“But in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” – Benjamin Franklin
April 15, as we all know, is tax day. The dreaded writing of checks, the rush to find stamps and hit the post office after work (for those of us who procrastinate) and the joy/disappointment that comes with receiving our tax refunds. St. Louisans in the 1870s were none too fond of tax day either, as it turns out. Some sleuthing on the part of Campbell House’s senior researcher, Tom Gronski, turned up a couple of St. Louis Post-Dispatch articles from February 1879 showing not only that wealthy folks in St. Louis weren’t fond of paying their taxes, but that they actively hid money, often avoiding paying anything at all when tax season rolled around.
The investigative piece exposes a common practice among St. Louis’ upper echelon:
“One favorite way of evading the tax is to place their money in the hands of some real estate agent for loaning, and the money is turned over by notes to some confidential clerk by the agent, who signs the note and back it ‘without recourse.’ This clerk may not have a dollar of property and it is very easy to transfer notes of this kind, so that no on has any at the time the assessment returns are made.”
The articles go on to highlight some of the dodgy dealings of a few prominent St. Louisans, including J.B.C. Lucas, Charles Chouteau, Rudolph Bircher, and others. Check out the gallery below as the author works his way through each person’s legally declared property (or suspicious lack thereof) when the assessor came calling.
Soooo, you might ask: “Where did Robert Campbell fall in all of this?” An excellent question. And, as far as we can tell, he was at least somewhat up front with the City of St. Louis about his wealth when he filed his 1878 state tax return (federal income taxes were not collected until 1913). The Post-Dispatch reports a list of the wealthiest St. Louisans and what they declared in terms of real estate and personal bank account holdings. Robert (highlighted in yellow) seems to be pretty up front about what he has in the bank, listing $319,000 in real estate holdings and just over $32,000 in his own personal bank account.
Some of his counterparts, however, have suspiciously little listed (highlighted in red). One has to wonder how such high rollers managed to roll so high with $0 in the bank. That’s not to say Robert comes out of all of this scot-free, though. As up front as he seems to be in this report, he had to have been doing a bit of finagling of his own. Just a few years earlier Robert had sold the site of the former Southern Hotel for hundreds of thousands of dollars and at the time of his death one year later in 1879, his estate was worth millions by today’s estimations.
So, the moral of this story is that some things never change and tax-dodging and exploiting loopholes are an age-old American art. Have a happy April 15th!