A.T. Stewart’s Valuable Bones

It can certainly be considered a sign of success when even your bones have monetary value. Not too many people in history have had their bones stolen and held for ransom, but Alexander Turney Stewart was one such person.

A.T. Stewart, an Irish immigrant, pioneered the concept of modern shopping. The idea that seemingly existed forever was actually created and implemented in the mid-19th century by Stewart. He arrived in New York City as a poor immigrant, but his gift for business and natural intuition for sales led to his unprecedented success. He came up with the then-groundbreaking ideas of making ready-to-wear clothes and displaying them in shop windows with price-tags. He introduced with the idea of a “sale,” i.e., discounting prices according to season and demand. He pioneered the concept of a department store, aka selling lots of different kinds of merchandize under one roof. By providing fixed prices and letting people browse, he turned shopping into a pleasurable and social activity. It took a nuanced understanding of market demands, the quality of products, and above all, human psychology. A.T. Stewart realized that people want to peruse merchandize without being obligated to buy, that upper class clientele find it tasteless to haggle, and, finally, that people appreciate the convenience of a one-stop shopping experience. A.T. Stewart died a very wealthy man.

Having been buried in the graveyard of St. Marks In-The-Bowery along with other luminaries, he was supposed to earn the well-deserved rest after a lifetime of trade. Alas, that’s not was happened!

In 1876, two and a half years after his death, his body was dug up, stolen, and held for ransom. Unable to locate the body snatchers, the family offered a reward of $25,000. Apparently the grieving family and the thieves didn’t see eye-to-eye on the subject of the corpse’s cost and negotiations stalled. According to the memoirs of former NYPD police chief written almost a decade later, Mrs. Stewart personally reopened the negotiations with the robbers, offering 20,000. In 1884, six years after the robbery, the bag of bones—hopefully A.T. Stewart’s—were finally delivered to the widow.

While alive, A.T. Stewart built his business on the following principles: no haggling and no changing price. Is it ironic or tragic that his widow broke those rules by bargaining and getting her husband’s remains for the discount price of $20,000?

A.T. Stewart’s recovered remains were finally put to rest in a new family vault in the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, Long Island.

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