10 Cultural Giants Who Died Coinless

The notion of the starving artist is nothing new, and whether it was because they toiled in obscurity, were swindled or the victims of financial mismanagement, some of the most famous contributors to culture sadly perished in poverty.

1. Vincent van Gogh
Though his life was short, Vincent van Gogh left the world with almost 2000 creations, almost all of which were unappreciated in his own time (he only sold one painting during his life and was supported by his brother Theo). Despite the fact that he is now considered a master painter with an almost immeasurable impact on art and culture, Van Gogh died penniless in 1890 at the age of 37 by his own hand. He is quoted presciently observing, "I can't change the fact that my paintings don't sell. But the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture."

2. Mathew Brady
The "Father of Photojournalism" is best known for his invaluable photographs of the American Civil War. Though he was a successful and well-known portrait photographer before the war began (Abraham Lincoln's likeness on the $5 bill is modeled after Brady's portrait of him), he spent around $100,000 during the war on his photographs, which numbered in the thousands. The pictures brought the truth and grotesque horror of the war to the doorsteps of all Americans - a marked change from the propaganda and half-truths coming from print journalists at the time. Unfortunately, after the war no one wanted to be reminded of the horrors of it, and Brady was unable to sell his photographs or recoup his losses. Eventually Congress bought his collection for a mere $2,840, but Brady's life had already been ruined by poverty and alcoholism, and he died in relative obscurity in 1896.

3. Joe Louis

The world heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949, Louis is still considered by many as the greatest boxer of all time. Unfortunately, most of his fabled earnings (estimated around $4.6 million) went to his handlers. Joe Louis' extreme generosity in regards to his family (including paying back the city of Detroit all of the welfare funds his family had received), investments in failed businesses and terrible bungling of his taxes (he owed the IRS one million dollars at the end of the 1950s) by his manager's personal accountant, left Joe sorely in arrears.

Eventually, public outcry at the mistreatment of the star lead the government to ease up on their claims, allowing Louis to pay taxes in proportion to his current income, which Louis helped create by appearing as a guest quiz shows, and even as a greeter at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, although the champion died in 1981 still haunted by his debts.

4. Franz Schubert 
Like van Gogh, Schubert was exceptionally prolific in his short life as a classical composer (he died at the age of 31, just one year after the death of his contemporary, Beethoven). Also similarly to van Gogh, Schubert's works were of little interest to those of his age, and considered inferior to Bach and Beethoven. Because of his financial difficulties, Schubert often lead a rather bohemian and at time nomadic lifestyle, but it did not slow down his production. His music influenced later composers such as Brahms and Mendelssohn, and the complexity and beauty of his melodies are now thought to be on par with Mozart (you may recognize one little song of his called "Ave Maria"), solidifying his place in the canon of neglected geniuses who died in obscurity.

5. William Blake
William Blake was another artistic luminary working in obscurity in his day. Though he died poor and unknown, he did not have any debts. Blake was one of the first artists of the 18th century to rebel against Rationalism and move forward into the Romantic Age, and was unsurprisingly considered "mad" because of it. At the time of his death Wordsworth wrote of him, "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."

Blake was known not only for his paintings but also for his fantastic engravings that illustrated his poetry. Despite attempts at exhibitions of his works, no interest was attracted at the time, which did not deter (thankfully) Blake from continuing to produce. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Bunhill Fields in 1827.

6. Edgar Allan Poe
Without a doubt now one of the most recognizable names in literature, Edgar Allen Allan Poe was one of the first writers to attempt to make a living on just that, and unfortunately embodied the Romantic notion of life as a starving artist because of it. Facing a myriad of rejections early in his career, even after Poe was published (in 1839 with a volume of short stories, "Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque") he initially received no money for his work. Despite the relative success of stories such as "The Gold Bug," Poe was unable to make enough money to support his family. Whether attempting to start his own magazines or simply working at journals that ultimately failed, Poe's revenue stream seem to have a life-long curse of bad luck. His beloved wife died in 1847, and two years later Poe was hospitalized and died in utter poverty under famously mysterious circumstances.

7. Oscar Wilde 
Though Wilde was a celebrity of the age and his works sold well, he was known to have extravagant spending habits. After his imprisonment he had been given a very small yearly allowance from the estate of his deceased wife, and was not helped at all by his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas, who had at that time just inherited a large sum. Living essentially in poverty in Paris, he was known to wander, bumping into old friends and spending what little cash remained on alcohol. Reportedly, when a doctor attending to him during his last days asked to be paid for his services, Wilde joked that he would die as he had lived - beyond his means.

8. Sammy Davis, Jr.
The famous Rat Pack singer is reported to have made over $50 million in his lifetime, but died in 1990 $15 million in debt (much of it, like in the case of Joe Louis, was owed to the IRS). Though he made around $1 million a year at the height of his career, the notorious "swinging world" of the Rat Pack nearly bankrupted Davis.

According to Matt Birkbeck's book "Deconstructing Sammy," Davis actually rejected surgery in 1989 on his throat that may have saved him, because of his dismal finances. He reasoned that without his voice he couldn't sing and therefore couldn't make any more money. Birkbeck spoke to NPR in 2008 to talk about Sammy's regrettable decline from superstardom to poverty.

9. Johannes Vermeer
Vermeer was a 17th-century painter with eleven children, massive debt and a habit of working very slowly and painstakingly on his paintings (the most famous of which is probably the "Girl With a Pearl Earring"). After his death some of his paintings (he created about 40 in his lifetime) were sold with the names of other artists on them to make them more valuable. It took three centuries for Vermeer to be recognized as a master painter of the Dutch Golden Age for his use of light, tranquility and the unusual subject matter of peasants that populated his works. Though he did have patrons who paid him, he never made much and lived on the verge of poverty much of his life, eventually leaving his family in debt when he died at age 43.

10. Stephen Foster
Though you may not be familiar with Stephen Foster's name, you undoubtedly know his songs. Foster is considered the "Father of American Music," penning the works "Camptown Races," "Swanee River," "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Oh! Susanna" among many others, some of which function as current state songs. Foster's melodies were popular in his time (and remain so today, despite some controversy), and he wished to make a living as a professional songwriter. Unfortunately, the lack of copyright laws or a structure for the payment of royalties meant Foster made very little to nothing on performances and reprints of his work. Foster died at the age of 37 with 38 cents in his pocket.


Live Smarter
Nervous About Asking for a Job Referral? LinkedIn Can Now Do It for You

For most people, asking for a job referral can be daunting. What if the person being approached shoots you down? What if you ask the "wrong" way? LinkedIn, which has been aggressively establishing itself as a catch-all hub for employment opportunities, has a solution, as Mashable reports.

The company recently launched "Ask for a Referral," an option that will appear to those browsing job listings. When you click on a job listed by a business that also employs one of your LinkedIn first-degree connections, you'll have the opportunity to solicit a referral from that individual.

The default message that LinkedIn creates is somewhat generic, but it hits the main topics—namely, prompting you to explain how you and your connection know one another and why you'd be a good fit for the position. If you're the one being asked for a referral, the site will direct you to the job posting and offer three prompts for a response, ranging from "Sure…" to "Sorry…".

LinkedIn says the referral option may not be available for all posts or all users, as the feature is still being rolled out. If you do see the option, it will likely pay to take advantage of it: LinkedIn reports that recruiters who receive both a referral and a job application from a prospective hire are four times more likely to contact that individual.

[h/t Mashable]

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Essential Science
What Is a Scientific Theory?
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

In casual conversation, people often use the word theory to mean "hunch" or "guess": If you see the same man riding the northbound bus every morning, you might theorize that he has a job in the north end of the city; if you forget to put the bread in the breadbox and discover chunks have been taken out of it the next morning, you might theorize that you have mice in your kitchen.

In science, a theory is a stronger assertion. Typically, it's a claim about the relationship between various facts; a way of providing a concise explanation for what's been observed. The American Museum of Natural History puts it this way: "A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can incorporate laws, hypotheses and facts."

For example, Newton's theory of gravity—also known as his law of universal gravitation—says that every object, anywhere in the universe, responds to the force of gravity in the same way. Observational data from the Moon's motion around the Earth, the motion of Jupiter's moons around Jupiter, and the downward fall of a dropped hammer are all consistent with Newton's theory. So Newton's theory provides a concise way of summarizing what we know about the motion of these objects—indeed, of any object responding to the force of gravity.

A scientific theory "organizes experience," James Robert Brown, a philosopher of science at the University of Toronto, tells Mental Floss. "It puts it into some kind of systematic form."


A theory's ability to account for already known facts lays a solid foundation for its acceptance. Let's take a closer look at Newton's theory of gravity as an example.

In the late 17th century, the planets were known to move in elliptical orbits around the Sun, but no one had a clear idea of why the orbits had to be shaped like ellipses. Similarly, the movement of falling objects had been well understood since the work of Galileo a half-century earlier; the Italian scientist had worked out a mathematical formula that describes how the speed of a falling object increases over time. Newton's great breakthrough was to tie all of this together. According to legend, his moment of insight came as he gazed upon a falling apple in his native Lincolnshire.

In Newton's theory, every object is attracted to every other object with a force that’s proportional to the masses of the objects, but inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This is known as an “inverse square” law. For example, if the distance between the Sun and the Earth were doubled, the gravitational attraction between the Earth and the Sun would be cut to one-quarter of its current strength. Newton, using his theories and a bit of calculus, was able to show that the gravitational force between the Sun and the planets as they move through space meant that orbits had to be elliptical.

Newton's theory is powerful because it explains so much: the falling apple, the motion of the Moon around the Earth, and the motion of all of the planets—and even comets—around the Sun. All of it now made sense.


A theory gains even more support if it predicts new, observable phenomena. The English astronomer Edmond Halley used Newton's theory of gravity to calculate the orbit of the comet that now bears his name. Taking into account the gravitational pull of the Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn, in 1705, he predicted that the comet, which had last been seen in 1682, would return in 1758. Sure enough, it did, reappearing in December of that year. (Unfortunately, Halley didn't live to see it; he died in 1742.) The predicted return of Halley's Comet, Brown says, was "a spectacular triumph" of Newton's theory.

In the early 20th century, Newton's theory of gravity would itself be superseded—as physicists put it—by Einstein's, known as general relativity. (Where Newton envisioned gravity as a force acting between objects, Einstein described gravity as the result of a curving or warping of space itself.) General relativity was able to explain certain phenomena that Newton's theory couldn't account for, such as an anomaly in the orbit of Mercury, which slowly rotates—the technical term for this is "precession"—so that while each loop the planet takes around the Sun is an ellipse, over the years Mercury traces out a spiral path similar to one you may have made as a kid on a Spirograph.

Significantly, Einstein’s theory also made predictions that differed from Newton's. One was the idea that gravity can bend starlight, which was spectacularly confirmed during a solar eclipse in 1919 (and made Einstein an overnight celebrity). Nearly 100 years later, in 2016, the discovery of gravitational waves confirmed yet another prediction. In the century between, at least eight predictions of Einstein's theory have been confirmed.


And yet physicists believe that Einstein's theory will one day give way to a new, more complete theory. It already seems to conflict with quantum mechanics, the theory that provides our best description of the subatomic world. The way the two theories describe the world is very different. General relativity describes the universe as containing particles with definite positions and speeds, moving about in response to gravitational fields that permeate all of space. Quantum mechanics, in contrast, yields only the probability that each particle will be found in some particular location at some particular time.

What would a "unified theory of physics"—one that combines quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of gravity—look like? Presumably it would combine the explanatory power of both theories, allowing scientists to make sense of both the very large and the very small in the universe.


Let's shift from physics to biology for a moment. It is precisely because of its vast explanatory power that biologists hold Darwin's theory of evolution—which allows scientists to make sense of data from genetics, physiology, biochemistry, paleontology, biogeography, and many other fields—in such high esteem. As the biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it in an influential essay in 1973, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Interestingly, the word evolution can be used to refer to both a theory and a fact—something Darwin himself realized. "Darwin, when he was talking about evolution, distinguished between the fact of evolution and the theory of evolution," Brown says. "The fact of evolution was that species had, in fact, evolved [i.e. changed over time]—and he had all sorts of evidence for this. The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain this evolutionary process." The explanation that Darwin eventually came up with was the idea of natural selection—roughly, the idea that an organism's offspring will vary, and that those offspring with more favorable traits will be more likely to survive, thus passing those traits on to the next generation.


Many theories are rock-solid: Scientists have just as much confidence in the theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, plate tectonics, and thermodynamics as they do in the statement that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Other theories, closer to the cutting-edge of current research, are more tentative, like string theory (the idea that everything in the universe is made up of tiny, vibrating strings or loops of pure energy) or the various multiverse theories (the idea that our entire universe is just one of many). String theory and multiverse theories remain controversial because of the lack of direct experimental evidence for them, and some critics claim that multiverse theories aren't even testable in principle. They argue that there's no conceivable experiment that one could perform that would reveal the existence of these other universes.

Sometimes more than one theory is put forward to explain observations of natural phenomena; these theories might be said to "compete," with scientists judging which one provides the best explanation for the observations.

"That's how it should ideally work," Brown says. "You put forward your theory, I put forward my theory; we accumulate a lot of evidence. Eventually, one of our theories might prove to obviously be better than the other, over some period of time. At that point, the losing theory sort of falls away. And the winning theory will probably fight battles in the future."


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