t know a thing, eh?”
  • He was a fun guy to be around, a genuinely nice person and a big tipper. Even that New York Times story on his passing noted, “Personally, he was an exceptionally sweet-tempered man, who would go to the limit for a friend or to help someone in distress.” One of his closest friends, another prominent New York businessman by the name of Fred Housman, said that “Jim Brady was one of the greatest men this country has produced. Not only as a salesman, but as a real man. There never was an appeal made to him for money or clothes by man or woman to which he did not respond.”
  • What about all those jewels that critics like to disparage him for? He didn’t take them with him. He generously left them to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. And he was so grateful for the treatment he received once at Johns Hopkins University Hospital that it was that institution to which he bequeathed the bulk of his fortune—several hundred million in the dollars of today. He also left behind many grateful farmers, fishermen, and restaurateurs who hated to see him go.

So on balance, what are we to make of Diamond Jim Brady? Take it or leave it, here’s my assessment:

He certainly had his quirks and eccentricities (who doesn’t?). He spent his money in ways I wouldn’t have. He ate too much and his penchant for jewelry was not my cup of tea. But so what? He didn’t steal. He didn’t mooch. He didn’t demand anything from others that wasn’t owed him. Like the privileged nobles of governments past, he enjoyed the finer things of life with one big difference: He earned it. Being in charge of yourself, making unconventional choices, enjoying in your own way what your efforts and genius produce: Isn’t that what freedom is all about?

Diamond Jim Brady lived large and he was large. At Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn where he now rests in peace, he’s buried in a very large casket. Good for him! Even the casket maker benefited from this fascinating, one-of-a-kind American.

So unless you’re prepared to donate more to a hospital than Diamond Jim Brady gave to Johns Hopkins, don’t judge him too harshly—or anyone else, for that matter, until you know their full story.

For additional information, see:

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is