The 10th April 2016 will mark the 140th anniversary of the death of Alexander Turney Stewart. Stewart was born in Lisburn, to Scottish Protestant parents on October 12, 1803. Three weeks after his birth, Stewart's farmer father died of tuberculosis. About two years later Stewart's mother remarried and followed her new husband to America, leaving Stewart behind to be raised by his grandfather, John Turney. Turney wanted his only grandson to become a minister in the Church of Ireland. At age seven Stewart was sent to a village school, and in 1814 entered Mr. Neely's English Academy. When Stewart's grandfather died in 1816 he was brought into the home of Thomas Lamb, an Irish Quaker.
Upon completing his formal education at The Belfast Academical Institution he wrote to his mother in New York City. While incubating a desire to move there the fifteen-year-old Stewart was prevailed upon by Lamb to gain some business experience by earning money as a grocer in Belfast. Quickly wearying of the work, Stewart packed his bags in the spring of 1818 and left for New York with the money he had earned as a bag boy. After six weeks at sea Stewart arrived at his mother's home. He became a $300 a year tutor at Isaac N. Bragg's Academy, a school for wealthy youths on Roosevelt Street., and joined an Episcopal church run by Reverend Edward Mitchell. There he met his future wife, Cornelia Mitchell Clinch, the daughter of Susannah Banker and James Clinch, a wealthy ship chandler.
Historians know little about Stewart's life between 1818 and 1822, except that he returned to Ireland upon receiving his grandfather's inheritance of a value between $5,000 and $10,000. Upon returning to New York City in 1823, Stewart married Cornelia on October 16. Before marrying, Stewart opened his first store, located at 283 Broadway, which sold Irish fabrics and domestic calicos purchased with funds from his inheritance and earnings as a tutor. Between 1846 and 1848, the construction and finishing details were completed of one of Stewart's most famous buildings, the "Marble Palace" at 280 Broadway. This establishment, "the cradle of the modern department store", the largest retail store in the world at that time, sent A. T. Stewart & Company to the top of America's most successful retailers.
His flagship store offered imported European women’s clothing, and its second floor offered the first women’s 'fashion shows'. A.T. Stewart & Co. had branches in different parts of the world and owned several mills and factories, with Stewart amassing an estimated annual income of $1million in 1869. In 1868, Stewart began receiving letters from women in rural parts of the U.S. requesting his merchandise, to which Stewart replied and sent out the requests, even paying postage. Once received, women would send back the money needed to pay for their orders and so mail order shopping was born. By 1876, he profited over $500,000 from the mailing business alone, and other retailers like Sears, Montgomery Ward and Spiegel's quickly followed suit.
In March 1869 President Ulysses S. Grant offered Stewart the position of Secretary of the Treasury, but he was not confirmed by the United States Senate. Stewart also served on several New York State Chamber of Commerce Committees between 1862 and 1871. Though never elected as a New York State officer, he attended Lincoln's funeral as a Chamber delegate.
Stewart incorporated the Central Railroad of Long Island in 1871 and completed it in 1873, this became part of the Long Island Rail Road system in 1876. Before his death he was building at Hempstead Plains, Long Island, the village of Garden City, with the purpose of affording his employees comfortable and airy housing at a moderate cost.
Bust honoring Stewart in the parking lot of Garden City (LIRR station).
His business success is estimated to have created a fortune equivalent to approximately 90 billion 2012 US dollars by the time of his death on 10 April 1876. Out of the twenty-four clerks who entered A. T. Stewart & Company in 1836, six still worked for the company in 1876. To these long-term employees, Stewart showed his gratitude by leaving them more than $250,000 (equivalent to $6,000,000 in 2015) in his will.
The body of Stewart was stolen from its tomb, between nine o'clock on the evening of November 6, and daylight on the morning of November 7, 1878, 2 years, 6 months, 24 days after his burial at St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery. The remains were held for $20,000 ransom. The ransom was paid and remains were returned, although never verified as his. A local legend states that the mausoleum holding his remains is rigged with security devices which will cause the bells of the Cathedral to ring if ever disturbed