The Times-Tribune

New York Life: Insurance policies on slaves

- BY RACHEL L. SWARNS

NEW YORK — New York Life, the nation’s third-largest life insurance company, opened in Manhattan’s financial district in the spring of 1845. The firm possessed a prime address — 58 Wall Street — and a board of trustees populated by some of the city’s wealthiest merchants, bankers and railroad magnates.

Sales were sluggish that year. So the company looked south.

There, in Richmond, Virginia, an enterprisi­ng New York Life agent sold more than 30 policies in a single day in February 1846. Soon, advertisem­ents began appearing in newspapers from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Louisville, Kentucky, as the New York-based company encouraged Southerner­s to buy insurance to protect their most precious commodity: their slaves.

Alive, slaves were among a white man’s most prized assets. Dead, they were considered virtually worthless. Life insurance changed that calculus, allowing slave owners to recoup three-quarters of a slave’s value in the event of an untimely death.

James De Peyster Ogden, New York Life’s first president, would later describe the American system of human bondage as “evil.” But by 1847, insurance policies on slaves accounted for a third of the policies in a firm that would become one of the nation’s Fortune 100 companies.

Its foray into the slave insurance business did not prove to be lucrative: New York Life ended up paying out nearly as much in death claims — about $232,000 in today’s dollars — as it received in annual payments. But in the span of about three years, it sold 508 policies, more than Aetna and US Life combined, according to available records.

Now, the descendant­s of one of those slaves — who were recently identified by The New York Times — are coming to terms with the realizatio­n that one of the nation’s biggest insurance companies sold policies on their ancestors and hundreds of other enslaved laborers.

Its history has stirred anxiety among some New York Life executives, who take pride in their multiracia­l workforce and customer base.

 ??  ?? An ad taken out by Nautilus Mutual Life Insurance in 1847 in the Daily Democrat newspaper in Louisville, Ky., offering slave policies. Nautilus was renamed New York Life Insurance in 1849.
An ad taken out by Nautilus Mutual Life Insurance in 1847 in the Daily Democrat newspaper in Louisville, Ky., offering slave policies. Nautilus was renamed New York Life Insurance in 1849.

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