Robber Baron

The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes
Author: John Franch
The epic story of an American visionary and scoundrel
Paper – $28
Publication Date: Cloth: 2006; Paper: 2008
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About the Book

Standing alongside J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller, Charles Tyson Yerkes (1837-1905) was one of the most colorful and controversial public figures in nineteenth-century America. Robber Baron is the first biography of the streetcar magnate who was the mastermind behind Chicago's Loop Elevated and the London Underground and namesake of the University of Chicago's observatory. Yerkes also served as the inspiration for Frank Cowperwood, the ruthless protagonist of Theodore Dreiser's Trilogy of Desire: The Financier, The Titan, and The Stoic. Despite various philanthropic efforts, Yerkes and his unscrupulous tactics were despised by the press and public, and he left Chicago a bitter man.

John Franch has drawn upon every available source to tell the complete story of a man desperate to leave a lasting impression on his world. While Yerkes's enduring public works testify to his success, Robber Baron uncovers the cost of this boundless ambition.

About the Author

John Franch is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in scholarly and popular publications, including Sky and Telescope, Chicago History, and the Illinois Historical Journal.


"Robber Baron is a welcome addition to the surprisingly small shelf of full-length biographies of Chicago's storied entrepreneurs and can be read for profit by anyone intrigued by one of the most notorious of the men to have built the material foundations on which the city's prosperity has come to rest."--Chicago Tribune

"A superb biography: The research is thorough, the prose is clear, the narrative is compelling and the judgments are fair."--Wall Street Journal

"A fascinating window into the workings of laissez-faire capitalism. Yerkes, one of the most notorious self-made men of nineteenth-century America, embodied the drive, avarice, and unscrupulousness of his age--taking each to its limits. . . . Franch's narrative of the ups and down of Yerkes's career is well written and has considerable dramatic tension."--Enterprise & Society

"It's a fascinating tale of wheeling and dealing in the Gilded Age."--Sky & Telescope Magazine

"The biography that this rich subject deserves"--Railroad History


"Biographies of American capitalists are having a big impact today. Robber Baron is well-constructed and lively, and will fill an important gap in the historical literature of the Gilded Age."--Roger A. Bruns, author of The Damndest Radical: The Life and World of Ben Reitman, Chicago’s Celebrated Social Reformer, Hobo King, and Whorehouse Physician


Named Book of the Year by the Illinois State Historical Society (2007).