Over 100 years ago in America — before Social Security, before IRAs, corporate pensions and 401(k)s — there was a ludicrously popular (and somewhat sleazy) retirement scheme called the tontine.
At their peak, around the turn of the century, tontines represented nearly two-thirds of the American insurance market, holding about 7.5 percent of national wealth. It’s estimated that by 1905, there were 9 million tontine policies active in a nation of only 18 million households. Tontines became so popular that historians credit them for single-handedly underwriting the ascendance of the American insurance industry.
The downfall of the tontine was equally dramatic. Not long after 1900, a spectacular set of scandals wiped the tontine from the nation’s consciousness. To this day, tontines remain outlawed, and their name is synonymous with greed and corruption. Their memory lives on mostly in fiction, where they invariably propel some murderous plot. (There’s even a “Simpsons” episode in this genre.)