Peabody, George (Feb. 18, 1795 - Nov. 4, 1869), merchant, financier, and philanthropist, was born in South Danvers, now Peabody, Mass., the son of Thomas and Judith (Dodge) Peabody. His first ancestor in America was Francis Peabody, who emigrated from England in 1635 and settled at Topsfield, Mass. The poverty of his parents prevented George from receiving more than a rudimentary education, and at the age of eleven he was apprenticed to a grocer in Danvers. He subsequently held positions of increasing responsibility in Newburyport. Mass., and Georgetown, D. C. Here, in 1814, he assumed the management of Elisha Riggs's wholesale dry-goods warehouse and was soon admitted to partnership. The next year Riggs & Peabody moved to Baltimore, and in 1829, upon the retirement of Riggs, Peabody became senior partner. He made various trips to England on the firm's business, and in 1835, while in London, performed the first of his great public services, negotiating a loan of $8,000,000 for the state of Maryland, then on the verge of bankruptcy. For his generous act in refusing a commission he received a vote of thanks from the state legislature.
Peabody was an incorporator and the president of the Eastern Railroad, built in 1836, and his experience in railroad financing showed him the profitable character of capital importation. Hence, in 1837 he settled permanently in London, where he had previously established the firm of George Peabody & Company, specializing in foreign exchange and American securities. So powerful did he become that he competed successfully for American business with the Barings and the Rothschilds; while in the panic of 1857, though in a weakened financial position, he challenged the hostile Bank of England to cause his failure. In 1854 he took Junius Spencer Morgan [q.v.] into partnership.
As his business prospered and his wealth assumed large proportions, he added to his intuitive gift of shrewd trading a growing sense of international and social obligation. He became in a way an unofficial ambassador and his great influence was exerted towards preserving Anglo-American friendship. In the years when American credit was much shaken abroad (in 1837 three American houses in London were compelled to suspend payments, and in 1841 nine states suspended interest payments and three repudiated their debts), he used his name and funds to restore confidence. When in 1851 America was humiliated by the failure of Congress to appropriate money for a display at the Crystal Palace exhibition, his gift of $15,000 made it possible to show American products and inventions beside those of other nations. When money was required to fit out a ship to search for Sir John Franklin, the Arctic explorer, Peabody's $10,000 equipped the Advance, in 1852, for Elisha Kent Kane [q.v.]. His large and elaborate Fourth-of-July dinners, at which the English nobility met American visitors to London, became a feature of the London season.
Peabody's altruistic activities were not limited to international affairs, however. He retained an abiding love for his native land, which he manifested in a succession of munificent gifts. Notable among these were $1,500,000 to found the Peabody Institute at Baltimore, Md., which provides a free library, an endowment for lectures, an academy of music, and an art gallery; $250,000 to found the Peabody Institute, Peabody, Mass., which contains a library and some important memorabilia of George Peabody, and affords an endowment for lectures; $150,000 to establish the Peabody Museum of natural history and natural science at Yale; $150,000 to establish the Peabody Museum of archeology and ethnology at Harvard; $140,000 to found the Peabody Academy of Science in connection with the Essex Institute, at Salem, Mass.; and $3,500,000 (The Peabody Education Fund) for the promotion of education in the South. His bequest to his nephew, Othniel C. Marsh [q.v.], enabled the latter to make the collections which established him as one of the leading American paleontologists of his time. Most of Peabody's large fortune was spent in philanthropy, a generosity which was unusual and startling in that age. His most considerable benefaction in England was the donation to the City of London of a sum of $2,500,000 for the erection of workingmen's tenements, which still provide clean, comfortable, and airy quarters for hundreds of poor families at a rent less than they would have to pay for inferior rooms elsewhere.
Peabody's liberality won him love and honor in England as well as in his own country. In 1867 Oxford granted him the honorary degree of D.C.L. In 1869 he was given the freedom of the City of London, and in the same year a statue of him was unveiled by the Prince of Wales on the east side of the Royal Exchange. When he refused to accept either a baronetcy or the Grand Cross of the Bath, Queen Victoria sent him an autograph letter of appreciation and a large miniature of herself. He died in London upon his return from a visit to America in 1869. After a funeral service in Westminster Abbey, his body was placed on board H. M. S. Monarch and, escorted by a French and an American naval vessel, was brought to America where, after elaborate ceremonies, it was buried in Danvers, Feb. 8, 1870.
Although he was a shrewd merchant, and for the most part made a point of ignoring all direct requests for charity, Peabody had qualities which made him highly attractive to both men and women and especially to young people. His deeply lined face and snow-white hair seemed an index to his character--acute, strong, yet benevolent. He was kindly, generous both to his numerous relatives (he never married) and to the objects of his great benefactions, and, though simple in his personal tastes, moved urbanely in London society. Moreover, in his business dealings there was no trace of the dishonorable practices to which the great American financiers of the next generation sometimes stooped.
[Peabody Papers at Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass., consisting of Peabody's correspondence as he left it, newspaper clippings, and miscellaneous data; Phebe A. Hanaford, The Life of George Peabody (1870), excessively laudatory; Lewis Corey, The House of Morgan (1930); J. L. M. Curry, A Brief Sketch of George Peabody (1898); Md. Hist. Soc. Fund Pub. No. 3, Jan. 1870; S. H. Peabody, Peabody . . . Geneal. (1909); N. Y. Daily Times, June 1, 1853; Evening Gazette (Boston), Oct. 11, 1856; Times (London), Nov. 5, 1869; Dict. Nat. Biog.]