History is full of riches-to-rags stories about fallen stars and tragic historical figures who died dead broke - or close to it. Some were starving artists, some made terrible decisions, and some were unjustly persecuted. But everyone on this list made huge, lasting contributions to our culture and still somehow croaked dirt poor. As you'll see, death by poverty is not fun.
Some of these famous broke people from history were simply ahead of their time, like composer and songwriter Stephen Foster, who would have made millions if he had something resembling a music industry to support him, or Oscar Wilde, who was persecuted and thrown in jail for being gay, sending him on a downward spiral of drinking and debt. Others, like Joe Louis and Sammy Davis Jr., didn't pay their taxes and died in massive debt, despite earning tens of millions in their lifetimes. Onward, intrepid reader, for more stories about historical figures who died broke.
It's widely known Vincent van Gogh died penniless, partially earless, and by his own hand, but the details of all three of those assertions are challenged by historians. Yes, Vincent died with no money to his name, but according to directors at the Van Gogh Museum, as revealed in Vincent's letters to his brother Theo - his sole means of financial support - he "had considerable room for maneuver during his career as an artist." Were it not for for his "ceaseless passion" for painting (which wasn't cheap) and all that pricey tobacco, booze, and frequent trips to the brothel, he would've been okay.
As for the ear, no one knows for sure why he did it, how much he actually cut off, or who he gave the ear to, and his famous suicide may have actually been an accidental homicide, according to a theory put forth by a pair of biographers in 2011.
- Age: Dec. at 37 (1853-1890)
- Birthplace: Zundert, Kingdom of the Netherlands
Best known for playing Dracula in 1931, actor Bela Lugosi was a horror superstar in the 1930s before becoming hopelessly addicted to morphine, methadone, and booze. When he died in 1956, the former King of Horror had a measly $1900 in the bank. "His only legacy was his reputation," according to biographer Arthur Lennig.
A big chunk of Lugosi's money went to Scotch, which he drank a bottle of daily in his last few years. Liquor store employee Ted Gargano delivered "five or six bottles" once a week to Lugosi's home:
The last time I saw him, he was in really bad shape. When I delivered the Scotch, he could barely stand. He was in his underwear, and he had, excuse the expression, shit all over his leg. He probably had been asleep and had an accident. He was shaking, and he grabbed the bottle of Scotch, opened it up in front of me and drank half the bottle just like that, like it was water. He was so far gone.
- Age: Dec. at 74 (1882-1956)
- Birthplace: Lugoj, Romania
Boxer Joe Louis made a staggering amount of money during his reign as one of the country's top pugilists in the '30s and '40s, but "it passed through his fingers quickly - and without the sort of accounting that the Internal Revenue Service expects," as his New York Times obituary notes.
When his career in the ring ended in 1951, Louis owed $1.25 million, a sum he never paid off before his death in 1981. The IRS just stopped trying to get it from him: "We have gotten all we could possibly get from Mr. Louis, leaving him with some hope that he can live," IRS commissioner Dana Latham told Congress in 1965. "His earning days are over.''
In 1974, Louis worked as a greeter at Caesar's Palace, but the paychecks were eaten up by escalating medical bills for the many "heart problems, emotional disorders and strokes" he suffered in his final decade. His third wife, Martha, was left broke when Joe died. A 1989 Chicago Tribune report said Martha "can no longer walk, but she can't afford a wheelchair of her own, either. She needs false teeth. And new glasses. But there is no money for any of those things."
- Age: Dec. at 67 (1914-1981)
- Birthplace: La Fayette, Alabama, United States of America
When Austrian composer Franz Schubert died of syphilis at 31 in 1828, it is said his "worldly possessions were valued at about twelve dollars" (about $324 in 2019). A friend remarked after his death. Schubert's "craving for pleasure dragged his soul down to the slough of moral degradation." Schubert, unfortunately, never really found material success with his compositions and had to scrape by giving music lessons.
After his death, Schubert's equally broke friends threw a charity concert to raise money for a monument to be erected over his grave. Below a bust of Schubert, reads the following inscription: "Death buried here a rich possession. But yet fairer hopes. Here lies Franz Schubert. Born January 31st, 1797. Died November 19th, 1828. Aged 31 years."
- Age: Dec. at 31 (1797-1828)
- Birthplace: Alsergrund, Vienna, Austria