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There is something romantic and poetic about a once-famous figure taking his last breath alone and impoverished in some forgotten place. The image makes for such a dramatic ending, such stories are often perpetuated even when they aren’t true. But some of the most talented writers, thinkers, scientists, and musicians, who were either celebrated in their day or have received their due decades after their death, really did die broke. Whether because of their own actions or circumstances beyond their control, here are 10 brilliant minds who went to the grave without a penny for the boatman.
Early in the 20th century, brilliant scientist Nikola Tesla was a world-famous inventor and regular headline news-maker. As for genius, we have Tesla to thank for alternating current, radio, wireless technology, neon lamps, and X-rays. Sadly, Tesla’s life was a series of run-ins with guys like Thomas Edison, who famously stiffed Teslaout of $50,000, and Guglielmo Marconi, who stole the credit for the invention of the radio by using 17 of Tesla’s patents. Tesla died penniless in 1943 in the New Yorker Hotel, where he had lived for 10 years after being evicted from another hotel for not paying his bill.
2. Vincent van Gogh
Today his iconic paintings sell for tens of millions of dollars each and his style is immediately recognizable to people all over the world. But in his lifetime, van Gogh made only $109 from sales of his paintings. He was a troubled artist who struggled with anxiety and mental illness most of his life, which was not helped by his inability to find appreciation for his work. Cutting off his earlobe in December 1888 was the start of his last downward spiral that culminated with van Gogh (presumably) shooting himself in the chest. His last words were, “The sadness will last forever.”
3. Edgar Allen Poe
Poe’s attempt to live off writing alone was not a successful experiment. Days after being found wandering the streets drunk and babbling, wearing clothes that weren’t his, Poe proclaimed, “Lord help my poor soul,” and died in October 1849. And poor he was. He had been writing to magazine editors begging for money, and although The Raven wascelebrated immediately upon its debut in 1845, and has helped establish Poe as the literary genius we know today, it did not give him financial security. He died penniless and a meager 10 people attended his funeral.
This Greek philosophical genius from the 400s BC died penniless because, by his own admission, discussing philosophy was the only occupation he found worthwhile. What we know of Socrates’ life is sketchy and pieced together by his students and followers, most notably Plato. Plato relates that Socrates refused to accept payment for teaching the young men of Athens. Whatever the story, we know that Socrates was executed by poisoning for the crime of not believing the state gods, and his last words were requesting that a follower pay a debt of a rooster to Asclepius, the god of healing.
5. Oscar Wilde
“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go.” Oscar Wilde reportedly said this of his room in the Hôtel d’Alsace in Paris where he would soon die in November 1900, penniless and under an assumed name. The once-acclaimed writer had suffered mightily five years earlier when he was jailed for the crime of homosexuality, while his plays were at the height of their popularity, and the legal fees forced him into bankruptcy. Today Oscar Wilde is remembered as a genius wit, one of the cleverest men in history.
The celebration of the Moby Dick author’s genius did not begin until well after he could enjoy — or profit from — the recognition. It took a solid 30 years after Herman Melville’s death before his epic whaling novel was recognized as a masterpiece of American literature. By then he had long since abandoned any hopes of living off his writing, instead working as a customs inspector for 19 years. When he died of a heart attack in 1891, he was broke and virtually unknown. The only paper to mention his passing referred to him as a “long forgotten” author.
7. Joseph Gandy
Reviews for a 2006 book on the life of Joseph Gandy referred to him as a “stifled genius” and “our greatest architectural artist.” But history has mainly forgotten the genius that was Gandy, who lived and worked in Britain in the early 1800s. Despite being a major figure in Romantic culture and creating some of the best architectural drawings of all time, he was a commercial failure and was thrown into debtor’s prison. He died in a windowless asylum that his family had him committed to, and the whereabouts of his grave are unknown.
8. Stephen Foster
If you’ve ever hummed “Camptown Races,” you were appreciating the work of musical genius Stephen Foster. He’s a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and he’s known as “the father of American music.” Unfortunately, this fatherhood did not come with much financial success. In a time before copyright laws, the money he made from writing songs could not keep him out of poverty. He died in Bellevue Hospital in New York City in 1864 of a head injury, with nothing in his pockets but $.38 and a scrap of paper that read “Dear friends and gentle hearts.”
9. Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg
Its importance has been weakened a bit now that we have digital media, but Gutenberg’s printing press has been kind of a big deal for more than 500 years. However, late in his life Gutenberg became embroiled in a dispute with his creditor, and the man sued and won control of Gutenberg’s Bible workshop and half the Bibles printed. Thus, Gutenberg was bankrupted and lived out the rest of his years in obscurity. He died poor in 1468 and was buried in a church cemetery which was later destroyed and the grave lost.
10. Antonio Meucci
At least in the United States, Alexander Graham Bell has enjoyed far more acclaim than Antonio Meucci, whose name likely invokes a resounding “Who?” from most Americans. But in 2002, Congress gave Meucci his just credit for the invention of the telephone, or the “teletrofono” as he had called it. Bell simply called it “mine” when he stole the idea from Meucci’s papers, which he had sent to Bell’s company in the hopes of securing financial backing. Meucci sued him but died, penniless, in 1889, never having been able to profit from his genius.