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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 767

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This is the grave of James Buchanan Duke.

Born in December 1856 near Durham, North Carolina, Duke was of course named after the incoming president, who had a strong claim to the worst in history until Donald Trump. But that certainly represented the politics of the South, doughface as Buchanan was. Duke’s father, Washington Duke, was a tobacco industrialist and intended on his son following in his footsteps. Duke attended college very briefly at what is today Guilford College and then at some business school in Poughkeepsie, but he never graduated from college. Instead, he did what his father wanted. And he did it very well.

By the 1880s, Duke had established himself as the lead tobacco capitalist in the country by establishing a branch of the family business in New York. That placed him at the center of American commerce and it worked brilliantly. Second, he acquired early and exclusive rights to the first cigarette rolling machine, which vastly saved on labor costs and allowed the rapid production of cigarettes, making them a mass product for the first time, as opposed to cigars, snuff, and other forms of ingesting tobacco. A skilled cigarette roller could roll out about 4 per minute. The machine could produce 200 per minute. So this was one device that made an entire form of work completely irrelevant overnight. Soon, Duke had half the cigarette manufacturing in America and in 1890, he established the American Tobacco Company, which consolidated multiple brands and increased control over the cigarette market to upwards of 90 percent. He then wanted to take control over the British tobacco market too, leading to a trade war that he largely won, though he had to incorporate with the British led Imperial Tobacco Company to do so.

The tycoon of the Gilded Age cigarette industry was just as ruthless and awful as Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, and the rest. In fact, the brutality by which he treated tobacco farmers led to the so-called Black Patch War between 1904-09. See, after Duke used his access to the cigarette rolling machine to eliminate all competitors, he then sought to reduce prices on the tobacco itself. Traditionally, tobacco bidding had been a competitive process that allowed the farmers to do at least OK financially. Duke had no patience for farmers earning a decent living, not when he had another ivory backscratcher to purchase. Duke eliminated the competitive process, named a very low price, and dared the farmers to do anything about it. For awhile, they didn’t and their standard of living plummeted, a big problem throughout American agriculture in the these years, which is of course what fed the Populist movement. But finally, they responded through the leadership of a rich tobacco planter who saw his fortune fading, Felix Ewing, who suggested that the farmers unite to creative a cooperative to raise prices, which was a big part of farmers’ activism going back into the 1880s. They were not messing around either, using intimidation against holdout farmers or businesses that did not support the movement. The movement itself collapsed in a lot of violence.

However, Duke still did have to respond to the monopoly he had created when the Supreme Court ruled the ATC an illegal monopoly under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in U.S. v. American Tobacco Company in 1911. The government had started proceedings against Duke in 1907, under Roosevelt, and continued them into the Taft administration. The Court decided this and the Standard Oil case on the same day, creating a landmark of corporate regulation in a nation that had nearly not seen it at all before this. Duke was pretty angry about all of this. Despite being a post-Reconstruction southerner to his bones, he was a big Republican and huge supporter of William McKinley in 1896 and 1900.

None of this really had that deleterious impact on Duke himself though. It’s not as if he didn’t have massive financial investments in the now four companies the ATC were broken up into: American Tobacco Company, R.J. Reynolds, Liggett & Myers, and Lorillard. Moreover, Duke was already investing in other industries as well, starting company towns in the Piedmont to lure the textile industry out of New England to the anti-union and socialist-free South. He and his brother started buying up water and land rights to power mills, which is the precursor to Duke Energy, one of the most vile companies in the nation today. Then known as Duke Power, it provided private electricity to over 200 textile mills through the Carolinas and also brought electricity to some towns and private residences. However, the limited and patchwork nature of this sort of electrification was a big reason why the Roosevelt administration went all in with the Tennessee Valley Authority and other public power projects in the 1930s. He also went into the aluminum industry, being a key part of the formation of ALCOA in 1925.

Duke then of course went on to establish Duke University, giving a large amount of his fortune to what was then Trinity College and was renamed for its new benefactor. It became home of such illustrious graduates as Richard Nixon (law school), Richard Spencer, and Stephen Miller. You might call this lineage the lung cancer of American education. And don’t even get me started on Duke basketball.

Of course, he had huge mansions everywhere from Newport to Charleston and of course on Fifth Avenue in New York, lived the life of a super wealthy guy, etc. He died in 1925. He had one daughter from his second marriage, Doris Duke, who you may recognize from her charitable foundation.

James Buchanan Duke is buried in Duke Chapel, Durham, North Carolina. Washington Duke is also buried there, as is Duke’s brother and partner Benjamin Duke. I figured one Duke was enough for this series.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM readers. But this is not from my recent grave trip, which has now ended after a long and winding role of visiting a lot of evil people. Rather, I’ve been holding this one back from last trip to the South in 2019. If you would like this series to visit other people involved in American tobacco history, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. C. Everett Koop, who announced in 1982 that second hand smoke can cause lung cancer, is in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Rose Cipollone, who filed the 1984 lawsuit before her death from lung cancer holding the tobacco companies responsible, is in Queens, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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