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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.

SLIMMER, Abraham

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SLIMMER, Abraham. (Oberstitzko, Province of Posen, Prussia, Sept.14, 1835--Dubuque, IA, Aug. 15,1917). Slimmer, one of the Midwest's many fascinating businessmen, believed that charity is not charity if it is wrestled unjustly from those who should possess it, and benefactions are not given in the proper spirit if they are but a price of renown. (1) He refused to have his name or any mark of his interest in an institution be made a lasting memorial to his works. (2)

Slimmer came to the United States at the age of fifteen. He settled in Arkansas, but later moved to Waverly, Iowa where he remained forty years before coming to Dubuque. (3) His first business ventures involved selling livestock on a small scale in Black Hawk and Bremer counties in Iowa. By 1862 he had saved enough money to open a mercantile business with two partners in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The company moved to Waverly and then dissolved with the two partners moving to Chicago. Slimmer remained in Waverly dealing in real estate and loans. (4)

After thirteen years of business, Slimmer decided that he wanted to enjoy seeing the results of some of his philanthropy. His first action was presenting the county board of supervisors in Waverly with the deed to his homestead and $10,000 to establish a hospital before he left for Dubuque. (5) At the time, his wealth was estimated between $1 million and $10 million dollars. (6)

Traveling to Chicago, he donated $50,000 to establish the Drexel Home (Home for Aged Jews), the Orthodox Jewish Home for the Aged, and the predecessors of Mt. Sinai Hospital and the Jewish Children's Bureau. (7) In 1895 he made a will giving generously to his sisters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, his brother in Europe, and several other relatives. He added a codicil to this will in 1896 giving FINLEY HOSPITAL (THE) $25,000. He soon destroyed this will and its codicil in favor of a different plan. After touring Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, and Dubuque, he offered $50,000 to Des Moines and Dubuque on the condition that an equal amount be raised locally. (8) Cedar Rapids was promised $35,000. He again named his sisters, brothers and other relatives as beneficiaries. He still owned a large amount of land in Bremer County. (9)

In 1905 the Waverly city council acting as an equalization board raised its assessment of Slimmer from $2,000 to $50,000 based on the farm mortgages given in for taxation in Chickasaw County but actually owned in Waverly. Years previously, Slimmer had given a power of attorney to a nephew who was a banker in Nashua (Chickasaw County) giving him the power to control, loan and invest all the Slimmer funds. This deprived Waverly of all income from the funds. This situation was changed in 1905 when the Iowa Supreme Court made a decision in a similar case that the place of assessment of money and credits was to be the legal residence of the owner of the funds. (10)

In 1914 Slimmer aided the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigration Society of New York. The Society was fighting congressional efforts to make an educational qualification the basis for admitting immigrants. Slimmer wrote letters to the Society which printed them into a pamphlet entitled "Abraham Slimmer, Iowa's Humblest and Best Citizen." The pamphlet was used before the congressional committee on immigration. Slimmer contended in the letters that he would not have been admitted to this country if such a proposed bill had been law. (11)

Slimmer was the victim of erroneous reports about his style of living. On December 3, 1911 the Telegraph-Herald published a short story which repeated many of these allegations. One week later a follow-up article republished a letter of his to the "Menorah," a magazine published in Indianapolis correcting the record. According to Slimmer, he had not left his "palatial" home in Waverly and moved into a woodshed. He also debunked the stories that he was adverse to women in any management positions. He was also accused, unjustly, of not actually donating the sums of money reported. (12) He closed his letter...

           To me it matters not how or where I pass my fleeting days,
           if only honorable and usefully, and if I could justly
           feel the world has not been injured in any form for my
           having lived in it, I would be well paid for all of my
           efforts. (13)

Despite his proven ability to acquire wealth, Slimmer's health regimen was questionable. In 1910 after recovering from pneumonia, he announced his return to health of due to his total abstinence from food, against his physician's advice. He believed that disease was produced by the consumption of too much food with the failure to absorb it producing toxic effects. (14)

Provisions of the Slimmer fund were carefully studied in 1921 when FINLEY HOSPITAL (THE) announced a large deficit caring for charity patients. In caring for 4,860 charity patients (exclusive of county cases which would have increased the number), the hospital had lost $12,000. The auditor pointed out that Slimmer had proposed that his fund was to be used to pay part payment only of the keep of charity patients. Under the terms of the bequest, the hospital received only an estimated 85 cents daily when the cost of keeping a charity patient was $3.50. The auditor also pointed out that according to the bequest, charity patients had to declare themselves when entering the hospital for treatment. This was not being done in many cases, costing the hospital thousands of dollars annually. (15)

At the time of his death, it was estimated that the total value of his gifts was around $2 million. (16)

Photo: Dubuque Herald, February 6, 1897




1. "Eccentric Philanthropist," Los Angeles Herald, August 11, 1902, p. 8. Online: http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=LAH19020811.2.148#

2. "Rich Man Desires to Die Penniless," The Milwaukee Sentinel, October 5, 1913, p. 1

3. "Charitable Institutions Helped to Extent of Approximately $2,000,000 by Dubuque Philanthropist, Abraham Slimmer," Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal, May 24, 1933, p. 9

4. Ibid.

5. "The Great Giver," Dubuque Herald, March 7, 1897, p. 2

6. Ibid.

7. "Eccentric Philanthropist"

8. Cutler, Irving. The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to SuburbUrbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1996, p. 163

9. "A Grand Offer," Dubuque Daily Herald, August 20, 1896, p. 8

10. "Raised the Amount," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, April 11, 1905, p. 13

11. "Charitable Institutions..."

12. "Slimmer Sets Facts Aright," Telegraph-Herald, December 10, 1911, p. 18

13. Ibid.

14. "Diet and Disease," Telegraph-Herald, March 2, 1910, p. 4

15. "Charity Patients Cost Finley $12,000," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, May 13, 1921, p. 12

16. "The Great Giver..."

Special appreciation to Paul Hemmer for research assistance.