Back Story: Baltimore, New Orleans share reclusive philanthropist
By By Frederick N. Rasmussen and The Baltimore Sun
Jan 31, 2013 at 4:58 PM
It is doubtful in all of the hullabaloo and hype leading up to Super Bowl XLVII that the name of one non-football-playing Baltimorean will be mentioned: John McDonogh, the philanthropist, who left an indelible mark not only on his native city but also in New Orleans for his endowment of public schools for poor children.
A reader, Bill Rowe, who graduated from McDonogh School in 1970, recently brought to my attention McDonogh's philanthropic endeavors, which probably outside of the McDonogh community have largely been forgotten.
Called the "Miser Millionaire" and the "Croesus of the South" because of his cantankerous and eccentric behavior, McDonogh was born in Baltimore in 1779, the son of a brickyard owner of Scotch-Irish descent.
McDonogh, who was raised on Hill Street, between South Charles and Sharp streets, began his business career as a clerk in the counting room of William Taylor, a wealthy Baltimore merchant and shipowner.
When he was 21, McDonogh sailed for New Orleans on a ship whose cargo was merchandise owned by the Taylor firm. When the vessel became becalmed in the lower Mississippi River, the enterprising McDonogh went ashore and rode on to New Orleans.
By the time the vessel landed in the city, he had arranged for the sale of its cargo. His nimbleness did not go unrewarded; Taylor promoted him to be the company's agent in New Orleans.
He then became a successful merchant and real estate speculator in his own right, and grew so wealthy that he was able to retire in 1806.
McDonogh's one excursion into love in 1811 ended in disaster and was largely credited for his withdrawal from New Orleans society, turning him into a misanthrope and recluse.
He had fallen in love with a wealthy 16-year-old Creole, Micaela Almonester, who shocked her suitor with her belief that plebeians and Americans were not worthy of marrying into her family. She later married a French count — it ended in divorce — and became the Baroness Pontalba.
It was the loss of Almonester that propelled him to vow that someday his name would be more important in New Orleans than hers, which eventually came to pass. He retreated behind the walls of his plantation home, which one newspaper described as being an "ancient and dilapidated chateau," where he worked 18 hours a day managing his vast lands and investments.
In 1818, McDonogh, who was a slaveholder, moved across the Mississippi and founded a town he named after himself, McDonoghville, which is the present day McDonogh. There he lived alone with his servants.
By the early 1820s, McDonogh had devised a manumission mechanism for the freeing of the slaves whom he had trained and educated, including two he sent to Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. They were able to purchase their freedom in about 15 years.
"His manners were rigid, severe, and repelling. Everything about his establishment partook of the spirit of the master — all was bleak, cold, dreary and forbidding," according to an account in the New Orleans Delta.
Several days before his death from cholera on Oct. 26, 1850, McDonogh told a fellow millionaire, "My days are numbered, and my affairs must be settled on this side of the grave."
He left the bulk of his fortune — estimated to be near $2 million — for the construction of schools in Baltimore and New Orleans, not just for poor children but freed black children.
McDonogh's heirs contested the will, and the case, McDonogh's Executors v. Murdoch, finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against them.
In 1858, New Orleans received $704,000 from the estate, which resulted in 30 McDonogh schools bearing his name; eight are still in operation. The McDonogh Monument in New Orleans' Lafayette Square, dedicated in 1898, also recalls his philanthropy.
His will also called for a "school farm" for underprivileged boys outside Baltimore, which led to the McDonogh School being established in 1873 with an initial class of 21 students.
He was buried in what is now called the McDonoghville Cemetery, near his home in Louisiana. In 1860, he was exhumed and reburied in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore. Since 1945, he has rested on the McDonogh campus in Owings Mills.
"I have one small request to make, one little favor to ask — and it shall be my last," he wrote in his will. "It is that it may be permitted annually to the children of the school to place a flower on my grave."