Rosamond Gifford: An Anti-IRS Philanthropist

Not all charity comes in the name of generosity. Meet Rosamond Gifford, an enigmatic woman, musician and farmer who donated all of her money to charity post-mortem. It’s been surmised that the large donation was made to keep her funds away from the IRS, whom she referred to as the “Infernal” Revenue System.

Rosamond’s story is a unique one that paints a picture of a confident, no-nonsense woman that worked hard and loved money, in spite of a not-so-lucrative passion for music. Born in 1873, Rosamond attended boarding school in Boston, and assumed a pseudonym Violette LaVigne in her first and only marriage to a man from Montreal at age 22. The ill-advised union ended in divorce five years later thanks to her husband’s pattern of abuse, gambling and womanizing.

After reassuming her maiden name, Rosamond attended school to study concert harp, through which she made a frugal living giving lessons. Her father William likened her musical affinity to his own love of raising trotting horses, or “chasing shadows,” as he called such activities. By his reckoning, the best practice is to “live like a hermit and work like a horse” in order to build a hefty financial estate.

William told Rosamond as much when he struck a deal with her: if she took care of his farm and managed it for him, he would leave her his entire estate when he died. She took the bait, allowing William to retire in Syracuse before dying from a stroke. But unbeknownst to Rosamond, her father changed the terms of their 1913 contract in his will, which stipulated that she was to $60,000 per year for 10 years before gaining access to his entire estate.

Though the amendment would have certainly been more than enough to live off a century ago, Gifford wasn’t having it. So she sued the trust and its executors and won an inheritance of $1,000,000, which amounts to over $16 million in today’s dollars. This wouldn’t be the last time she fought in court over money — Rosamond proved to be just as protective of her nest egg as her father.

Rosamond continued to work on the farm until 1929, when she sold and divided the land and moved into a large house in central New York. She lived a fairly isolated life there, and was occasionally spotted donning riding boots and a leopard skin coat. Though there is no record of donations when living, she may have contributed to charity anonymously.

By the time of her death in April of 1953 (ironically, on tax day), Rosamond had acquired 33 goats and almost 50 cats and built her estate to what would be about $48 million in today’s money. With no heir to speak of, and reasons she kept to herself, just about all of her money was donated to establish a charitable corporation for “religious, educational, scientific, charitable or benevolent uses.”

Whether or not her motivation was to stick it to the IRS, the Gifford Foundation has done a lot of good in the world since its establishment, benefiting countless worthy causes and organizations. Today, the foundation focuses on community grantmaking, and in fitting with her cat and goat collection, there is also a zoo in her name.

Elizabeth Creekmore is a Southern philanthropist, humanitarian and mother. Follow her on Twitter, Tumblr, and WordPress for more on Southern culture and philanthropy. 

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Elizabeth Creekmore is a philanthropist, humanitarian, mother and Southern culture enthusiast located in Jackson, Mississippi.