10 Historical Figures Who Came Back From Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy does not have to be a death sentence.
Bankruptcy does not have to be a death sentence.
  • Henry Ford tried to start his automobile company twice and failed, before he succeeded.
  • George Foreman is now worth an estimated $138 million.
  • Milton Hershey filed for bankruptcy running his candy company.

Bankruptcy is the big bad “B” word. Even when playing the board game “Life”, filing for it can feel like you are digging yourself into a whole in a nearby ditch, from which you may never return, destined to forever live your life with what little mud, algae and friendly frogs you can find. 

In actual fact, however, bankruptcy does not have to be a death sentence. Here are the brief stories of ten famous people who filed for it, and successfully rose again.

10. Abraham Lincoln

A painting of Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States, and formidably led the country through the American Civil War. He is much remembered for his leadership and push to abolish slavery. What has not been noted so readily in textbooks was his poor skills at being a businessman. He ran a store, once upon a time, and wracked up enough debt doing it that he could not pay off his creditors. They took him to court, and bankruptcy laws did not exist. Lincoln was stripped of his horse, (like losing your car), and his surveying gear. He then paid off his debts all the way into the 1840s. Being a historic president came later, and by then the bankruptcy drama paled in comparison with his achievements.

9. Henry Ford

Portrait of Henry Ford. Image credit: Hartsook/Public domain

The inventor of the automobile had no cash? At one time, yes, this was the case. Actually, at two points in history. Henry Ford filed for bankruptcy twice before hitting it big with the Ford Motor Company. This happened because Ford tried to start his automobile company two times, and he failed dramatically two times. He did not let this set him back too far, however, and he eventually rose to great fame and fortune.

8. Walt Disney

Walt Disney. Image credit: Boy Scouts of America/Public domain

It is hard to imagine the person who started the giant Disneyland phenomenon going broke. Walt Disney did file for bankruptcy though, and it happened when he was in his twenties. His financial backer went broke, leaving Disney unable to pay his employed animators and his debts. Obviously, fate brought him further opportunities, however.

7. Ulysses S. Grant

The 18th President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant. Image credit: Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress / Public domain

Grant was the 18th president of the US and Commanding General of the United States Army during the American Civil War. He was great at war but not business, trying everything from the family leather business, to selling firewood and real estate before being a general. After the war, and his presidency, he tried to set up a financial firm with his son and another man. This partner fleeced investors and left Grant to declare bankruptcy. Unlike others on this list, his worth did not rise again until after his death. It took the publication of his memoirs to dig him out of the hole, so to speak, while he was actually six feet under.

6. Donald Trump

Official White House portrait of President Donald J. Trump taken by Shealah Craighead on October 6, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Yes, even Trump has been down the bankruptcy road. In fact, this guy has filed for bankruptcy four times. Count ‘em! It all happened because of the casino and hotels he owned in Atlantic City, which did not prove to be as lucrative as planned. Today, Trump is estimated to be worth $3.1bn.

5. P.T Barnum

Phineas Taylor "P. T." Barnum (July 5, 1810 – April 7, 1891)

The founder of the famous Barnum and Bailey Circus, B.T Barnum was no stranger to taking a chance. Barnum was a showman and also a person who cared for bettering and building the communities around him. He attempted to develop Bridgeport, Connecticut with museums and circuses, but he wager too much. He borrowed more than he could pay back and ended up filing for bankruptcy. Five years later, however, he had enough money to buy back his lost American Museum in New York City, in 1860.

4. George Foreman

Foreman in 1973

Do you love making sandwiches in your Foreman grill? While you eat that perfect grilled cheese, remember that your machine came from the mind of a man who did not always have it all. Foreman got his start in boxing, but had to file for bankruptcy after retiring from the sport for the first time in 1983. His varied career as a public TV personality and an entrepreneur selling the George Foreman Grill have led him to be worth an estimated $138 million.

3. Milton Hershey

Hershey ran his own candy store for several years as an early businessman, but it did not always go well. He had to file for bankruptcy before finally founding the The Hershey Company in 1894.

2. Francis Ford Coppola

Coppola in 1976. Image credit: NBC/Public domain

Coppola has directed so many famous movies, it is hard to list them. The Godfather series comes to mind first, followed by Apocalypse Now, to name a few. He has filed for bankruptcy at least three times, but remains a highly-sought after member of Hollywood.

1. Cyndi Lauper

Cyndi Lauper. Image credit: Eva Rinaldi/Wikimedia.org

Good management matters. Cyndi Lauper did not always have it. The manager of her early 1980s band, Blue Angel, sued her and her bandmates for $80,000 in 1981. Not yet a star, Lauper was forced to file for bankruptcy, but today she is worth an estimated $30 million.


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