The strangest millionaire who ever drew breath
Sir William Macdonald gave away $15 million but he wouldn't bail his brother out of jail. Tobacco made him rich but smoking made him furious. This magnificent miser was justly called
The newspaper story began: “Unwept if not unhonored and unsung, the queerest millionaire who ever lived in Canada has been cremated in Montreal.” He had been, the Star Weekly's elegiac note on the death of Sir William Macdonald in 1917 went on, the “strangest combination of lavish generosity and penuriousness that ever drew breath.”
So he was.
No member of his estranged and embittered family attended his funeral, but the oration was delivered by a prominent Canadian, Sir William Peterson, principal of McGill University and closest friend of the frugal millionaire.
This short slim fiery Scot was the founder of W. C. Macdonald Inc., where his formidable ghost lives on. What would Sir William Macdonald think? What would he do? These questions arc still asked occasionally by the men who run Canada’s largest independent tobacco business (thirty percent of all cigarettes sold).
During his lifetime Sir William gave away more than fifteen million dollars to worthy causes, yet his black coat was so old and shabby it was turning green. His office was furnished with an old deal table and a kitchen chair. The present owner, Walter Stewart, one of two brothers who were clerks in the company and to whom Macdonald left everything, uses that same table and chair.
Macdonald’s pride in Canada and her future
was immense. It prompted him to build McGill University’s agricultural college, Macdonald College, at Ste. Anne de Bellevue, at a cost of about five million dollars. He left the college a fund of three million dollars. He also gave more than five million to the parent school, McGill, and in his last three years was its chancellor.
One of a dozen chairs he endowed was filled by Professor Ernest Rutherford when he was pioneering atomic research. Macdonald equipped the lab-
oratories Rutherford required for his experiments.
Macdonald's heir, Walter Stewart, is still donating large sums both to McGill and Macdonald College. His latest gift has been to increase substantially the endowments of the twelve Macdonald professorships. Stewart does this because he thinks Macdonald would have liked it.
The original benefactor made his vast fortune out of tobacco but never smoked himself and threatened to send home to Prince Edward Island a nephew he caught smoking. He quarreled bitterly with his father, yet he was greatly attached to his mother and took her on a European cruise the year before her death.
When his brother Augustine was jailed in the U. S. for smuggling between the States and Canada during the American Civil War, he wouldn’t raise a finger to get him out. Yet he educated his other brother’s children at the best schools, and set his nephews up in jobs afterward.
His faults as well as his virtues were big. It seemed impossible for him to do things by halves. While he shunned publicity and was secretive by nature, professors and students of Macdonald College have, through the years, laboriously researched and assembled the available information about his life and background.
His grandfather was the eighth hereditary chieftain of the Glenanadale branch of the clan Macdonald. He brought his clansmen to Prince Edward Island in 1772 and 1773. Donald Macdonald, his son, was a member of the Legislative Assembly of the island from 1839 to continued on page 32A
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1854, and it was as the son of this highly respected member of the community that William was brought up.
The family destined William to be a priest; instead of being sent to Stonyhurst school in Lancashire, England, like his two elder brothers, he served as an acolyte in the local Roman Catholic parish church. There, to his father’s chagrin, the strong-willed young man developed an aversion to religion which he retained the rest of his life.
Furious, his father placed him as an apprentice in a general store at Charlottetown. His jobs were the most menial and the proud young Scot felt deeply humiliated. Documents in the library of Macdonald College relate that one day William knocked down a pile of breakable goods and was expected to make good the damage out of his salary of fifteen pounds a year. A manipulation of the funds in the till allowed him to do this suspiciously soon. The subsequent discovery resulted in his dismissal and he left the island on the worst possible terms with his father.
From the ages of sixteen to twenty he was a junior in various counting houses in Quebec City and Boston. He was often in penury, and his enforced thrift at this time colored his attitude toward money for the rest of his life.
But in the counting houses he laid the basis for future success. On top of his drive and ability, he developed meticulous attention to detail and the genius of his later years to provide so fully for almost any eventuality.
In 1849 William and his second brother, Augustine, sailed from Quebec for Boston. He was working in a counting house there when he wrote to his father, reproaching him for the treatment he had received and asking for money to ship as a sailor to California — for 1849 was Gold Rush year.
He did not get the money and only two years later, at the age of twenty, he was consigning goods from Boston to Halifax on his own account. He persuaded his eldest brother to open a store in Charlottetown in which he, William, would be the silent partner. A consignment of goods was dispatched to Charlottetown in the schooner Responsible, but she ran aground. Although some of the cargo was saved his brother considered it too soiled and, much to William’s fury, he refused it.
The store venture was dropped. William paid a brief visit to New York but by 1852 he and Augustine were in business in Montreal as oil and commission merchants. Montreal was a jumble of untidy docks, dirty dark streets and one university with fewer than a hundred students. In this setting the young Scot’s ambition hardened into a fierce determination. He spelled it out forcibly at the end of one of his letters of the time:
"I shan't stop until that signature is GOLD wherever it may go.”
By 1854 when he was twenty-three, he and his brother were firmly established and their aging father, now president of the Legislative Council of Prince Edward Island, paid a surprise visit with their
youngest sister whom he was taking to the Ursuline Convent in Quebec. The reunion was a happy one — and only just in time, as their father died in Quebec City in early August, a victim of the cholera epidemic.
Before he died he. wrote home to John Archibald, the eldest brother, that the Montreal firm's turnover was forty thousand dollars a year and that William and Augustine hoped to clear twenty thousand dollars in five years.
In 1858 Macdonald Brothers and Company, Tobacco Merchants, was founded in Montreal. The times were favorable because of the American Civil War; the brothers were not above a little smuggling across the border, and from the first the enterprise prospered.
In 1863 the brothers parted and two years later the name was changed to W. C. MacDonald, Tobacco Merchant and Manufacturer.
William was now thirty - four, small, with a trim beard streaked with red, fiery piercing blue eyes and as Scottish as the lochs and the wild heather. Claymore in hand, he might have been one of his robber ancestors raiding the more placid English. But he was in Canada and the booty was hard cash in the shape of profits from his tobacco.
“Tobacco with a heart”
In those days tobacco meant plug tobacco; the lumber camps, especially, were as much in need of tobacco as a modern army is. Hard tack, fat pork and molasses needed plug tobacco to complete the luxury of living.
Soon the heart - shaped Macdonald labels were seen everywhere, on the docks, down the mines, in the lumber camps.
There was a spark for the imagination in one of those plugs of tobacco. Molasses-laden, gummy and black, it told the story of the tobacco plants growing like weeds, packed and baled and ported to the wharves of Montreal, into the warehouses of Macdonald, sorted, stripped, flavored, pressed and shaped ready for the case, the counter and the camp.
The “tobacco with a heart” sold lustily. William Macdonald was a millionaire at forty. He figured in fractions of a cent and the plantation owners in the south knew him as a hard buyer. He kept costs down: the minimum of staff, of machinery, of buildings. Everything was paid for in cash or with a marked cheque— no invoices, no accounting system to eat up money. And more important than the methods was the man, the slight but fiery figure of Macdonald himself, driving, directing, channeling, fixing recalcitrants with piercing blue eyes.
In 1869 he bought a fine house at 3 Prince of Wales Terrace, now part of Sherbrooke Street, and asked his mother and his sister Helen to live with him. To lure his mother from the more primitive Prince Edward Island, he wrote that the new house "even has indoor plumbing!” His next-door neighbor was Doctor, later Sir William, Peterson, principal of
McGill, and a firm friendship soon sprang up between them.
Until the last few years of his life Macdonald’s office was a twelve - by -twelve room containing no more furniture than could be bought for fifty dollars. His private desk was the six-dollar deal table. On the wallpaper was the imprint of a workman’s soiled hand. He would neither renovate nor buy new furniture. Nor would he have a telephone.
"You’d like well to let the public have me by the ear any time they wish, wouldn’t you? Well, they’ll not. " he said, his eyes flashing and beard waving in indignation at the very suggestion, although he did agree some twenty years later to a private line between his office and the factory two miles away.
Keeping out of the public eye was almost a mania with Macdonald. He never gave interviews to the press; there was always a dour Scot as watchdog outside his office in Notre Dame Street to keep intruders away. He never publicized his charities. He wouldn’t even advertise his tobacco.
"My goods advertise themselves,” he used to say brusquely.
The tobacco baron's refusal to advertise may have been bound up with one of his strongest adversions; he hated cigarette smoking. Once, at Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, he was looking over the site of the proposed institute and hall he was donating. The officials thought it would please him to see them smoke; wherever he went he saw human smokestacks. Dr. Mills, the president, heard him muttering something but did not understand until, opening a door, Macdonald was met with a smoke cloud and venemously exclaimed. "Bah," and shut the door. "I wanted to go into that office, but the vile stuff and the stupidity of the users! Let's go somewhere clean.”
His one pastime was reading; in his library there were books (mostly classics like Dickens) and magazines piled on shelves, tables, and even on all the available chairs. Dressed in his habitual coat of black broadcloth, squidgy black bow loose under a negligent collar, glasses over his sharp nose, he would stand up at a lectern reading for hours at a time. Lord Strathcona and Sir William Van Horne, the founders of the CPR, once tried to interest him in paintings. It was no use. t here was no reality in pictures, only in books.
He drove to work in an overcoat that had once been grey but. like everything he had. gradually turned green. He always had a muffler at his chin as he clattered away in his rickety gig to the old offices in Notre Dame, a few steps away from the Bank of Montreal, in which he was the largest shareholder.
Up the creaking staircase he went, into rooms that would have given the blues to any but a man who cared nothing for mere comfort or decoration, all for business.
He never married, nor even, as far as anyone knows, contemplated marriage. Perhaps the basis for his fierceness was an incredible shyness; perhaps all his energies were already channeled into his beloved business.
Macdonald turned down all outside directorships except two. that of the Bank of Montreal, to which the government of Lower Canada account was transferred in 1864, and the Royal Trust. In his own company everything from the smallest operation up was under his personal control.
His friend Sir William Peterson described Macdonald at the peak of his wealth and power:
"He was never known to subscribe to the funds of a political campaign, in society he had no ambitions and was never a drawing-room figure. He never hankered to be high up in the cabals of those who instruct cabinets and premiers. He lived much unto himself, a terribly practical man of no visionary ideas, no convictions about the best means of saving the country from this, that, or the other. Here was a man whose word was law, whose personality was bigger than a system, who in public or private life was never known to warp himself one iota to please anyone merely for the sake of pleasing. Hardship only could have produced such a personality. He never could have inherited wealth. He must make it and dispense it.”
Macdonald's contributions to education were formidable. He founded Montreal’s Rural and Consolidated Schools, which by bringing in more students from a wider radius could raise the standard of teaching, as a larger school could afford a better teacher. He built the McGill union building, the engineering and science buildings at McGill, and erected the vast Macdonald College which is still one of the finest agricultural colleges in Canada.
In 1898 Queen Victoria made him a knight. At first he tried to decline but when he heard that many of his best friends were behind the offer and that he could not withdraw without giving offense, he accepted. From this time on he signed his name Sir William Macdonald in one word with a lower-case “d.”
Despite all Sir William’s good works, his bad relations with his family still stain his memory. When his mother, and then his sister Helen died, his eldest niece, Anna Rebecca, came to keep his house. She was both lovely and intelligent. Sir William grew devoted to her; this makes
his subsequent behavior all the less explicable.
In 1894 Anna Rebecca married Alain Chartier MacDonald, a cousin, against Sir William's wishes. The break was absolute. Sir William not only refused to have her in his house again but never gave another penny to his brother's family. Sir William was in an agony of spirit afterward; he paced the house in a passion of resentment and grief.
He was as unforgiving to other members of his family. He once bought a stocked farm on Prince Edward Island for a nephew. That autumn the nephew came to borrow money to buy hay.
Sir William looked at him. “Sell that farm," he said. There was no reprieve.
Again his brother Augustine was jailed in the U. S. on a charge of smuggling. Reports of this are vague. The first time the court ruled in Augustine’s favor but an appeal to a higher court convicted him. He was fined a large sum of money and sent to jail from 1879 to 1885 on his refusal to pay. What is clear is that Montreal society at that time was very shocked at what it considered William’s willful refusal to lift a finger to help his brother.
Yet his generosity to women could be fabulous. He once showed a visitor, a recently married cousin visiting him with her husband, through the finest jewelry store in Montreal, asking her afterward what was the most beautiful thing she had seen. She mentioned a certain necklace.
When she returned to his house for dinner that night the necklace was on her plate.
To another visiting relative he said, "There are some pictures in the top drawer of that cupboard I would like you to have.”
Opening the drawer, she protested that there were no pictures but only some bank notes of a very large denomination.
“Well,” he said, smiling, “that is just my little joke. The bank notes are for you.” He had a great affection for his family—so long, that is, as they did not cross his will.
His acts of kindness were numberless. Mrs. Muldrew, warden of the women's residence at Macdonald College, relates that Macdonald once came to her and said, “There is a girl here as a student whose mother used to do considerable work in my home. I want you to find out
what her name is and if her mother needs anything.” Macdonald later helped the girl generously—and anonymously.
This was not an isolated case but a consistent pattern he followed. The only thing he demanded was that the gifts remain completely anonymous. A talented violinist, a girl with a promising voice, anyone he thought had talent he helped to the best of his ability.
He had great civic pride. When he heard that Montreal would not pay for general vaccination in the smallpox epidemic of 1885 he donated twenty-five thousand dollars to the project. When a newspaper brought about a civic investigation involving charges of bribery against the police, he sent funds without restriction.
A girl in his tobacco factory was injured. On the advice of a lawyer the mother made an excessive claim and refused an offer for two thirds of it. Sir William contested the suit and won judgment denying the claim. Some time later he sent for the girl and arranged periodical payments equivalent to the amount he originally offered.
But it is the tales of his personal frugality, with all his millions, that stick. "In that sharp-lined eagle-eyed face." wrote Augustus Bridle of the Toronto Star in a sketch of Sir William, "could he seen the lines of the ancient proverb. ‘Waste not. want not.’ ”
In his old age Sir William called on a furrier and asked whether a fur coat as warm as the one he was wearing, but lighter, was obtainable. The furrier brought out one that suited the millionaire perfectly. But when a price of a thousand dollars was mentioned, he quickly said. "On second thoughts I have decided to continue to wear my old coat.” Putting it on. he hurried out of the shop.
He once sat at Mrs. Muldrew’s table at Macdonald College. He refused tea and drank milk. He then refused butter on his bread, saying. "Thank you. but I do not need butter when I drink milk."
A doctor who attended Macdonald during an illness wrote. "I found him sleeping in an old iron bed in a small third-floor room devoid of all decoration —not even a picture on the wall—and furnished with oniy a bureau and two chairs. He certainly looked the picture of misery in that room."
Nor did he believe in too much comfort for others, especially professors. When Dr. fait McKenzie, the eminent sculptor who was medical director of McGill’s physical-education department, was offered a job at the University of Pennsylvania at an increase of one thousand dollars, Macdonald was asked to provide a raise to keep him at McGill.
“Indeed I will not," Macdonald exploded. “Professors will be giving dinner parties if they get such high salaries! Don't forget there are just as many good fish in the sea as ever came out of it."
For a long time Macdonald bought his eggs from Fred tiford of the poultry department at Macdonald College. He always paid for them personally, the exact change being tied up in a handkerchief which he would undo to count out the coins one by one.
But the day came when he arrived at the poultry building and told tiford. "I have had to stop taking eggs from you.
I find 1 can get them for two cents a dozen less in Montreal."
Although he gave lavishly to charity. Macdonald gave only on his own terms. Once a Methodist church in Montreal sent a committee member to see him. In the bare office the Methodist began to tell his story, gaining confidence as he went along. His final remark was that a Methodist customer of Macdonald’s
was a delegate to the conference and added his pleas to his own.
Macdonald had listened quietly. Suddenly his blue eyes gleamed. He called the clerk. “Find out,” he said rapidly, “what the account of Mr. — is with the firm.”
The caller waited, far more confident, as he knew the delegate’s yearly account was very large. The clerk replied with the figures.
But instead of reaching for hts cheque book to make a donation. Macdonald rapped out fiercely, “Write Mr. — that his account is now closed with us forthwith.”
The clerk gasped with astonishment.
“See that the account is closed." repeated Macdonald. “Mr. — can’t use his connection with this business to hold it up for a donation to any cause, no matter if it is a church.”
As well as a quick temper Macdonald had a turn of satirical wit. Once a young man was being shown out of his office when a friend came in.
“Did you see that young man?” Macdonald asked. “He was a very nice, a very kind young man. He offered me a wonderful opportunity to invest in an enterprise that was going to yield ten percent. 1 could not refrain from telling him that he should have gone to those who needed ten percent, rather than to me who am content with four percent.” And as he told the story he rubbed his hands with glee.
When the cost of Macdonald College was proving so much higher than the estimate, Dr. Robertson, the school’s first principal, recommended some economies in building materials, among them sometiling cheaper than the marble that had been originally specified for partitions between the lavatories.
When the principal had finished speaking the millionaire fixed him with a stony stare. “More young men have been corrupted by what they have seen written on lavatory walls than many of us imagine,” he said. “Writing on marble is easily effaced.”
“Leave it marble!” he thundered.
In the closing years of his life people expected something out of the ordinary from Sir William Macdonald. He complied.
To test the guarantee of the contractors that the new buildings at Macdonald College were fireproof, when the bursar’s office was ready he had wood shavings put on the floor and kerosene poured on them.
While fire engines stood ready outside he applied the match personally. The fire scorched the doors and slightly warped a steel beam in the ceiling but expired without the help of the local fire service.
On another occasion he stubbed his toe on the wooden walk that then led from Sherbrooke to McGill. He asked for an estimate for concrete walks by four o'clock the same afternoon. Promptly at four he wrote out a cheque for four thousand dollars. The work was completed for less and the college sent him back a cheque for two hundred dollars.
No more was heard until the next meeting of the board of governors when Macdonald announced, to the dismay of his colleagues, that he had recently received a decided shock in his relations with the university. Asked to explain, he said, "I have made many payments to this institution, but have never expected to receive money from it. Now this cheque for two hundred dollars has been sent me because a piece of work was accomplished for less than was estimated. So rare an occurrence deserves to be mentioned here.”
With his death in 1917 came the end
of an era. Such men as Macdonald belong to the pioneering days of a nation. Already the close-fisted hard-headed little Scot is blurring into the legend of the parsimonious philanthropist. But Percy Nobbs. a well-known Montreal architect, is one of the few people still living who knew Macdonald well. From the stories he tells one wonders how far behind those fierce blue eyes lurked the smile— whether the man himself did not conscientiously add gloss to the legend.
One spring Sunday Percy Nobbs. a young man thrilled to get his first big
job, called on Sir William to discuss the plans for the Union Building at McGill University. To his surprise Sir William agreed to substitute stone for brick throughout, involving a greatly increased cost.
They had tea and when Nobbs got up to go it was raining. Seeing this. Sir William insisted on wrapping up the plans, and brought from a cabinet neatly folded wrapping paper and a number of pieces of old string.
Noting the architect’s astonishment at this mixture of extreme generosity and
parsimony, the millionaire explained with a chuckle: “Mr. Greenshields collects Dutch daubs. Sir William Van Horne collects Japanese snuff boxes, but after a visit from you, all / can afford to collect is string.” Then, turning a piercing look on the young man, he said. “And what do you collect?"
“Being interested in Greek coins.” recalls Dr. Nobbs, "I murmured, ‘Coins. Sir William.’”
“Coins.” echoed the rich bachelor with sparkling eyes. “Yes, so do I! So do I! So do I!” ★