Our Merciless Millionaire.

Item Description

Frederick Opper. Chromolithograph. Puck. October 29, 1884.

This caricature shows railroad industrialist William Henry Vanderbilt donating money to fund the construction of the medical college of Columbia University in New York City. Although philanthropy is usually positive, Puck implies that Vanderbilt's action will have negative consequences for the American people by linking Vanderbilt's famous exclamation, "The public be damned!" to the caption "The Public be--Doctored!" This offers an indictment of the changing American medical system of the period, which saw the development of medicine, specifically doctors, as self-interested political entities.
The idea of corruption is portrayed by the doctors gleefully waving menacing surgical instruments, the cheering undertaker outside the offices of “Crape and Plantem” Undertakers, and the shadowy personification of Death in the bottom left, accepting money to fund his operations. By contributing to those who profit from death—the doctors and undertakers, according to the caricaturist, Opper—Vanderbilt seems to be actively ensuring the public's damnation, earning the label of "Merciless" that Puck bestows upon him in the title. The Vanderbilt family was seen as the prototype of the robber baron elitists who pursued their own selfish interests without regard for the public, as is also reflected in A Stay of Proceedings.