Thursday, June 9, 2011

June 14, 1897 --- Man Overboard

Near the island of Madeira, as The Scot, out of Capetown, steams north to England, the colorful diamond millionaire, Barney Barnato, jumps overboard and drowns.

A poor Jewish boy from London's East End, Barnato went off to South Africa with £30 in his pocket and a plan to sell cigars. He ended up making a fortune in the Kimberly diamond fields; at one time, his only rival was the great Rhodes himself. In a showdown, however, Rhodes won. Barnato was left, nonetheless, quite rich with a 10% share of de Beers.

Returning to London, he launched the Barnato Bank, Mining and Estates Company and, in the so-called "Barnato boom", saw his fortune grow by another  £2.5 million. He was a legendary character; he walked through the Palm Court at the Savoy on his hands, bought his way into the exclusive Carlton Club and planned a Park Lane mansion - left unfinished at his death - that was denounced by neighbors for its vulgarity.

But the boom went bust in 1895, and Barney was hard hit. Returning to South Africa, the simmering conflict between the Boers and the British further depressed his investments. He began to suffer from hallucinations and nightmares, complaints that were certainly not helped by his heavy drinking. He would often blurt out, "They're after me." Breaking down completely, his doctor advised he return to England. Being closely watched at all times, Barnato appears to be in good spirits this day, particularly jovial, in fact, at luncheon. Sitting on the deck with a friend, he asks for the time. In the moment it takes the friend to check his watch, Barnato dashes to the rail and hurls himself into the ship's churning wake. His body is soon recovered. He was 44.

When the ship arrived in Southampton four days later, a coroner's jury quickly ruled "death from suicide through temporary insanity." He leaves an estate worth £3,000,000 pounds. Reaction in London was little more than respectful. The Times noted that he was "known in certain sections of society... willing to overlook some eccentricities." The New York Times correspondent dismissed Barney as "a vulgar, boisterous, treacherous, loathsome little cad."

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