1The millionaire who stipulated his fortune be locked away until 21 years after his last grandchild died
Wellington R. Burt is the sort of generous benefactor who usually exists only in daydreams — the long-lost relative you never met who leaves you millions of dollars.
In 1919, Burt was a greedy multimillionaire who didn't want to see his family get its hands on the vast fortune he'd amassed as a lumber baron. He therefore made an unusual stipulation in his will – he barred any money from his estate being distributed until 21 years after the death of his last grandchild.
In 2011, when the strange conditions of that will were finally met, 12 of Burt's lucky descendants split a fortune estimated at about $100 million.
When Burt died at 87, he was one of the eight richest men in America, as well as a former mayor of the city and Michigan state senator. Most likely as a result of a family conflict at the time, he did not want to leave any substantial amount of his money to his immediate family.
His last grandchild died in 1989, but it wasn't until 2010 that a group of Burt's descendants began the legal proceedings to reach an agreement to disburse his fortune. Thirty of them applied to claim a piece of the pie, but genealogical research whittled them down to the lucky group of 12. The recipients, who range in age from 19 to 94, have succeed where others could not – that group either was banned from receiving a large inheritance by Burt's will, or died in the 92-year waiting period before an agreement was finally reached.
The most that any of Burt's immediate family ever received out of the estate he once referred to as “the golden egg” was a $30,000 annual payment to a “favorite son." The other children were left with anything from $1,000 to $5,000 a year — amounts similar to what Burt left his secretary, housekeeper, chauffeur and cook.
2The miser who was known as "The Witch Of Wall Street"
Hetty Green was a familiar and sad sight who walked the streets of New York. With her grim face and strange dress, everyone took pity on the poor woman who was known as “The Witch of Wall Street.” What the populace didn't know is that Hetty was worth $3.8 billion (in today's dollars).
Hetty was born into wealth, the only daughter of a financier who trained her to handle money shrewdly from a young age, and read her stock market reports as other parents read bedtime stories.
Hetty was a magnet for money. She oversaw tremendous real estate deals, bought and sold railroads, and made loans. She was particularly adept at prospering during the downfall of others; buying falling stocks, foreclosing properties, and even holding entire banks, entire cities, at her mercy through enormous loans. Depending who you asked, she was either a brilliant strategist or a ruthless loan shark.
At 33, Hetty married and produced two children, but the marriage was short-lived. After the marriage ended, her ex's finances and health rapidly declined. She refused to fit the mold of a complete villain however, and nursed her husband through his dying months.
The children also did not fare well with Hetty as their mother. Daughter Sylvia wore cast-off clothes and made few friends. She mostly silently shadowed Hetty, sleeping next to her on a cot in whatever rented room they happened to be living in. Her son, Ned, suffered even more. When he was a teenager, he was struck by a cart that was pulled by a St. Bernard. Ned's leg was badly injured and Hetty took her son to a free clinic in the city. Unfortunately, when the doctors demanded payment (Hetty was recognizable at this point) she took Ned home. Ned's leg injury worsened and eventually the limb had to be amputated. (Needless to say, Hetty was frugal in regard to her own health – her solution to a bulging hernia had been to jam a stick against the swelling, held in place by her underwear and the pressure of her own leg.)
Hetty died at 81 and her children inherited her vast wealth. Sylvia continued to live an austere lifestyle, but Ned burned the candle at both ends. When Ned died in 1936, he had miraculously managed to maintain a decent fortune, and left the majority to his sister, Sylvia.
And what did Sylvia do with the money? She performed an act of rebellion, perhaps her only one.
She gave what was left of the fortune, around $443 million at the time of her death in 1951, entirely to charity.
3The miser who refused to pay a ransom to his grandson's kidnappers after insisting he couldn't afford it
When J. Paul Getty died in 1976 at the age of 83, he was the world's richest man. Throughout his life, Getty had been incredibly successful in pursuing his favorite interests – making money, bedding women and collecting art – but he was also a miser of epic proportions.
Getty got a head start toward wealth when his father, a strict Christian Scientist, struck it rich in the oilfields outside Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Young Getty showed an intense interest in his father's business, and by his early 20s, he was demonstrating a shrewd talent for deal-making as an agent for his father, buying up oil leases.
By 1968, Getty was tied with Howard Hughes as the nation's richest man with a $2 billion fortune. Four years later, when actions by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries led to the quadrupling of oil prices, Getty was even richer.
Getty's reputation for selfishness rivaled his business acumen. When his grandson, J. Paul Getty III, was kidnapped in 1973, Getty refused to pay a ransom until the youth's captors mutilated him by cutting off one of his ears. Getty said that if he paid ransom for one grandchild, he might have to pay ransom for each of them, something he insisted he couldn't afford. When the kidnappers finally reduced their demands from $17 million to $3 million, Getty agreed to pay no more than $2.2 million—the maximum that would be tax deductible.
Even though Getty learned a great deal about art, he was so cautious and stingy that he never acquired a great personal art collection. The attention he paid the art world was a boon, though, for a museum he built in Los Angeles. He left it with a $2.2 billion endowment, making it the richest museum in the world.
4The miser who was known as "The Queen Of Mean"
Leona Helmsley was known for her flamboyant personality and had a reputation for tyrannical behavior that earned her the nickname "Queen of Mean."
Leona came from modest beginnings. Born Lena Mindy Rosenthal in Marbletown, New York, to Polish Jewish immigrants, she was condominium broker in 1968 when she met and began her involvement with the then-married multi-millionaire real estate entrepreneur Harry Helmsley. Harry Helmsley divorced his wife of 33 years and married Leona on April 8, 1972.
Together the Helmsleys built a real estate empire in New York City including 230 Park Avenue, the Empire State Building, the Tudor City apartment complex on the East Side of Manhattan, and Helmsley-Spear, their management and leasing business. The couple also developed properties that included the Park Lane Hotel (New York), the New York Helmsley Hotel, the Helmsley Palace Hotel, and hotels in Florida and other states. By the beginning of 1989, twenty-three hotels in the chain were directly controlled by Leona Helmsley.
As time wore on, Leona's horrible treatment of her staff became the stuff of legend. The slightest mistake was usually grounds for firing, and Helmsley was known to shout insults and obscenities at targeted employees just before they were terminated.
Despite the Helmsley's tremendous wealth (net worth of over a billion dollars), they were also known for disputing payments to contractors and vendors. This would prove to be their undoing. In 1985, a group of contractors sued the couple for non-payment. During the dispute, the contractors also revealed that most of their work was being illegally billed to the Helmsley's hotels as business expenses. This led to a federal criminal investigation. In 1988, then United States Attorney Rudy Giuliani indicted the Helmsley's and two of their associates on several tax-related charges, as well as extortion.
During the trial, Leona's hostile personality, arrogance, and "naked greed" was on display for all to see. She was eventually convicted and sentenced on one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, three counts of tax evasion, three counts of filing false personal tax returns, sixteen counts of assisting in the filing of false corporate and partnership tax returns, and ten counts of mail fraud. She was, however, acquitted of extortion.
Leona was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Her sentence was significantly reduced when all but eight of the charges were dropped. She served 18 months.
Leona spent the rest of her life in relative quiet. After she died, she left an estate – estimated at more than $4 billion – to the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. Her Maltese dog, Trouble, also received a $12 million trust fund.
5The Swedish furniture founder who has carved out a reputation for being extremely frugal
Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of global juggernaut IKEA, lives in an unassuming bungalow, favors the meatballs sold by his stores and only ever flies economy class, even though he could own a private jet without it even denting his personal fortune.
It is a remarkable existence for Kamprad, who was listed in 2010 as the eleventh wealthiest person in the world, according to Forbes magazine.
Kamprad apparently went through his spendy phase in the 1960s — Porsche, fancy suits, and all, but ten years later, abandoned it for crinkled clothes and chewing tobacco. In the Swiss village of Epalinges where he lives, he is known as “Uncle Scrooge” or “The Miser,” despite his estimated $23 billion net worth.
Kamprad takes those comparisons in stride. He says, "I am a bit tight with money, a sort of Swedish Scotsman. But so what? If I start to acquire luxurious things, then this will only incite others to follow suit. It's important that leaders set an example. I look at the money I'm about to spend on myself and ask if Ikea's customers could afford it."
6The miser who was infatuated with Queen Victoria
Most people mistook John Camden Neild as an impoverished gentleman, but he was indeed well off, despite his shabby appearance.
Neild grew up in a prosperous family, attending Eton and graduating in 1801 with an M.A. from Cambridge. By 1808, Neild was working in London as a barrister. After his father died in 1814, Neild inherited the family fortune, estimated at £250,000 (approximately £12 million today). He was on his way to an extremely comfortable existence.
Soon after and for the rest of his life, however, he became increasingly eccentric and miserly. Although he lived in a large house in an upper-class neighborhood in Chelsea, the house contained only a minimum of furniture, and it was rumored that Neild slept on a board on the floor. He would ride on the outside of the stagecoach with the driver, sometimes in the freezing cold because the fare was less than riding inside the coach. He even refused to purchase and wear a proper winter coat, feeling the expense was too extravagant. His regular attire consisted of a blue coat with metal buttons, which he refused to have brushed since he thought it would wear down the nap and make it wear out faster. Unlike other eminent misers, he occasionally indulged in acts of benevolence, possessed considerable knowledge of legal and general literature, and retained a love for the classics.
When he passed away in 1852, it was revealed that he left his entire fortune of £500,000 (£24 million today) to “Her Most Gracious Majesty, Queen Victoria, begging Her Majesty's most gracious acceptance…for her sole use and benefit." Neild's friends believed the old miser's will was a result of a long-distance infatuation with the young Queen.
7The miser who was one of the real-life inspirations for Ebenezer Scrooge
John Elwes' father died when he was just four years old, leaving his mother Amy £100,000 – more than £13 million in today's money – plus a country estate on the borders of Oxfordshire and Berkshire. Young John was subjected to frugality from an early age –Amy counted the pennies so carefully that she ended up dying of starvation. Despite this, his early life was one of comfort. Educated at the elite Westminster School, he was quite a socialite in his youth.
He became one of the best horsemen in Europe, spending time on the Continent. It wasn't until he made a miserly uncle's acquaintance that his habits began to change.
Like John's mother, his uncle, Harvey Elwes, was a notorious miser who prided himself on spending a mere £110 a year on his lifestyle. Over time, young John played up his stinginess for Harvey, and when the old man died, the boy inherited his fortune.
From there, he essentially became Harvey. Elwes hated spending a single penny. He lived almost like a tramp, squatting in uninhabited homes and eating rotten food rather than see it go to waste.
Even in his capacity as a member of Parliament for the wealthy county of Berkshire, he refused to live the indulgent lifestyle of his fellow members and with each passing year, Elwes grew more eccentric. He started going to bed at sundown, so he did not have the expense of buying candles. He bought no new clothes and was seen so often in filthy rags that passers-by would conclude he was a beggar and press a penny into his palm. Rather than spend money on fresh food, he ate meat so maggoty "that it walked about his plate" and once even devoured a dead moorhen that had been pulled out of the river by a rat.
In the end, his spendthrift ways killed him. Malnourished and sickly, the doctor who attended his deathbed said he would have lived at least another 20 years if he had spent some of his money on taking care of himself.
Despite his reluctance to spend money on himself, Elwes was generous to a fault with strangers and friends alike. It was such eccentricity that inspired the writer William Harrison Ainsworth to publish a novel, The Miser's Daughter, in 1842, based on a character like Elwes. Just a year later, Ainsworth's friend Charles Dickens wrote his interpretation, A Christmas Carol.
8The miser who came from a well know family of cheapskates
Daniel Dancer was born in 1716. His father and grandfather before him were also misers, but not as well known – their fortunes were not as great.
Dancer inherited his family's vast estate when he was 20. It included 80 acres and a farm, but he never laid out improvements on the property. He was a recluse – the only dealings he had with the public arose from the sale of his hay.
Dancer was frequently robbed. To prevent this, he bolted his front door and got into his house through the upper window that he ascended by use of a ladder, which he drew up after him once inside.
When his sister died, she left him even more money. For her funeral, he bought a second-hand pair of black stockings to put himself in decent mourning. (There's something to be said for this as Dancer usually wore hay-bands on his legs.)
When he died in 1794, Dancer left his money to a woman who had shown uniform kindness to the old man, Lady Tempest.