Guilty or innocent? The saga of Samuel Insull

October 26, 2011

We've been hearing much lately about greedy capitalists. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, one Chicago tycoon became a national symbol of greedy capitalists. His name was Samuel Insull.

Insull was born poor in London in 1859. As a young man he caught the eye of Thomas Edison, becoming the great inventor's private secretary. Electricity was the new technology of the 1890s, and Sam got in on the ground floor. It was like being the right-hand man of Steve Jobs a century later.

Insull helped build America's electrical industry, though his talent was financial, not scientific. After revamping the General Electric Company, he settled in Chicago. He merged, modernized, and expanded. By the 1920s his holdings included Commonwealth Edison, Peoples Gas, the Chicago Rapid Transit Company, and several interurban railroads.

He knew how to make money, and thousands of small investors bought into his companies. Insull was also a philanthropist. He built the Civic Opera House and footed much of the opera company's bill himself.

Then, in 1929, the Stock Market crashed. As the country moved into the Depression, Insull's companies suffered tremendous losses. Most of his personal fortune was wiped out, along with the life savings of those thousands of small investors. 

Someone had to take the blame. Insull, the hero of the 1920s, was now the villain of the 1930s.

Insull was in London in October 1932. Back in Chicago, a county grand jury indicted him for fraud and embezzlement. That was followed by federal charges a few months later. Before he could be extradited, Insull skipped out of England.

He dodged authorities for over a year. Then, in the spring of 1934, Insull was arrested in Turkey. He'd been on a ship headed for Egypt when the Turkish cabinet decided to let the U.S. have him.

Insull was brought back to Chicago to face the music. He claimed to have done nothing wrong, to have lost money like everyone else. He said he was being made a scapegoat by demagogue politicians.

He did have a point. Insull was tried three separate times, in three different courts. He was acquitted all three times.

After the last trial, Insull left the U.S. for good. He died penniless in a Paris subway station in 1938. But he has been immortalized, in an offbeat way.

Monopoly, the board game, was introduced when the Insull trials were front page news. The next time you play, take a look at the cartoon Monopoly Man. He's the image of Samuel Insull.