To A Speculator Dying Young


“Yes,” said one of the hall boys who had witnessed the murder, “and you are the man that did it.” Stokes sat down and waited to be arrested.

The news spread through the city nearly at the speed of sound. Within an hour newsboys were running up and down the streets, waving papers and shouting, “Extra! Shooting of Jim Fisk!”

A crowd of thousands converged on the Grand Central Hotel, completely blocking Broadway, and platoons of policemen were summoned to keep order. Two hundred and fifty were dispatched to reinforce the Tombs Prison, where Stokes had been taken, for fear of a lynch mob. Meanwhile, brokers descended on the uptown Fifth Avenue Hotel—the Waldorf-Astoria of its day—and a lively impromptu market in Erie stock sprang up.

The guardians of morality, as usual ignorant of what makes human beings actually tick, immediately pronounced Fisk’s fate to be just what he deserved. Because they write most of the history books, it is their view of the matter that has largely come down to us. But the ordinary people of the day would have none of their cant.

They remembered his boundless zest, not his unblushing exploitation of a corrupt politics. It was his unfailing kindness to those in need, not his buffoonery, that the ordinary people of his time chose to recall.

The next morning, as crowds still swirled around the Grand Central Hotel, Fisk breathed his last. As the undertakers prepared to remove his body, a plainly dressed woman with a child in tow fought her way up to the parlor where Fisk lay. She was refused entrance, but she would not be deterred. “For six months,” she told the guard, “he has kept me and my child from starvation, and I have never seen his face. I want to look upon my noble benefactor.” There were thousands of others like her in New York and elsewhere, and millions who had heard their stories. They mourned Jim Fisk.

The guardians of morality said Jim Fisk got what he deserved. But the ordinary people of the day would have none of that cant.

The next day, as he lay in state in the Grand Opera House, twenty thousand people pushed and shoved their way in to pay their respects. A hundred thousand more lined the streets, according to one account, as the 9th Regiment gave Fisk a military funeral that would not be equaled until General Grant himself was laid to rest thirteen years later. Afterward his body was returned to his native Brattleboro, Vermont, and all along the way, at every station and grade crossing, little knots of people stood in the cold and the dark, doffing their hats as the late “Prince of Erie” went by.

Stokes, thanks to some very fancy lawyering paid for by his family, got off with only four years for manslaughter and lived until 1901, a pathetic curiosity in New York society. Josie Mansfield, her looks fading, moved to Europe and lived on and on, impoverished and utterly forgotten, until 1931.

Even the two New York buildings forever associated with Jim Fisk, the Grand Opera House and the Grand Central Hotel, both long outlived the fifteen minutes of fame he had brought them. But then, like Fisk and unlike Stokes and Mansfield, they came to sudden, spectacular ends.

The Grand Opera House, too far from Broadway to be a success as a great theater, soon became nothing more than a neighborhood vaudeville house and later an increasingly shabby movie theater. In 1960 it was closed, and demolition began. But a fire, its origin never established, broke out before work had progressed very far and soon roared into a five-alarm inferno. The heat was so intense that the windows across both Eighth Avenue and Twenty-third Street were shattered by it, and most of the fire-fighting equipment south of Central Park was called in to bring the blaze under control.

As for the Grand Central Hotel, it remained one of New York’s premier hotels for another decade until the main shopping district moved uptown. In 1892 its name was changed to the Broadway Central, to avoid confusion with the railroad terminal far uptown, but the hotel’s long decline had already begun.

As its clientele moved down the social scale, its elegance faded, its upkeep diminished. Numerous fires broke out. Drugs, prostitution, crime, and all that is terrible about a great city roamed its halls.

Welfare families, their bills paid by the city, were the majority of the tenants when on August 3,1973, the Broadway Central suddenly collapsed in a roar of dust and debris, killing several tenants and blocking Broadway for days.

One wonders if Jim Fisk would agree that sometimes dying young is not such a bad idea.