Unveiling the Secrets of Notorious Real-Life Misers
Misers, with their unyielding dedication to amassing wealth, have captured our imaginations across time.
From legendary tales of hoarding riches to contemporary anecdotes of reclusive figures accumulating vast fortunes, the allure of extreme frugality and eccentric financial habits persists.
These ten real life misers make Ebenezer Scrooge look like a spendthrift.
Lived from: April 7, 1714 – November 26, 1789
John Elwes was orphaned at four with a £100,000 fortune (equivalent to over £20 million today), when his mother's frugality led to her starvation. He became a horseman but changed when he met Harvey Elwes, his miserly uncle, and inherited his fortune upon Harvey's death.
John mirrored Harvey's stinginess — he lived like a tramp, squatting in vacant homes and eating rotten food, despite being a Member of Parliament. His eccentric habits, like going to bed at sundown to save on candles and eating maggoty meat, led to malnutrition. The doctor attending his deathbed believed he'd have lived longer had he not taken on the traits of his former family members.
Despite reluctance to spend on himself, Elwes was generous to others. Furthermore, he inspired characters in novels like "The Miser's Daughter" and Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." In fact, he's an inspiration for the character Ebenezer Scrooge.
Lived from: 1716 – 1794
Penny-pinching sometimes runs in families, and Daniel Dancer was born from a long line of frugal individuals. He inherited a substantial estate comprising 80 acres and a farm at just 20 years old, however, he chose not to invest in any improvements on the property. Preferring a reclusive lifestyle, his only interactions with the public involved selling hay. He never bathed or washed his clothes.
He made his sister his housekeeper and part of her job was making meals from decomposed roadkill (hey, it was free). She later died because he refused to pay her medical expenses.
His property was subject to frequent thefts so he secured his home by bolting the front door to such a degree that he could only get in by climbing a ladder to an upper window, which he drew in once inside.
When he died, Dancer left his money to his neighbor Lady Tempest, a woman who had always shown him kindness.
Lived from: 1726 – 1811
Thomas Cooke, was born to itinerant worker and sent to live with his grandmother in his early years. Later, he returned to London and became a tax apprentice when he was assigned to inspect a paper mill in Tottenham.
The mill's owner passed away while Cooke was inspecting it, but the widow and a foreman continued its operation. Seizing an opportunity, Cooke documented fraudulent practices at the mill and threatened to to report these offenses, which would bankrupt the widow and lead to her imprisonment. Cooke proposed marriage and to stay out of jail, she agreed. He therefore, inherited the property and her vast wealth.
Cooke gained notoriety for exploiting others. Frequently seen in the streets feigning fits, he conveniently suffered these fits near mansions. Good Samaritans rushing to his aid were met with refusals of assistance, only for Cooke to accept a couple of glasses of wine instead. Later, he would return, coincidentally around dinner time, graciously declining dinner but subtly hinting at his will's progress and requesting the names of the family's children. This strategy ensured ongoing gifts of meat and wine in the hope of future payouts for his supposed beneficiaries.
Cooke also adopted a frugal lifestyle at home — his household expenses were limited to only 15 pence a day, via penny-pinching and manipulating the goodwill of anyone he came by. One of his only extravagances was buying a racehorse; however, he kept the horse in his kitchen to save on livery costs. He was also known as "Cabbage Cooke," as he collected horse manure from the streets to fertilize his cabbages, and when he couldn't find that — well, you can probably guess the rest.
When his health declined, he haggled over medial costs and with the local undertaker over his coffin's price. When he died, it was discovered that he had hoarded the equivalent of nearly £10 million in today's money.
James 'Jemmy' Wood
Lived from: October 7, 1756 – April 20, 1836
This 18th-century English banker and merchant was often referred to as the "Miser of Gloucester." While known for his wealth (through his inheritance one of the oldest private banks in Britain from his grandfather), he became famous for his strange and miserly behavior.
Stories about Wood's habits include his reluctance to spend money on basic necessities. For instance, it is said that he wore clothes until they were in tatters and would go to great lengths to save even small amounts of money. He visited Gloucester Docks to fill his pockets with any pieces of coal he could find to warm his house.
He spared no expense on his final resting place, however. In anticipation of his death, he built an elaborate and well-fortified tomb to ensure the safety of his remains, which was equipped with a heavy iron door and a large lock to deter grave robbers.
Wood is also said to be one of the inspirations for the Ebenezer Scrooge character.
John Camden Neild
Lived from: c.1780 – 1852
Raised in a prosperous family, John Camden Neild attended Eton and earned an M.A. from Cambridge in 1801. By 1808, he had established himself as a barrister in London. Following his father's death in 1814, he inherited £250,000 (equivalent to approximately £24 million today).
Despite residing in a large home in an upscale London neighborhood, he had minimal furniture — in fact, rumors circulated that he slept on a board on the floor. He would be seen riding on the exterior of stagecoaches, sometimes in freezing conditions, to save on fare. He didn't even have a proper winter coat, deeming it too extravagant. Instead, always wore a lighter blue coat with metal buttons, which he refused to have brushed, believing it would hasten its wear and tear.
Upon his death in 1852, it was revealed that Neild bequeathed his entire fortune to Queen Victoria — his friends believed that he had long-distance infatuation with the young royal.
Wellington R. Burt
Lived from: August 26, 1831 – March 2, 1919
Everyone dreams of having a Wellington R. Burt spring up out of nowhere at some point in their lives as a previously unknown relative, bequeathing them millions of dollars.
Burt was multimillionaire lumber baron who hoarded his vast fortune from his family, so much so that he placed an odd provision in his will stipulating that no funds from his estate would be distributed until 21 years after the demise of his final grandchild.
At the time of his death, he ranked among the wealthiest individuals in the U.S., but due to family discord, he opted not to bequeath a substantial portion of his wealth to his immediate family. These family members received limited sums from the estate he once dubbed "the golden egg." The most substantial payment went to a "favorite son," who received $30,000 annually (still a decent salary the time), while other children and certain staff members were left with yearly amounts ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.
It would take nearly a hundred years before the peculiar terms his will were fulfilled. In 2011, an estimated $100 million was split between 12 fortunate descendants. Lucky them!
Lived from: November 21, 1834 – July 3, 1916
Hetty Green, aka "The Witch of Wall Street," walked Manhattan's streets looking destitute, evoking pity with her stern expression and tattered clothes. Little did the public realize that Hetty was worth $100 to $200 million. In 2023 dollars, that's $2.69 — $5.38billion.
Born into wealth, Hetty's financier father taught her how to manage money from a young age. She thrived when overseeing significant real estate deals, trading railroads, and making shrewd investments. She had great financial success during others' downfalls, buying depreciating stocks, foreclosing on properties, and holding entire cities hostage through massive loans.
At 33, Hetty married briefly and had two children, who faced great challenges under Hetty's care. Her daughter, Sylvia, wore second-hand clothes and lived in relative isolation, sleeping next to her mother in a rented room. Her son, Ned, had it worse — when he sustained a severe leg injury, Hetty brought him to a city clinic. When the doctors demanded payment to treat him, she opted to bring him home instead. The untreated injury cost Ned his leg. Hetty's frugality extended to her own health — she improvising solutions like using a stick to manage a bulging hernia.
Hetty passed away at 81, leaving her vast wealth to her children. Sylvia maintained a modest lifestyle, while Ned, who preserved a substantial fortune until his death in 1936, bequeathing the majority to Sylvia.
When she died in 1951, Sylvia donated most of her $200 million fortune to various charities.
John Paul Getty
Lived from: December 15, 1892 – June 6, 1976
Upon J. Paul Getty's death in 1976 at 83, he was known as the world's richest man and was equally renowned for his legendary stinginess.
Getty's father, an insurance agent, struck oil on land he purchased in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The younger Getty amassed wealth as an oil lease agent for his father while still in his 20s. By 1968, he shared the title of the richest man in the country with Howard Hughes, and the oil price surge in 1972 further solidified his financial status.
Getty's business acumen was matched only by his reputation for selfishness. When his grandson, J. Paul Getty III, was kidnapped in 1973, he hesitated to pay ransom until the captors mutilated Getty III by severing one of his ears. He justified his stance by fearing that if he paid millions for one grandchild, he'd have to pay for them all should the same situation arise. He eventually paid $2.2 million of the reduced $3 million demand, claiming financial constraints.
Lived from: October 1, 1893 – January 9, 1995
Anne Scheiber, a reclusive and frugal retired IRS auditor from New York, lived a life of extreme thrift. Despite never earning more than $4,000 a year, she became a skilled investor during her 50-year career, saving nearly 80 percent of her wages. She lived in the same apartment and wore the same clothes for decades and eventually accumulated $22 million through wise investments and disciplined savings.
Known for eccentricities like taking food from shareholder meetings, Scheiber shocked many by leaving her entire fortune to support women's education at Yeshiva University.
Lived from: March 30, 1926 – January 27, 2018
Ingvar Kamprad founded IKEA, the inexpensive Swedish furniture and home goods company. While he was worth billions at the time of his death in 2018, he was known for being frugal. In fact, he was known as "the miser" in his hometown of Epalinges.
Despite being one of the wealthiest people in the world, Kamprad lead a modest lifestyle. He flew economy class, drove an older car, reused teabags and would visit street markets at closing to get the cheapest deals on produce. Kamprad bought his clothes at flea markets and got his hair cut in developing countries, as he though the price was too high elsewhere.
Despite his thriftiness, he made significant contributions to philanthropy, and IKEA became a global success under his leadership.