Chicago and Its Makers: A Narrative of Events from the Days of the First White Man to the Inception of the Second World’s Fair, Paul Gilbert and Charles Lee Bryson, 1929
Guardian of vast interests, storm center of the wheat pit in past years and dominating figure of one of Chicago’s most spectacular civil lawsuits, Joseph Leiter is perhaps the most colorful of the city’s possessors of great wealth
Entrusted with management of the estate of his father, Levi-an estate conservatively estimated at $30,000,000-Joseph Leiter has spent his recent years in Chicago overseeing the doings of the estate’s realty, in Washington at the home of his mother, in Wyoming, where his great ranch and irrigation projects demand the energies of a herculean farmer, and in Zeigler, Illinois, the mining town which he built himself.
Mr. Leiter was born in Chicago December 4, 1868, the son of Levi Z. Leiter, a pioneer merchant prince, and Mary Theresa Carver Leiter. After a preparatory course at St. Paul’s school, Concord, New Hampshire, he matriculated at Harvard and was graduated there in 188!.
Back in the city of his birth, he plunged immediately into his father’s myriad affairs-affair of a gigantic size in those days of the making of huge fortunes. In 1881 and 1882 he assisted the agent for his father and for the next six years himself acted as the agent.
In the autumn of 1897 Joseph Leiter began a campaign on the board of trade that established him at that time as the greatest buyer of wheat in the pit’s history.1 In the beginning of 1898 his store houses and elevators were crammed full. He was confident wheat would go up and his feeling was correct, for the price did jump. But Philip D. Armour was aware of Leiter’s corner. Though the lake shipping season was over, he hired a crew of ice breakers tugs and brought into Chicago all the wheat he get. The crash came when Leiter could not handle all the Armour wheat, but the young financier rallied, undismayed, and has stayed with the game.
Mr. Leiter became a director of the Chicago Edison Company, the Chicago and South Bend Rapid Transit Elevated Company, the Chicago City Railways Company and other traction interests. The affairs of these concerns he followed closely until his father’s death left him with the affairs of the estate almost entirely in his hands.
He invested heavily in mining interests and built Zeigler, Illinois, despite the jeers of hundreds who claimed they knew better. He supervised the subdivision of the city, and when the mines began to pay and the town grew to 15,000, the Leiter estate was richer for his efforts.
The same foresight prompted him to his extensive ranching activities in Wyoming. He bought up thousands of acres of land and began vast irrigation projects. Here he met with the same scoffing. Time alone will tell whether he was right in Wyoming as he was in Zeigler, but the first is a good indication that Joseph Leiter knows what he is about.
In 1926 Marguerite, his sister, who had become Lady Hyde, Countess of Suffolk and Berks, brought suit in Chicago courts to have Joseph removed as a trustee of the estate, which as the oldest child he had had a major part in managing. Twelve thousand pages of testimony were recorded, one thousand exhibits were introduced, batteries of distinguished lawyers argued, examined and cross-examined. Society attended with the nobility. The trial lasted eleven months. And Joseph as manager of the estate was exonerated and left in charge. The ruling was upheld on appeal. Following settlement of the suit in 1931, both Leiter and Lady Suffolk resigned as trustees, leaving the management of the estate to non-family members.
Mr. Leiter in addition to his duties as trustee is now president of the Zeigler Coal Company; a director of the American Security and Trust Company of Washington, D C., and the Washington, D. C. Gas Company.
In Chicago he maintained a residence at 229 Lake Shore Drive. Much of his time was spent in his mother’s home, 1500 New Hampshire Drive, in Washington.
Joseph Leiter became a horse racing fan and owned a $5,000,000 stable in his later years. He died in Chicago on April 11, 1932, of complications resulting from a cold he caught while attending races in New Orleans.
Chicago Tribune, August 22, 1897
Board of Trade gossip is not the most reliable news in the world, and men have been wrongfully accused ere this of making fortunes in big bulges when they were not guilty. Hence it follows that apologies are hereby tendered to any gentleman who may feel resentment because of his inclusion or exclusion in or from the above table. That large fortunes have been made in the upward movement of the grain market is beyond argument, but, like the foul ball that goes over the grand stand, the spectators of the game usually are too much interested in its progress to watch for what becomes of the ball after it leaves their ken.
“Smart” people on the curb are sure, however, that so and so has made a “killing” on the market, because they know he “got in early” and “staid with it.” If he “got out” surreptitiously, when he should have known better, it was his own fault, of course, and he is given no sympathy. The “I told you so” fellow is in his element at the foot of La Salle street these days.
The old timer on the board will find something interesting to say about each one of the happy number included in the above list. Most of them are men who have devoted a lifetime to the business and their present good luck is more nearly a matter of realized profits on many years of devotion to the business than outsiders will belikely to understand. There is one name, however, which is a striking exception to the rule. This is Joseph Leiter.
A new star of the first magnitude does not appear in the financial firmament every day, and perhaps none has ever risen more auspiciously than that of young Joseph Leiter. His name was unknown on the board six months ago. Now it is spoken with the same sort of awe and respect that R. P. Hutchinson and Ned Pardridge commanded in years gone by. For Joseph Leiter is credited with being the biggest winner in the world, with one possible exception, on this world wide movement in the upward tendency of the price of wheat. Two others share with him this distinction—Charles A. Pillsbury of Minneapolis and B. S. Barnes of St. Louis. But both of the latter are old hands at the game, and their success excites no wonder.
It is one of those moss covered, bifurcated traditions that sons of preachers always turn out badly, and that the sons of rich men never “amount to much.” But the world is full of examples to the contrary. When it first became noised that Leiter was “in the market” one curbstone gossip said the another:
“I hear Leiter is in heavy on the bull market.”
“O, I guess not. The wheat pit has no attractions for Levi Z. Leiter.”
“I mean Joe Leiter.”
“Who the devil is Joe Leiter?”
The profane curbstone orator knew very well who “Joe” Leiter was, but his amazement found no better expression. He had heard of “Joe” Leiter as the son of the one of the richest men Chicago has produced, and perhaps had “tabbed” and labeled Joseph as one of the “sons”—an appellation not uncommonly used persons who do not claim to be “sons” in designating others who do not claim to be “sons” in designating others who have the misfortune to be born with fathers of some note in the world.
It is nevertheless true that Joseph Leiter has been known to the public heretofore chiefly as a society man, who might possibly have an ambition to “burn” money instead of make it, so far as the curbstone and other divisions of the public knew. And when Joseph Leiter appeared on the horizon of the rising wheat market this summer the amazement was greater than if he had been plain “Joe” Smith or “Joe” Johnston.
Mr. Leiter saw a good thing and knew it when he saw it. The fact that he has made $500,000 or $1,000,000—as the gossips say—does not prove that he saw this good thing earlier or appreciated it more highly than others who have made less than 10 per cent of that figure. But it is believed that Mr. Leiter has made thousands where others have made cents, and henceforward he must submit to finding his name mentioned in the samll type market reports as well as in the society chronicles which are embellished with pictures of pretty girls.
Chicago Board of Trade, 1887
Of course Mr. Leiter himself does not appear in the wheat pit with disheveled raiment, fighting and gesticulating in the manner from which the galleries derive so much bucolic wonderment. It is doubtful whether he has been within the walls of the Board of Trade during the time that this comfortable little fortune was being piled up by his brokers. A quiet, unostentatious gentleman named George French has been ther, however. Yet even Mr. French has not precipitated himself into the hurly burly of the bit. Mr. French has been Mr. Leiter’s agent in his operations, and Mr. French in turn has dealt with the regular commission houses. There are three of these which are supposed to be carrying the Leiter line of bull wheat, the Allen, Greer & Zellar company, C. B. Congdon & Co., and Norton, Worthington & Co. The firm first mentioned has figured conspicuously in the market reports the last few weeks, and before Mr. Leiter’s name was mentioned in this connection frequent referrals were made to “the Allen-Greer crowd.” Doubtkess there are many persons associated with Mr. Leiter, through common interest, in the bull side of the market, and it was not until recently that Mr. Leiter emerged from the obscurity of an anonymous member of “the Allen-Greer crowd.” Mr. French, who has prospered himself, it is said, by the appreciation in the market quotations, and who is credited with being Mr. Leiter’s alter ego in the business, is a New Yorker, and other New York men are said to be affiliated closely with Mr. Leiter.
It was six months ago when Mr. Leiter first essayed the market. He was a bull then and made money. His brief career on the board has not been entirely a summer’s dream, if reports are to be credited. His September line was sold out at 75 cents to 78 cents, and he went short. But a brief reverse was a mere incentive to greater victories, and when the market got around 80 cents he was back on the bull side, and now is said to hold between 3,000,000 and 5,000,000 bushels on the September option, with an ssured profit on that alone of nearly half a million. He also is said to have made a neat sum in corn.
Among the other notable beneficiaries of Dame Fortune is found in the name of David R. Francis, ex-Governor of Missouri and a member of the Cabinet of former President Grover Cleveland. Mr. Francis is an old hand at the business and has made comfortable fortunes in past years the same way. It is one of the most essential facts inn telling the story that St. Louis and the St. Louis clique with which Mr. Francis is intimately associated were the first to “get in on the ground floor.” They were the biggest bulls at low prices and they have stuck it out through months of uncertainty. In fact, it is asserted that St. Louis and the seaboard have grabbed off the bulk of the profits in the Chicago market this spring and summer, a circumstance which Mr. Leiter’s success does much to balance. It is believed by Chicago operators that B. S. Barnes of St. Louis has made not less than a million dollars on wheat in the last six months. Credit is given more to Mr. Haarstick than to any other, although he may not be among the heaviest plungers, for it is said that the “tip” on which St. Louis has pinned its faith came originally from him. He is the owner of a barge line which transports immense quantities of wheat to Europe, and through his correspondents he had early information of the shortage in the supply of the rest of the world. His information was of such an accurate character that there was no reason to doubt it.
1The Trilogy of the Epic of the Wheat by Frank Norris, includes the following novels:
The Octopus; A Story of California.
The Pit: A Story of Chicago.
The Wolf: A Story of Europe.
These novels, while forming a series, will be in no way connected with ech other save only in their relation to (1) the production, (2) the distribution, (3) the consumption of American Wheat. When complete, they will form the story of a crop of wheat from the time of its sowing as seed in California to the time of Consumption as bread in a village of Western Europe.
The first novel, The Octopus, deals with the war between the wheat grower and the Railroad Trust; the second, The Pit, is a fictitious narrative of a “deal” in the Chicago wheat pit; while the third, The Wolf, will probably have for its pivotal episode the reliving of a famine in an Old World community, Mr. Norris died on Oct. 26, 1902 in San Francisco.
In 1903 The Pit was adopted into a play and into a card game which is still very popular today.