History is full of riches-to-rags stories about fallen stars and tragic historical figures who died dead broke – or close to it. Some were starving artists, some made terrible decisions, and some were unjustly persecuted. But everyone on this list made huge, lasting contributions to our culture and still somehow croaked dirt poor. As you’ll see, death by poverty is not fun.
Some of these famous broke people from history were simply ahead of their time, like composer and songwriter Stephen Foster, who would have made millions if he had something resembling a music industry to support him, or Oscar Wilde, who was persecuted and thrown in jail for being a homosexual, sending him on a downward spiral of drinking and indebtedness. Others, like Joe Louis and Sammy Davis, Jr., didn’t pay their taxes and died in massive debt, despite earning tens of millions in their lifetimes. Onward, intrepid reader, for more stories about historical figures who died broke.
As for the ear, no one knows for sure why he did it, how much he actually cut off, or who he gave the ear to, and his famous suicide may have actually been an accidental homicide, according to a theory put forth by a pair of biographers in 2011.
A big chunk of Lugosi’s money went to Scotch, which he drank a bottle of daily in his last few years. Liquor store employee Ted Gargano delivered “five or six bottles” once a week to Lugosi’s home:
The last time I saw him, he was in really bad shape. When I delivered the Scotch, he could barely stand. He was in his underwear, and he had, excuse the expression, shit all over his leg. He probably had been asleep and had an accident. He was shaking, and he grabbed the bottle of Scotch, opened it up in front of me and drank half the bottle just like that, like it was water. He was so far gone.
When his career in the ring ended in 1951, Louis owed $1.25 million, a sum he never paid off before his death in 1981. The IRS just stopped trying to get it from him: “We have gotten all we could possibly get from Mr. Louis, leaving him with some hope that he can live,” IRS commissioner Dana Latham told Congress in 1965. “His earning days are over.”
In 1974, Louis worked as a greeter at Caesar’s Palace, but the paychecks were eaten up by escalating medical bills for the many “heart problems, emotional disorders and strokes” he suffered in his final decade. His third wife, Martha, was left broke when Joe died. A 1989 Chicago Tribune report saidMartha “can no longer walk, but she can’t afford a wheelchair of her own, either. She needs false teeth. And new glasses. But there is no money for any of those things.”
After his death, Schubert’s equally broke friends threw a charity concert to raise money for a monument to be erected over his grave. Below a bust of Schubert reads the following inscription: “Death buried here a rich possession. But yet fairer hopes. Here lies Franz Schubert. Born January 31st, 1797. Died November 19th, 1828. Aged 31 years.”
Blake was largely unappreciated in his lifetime, and had a hard time making ends meet. He was also a recluse: “He was always very poor, and generally worked in such seclusion that at one period, near the end of his life, he did not leave his house for two years, except to go out for porter,” according to literary critic Alfred Kazin. “It was the isolation of a temperament run on fixed ideas; and incidentally, of a craftsman who could not earn a living.”
By 1863, Melville was working for a “scanty livelihood” as a customs inspector in New York, a position he held for 20 years, earning an unchanging $4 per day (about $73 in 2016). After he retired in 1885, Herman and his wife Elizabeth lived out their remaining years supported by a legacy from Elizabeth’s brother. Thanks to a generous father-in-law, the couple also lived rent-free from 1851 on.
Melville’s literary reputation “sank into an oblivion” following Moby Dick “that was destined to endure until about 1919,” according to 1926 reevaluation dubbing him “one of the outstanding figures in American literature.”
Just how poor Wilde was, exactly, is hard to say. An early biography from 1905 claims he died in “comparative poverty,” meaning he probably wasn’t totally destitute. Wilde managed to leave about £250 ($30,000 in 2016) to his children, for example – a small amount considering how successful he was before being famously imprisoned for “gross indecency.”
However, more recent biographies reveal that during Wilde’s final years in Paris, he lived almost entirely on the generosity of his friends, spending most of that charity on alcohol. “I have discovered,” he wrote at the time, “that alcohol taken in sufficient quantity produces all the effects of drunkenness.”
In 1901, Tesla lost most of his money on the Wardenclyffe Tower project, an attempt at a “187-foot tall tower that would transmit free electricity across the Atlantic, with no wires.” By 1912, his mental health began to deteriorate – he showed signs of OCD and autism, for example, and claimed he had fallen in love with a pigeon. He died in debt in 1943, even though Westinghouse had been paying for his room and board in New York for years – the least they could do, considering how much money he earned for them.
Poe died on October 7, 1864, and had only earned $274 so far that year (about $8,246 in 2016). He made even less the year before, January-to-December, all while trying to support a family of three. Now that’s scary.
Foster was staying at the American Hotel in New York City in January 1864 when he was “taken with ague and fever,” according to his brother Morrison. One day Stephen fainted and “fell across the wash basin, which broke and cut a gash in his neck and face.” Foster later died at Bellevue Hospital.
Hospital records indicate Foster owned the following: “Coat. Pants. Vest. Hat, Shoes, Overcoat.” Besides the 38 cents – his total assets – his wallet also had a scrap of paper in it that read, “Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts,” which some think might have been the title of an unwritten song.