18. Russell Sage

richest americans
  • Adjusted wealth*: $53.6 billion
  • Lived: 1816-1906

Born poor in upstate New York, Sage started out as a grocery store clerk. But he was a prodigious worker, saver and trader, and soon had enough money for his own shop. From there, he expanded into horse brokering, shipping and making loans to friends.

Sage hit his stride in New York City, trading stocks and pioneering the system of puts and calls still used on Wall Street today. These gave Sage the ability to buy or sell stock at predetermined prices. He was a friend of Jay Gould (No. 10), and the two often teamed up to manipulate share prices.

Famously stingy (he was once caught stealing a cheap fan from the boardroom of Western Union), Sage's wife gave away most of his fortune after his death. One of the main organizations she founded -- the Russell Sage Foundation -- specifically works to improve living conditions in the United States.

First published June 2, 2014: 6:18 PM ET
Source: *Most nominal wealth estimates are from The Wealthy 100 by Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther, and include wealth at time of death, including bequests. Estimates were then calculated as a fraction of the overall economy at time of death by Sam Williamson of Measuring Worth, and then presented in 2013 dollars based on the size of the current U.S. economy. Estimates for Gates and Buffett provided by Wealth-X.

Biographical information from The Wealthy 100 by Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther, Encyclopedia Britannica, and The Prize by Daniel Yergin.

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