Thursday, April 18, 2013

James Fisk, born April 1, 1835

James Fisk, Jr. was born in the hamlet of  Pownal, Vermont.   

He quit school at twelve to assist his father as a travelling peddler, selling housewares and notions. At fifteen he joined Van Amberg’s Mammoth Circus and Menagerie. At 18 he left the circus and resumed the peddling business. By age 21 he was running five wagons throughout New England.

Fisk married Lucy Moore in 1854, when he was 19 and she was 15. Lucy was an orphan, raised by an uncle from Springfield, Massachusetts.  She tolerated Fisk's many extramarital affairs and lived with a woman friend in Boston. Regardless, they remained close, with Fisk visiting her every few weeks and spending summers and vacations with her every chance he could.

He was 26 years old when the Civil War began.

Washington, D.C. during the Civil War
Fisk eventually became a salesman for Jordan Marsh, a Boston dry goods firm, for which he  managed war contracts during the Civil War.   He was sent to Washington, D.C. in 1861 to sell textiles to the government. By his shrewd dealing in army contracts during the Civil War, and, by some accounts, cotton smuggling across enemy lines, in which he enlisted the help of his father, he accumulated considerable wealth.

Daniel Drew
In 1864, Fisk became a stockbroker in New York, and was employed by Daniel Drew as a buyer. He aided Drew against Cornelius Vanderbilt for control of the Erie Railroad. 

Cartoon of Vanderbilt and Fisk
This resulted in Fisk and Jay Gould becoming members of the Erie directorate, and subsequently, a well-planned raid netted Fisk and Gould control of the railroad. The association with Gould continued until Fisk's death.

Jay Gould
Fisk and Gould carried financial buccaneering to extremes: their program included an open alliance with New York politician William "Boss" Tweed, the wholesale bribery of legislatures, and the buying of judges.

William "Boss" Tweed
In 1867, Fisk met the woman who would change his life. While on a visit to the notorious Manhattan bordello of Annie Wood, he was introduced to Helen Josephine “Josie” Mansfield. 
She was an unemployed actress and a friend of Miss Wood.  At the time Josie only owned one passable dress and her rent was overdue.

Josie Mansfield
Though Jim Fisk had a wife back in Vermont, he was smitten by the girl, and not only paid her rent, but also provided her with finery.  Josie Mansfield was considered extraordinarily beautiful.  After meeting Jim Fisk, Josie gave up any attempt at acting.

Fisk and Gould created "The Gold Ring" in an attempt to corner the gold market; it culminated in the fateful Black Friday of September 24, 1869.  Starting on September 20, Gould and Fisk had started to buy as much gold as they could. Just as they planned, the price went higher. Fisk's and Gould's effort collapsed when President U.S. Grant intervened to halt the Black Friday Panic.  Then the price of gold plummeted, and investors scrambled to sell their holdings. Many investors had obtained loans to buy their gold. With no money to repay the loans, they were ruined. Gould escaped disaster by selling his gold before the market began to fall.  

Fisk and Gould, "Plotting the Great Gold Ring of '69"

September 24, 1869 - "Black Friday"
Fisk was vilified by high society for his amoral and eccentric ways and by many pundits of the day for his business dealings; but he was loved by the workingmen of New York and the Erie Railroad. 

He was known as "Colonel" for being the nominal commander of the 9th New York National Guard Infantry Regiment, although his only experience of military action with this unit was an inglorious role in the Orange Riot of July 12, 1871.  The Orange Riots took place in Manhattan in 1870 and 1871, and involved violent conflict between Irish Protestants, called "Orangemen", and Irish Catholics, along with the New York City Police Department and the New York State National Guard. 

The Orange Riot of July 12, 1871
On July 12, 1871, an Orangemen parade proceeded with protection from 1500 policemen and five regiments of the National Guard, about five thousand men. It was to begin at the Orangemen's headquarters.  By 1:30 pm the streets were full of people, mostly Catholic, and mostly laborers, and both side of the avenue were jammed. The police and militia arrived, to the disapproval of the crowd, and the small contingent of Orangemen began their parade down the avenue at 2 pm, surrounded by regimental units. Almost immediately the crowd began to pelt the paraders with stones, bricks, bottles and shoes, and militiamen responded with musket fire, which brought pistol fire from some in the crowd. The police managed to get the parade moving again by charging the crowd and liberally using their clubs. The parade progressed another block, but came under fire from thrown missiles again, once again provoking militia shots. The crush of the crowds preventing more forward motion, police used their clubs and the militia their bayonets.  Rocks and crockery pelted down on them from the rooftops along the avenue. Finally, troops starting firing volleys into the crowd, without being ordered to do so, and the police followed up with mounted charges. 

The riot caused the deaths of over 60 civilians, mostly Irish laborers, and three Guardsmen. Over 150 people were wounded, including 22 militiamen, 20-some policeman injured by thrown missiles and 4 who were shot, but not fatally. About 100 people were arrested.

Fisk had housed Josie Mansfield in an apartment a few doors down from the Erie Railroad headquarters on West 23rd Street and had a covered passage built linking the back doors of the headquarters and her apartment building. Fisk's relationship with Josie scandalized New York society. She eventually fell in love with Fisk's business associate, Edward S. Stokes, a man noted for his good looks. Stokes left his wife and family, and Josie left Fisk.

Edward Stokes
Josie continued to ask Fisk for money. She claimed that he had told her he was holding $25,000 in trust for her. He refused this request, but agreed to pay any bills incurred up until the time she had left him. When he received her bills, some had been backdated; he paid them anyway, but their relationship had taken a legalistic turn.

Josie Mansfield

In a bid for money, Mansfield and Stokes tried to extort money from Fisk by threatening the publication of letters written by Fisk to Mansfield that allegedly proved Fisk's legal wrongdoings. A legal and public relations battle followed, but Fisk refused to pay Mansfield anything. 

Grand Central Hotel, New York City
On January 6, 1872, Stokes was drinking at Delmonico’s when he heard that Fisk was now charging Stokes and Mansfield with blackmail. He learned that Fisk was on his way to the Grand Central Hotel; he knew that Fisk always entered by the ladies entrance, so he went and waited on the second floor landing. When he heard Fisk climbing the stairs Stokes started down saying: “Now I’ve got you.”

Stokes fired two shots at Fisk from a Colt pistol, one to the abdomen and one to the left arm. Stokes tried to flee but was captured.

Fisk gave a dying declaration identifying Stokes as the killer.  He was 36 years old when he died. 

Illustration of Shooting

"He Never Went Back on the Poor"
Fisk was remembered at his death for his acts of charity—most notably sending a trainload of supplies to the victims of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

His coffin lay in state for a day at the Grand Opera House in New York City, the theater that he had owned and managed.  More than twenty thousand people passed by to pay their respects and more than a hundred thousand more stood in the street.

Fisk' s body was taken by train to Brattleboro, Vermont; at every station crowds gathered to watch the train go by.  In Brattleboro he lay in state one more day at the Revere House, which was owned by his father.  Fisk’s funeral was a massive affair, featuring appearances by a 200-piece band.  

Fisk was buried in the Prospect Hill Cemetery in Bratteboro.

The Fisk monument, created by sculptor Larkin G. Mead, has in a circle at its base four young women. Each of the women holds one of the following: a sack of coins, railway shares, steamship holdings, and an emblem of Fisk's patronage of the theater.

Fisk Monument, Battlebro, Vermont
At his trial, Edward Stokes's defense was multi-pronged: he claimed , by turns, that he had shot out of self-defense, that he had been driven insane by Fisk’s persecution, that the doctors’ extensive probing had done more damage than his bullets, and that Fisk was killed by the morphine given him by the doctors. 

The trial resulted in a hung jury—at least one juror was suspected of being bribed.

At his second trial Stokes was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to be hanged, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. 

In his third trial Stokes was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years at Sing Sing Prison.

Edward Stokes served four years of a six-year prison sentence for manslaughter.

Josie Mansfield left New York for Paris, France where she married Robert L. Read, an expatriate American lawyer. When he died, she moved to Boston; then in 1899, in failing health, to Philadelphia to live with her sister. In 1909, in dire poverty, she moved with a brother to Watertown, South Dakota. Somehow she returned to Paris where she lived for many years. Josie died in 1931 at the American Hospital in Paris.

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