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History with Phil: Famous people who died broke

History with Phil: Famous people who died broke


After Rat Pack legend Sammy Davis Jr. died in 1990, he owed $7 million in income taxes.

This forced his wife, Altovise, to sell his mansion along with all of his personal items to satisfy the IRS. It would take the next seven years before all of the tax liability was settled. Even though an insurance policy left her with $2 million, she nonetheless still owed $2.7 million to the state of Florida in 2008.

By the time of Altovise’s death the next year, she lived in a roach-infested apartment with no refrigerator and dumpster-dived for recyclable bottles. Davis’ three adult children faired considerably better, receiving $500,000 each from his life insurance policy.

According to historians at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for American Music, composer Stephen Foster died at age 37 with 38 cents in his pocket. Despite being a much admired and prolific songwriter, at the time, there was no such thing as the music business as we know it today. He is considered the father of American music, writing, among dozens of other songs, "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,", "Oh! Susanna," and “Beautiful Dreamer”.

When Moby Dick author Herman Melville died in 1891, the New York Times noted that he had died "an absolutely forgotten man." Despite what is considered a masterpiece now, Moby Dick, published in 1851, sold only 3,000 copies during Melville's lifetime; his subsequent works were, for the most part, ignored.

By 1861, Melville was working as a customs inspector, earning a meager $4 per day (about $115 in 2021) – an amount that would not change during his employment. After he retired in 1882, Herman and his wife, Elizabeth, lived out their remaining years supported primarily by her brother. It would not be until the early 1920s that Melville would begin to be recognized as an acclaimed author.

Despite having invented AC motors and developing the electric power systems still in use today, inventor, physicist and engineer Nikola Tesla died in debt. A very large contributor to this unfortunate end was due to the fact that he tore up royalty contracts with the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, choosing instead to take a one-time payment of $216,600 in 1897. Before taking this action, George Westinghouse reportedly told Tesla: “Your decision will determine the fate of the Westinghouse Company”.

The money that Tesla had received was sunk into a failed effort to construct a 186-foot tall tower that was supposed to supply free electricity across the Atlantic without wires.

By 1912, he was displaying signs of mental illness, at one point, claiming 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. This sounds generous until you factor in all of the millions that Westinghouse had made off of Tesla’s inventions.

Horror novelist and poet Edgar Allan Poe essentially died penniless, according to the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. When Poe died on October 7, 1864, he had earned only $274 up to that point for the year (about $4,500 in 2021).

He earned even less money the year before, all the while attempting to support a family of three. In fact, Poe earned only about $6,200 during his entire lifetime (approximately $192,000 adjusted for inflation). Now that’s about scary as any of his stories!


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Choteau, (pronounced SHOW-toe) began as a trading post in 1873. It is located on the Teton River about 50 miles northwest of Great Falls on U.S. Highway 89 (around 90 miles south of the Canadian border).

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