Girard College exists because of the incredible generosity and foresight of our founder, Stephen Girard. Below is some biographical information; you can also access his will and an article written by alumnus Steve Biondolillo ’73 capturing his profound impact on society.
Stephen Girard (May 20, 1750 – December 26, 1831) was a French-born, naturalized American, philanthropist and banker. He personally saved the U.S. government from financial collapse during the War of 1812, and became one of the wealthiest men in America, estimated to have been the fourth richest American of all time, based on the ratio of his fortune to contemporary GDP. Childless, he devoted much of his fortune to philanthropy, particularly the education and welfare of orphans. His legacy is still felt in his adopted home of Philadelphia.
Girard was born in a suburb of Bordeaux, France. He lost the sight of his right eye at the age of eight and had little education. His father was a sea captain, and the son cruised to the West Indies and back, during 1764-1773, was licensed captain in 1773, visited New York in 1774, and thence with the assistance of a New York merchant began to trade to and from New Orleans and Port au Prince. In May 1776 he was driven into the port of Philadelphia by a British fleet and settled there as a merchant.
In 1776, Girard met Mary Lum, a Philadelphia native and nine years his junior. They married soon afterwards and Girard purchased a home at 211 Mill Street in Mount Holly Township, New Jersey. She was the daughter of a shipbuilder, who, two years later, after Girard's becoming a citizen of Pennsylvania (1778), built for him the "Water Witch," the first of a trading fleet — most of Girard's ships being named after his favorite French authors, such as "Rousseau," "Voltaire," "Helvétius" and "Montesquieu." By 1785, Mary had started to succumb to sudden, erratic emotional outbursts. Mental instability and violent rages led to a diagnosis of mental instability that was not curable. Although Girard was at first devastated, by 1787 he took a mistress, Sally Bickham. In August 1790, Girard committed his wife to the Pennsylvania Hospital (today part of the University of Pennsylvania) as an incurable lunatic.
In 1793, there was an outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia. Although many other well-to-do citizens chose to leave the city, Girard stayed to care for the sick and dying. He supervised the conversion of a mansion outside the city limits into a hospital and recruited volunteers to nurse victims, and personally cared for patients. For his efforts, Girard was feted as a hero by the City Hall after the outbreak subsided. Again during the yellow fever epidemic of 1797-1798 he took the lead in relieving the poor and caring for the sick.
After the charter for the First Bank of the United States expired in 1811, Girard purchased most of its stock as well as the building and its furnishings on South Third Street in Philadelphia and opened his own bank, variously known as "Girard's Bank," or as "Girard Bank." or also as "Stephen Girard's Bank" or even the "Bank of Stephen Girard." Girard was the sole proprietor of his bank, and thus avoided the Pennsylvania state law which prohibited an unincorporated association of persons from establishing a bank, and required a charter from the legislature for a banking corporation.
Girard hired George Simpson, the cashier of the First Bank, as cashier of the new bank, and with seven other employees, opened for business on May 18, 1812. He allowed the Trustees of the First Bank of the United States to use some offices and space in the vaults to continue the process of winding down the affairs of the closed bank at a very nominal rent.
Girard's Bank was a principal source of government credit during the War of 1812. Towards the end of the war, when the financial credit of the U.S. government was at its lowest, Girard placed nearly all of his resources at the disposal of the government and underwrote up to 95 percent of the war loan issue, which enabled the United States to carry on the war. After the war, he became a large stockholder in and one of the directors of the Second Bank of the United States. Girard's bank became the Girard Trust Company, and later Girard Bank. It merged with Mellon Bank in 1983, and was largely sold to Citizens Bank two decades later. Its monumental headquarters building still stands at Broad and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia.
Death and Will
On December 22, 1830, Stephen Girard was seriously injured while crossing the street near Second and Market Streets in Philadelphia. He was knocked down by a horse and wagon, whose wheel actually ran over the left side of his face, lacerating his cheek and ear, as well as damaging his good (left) eye. Despite his age (81), he got up unassisted and returned to his nearby home, where a doctor dressed his wound. He threw himself back into his banking business, although he remained out of sight for two months. Nevertheless, he never fully recovered and he died on December 26, 1831, coincidentally the Feast of St. Etienne--St. Stephen's Day in the Western Church. He was buried in the vault he built for his nephew in the Holy Trinity Catholic cemetery, then at Sixth and Spruce Streets. Twenty years later, his remains were reinterred in the Founder's Hall vestibule at Girard College behind a statue by Nicholas Gevelot, a French sculptor living in Philadelphia.
At the time of his death, Girard was the wealthiest man in America and he bequeathed nearly his entire fortune to charitable and municipal institutions of Philadelphia and New Orleans, including an endowment for establishing a boarding school for "poor, white, male" orphans in Philadelphia, primarily those who were the children of coal miners, which opened as the Girard College in 1848. Girard's will was contested by his family in France, however, but was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark case, Vidal et al. vs Girard's Executors, 43 U.S. 127 (1844). Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther, in their book The Wealthy 100, posit that, with adjustment for inflation, Girard was the fourth-wealthiest American of all time, behind John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt and John Jacob Astor.
Girard Avenue, a major east-west thoroughfare of North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia and the location of Girard College, is named for him, as is the borough of Girardville, Schuylkill County, located roughly 110 miles northwest of Philadelphia, which is bordered by many acres of land still connected to the Girard Estate.