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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 848


This is the grave of Jim Fisk.

Born in 1835 in Pownal, Vermont, Fisk was a rough kid who ran away from home at the age of 15 to join the circus. He did this for awhile, then took a job in a hotel, and then, coming to his senses a little bit, followed his father’s profession as a peddler. He was pretty good at this, having learned showmanship in the circus, easily applicable to the hustles of selling. He then was taken on by a dry goods firm in Boston who saw promise in the young man.

Fisk’s core value was getting rich. As it turned out, the Civil War was a great time to get rich. Now, we look at the post-Civil War era as the Gilded Age for good reason. But the groundwork was clearly laid before the war. The overwhelming dominance of corruption, sharpers, and grifters was well under way in the 1850s. The new possibilities of capitalism in a completely unregulated environment naturally attracted those on the take, which very much included politicians. What the Civil War did was change the nature of the relationship between government and business, opening up vast new opportunities for grifting because of the need to fight the war. Men like Fisk were ready to step in. By 1861, he was selling textiles to the federal government—and probably the Confederates too through smuggling. He made a bunch of money, lost it all through speculations,, then made a bunch more. How he made that money back? When the siege of Petersburg began, he figured the Confederates were done. So he sent an agent to London to short as many Confederate bonds as possible on the fastest boat he could find. This worked. He was able to make a ton of money before London knew that the Confederates were finished.

Well, I guess there’s no real negative of screwing over British financiers and the Confederates. But this was the kind of guy Fisk was and in a world where all the opportunities were out there for the dishonest, Fisk was all-in to take advantage. In this, he met another of his kind. Fisk and Jay Gould would become fellow operators and friends by the end of the war. They teamed up with others against Cornelius Vanderbilt in the late war battles for railroad control that really laid the groundwork for the massive speculation and corruption that defined the railroads over the next few decades. Fisk and Gould started working closely with Boss Tweed, engaging in massive bribery of legislators (who were more than happy to take the money for their new “friends”), and bought judges too. Fisk and Gould were part of the group that attempted to take advantage of Ulysses Grant’s massive naivety when it came to the rich (Grant really thought the rich were smarter than the rest of us) and corner the gold market through connections to the Grant family. This damn near worked, nearly tanking the American economy entirely and leaving a lot of people high and dry. But of course, both Fisk and Gould came away unscathed, despite committing many crimes if anyone cared to prosecute them. See, they had bought all the judges already. James Garfield, personally corrupt himself, headed the “investigation” in the House that unsurprisingly found Grant and the ringleaders hadn’t really done anything wrong.

Personally, Fisk married young, but also had sex with nearly any woman he could and did not care what his wife thought about it. Interestingly, it seems that his wife was a lesbian who was spending a lot of time with a woman she loved in Boston and so she didn’t seem to care much what he was doing. But it’s always hard to tell about these things in the late nineteenth century. But he was so open with his affairs that it scandalized New York society, especially with Josie Mansfield, who was considered one of the true beauties of the era and who he brought into high society.

But then Mansfield fell in love with one of Fisk’s fellow sharpers, Edward Stokes. They decided to extort Fisk, writing him a letter saying he needed to pay up or they would expose his many, many, many crimes. He refused. In 1872, Stokes confronted him in the street. Fisk fought back. Stokes shot him in the gut. Probably this was the kind of wound that he would have survived with better doctors, but this was the era of “let’s stick a bunch of fingers in the gut” and the wound was infected and he died, which Garfield would experience a decade later. Fisk died the day after he was shot. He was 36 years old. The nation lost one of its worst people, someone who like Gould would have spent the rest of his life stealing from the public and throwing the nation into economic collapses in order to satisfy his personal greed. Alas, there were plenty of other grifters willing to jump into Fisk’s sizable shoes (and belt size).

Jim Fisk is buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery, Brattleboro, Vermont.

If you would like this series to visit other Gilded Age scumbags, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Cornelius Vanderbilt is in Staten Island and George Francis Train is in Brooklyn. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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