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Saturday, June 5, 2010

Jubilee Jim


"Jubilee” Jim Fisk was the consummate Gilded Age robber baron. Together with his partner Jay Gould, Fisk managed to wrest the Erie Railroad from Cornelius Vanderbilt, and by attempting to corner the gold market triggered the 1869 financial panic known as “Black Friday.” But unlike his dour partner, Jim Fisk lived a personal life as large and extravagant as his business dealings. Everything he had or did had to be the biggest and best, so when he cheated on his wife it was with the most beautiful woman in America. When that relationship turned scandalous, it was an epic scandal filled with blackmail, courtroom drama, and finally murder.

Date: January 6, 1872

Location: New York, New York

Victim: "Jubilee" Jim Fisk

Cause of Death: Gunshot

Accused: Edward S. Stokes

Recording:

"Jim Fisk (aka The Stokes Verdict)" - June Lazare
 


Synopsis:
The life of James Fisk, Jr. is a true American success story. He was born in a small Vermont town in 1835 and quit school at twelve to assist his father as a travelling peddler, selling housewares and notions. At fifteen he left that occupation to join Van Amberg’s Mammoth Circus and Menagerie. At 18 he left the circus and applied his showmanship to the peddling business and by age 21 he was running five wagons throughout New England. He made his first fortune working for Jordan Marsh, providing textiles to the army during the Civil War. Then he discovered the stock market.

He learned the tricks of the trade from Daniel Drew who was a master at manipulating stock prices. Fisk teamed up with Drew and Jay Gould for the "Erie War" - a fight to keep Cornelius Vanderbilt from gaining control of the Erie Railroad. Fisk and his partners won by continually issuing fraudulent Erie stock, unbeknownst to Vanderbilt, until Vanderbilt finally conceded. The Erie Railroad became the center of Fisk's operations

In 1867, while Jim deeply involved in the “Erie War,” Jim 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; a friend of Miss Wood and clearly not one of her prostitutes. At the time Josie only owned one passable dress and her rent was hopelessly overdue. Though Jim Fisk had a wife back in Vermont, he was smitten by the poor girl and was pleased to pay her rent and provide her with finery.

Josie Mansfield was considered extraordinarily beautiful, a fact that she discovered early and had always used to her advantage. As one historian put it,

“Perhaps a colder disgrace to her sex has never helped to ruin man since the world began.”
She was born in Boston, but when she was around ten years old the family moved to Stockton, California. Soon after, her father was killed in a duel over a political matter and mother remarried a man named Warren. As Josie was growing up she earned the reputation as an incorrigible flirt. She caught the eye of a middle-aged attorney named D. W. Perley and Warren had to chase him away twice, with a pistol to his head. The matter became something of a scandal but Josie would later say she was being used by her parents in a blackmail plot.

She married a wandering actor named Frank Lawler. The marriage had been Josie’s idea, Lawler said,

“Finally I did marry her to save her from the evil influence of her own parents.”
The couple drifted east but Josie began to stray; they divorced after two years.

After meeting Jim Fisk, Josie gave up any attempt at acting. By 1870 she was living in a four story house on Twenty-Fourth Street that Jim had given her along with an extensive wardrobe, fine jewelry and virtually anything else she wanted.

The summer of 1869 Fisk met Edward S. “Ned” Stokes. Stokes was a handsome, athletic young man from a good family, but it was his less attractive side that Fisk was drawn to. Stokes was a gambler and a horseman who divided his time between racetracks and saloons. He was a flashy dresser who liked be the center of attention, much like Jim Fisk himself, except that Stokes spent money at a faster rate than he could make it. Stokes’s mother owned an oil refinery in Brooklyn that had been closed for several years. Fisk and Stokes formed a company to reopen in, with Fisk providing the capital and discounted freight rates on the Erie Railroad for transferring oil. Stokes treated the treasury as his personal account.

On New Year’s Day, 1870, Josie Mansfield hosted an open house with an ample punch bowl and people were coming and going all day. Fisk invited Ned Stokes to join him at the party and there introduced him to Josie. As they chatted around the punchbowl people commented on what a handsome couple Josie and Ned made. At the time it pleased to see them together—his sweetheart and his bosom friend.

Not long after that Ned Stokes began paying call on Josie Mansfield and the relationship soon became a full blown love affair. When Fisk found out he sent a letter to Josie to find out where matters stood. She responded by accusing him of seeing actresses behind her back—a rumor that was circulating Manhattan at the time. This initiated a long series of letters between Jim and Josie which were, on both sides, sometimes accusatory, sometimes loving.

Fisk confronted Stokes, asking him to leave Josie alone.
“Ask me anything else, Jim,” Stokes replied. “Anything else in the world, I’ll do; but I can’t keep away from Josie. I Love her—and she loves me!”
Fisk thought he could handle the matter as if it were a business deal. He proposed they ask Josie to settle the things once and for all, and decide which of them she wanted. Josie’s response was

“I don’t see why we can’t all three be friends.”
To which Jim replied:
“No, Josie, it won’t do. You can’t run two engines on the same track in contrary directions at the same time.”
As far as Fisk was concerned Josie had chosen Ned Stokes, but Josie continued to ask Fisk for money. She claimed that he had told her he was holding $25,000 in trust for her. She wanted it all. He refused this request, but agreed to pay any bills incurred up until five minutes to eleven o’clock three weeks prior—the time she had formally refused him. When he received her bills some had been obviously backdated. He paid them anyway, and several after, but his relationship with Josie had taken a legalistic turn.

Fisk and Stokes began to fight over the refinery. Stokes demanded $200,000 or he would release Fisk’s letters to Josie to the press. Fisk refused, though he desperately wanted the letters back. The refinery matter went to arbitration and Stokes surrendering his stock for $15,000 in addition to the money he had already stolen. As part of the settlement Fisk’s attorney took custody of the letters.

$15,000 did not last Ned Stokes very long. He sued Fisk for $200,000 in refinery profits he claimed he was owed. He also requested the letters back, declaring they would prove his claim. The Fisk/Mansfield letters were now the talk of the town. The press speculated that they were not merely love letters but contained evidence of Fisk’s shady business practices. Fisk’s friends, who knew the letters would do no more damage than had already been done, tried to persuade him to publish the letters himself and defuse Stokes’s threats. Fisk came close to agreeing but refused, not wanting his soul splashed across the daily newspaper.

The judge dismissed Stokes’s claim and stated that the status of the letters had already been decided. After the verdict Stokes was drowning his sorrows at Delmonico’s when he heard the follow-up news—Fisk was now charging Stokes and Mansfield with blackmail. It was more than Ned Stokes could stand, he went looking for Fisk. He learned that Fisk was on his way to the Grand Central Hotel. He knew that Fisk always entered by the ladies entrance, so Stokes went in first 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 lived long enough to identify his killer before dying from the abdominal wound. Jim Fisk was 36-years-old.









Trial:  June 1872

Awaiting trial, Stokes was put on Murderer’s Row in Manhattan's Tombs prison. At the time, for men of means, prison meant confinement but not necessarily hardship. A prisoner could have whatever lifestyle he could afford. Stokes had a carpet on the floor, had his meals brought in from Delmonico’s and had bottles of scented water for bathing. He met with reporters wearing a ruffled shirt with diamond studs.

At his trial, 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, or 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.
“Had Stokes been an illiterate laborer,” Edmund Stedman commented, “He would have dangled in a noose two months later.”
Verdict:  1. Hung Jury
               2. Guilty of first degree murder - overturned on appeal
               3. Guilty of manslaughter


Aftermath:
Jubilee Jim Fisk lay in state for a day at the Grand Opera House, a theatre 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. The 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 before being lowered into the ground.

Jim Fisk's flamboyant personality was sadly missed in New York. Though in life his business practices and personal morals had been criticized from pulpit and podium, and his market manipulations had directly or indirectly harmed much of the population, 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. In song and story Jim Fisk became a lovable rogue and a friend to the workingman.

Thirty-nine letters from Jim Fisk to Josie Mansfield were published in the New York Herald one week after Jim Fisk’s death. To the dismay of scandal mongers, they contained no insight into his business dealings, just evidence of his love for Josie and his jealousy of Ned Stokes.

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.

Sources:
Websites:
Books:

Fuller, Robert H. Jubilee Jim: From Circus Traveler to Wall Street Rogue: The Remarkable Life of Colonel James Fisk, Jr. New York: MacMillan 1928.

Swanberg, W. A. Jim Fisk: the Career of an Impossible Rascal. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons 1959.
 
Gordon, John Steele. The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street: Jay Gould, Jim Fisk, Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Erie Railway Wars, and the Birth of Wall Street. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988.

Newspaper:

"EDWARD S. STOKES DEAD" (New York Times, November 3, 1901)

Gravesite (from Findagrave)

Ballad Lyrics (from Mudcat Cafe)

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