Book Review: Greed in the Gilded Age

Genre: Nonfiction Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Very rarely do I use the word “perfect” to describe a book, but Greed in the Gilded Age by William Elliott Hazelgrove certainly comes close! A very special thank you to William for sending me a signed copy of this wonderful book! I can’t wait to read your next book!

Greed in the Gilded Age describes the story of Cassie Chadwick, aka Elizabeth Bigley, who pulled off multiple outrageous cons in the late 1800s and early 1900s, amounting in about $2 million of stolen money, which is equivalent to over $60 million today.

I absolutely loved everything about this book! First off, the story is extremely compelling on its own, but we all know that even nonfiction is not objective, and Hazelgrove tells Chadwick’s story in a captivating and enchanting way.

Perhaps the detail I appreciated most in the story is Hazelgrove’s depiction of Cassie. Yes, she is certainly a con artist and criminal, but in a time where there was a very narrow margin between legitimately wealthy people and criminals, the narrative truly makes readers question where Cassie actually falls on that continuum. Criminal? More than likely. But also clearly brilliant and innovative.

The way in which Hazelgrove tells the story leaves the reader wondering, “Was Cassie really wrong for trying to make something of her life?” We can obviously see that she crossed some lines, but when her actions are juxtaposed by those of Andrew Carnegie, we start to wonder what it is that morphs someone from legitimate to criminal. By the end of the novel, I felt as though Cassie partially got what she deserved, but I was also left with a somewhat mystical admiration of her too.

Additionally, Hazelgrove frequently referenced women’s positions in society at the time Cassie lived. This aspect is vital to the story, as many of us cannot comprehend some of the gender differences between then and now. I was also quite happy that Hazelgrove makes small suggestions that point towards sexism linked to Cassie’s case. For instance, the way in which many people assumed a man must have been helping Cassie, or the likelihood that many of the parties involved did not want to give an accurate depiction of what happened, purely out of embarrassment from being duped by a woman. These details were not only key to the overall narrative, they also gave women credit where credit was due, which is not the case with all nonfiction authors.

Finally, Hazelgrove frequently provided context to other events going on during Cassie’s life. Some nonfiction books treat their topics as though they exist in a vacuum, which is detrimental to conveying a complete understanding to the readers. However, Hazelgrove does the opposite, and provides relevant and interesting information about events that occurred during Chadwick’s life. From background information on Andrew Carnegie, to information about the Wright brothers, to details about Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. Hazelgrove gave such a comprehensive narration of Cassie Chadwick’s life, and it would not have been so complete without the additional information he provided.

Overall, the story of Cassie Chadwick’s life is interesting on its own, but William Hazelgrove has given it new depth through his thoroughness and talent with situating a story in history. I am never hesitant to admit that I’m quite picky when it comes to reading nonfiction, simply because nonfiction can become boring in the wrong hands. History is an important treasure that we should all treat as valuable, and some nonfiction authors simply don’t seem to have the passion to convey that value to readers. On the opposite end of that spectrum we have authors like William Elliott Hazelgrove, who clearly make it a point to convey the value of history in any narrative they tell. I may be a picky reader, but Hazelgrove certainly has one lifelong reader in me!

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