At a young age, Frank Cowperwood becomes interested in only one thing—making money. When he is still in his teens, he makes his first successful business transaction: Passing by an auction sale, he successfully bids for a lot of Castile soap, which he sells to a grocer at a profit of 100 percent. His family marvels at Frank’s ability, and his wealthy uncle, Seneca Davis, encourages him to go into business as soon as possible. Through several well-paying positions and shrewd speculation, Frank acquires enough money to open his own brokerage house. Within a short time, he is one of the most enterprising and successful young financiers in Philadelphia.
One day he meets Lillian Semple, the wife of a business associate. About a year later, her husband dies, and Frank marries the widow. By that time, he had accumulated a large fortune, and he is familiar with local and state politicians, among them Edward Butler, who rose from garbage collector to a leading position in local politics. Through Butler, Frank meets many other influential people, and his business and popularity increase.
Frank and Lillian have several children, but the youngsters do not particularly interest him, for his sole interest remains his business. When his father, Henry Cowperwood, finally becomes president of the bank in which he is employed, both Cowperwoods build expensive houses and furnish them luxuriously. Frank buys fine paintings and rare objects of art.
His home life is not satisfactory, since Lillian is older and more passive than he is; moreover, her beauty has almost disappeared. By contrast, Edward’s daughter Aileen is young, beautiful, and high-spirited. Frank falls in love with her, and she, in spite of her strong religious training, becomes his mistress. He rents a house where they meet and furnishes it with his paintings and statues.
Because Frank is one of the financial powers in Philadelphia, he plans and schemes continually in order to thwart more powerful monopolists. He manages to acquire large sums from the state treasury through local politicians. The city treasurer, Stener, proves amenable in many ways, and he and Frank become involved in many shady transactions. Frank buys shares in railroads and local streetcar properties. After the great Chicago fire, some of Frank’s investments are in a perilous state. He goes to friends and associates and urges them to stand together in order to avoid losses. So widespread are the effects of the fire, however, that the manipulations of the city politicians are certain to be discovered on the eve of an election. Something has to be done to satisfy indignant reform groups who are sure to demand action when they discover what occurred.
In the meantime, someone sends an anonymous note to Edward, telling him that Frank and Aileen are living together. When Frank goes to Edward and the contractor refuses to help him, Frank knows that he must have discovered his relationship with Aileen. Edward becomes his enemy and urges the other politicians to make Frank the scapegoat for everyone’s dishonest dealings.
As a result, Frank and Stener, the city treasurer, are indicted on charges of embezzlement and grand larceny, and Frank is ruined financially. He pleads not guilty, but the jury convicts both him and Stener. He appeals and posts bail to avoid jail, but the appeal is denied, although the judges are not united in their decision. As soon as the appeal is denied, the sheriff is supposed to take Frank to jail until sentencing, but Frank bribes the sheriff and has a few more days of freedom. His property is sold to pay his debts, and...
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his father resigns his position at the bank.
Frank and Aileen give up the house where they used to meet. Their meetings now take place at a house in another part of town. Determined to put an end to the affair, Butler and Pinkerton detectives enter the house and confront the couple. Edward tries various schemes to make Aileen leave Philadelphia, but he is unsuccessful once Aileen learns that he hired detectives to trail her.
Frank is sentenced to four years and nine months in the penitentiary. Aileen remains faithful to him. When Lillian goes to visit him, Frank asks her for a divorce, but she refuses.
After Edward dies, Frank’s friends manage to get him a parole. At the end of thirteen months in jail, in March, 1873, he is freed. Through Wingate, a friend and business associate, he succeeds in rebuilding his business, and he keeps a bachelor apartment where Aileen visits him. Though he is ostensibly still living with his wife, everyone long ago learned of his relationship with Aileen.
In September, 1873, there is a panic. Frank, who bought stocks cheaply, makes a fortune. Several months later, he goes with Aileen to Chicago, where he plans to reestablish himself. Lillian gets a divorce but remains friendly with the Cowperwood family. She lives luxuriously, since Frank, to buy his own freedom, provides handsomely for her and the children.