Strange times are these, in which we live, forsooth ;
When young and old are taught in Falsehood’s school:–
And the man who dares to tell the truth,
Is called at once a lunatic and fool.
George Francis Train
He was an exceptionally wealthy eccentric who stood for the American Presidency. When making stump speeches he spoke mostly about himself and his exploits, often repeated himself, and wandered off the subject. He was also a racist who, when he failed to become President, decided a better option was to become the nation’s dictator.
If that all sounds familiar, then perhaps you’ve already heard of George Francis Train, one of the most appropriately named mavericks in nineteenth century America. That’s because Train made his fortune from building a railway line. He was one of the men behind the Union Pacific, which built the east/west section of the American transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, and ripped off America royally in the process.
But what makes Train even more interesting is that he campaigned for more Irish migrants to enter the USA in the 1840s—not a very popular position to adopt—he got involved in the building of a horse-tramway in Cork—which didn’t succeed—became an advocate for Fenianism, wrote a book in 1865 called Irish Independency, and got himself imprisoned in Dublin for ten months in 1868, for carrying pro-Fenian literature on board a ship which landed in Ireland.
George Francis Train was either a conman supreme, a fraudster par excellence, a deluded maniac, a feminist, a vegetarian, a communist, a capitalist leech, a pacifist, or the ‘Great American Humbug’—he was called all of the above, and a lot more besides. Oh, yes, lest we forget, he was also the model for the character of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days.
He made his first fortune in shipping in the USA and Australia, before returning to America in the 1860s, and throwing in his lot with one of the most crooked business cabals in the long an undistinguished history of American crooked business cabals, the Union Pacific railroad corporation. Train and his associates realised that there were huge sums of money to be made from building their half of the transcontinental railroad, but only if they helped themselves to as much of the available funds as they could lay their grubby hands on. This is where Train’s neat idea of the Credit Mobilier paid off handsomely. It may sound like a French bank but, in fact, it was a company set up to actually build their half of the transcontinental railroad for the Union Pacific.
Naturally the construction costs were inflated, and the Union Pacific insiders, including Train, pocketed the difference between the actual cost of building the railroad and the prices being charged by Credit Mobilier for its construction. By the time the scam was exposed, in 1873, by the New York Sun newspaper, Train had long since taken his profit and moved on. He had become a Fenian fellow traveller, a supporter of equal rights for women, and a vegetarian.
His progressive credentials, however, did not extend as far as advocating equal rights for freed slaves, which became apparent when he sought the Democratic party nomination for the Presidency in 1864, 1868 and 1872.
Train’s exploits in shipping had influenced Jules Verne in the creation of Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days and when, in 1890, the New York World newspaper despatched its ace reporter Nellie Bly to circumnavigate the globe—she did it in seventy-two days—the real George Train rose to the challenge on behalf of the fictional Fogg, and did the same journey in sixty-seven days. Two years later he did it all over again, this time in sixty days.
Towards the end of his life Train used the columns of his newspaper, The Revolution, to defend a campaigner for free love who had been arrested for obscenity. In the process, he was charged with the same offence himself. His lawyers got him off by pleading insanity. Train was not best pleased. But he was probably the victim of some form of mental debilitation that went well beyond so-called ‘eccentricity’, a euphemism for mental illness as long as you were wealthy.
He died in 1904 of smallpox. Sadly, fear of the infectious nature of the disease, led to many of his personal papers being destroyed after his death.
The extraordinary George Francis Train, American robber baron, suffragist and Irish nationalist, was born one hundred and eighty-eight years ago, on this day.