The Riches, Robberies, And Eerie Stories Of The 12th Richest Family In America, The Hearsts

By: Past Chronicles Staff | Last updated: Oct 01, 2023

The Hearst family is one of the most powerful and successful in America, with a business empire that spans from mining to newspaper publishing. Their company, Hearst Communications, brings in around $11.5 billion annually, and the family is worth a whopping $21 billion.

But, like any powerful family, they’ve had their fair share of ups and downs. From a kidnapping story that led to a family member becoming a bank robber to the family’s immense wealth, the Hearst family is a fascinating story to dive into.

Humble Beginnings

The Hearst family may have a fancy last name now, but they had humble beginnings. George Hearst, the patriarch of the family, was raised in a log cabin on a small farm in Missouri. As a kid, he spent his days hunting for chunks of lead in the copper mines nearby, sparking a lifelong passion for mining.


Source: Public Library of America/Public Domain

But life took a turn when George’s father passed away, leaving behind a massive debt of $10,000. At just 26 years old, George had to step up and take care of his family.


George Strikes Gold

George took the reins of the family farm and turned it around. He opened a store and leased two lead mines, which quickly began producing valuable minerals. In just two years, he was able to pay off his father’s debt.


Source: Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons

However, the lure of gold in California proved too strong for George to resist. He left home in search of his fortune and eventually found success at the Merrimac Hill and Potisi mines. He sold both mines in 1852, but this was just the beginning of George’s adventures in the gold rush.

The Rise of a Mining Mogul

After a bit of mining-buying and selling, George found himself with a share in the Ophir silver mine in Nevada. This little investment ended up producing 38 tonnes of silver ore, which sold for a pretty penny at $91,000, that’s around $2.5 million in today’s money!


Source: John C.H. Grabill/Wikimedia Commons

But the mining mania didn’t stop there, George went on to own interests in some of the most famous mines in American history. The Anaconda copper mine, the Comstock Lode, and the Homestake gold mine were all under his ownership. Who would have thought that the son of a debt-ridden farmer would go on to become a multi-millionaire? He even had a stake in an Ontario silver mine, which added a cool $12 million to his already impressive $19 million fortune when he passed away.

The Hearst Empire Begins

When Homestake Mining Company made its debut on the Stock Exchange in 1879, it was a real game-changer. Not only did it strike gold (literally) by producing 39.8 million troy ounces of the precious metal, but it also mined 9 million troy ounces of silver. The mine was in operation until 2001.


Source: Public Domain

But George was a busy guy. Not content with just mining, he also dabbled in politics, becoming a Democrat Senator in 1886. And, in a stroke of luck, he acquired the San Francisco Examiner as payment for a gambling debt. Little did he know at the time, but this newspaper would play a big role in building the Hearst fortune. Sadly, George passed away in 1891 at the age of 70, leaving a whopping $19 million to his wife, Phoebe Apperson Hearst.

Phoebe Apperson

Phoebe Apperson, a Missouri native, married George at just 19 years old. Her parents weren’t thrilled about the age difference, but Phoebe had a sharp mind and was able to secure 50 shares in George’s profitable Comstock mine through a pre-nuptial agreement. Before getting hitched, Phoebe was a school teacher, and her love for education carried on into her philanthropy.

Source: Frances Benjamin Johnston/Library of Congress

Phoebe doted on her one and only child, William Randolph Hearst, who was born in 1863. She exposed him to classical art at a young age, which played a significant role in shaping his future passion for collecting art.


A Champion of Education

As the sole heir to George’s multimillion-dollar fortune, Phoebe made a big splash in the world of philanthropy. She loved donating antiquities to museums and funding archaeological expeditions. One of her most notable contributions was sponsoring a competition to redesign the University of California at Berkeley campus in 1895. The winning design was the Hearst Memorial Mining Building, dedicated to her late husband.

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Phoebe wasn’t just a big giver, she was also a trailblazer. She established scholarships for female students and made history as the first woman to serve on UC Berkeley’s board of directors.


Advancing Education and Equality

Phoebe was a big believer in education as a driver for social mobility. She co-founded the National Congress of Mothers, which eventually evolved into today’s National Parent-Teacher Association. She was a strong advocate for the Suffragette Movement, supporting votes for women in 1911.

Source: Frances Benjamin Johnston/Library of Congress

Phoebe’s philanthropy was diverse, from building schools and libraries across the nation to preserving Mount Vernon, the former family home of President George Washington. She was dedicated to making a positive impact on her community and country through education and preservation.


Phoebe’s Final Years

Phoebe wasn’t one to rest on her laurels. Despite her gold mines bringing in a cool $10 million per year, she decided to scale back her charitable giving in her later years. Instead, she retreated to the luxurious Hacienda del Pozo de Verona, her 18th-century Spanish-style mansion in California.

Source: Gilbert E. Gould/Public Domain

Unfortunately, Phoebe passed away at the ripe old age of 77 during the Spanish Flu pandemic, but she left behind a generous gift for her only child, William Randolph Hearst, in the form of $11 million (that’s around $164 million in today’s dollars).


William Randolph Hearst

William Randolph Hearst was a man of many talents, including a flair for the dramatic. While studying at Harvard University, he was a part of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, a drama group known for their burlesque cross-dressing musicals. But it was his love for pranking professors that ultimately led to his expulsion from the prestigious university.

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Despite George’s anger, Phoebe quietly provided William with a $10,000 per month allowance. This allowed him to continue to pursue his interests and continue to make a name for himself in the world.


William’s Rise to Fame

William was determined to make a name for himself and begged his dad for the opportunity to take over the struggling San Francisco Examiner newspaper. His father said yes and with a little financial boost from his mom, William poured $8 million of family funds into the paper.

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He brought on some big names like Mark Twain, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, and political cartoonist Homer Davenport to help make it the most popular paper in San Francisco. However, his penchant for sensationalizing the news was both his ticket to success and the reason his legacy is a little tarnished.


William’s $150,000 Gamble

In the late 1800s, William had big plans for his media empire. He invested a whopping $150,000 (which would be around $4.4 million today) to purchase The New York Morning Journal.

Source: L.M. Glackens/Library of Congress

This newspaper was all about giving the people what they wanted – stories about scandals, sports, crime, and human interest, all told in an over-the-top style. It was called “yellow journalism” and it was a hit with working-class readers. Circulation skyrocketed from 77,000 to over a million readers per day.


Hearst vs. Pulitzer

William Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were soon locked in a fierce sales battle, and Hearst wasn’t afraid to pull out all the stops. He poached some of the top writers from Pulitzer’s New York World by offering them higher salaries. But, Hearst wasn’t just a ruthless businessman. He also had a sense of adventure and sent a daring reporter to break a young Cuban rebel out of jail – and it worked!

Source: Leon Barritt/Library of Congress

This cartoon mocks the role of Hearst and Pulitzer’s newspapers in drumming up public opinion in favor of war with Spain. It highlights the sensationalism and exaggeration that was used to sell newspapers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


A Man on a Mission

William was a man on a mission. He had his sights set on political power and worked hard to achieve it. He was elected to the House of Representatives as a New York Democrat twice, but unfortunately, his presidential bid in 1904 didn’t pan out. Despite reportedly spending $2 million on his campaign, he fell short of the mark.

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But William wasn’t one to give up easily. He went on to make another run for office, this time for Mayor of New York City in 1909. Unfortunately, he fell just short of winning that race as well. But, as the saying goes, when one door closes, another one opens. And for William, that next opportunity was just around the corner.


William’s Love Life

William, following in his father’s footsteps, decided to marry a much younger woman later on in his life. In 1903, at the age of 40, he wed 21-year-old showgirl Millicent Wilson. However, he also became infatuated with another chorus girl, 19-year-old Marion Davies.

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He began living openly with her beginning in 1919 and spent $7 million on boosting her film career. The relationship between them remained public until his death, and it was revealed later that Patricia Van Cleve Lake, who was presented as Marion’s niece, was actually their daughter. However, William and Millicent never got divorced.


William’s Hilltop Haven

Hearst Castle, a palatial 250,000-acre hilltop estate overlooking San Simeon, California, was the home that William shared with his mistress Marion. The castle was built by architect Julia Morgan, starting in 1919 and ending in 1947, costing Hearst nearly $10 million.

Source: Reddit

Designed in the Mediterranean Revival style, the Castle boasts 38 bedrooms and over 40 bathrooms, as well as three guest houses. The buildings were filled with William’s art and antiques collection, and even once housed the world’s largest private zoo. After William’s death, his family gave the castle to the state of California, which now opens it to visitors as the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument.


The Media Mogul

By the 1920s, William was a real media mogul. He had his hands in newspapers, magazines, and even real estate. His papers were read by a quarter of the US population and he owned a ton of land, thanks to his father’s money-making mining and timber interests.

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William was a powerful man, often seen hanging out with important people like the mayor of New York City. But, like all good things, his success couldn’t last forever. Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse and he came close to losing it all.


Financial Downfall

The stock market crash of 1929 hit William hard. He had over-extended himself and couldn’t pay his debts. In 1937, the Hearst Corporation had to go through a court-ordered reorganization, cutting his salary to $500,000 and stopping his annual $700,000 dividend.

Source: Bettmann/Getty

He narrowly avoided bankruptcy but had to liquidate newspapers, property, and even his beloved Hearst Castle was mortgaged for $600,000. He also sold his animals to the Los Angeles Zoo, but he was able to pull through and narrowly avoided bankruptcy.


Hearst vs. Hollywood

William’s reputation took a hit with the release of the 1941 movie Citizen Kane. Directed by Orson Welles, it tells the story of a fictional newspaper magnate widely believed to be based on William. In an effort to protect his reputation, William used his influence to suppress the movie.

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He banned it from his publications and pressured theaters to cancel showings. Although the film failed to make a profit at the box office, it is now considered one of the most influential films of all time.


William’s Business Turnaround

William had a rough decade but managed to turn things around in the 1940s. As business picked up, he went back to collecting art and his castle is proof of his love for antiques. William passed away in 1951 at 88, leaving behind a massive $31 billion fortune.

Source: Michael de la Paz/Wikimedia Commons

However, the control of the business was left in the hands of trustees instead of his five sons. Even today, the Hearst family only has five out of 13 votes on the board. William made sure that any heir who tried to contest his will would lose their inheritance.


The Hearst Children

All five of William’s sons eventually joined the family business. His second son, William Randolph Hearst Junior, became a famous war correspondent and even won a Pulitzer Prize. Fourth son Randolph managed the San Francisco Examiner, which was the paper that started it all for his father’s media empire.

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But, things took a turn for the dramatic when shocking events involving Randolph’s daughter Patricia caused the Hearst family to be thrown into the media spotlight. It was a wild ride, that’s for sure!


Patty Hearst

Patricia Campbell Hearst was just a carefree teenager, living her best life in California. But on a fateful February evening in 1974, her world was turned upside down when armed intruders broke into her apartment. They beat up her fiancé and kidnapped her, blindfolding her and throwing her into their car.

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The kidnappers were part of a left-wing guerrilla group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), who referred to Patty as a “prisoner of war” and demanded a ransom of food for poor people in the state. Despite her family donating $2 million worth of food, Patty was not released.


Patty’s Life of Crime

In April of that year, Patty was caught on security cameras participating in a bank robbery in San Francisco, which netted the SLA a significant sum of money. Later, she was also seen outside a store in Los Angeles, where she attempted to free a captured member of the group.

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In a recording sent to authorities, she proclaimed her allegiance to the SLA. On May 17th, police raided a hideout associated with the group. Several members were apprehended, but Patty was not present at the time. Her parents watched the events unfold live on television.


Brainwashed and Imprisoned

In September of that year, Patty was finally arrested for armed robbery. Despite her claims of being brainwashed, she was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. It’s now believed that Patty was a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, a condition where captives bond with their abuser in order to survive.

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Patty’s time in captivity was traumatic. She was locked in a closet for 57 days, deprived of sleep and food, and blindfolded. She lived in constant fear of harm. After serving nearly two years in prison, her sentence was commuted by President Carter, and later, she was granted a pardon by President Clinton.


Post-Kidnapping Success

Patty has had a pretty interesting life since then. After her ordeal, she went on to marry her bodyguard and has since made a name for herself as an author, actress, and charity fundraiser. With a net worth of $50 million, she’s definitely doing well for herself.

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But her daughter, Lydia Marie Hearst, is even more successful. This model and actress is said to be worth a whopping $100 million. Her career took off in 2004 when she landed her first magazine cover for Vogue Italia. In 2016, she tied the knot with actor and comedian Chris Hardwick.


Amanda Randolph Hearst

Amanda Randolph Hearst, cousin of Lydia and niece of Patty, is a fashion-savvy Hearst known for her work as a fashion editor at Marie Claire and as a co-founder of luxury ethical fashion label Maison de Mode. The brand is a shining example of Amanda’s commitment to sustainable fashion, a passion she discovered while working at Marie Claire.

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Amanda is also a passionate advocate for animal welfare and environmental protection through her charity work. With a net worth of around $100 million, Amanda is definitely making her mark in the world.


The Wealthiest Hearst

William Randolph Hearst III is the current chairman of Hearst Corporation and believed to be the wealthiest Hearst of them all. With a net worth of $2.3 billion, he’s certainly no slouch when it comes to wealth.

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But he’s not the only Hearst making bank. The entire family, which boasts 67 heirs, has a combined fortune of $21 billion as of 2020. While that may be down from $35 billion in 2014, history has shown that the Hearst family can bounce back.


Hearst’s Bold Move

The Hearst business is quite the media heavyweight, with a portfolio that includes 24 daily and 52 weekly newspapers in the US, as well as 250 international magazines. They also have a strong presence in television, with 33 stations reaching 19% of viewers in the US.

Source: Quercus Montana/Wikimedia Commons

But, as the future of print has been uncertain for some time, Hearst has decided to diversify. In 2018, they made a bold move and purchased credit ratings agency Fitch Group for $2.8 billion. Looks like this family business, which started in mining and moved to media, might be evolving once again!