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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,499

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This is the grave of Diamond Jim Brady.

Born in New York in 1856, James Buchanan Brady grew in an Irish household. James Buchanan is a pretty gross president to be named after, but the Irish were welcome in the Democratic Party and the new Republican Party had to incorporate the Know-Nothings, so let’s just say it’s not surprising an Irish family would name their son after a president we see as trash today. In any case, Brady did not grow up wealthy at all. His dad owned a saloon, a classic Irish immigrant move.

But Brady would not end up like his father. He hit the big score. He proved to be a real smart guy and a quick learner. He had some regular jobs as a kid, the kind of thing you would expect, like a bellhop at a hotel. But he later got a job with the New York Central Railroad. This was the 1870s and by this time, the railroad ruled the world. He just picked this all up incredibly well. His bosses noted his talent and in 1877, he was named chief assistant to the general manager. He then took a job with a railroad supply company in 1879. That was where he really started to make his fortune. He got involved in all sorts of business interests, some pretty sketchy. It was the Gilded Age and people were there for the take. Jim Brady, now this is a man who knew how to take. He was corrupt as all hell. He was all-in on the corrupt railroad deals that made Americans hate the people behind that technology that seemed to control their lives like an octopus, to borrow from Frank Norris’ legendary novel about the railroads, not to mention so much late 19th century political imagery. He also received insider political information about elections to place crooked bets on the results. He made a lot of money through illegal means. His insider information about the Reading Railroad, for example, made him about $1.25 million at the time, which is about $45 million or so today.

Brady was also a man who knew how to spend. This is really why he is relatively famous today. He was a big financier and railroad guy sure, but not that different than a bunch of other guys and he was never a Jay Gould or Jim Fisk figure. But he was rich enough to have fun and the man liked to have fun. First, he is known as Diamond Jim Brady because he collected as many as possible and wore plenty of them too. He was famous for his diamond collection that alone was worth $2 million back then, which is well over $70 million today. That’s a lot of money in diamonds.

Then there was Brady’s meals. Now, we have to understand a bit about the relationship between the Gilded Age elite and food. Basically, being fat was a sign of wealth and so they went all in. If you look at old menus from fancy restaurants, they are utterly ridiculous. Just massive conspicuous consumption. And if you look at pictures of the Gilded Age political/economic elite classes, you can see that a lot of those men were quite large. This isn’t so surprising. This was new money. A lot of these guys, Brady included, had not grown up wealthy. So eating like this–plus the whiskey and cigars–was a sign of having made it.

All that said, Diamond Jim’s appetites were prodigious. George Rector, the early 20th century restaurateur and possibly the nation’s first celebrity chef, called Brady “the best 25 customers I ever had.” I am just going to copy the way Rector’s recollections are written up at Wikipedia here, because it really sums it all perfectly:

For breakfast, he would eat “vast quantities of hominy, eggs, cornbread, muffins, flapjacks, chops, fried potatoes, beefsteak, washing it all down with a gallon of fresh orange juice”. A mid-morning snack would consist of “two or three dozen clams or Lynnhaven oysters”. Luncheon would consist of “shellfish…two or three deviled crabs, a brace of boiled lobsters, a joint of beef, and an enormous salad”. He would also include a dessert of “several pieces of homemade pie” and more orange juice. Brady would take afternoon tea, which consisted of “another platter of seafood, accompanied by two or three bottles of lemon soda”. Dinner was the main meal of the day, taken at Rector’s Restaurant. It usually comprised “two or three dozens oysters, six crabs, and two bowls of green turtle soup. Then in sumptuous procession came six or seven lobsters, two canvasback ducks, a double portion of terrapin, sirloin steak, vegetables, and for dessert a platter of French pastries.” Brady would even include two pounds of chocolate candy to finish off the meal. Supposedly gamblers would make bets on whether he’d drop dead before dessert; as a matter of a fact he did have to cut down on his gargantuan eating several years before his death due to stomach troubles.

Amazing! Now, it should be said that this is probably exaggerated. Rector himself was known to embellish things and he is pretty much the source on this. So OK. But still, he ate a tremendous amount of food, even if this was a conglomerate description of different Brady repasts.

It goes without saying that Brady did not stop his fun at the dinner table. He was known for his women and his Broadway shows. He was the first person in New York to buy an automobile, which was the ultimate rich man’s toy in these early years. This was all the way back in 1895, so that’s really early. Then there were his ponies, which were among the best racehorses of the era and helped make him a famous rich guy instead of just a regular rich guy. The everyday person might not identify with the giant meals or the railroad theft, but playing the ponies? Most definitely.

It may not shock you that Diamond Jim here was not a man likely to live to 90. He died in 1917 of a heart attack. He was 60 years old. But he had so many other health problems, including gallstones, Bright’s disease, chronic urinary tract infections, etc. The autopsy also showed that his stomach was six times the size of the average person. Impressive my friend. Doctors have at least stated this was possible, since people are rightfully a bit skeptical about such claims.

Brady has had outsized role in popular culture. Everyone from Preston Sturges to Kurt Vonnegut based characters on him and he’s been referenced in popular culture ranging from The Beverly Hillbillies to The Odd Couple. What’s interesting to me about this is only that he managed to remain famous for so long. Because you couldn’t reference him today in popular culture like that. But as late as 1970 you could. Even today though, there is a restaurant in Michigan named for him.

Diamond Jim Brady is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

If you would like this to visit other railroad executives of the Gilded Age, which are such a special group of people, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Archibald McLeod is in Buffalo, New York and Joseph Smith Harris is in Malvern, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

And now the real question–who gets the 1,500th grave post!!!????

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