November 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 7
Imagine the media sensation that would result if, say, Donald Trump were to be gunned down in the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel by a Rockefeller who had taken up with Maria Maples. That, I hope, will give you some idea of what gripped New York on the evening of January 6, 1872, when Edward Stokes pumped two bullets into James Fisk, Jr., at the Grand Central Hotel on Broadway.
Fisk had had a meteoric Wall Street career. At the beginning of 1868 he had been completely unknown outside the Street itself. By the end of 1869, with the help of his partner Jay Gould, he was the most famous speculator in the country.
But while his financial exploits are still remembered on Wall Street today, it was Fisk’s outsize personality and extracurricular activities that most bedazzled the country and endeared him to the common man. “Boldness! boldness!” wrote a Wall Street contemporary trying to imprison the essence of Jim Fisk on paper, “twice, thrice, and four times. Impudence! cheek! brass! unparalleled, unapproachable, sublime!”
Fisk bought theaters and put on lavish productions. One of these theaters, the Grand Opera House on West Twenty-third Street, also, incongruously, contained the equally lavish headquarters of the Erie Railway, which Fisk and Gould controlled. Fisk rode around town in a carriage with four matched horses while postilions spread a carpet between carriage and doorstep whenever he paid a call. He purchased the colonelcy of the New York’s 9th Regiment and provided it with spiffy new uniforms (including a five-thousand-dollar number for himself) and the finest brass band in the country.
The guardians of morality, of course, never tired of deploring Fisk and his antics, but the public loved it all, even when he made a fool of himself. In the summer of 1871 the 9th Regiment was assigned to protect the Protestant Irish who marched in celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne. The vastly more numerous Catholic Irish took offense, and one of New York’s major riots ensued. Forty-seven people died in the melee.
Fisk, hurting his ankle when he was pushed to the ground in the uproar, skedaddled over back-yard fences and through cellars until he was safely out of danger. Harper’s Weekly even printed a long poem called “The Flight of Fisk.”
His comrades’ voices rent the air— “For ankle smashed what speed it is!” They shouted “Ce n’est pas la guerre, Mais c’est superbe, indeed it is! ”
Such an ignominious retreat from the field of battle would have ruined the reputation of any other man, though it seemed only to add to Fisk’s.
But by this time Fisk’s business empire was crumbling. The Tweed scandal had broken, and the thoroughly corrupt New York legislature and judiciary could no longer do the wellpaid-for favors that had kept Gould and Fisk in power at the Erie.
At the same time, the Erie’s English stockholders, who held a majority of the stock but had been frozen out of control, were pressing their case in federal court, and time was rapidly running out. At the end of December 1871 Fisk was forced to resign as vice president and controller of the Erie, a fact that was never announced publicly.
His personal life was also unraveling. Fisk had married young, and his wife, whom he genuinely loved in his way, lived a respectable Victorian life in a mansion he had built for her in Boston. He, meanwhile, squired a succession of showgirls around New York and fell thoroughly under the spell of Josie Mansfield, who is often described as an actress but whose theatrical credits must be lost to history.
He arranged for her to get the money to buy a luxurious brownstone (by the simple, and then legal, expedient of giving her timely advice on when to buy and sell Erie stock). He soon moved in with her. She, however, was interested only in his money and fell in love with Ned Stokes, a partner of Fisk in an oil refinery. Stokes, as handsome as he was unstable, came from one of New York’s richest families.
Mansfield soon asked Fisk to move out of the house he had provided for her, and he did so, while Stokes visited there with increasing frequency. Then Fisk found that he was being cheated by Stokes in the oil business and loosed a blizzard of lawsuits.
Stokes’s family, thanks to his always erratic behavior, kept him on a very short financial leash, and the legal costs of Fisk’s lawsuits drove him to a frenzy. On the afternoon of January 6, Stokes learned that Fisk had succeeded in having him indicted for blackmail and that a warrant was out for his arrest. Something snapped.
He went to Fisk’s office in the Grand Opera House and learned that Fisk had gone downtown to the Grand Central Hotel at Third Street and Broadway. By happenstance Stokes arrived at the hotel first and waited for Fisk at the top of the staircase that led from the ladies’ entrance to the parlor floor. Fisk arrived and began to mount the stairs. Stokes was heard to mutter, “Come along, I have got you now.” When Fisk was at point-blank range, Stokes pulled a gun and shot him twice, through the abdomen and through the arm.
Fisk was helped into one of the parlors, and doctors were summoned while Stokes went to the front desk and calmly announced that a man had been shot.
“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 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.