Before we get to the hardcore humbug, a few heavy disclaimers are in order. The archetype of the miser is inherently judgmental, a way of shaming something that's often considered a virtue: thrift. It's also often ageist, as the penny-pinching rich person is typically an old man (for an early example, see the Roman comedy Aulularia or "Pot of Gold," by Plautus). This makes sense, as frugality often results from painful life experiences of poverty. The miser character has also been inextricably linked to stereotypes about the alleged stinginess of certain ethnic groups, such as Jews and Scots. As impossible as it is to condone these prejudices, it's just as difficult to separate them from this colorful tradition, whose denunciation of mean-spiritedness can, itself, be mean-spirited. There's the further problem of definition: must a miser be someone lacking in generosity toward others, or simply someone who lives pathologically cheaply compared to their means? We've included examples of both, though they carry very different implications. Finally, we've avoided some still-living cheapskates since, as they say, you can't libel the dead. To the heirs of the rest—whether they hit the jackpot or got frozen out completely—we mean no offense. Like Tiny Tim said, "God bless us, every one!"
Our first miser was the real-life inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge in that holiday perennial, A Christmas Carol. Though the imagination of Charles Dickens synthesized many inspirations to create the character (including a gravestone he saw in Edinburgh belonging to one Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie), he later admitted to modeling Scrooge on the 18th century Member of Parliament and moneylender John Elwes. Though Scrooge's physical appearance and concern for personal economy were modeled after Elwes, he was different in many ways. Elwes would do absolutely anything to cut costs in his own life, but was generous enough in lending to friends. He wasn't parsimonious in a spiteful way, he was more of a paranoid eccentric. One example: he once ate a piece of pancake that he had kept in his coat for two months. There are many more such anecdotes, bizarre and well worth reading.
We glanced upon the anti-Semitic tinge that's often implicit in the miser image (even the Scot that inspired Dickens had an unusual Old Testament name), but in real life, this Portuguese Sephardic Jew was famous among his own community for his extraordinary thrift. Born in Vienna in 1739, he lived most of his life in London, selling off his property and holing up at an estate known as "Starvation Farm" (because he would barely feed his cattle), where £200,000 was found hidden in various places after his death.
This Welsh miser inspired a character mentioned in a different Dickens book, his last one, Our Mutual Friend. A certain Blackberry Jones is held up as an example of stinginess in this novel, which is much concerned with the topic. (Dickens, bleeding heart that he was, had a persistent fascination and horror toward misers.) Jones was a vicar who apparently took his clothes from scarecrows, and visited members of his congregation at mealtimes so they would offer him some free food. However, when he died it was found that he had amassed a large fortune.
Daniel Dancer, like many compulsive cheapskates, came from a family that put a premium on extreme economy. His grandfather, father, sister, and brothers were all well-known skinflints, but Daniel outdid them all. He refused to change or wash his clothes, or to bathe, lest he be forced to spend money on soap. It is said that he once "found a partly decomposed sheep, which his sister transformed into a two-week supply of meat pies." Dancer was also referenced in Our Mutual Friend, where a character asserts that he "lived and died in the foulest and filthiest degradation."
The Collyer brothers are often cited not only as misers, but as another type of character that seems to fascinate our present age more: hoarders. Hailing from a wealthy old New York family, they lived together in a brownstone in Harlem, where they allowed telephone service to be cut off in 1917, and then all utilities in 1928. Their reclusive life in the house was broken only by nighttime journeys to collect scraps of junk and food from the garbage. The brothers came to a grisly end when one of the booby traps they had set up to thwart robbers crushed Langley, causing the blind (and thus appropriately named) Homer to die of starvation.
Hetty Green was known as "the Witch of Wall Street." This daughter of Quaker whaling magnates inherited $7.5 million in 1864 dollars, a fairly vast sum of money. She turned out to be an investing genius and a groundbreaking woman in American business history. Her fame, however, derived from her extremely modest, even compulsively cheap lifestyle. She wore the same old black dress every day (thus the nickname), refused to use heat or hot water, and reportedly spent an entire night searching for a two-cent stamp. Her desire to avoid medical bills may have cost her son his leg. But by the time she died she was worth around $200 million in 1916 dollars, making her possibly the richest woman in the world.
A very different type of stinginess qualifies Wellington R. Burt for our list. This timber baron from Saginaw, Mich., was one of the richest men in America at the turn of the last century. He lived well enough, though not ostentatiously, and was a generous philanthropist in Michigan. Yet what he's most remembered for is his tight-fistedness toward his own family. After his death in 1919, his will was found to contain smaller annual payments to his children and grandchildren than to his domestic servants. A "spite clause" specified that none of Burt's descendants could receive the bulk of his fortune until 21 years after the death of his last grandchild. The outraged offspring appealed, but to no avail. The condition was finally fulfilled in 2010. Just last year, more than $100 million was distributed between 12 of Burt's great-, great-great-, and great-great-great-grandchildren.
This miser was also a miner forty-niner. All the information we have on him is a bit sketchy, but he was apparently a Kentucky-raised Irishman who, after some time spent as captain of a steamer on the Mississippi, made his fortune in the gold rush, and settled in San Francisco. He was a devout Presbyterian who always went to church but never chipped in for the collection. Unlike many of our misers, he really was just plain greedy. He stiffed workers and business partners but was always on the lookout for another moneymaking scheme, including an extended boondoggle involving buying hogs in the South Pacific. Davidson fled to England to evade taxes when the Civil War broke out, but returned afterward and died a rich man in San Francisco.
Getty, the oil tycoon who was the richest man in the world for a time in the 1950s and 1960s, was hardly a miser in the sense of leading a life of personal deprivation. He lived the jet-set lifestyle of your typical 20th century billionaire, but he was also a serious, shrewd, and hard-working businessman who ended up writing a book called How to be Rich. A couple of anecdotes qualify him as an extreme penny-pincher, however. First, he had a payphone installed in his house for the use of guests. Second, and most notoriously, he refused to pay a ransom when his grandson was kidnapped, even after his ear was sent in the mail. Though Getty's stated reason (negotiating with terrorists would only encourage these acts in the future) had its logic, he later acceded to the demands -- but only if the boy's father would return the money with interest.
The prototypical rich witch of the 1980s and 1990s was "The Queen of Mean" herself, hotel and condo maven Leona Helmsley. She became famous for a 1989 conviction on extortion and tax evasion charges, and for her quote, "we don't pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes." When she died she left $12 million to her Maltese dog, Trouble.
But wait, you say: the Carnegie who left so much money that half the nonprofit entities in America still seem to be named after him a century later? Yes, the very one. His story is remarkably similar to Scrooge's and shows the complicated interplay between thrift and generosity. Carnegie helped build America out of steel, and made himself an entrepreneurial giant, in large part thanks to his legendary Scottish parsimony. However, this tight-fistedness at a time of great social turmoil led to one of the most appalling labor battles in history: the Homestead Strike. Gunfire, dynamite, flaming trains, the Pinkertons, state militia, an attempted assassination attempt: it was a flat-out civil war, with dozens of casualties. This economic street fight changed his perspective in a downright Dickensian way. He had long professed to abhor great concentrations of money, saying "the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry!" and he followed through: much as Bill Gates is doing today, Carnegie devoted the second half of his career to planning his giving.
Yossele the Holy Miser is one of the great stories of Jewish folklore, and it does seemingly have a historical basis. Yossele lived in Kraków, Poland in the 1600s and was famous as the richest and stingiest man in the city's Jewish community. The people resented his hoarding and when he died they delayed his burial and threw him in a pauper's grave. But then all the charitable funds in the community mysteriously dried up, and it turned out that Yossele had been anonymously supporting the poor villagers, never allowing his involvement to be known. So be careful before you judge another's generosity; the purest charity of all is given without thought for reputation.