The term "robber baron" began to be used in the early 1870s to describe a class of extremely wealthy businessmen who used ruthless and unethical business tactics to dominate vital industries.
When industries such as railroads, steel, and petroleum became monopolies, consumers and workers were able to be exploited. It took decades of growing outrage before the most flagrant abuses of the robber barons were brought under control.
Rising from very humble roots as the operator of one small ferry in New York Harbor, the man who would become known as "The Commodore" would dominate the entire transportation industry in the United States.
Vanderbilt made a fortune operating a fleet of steamboats, and with nearly perfect timing made the transition to owning and operating railroads. By the time he died in 1877 he was considered the richest man who had ever lived in America.
Starting out as a small-time businessman, Gould moved to New York City in the 1850s and began trading stocks on Wall Street. In the unregulated climate of the time, Gould learned tricks such as "cornering" and quickly acquired a fortune.
Always thought to be deeply unethical, Gould was widely known to bribe politicians and judges. He was involved in the struggle for the Erie Railroad in the late 1860s, and in 1869 caused a financial crisis when he and his partner Jim Fisk sought to corner the market on gold.
Jim Fisk was a flamboyant character who was often in the public spotlight, and whose scandalous personal life led to his own murder.
After starting out in his teens in New England as a traveling peddler, he made a fortune trading cotton during the Civil War. Following the war he gravitated to Wall Street, and after becoming partners with Jay Gould, he became famous for his role in the Erie Railroad War, which he and Gould waged against Cornelius Vanderbilt.