James Fisk: A Bigger Than Life Figure in the Gilded Age

Jim Fisk was born in Bennington, Vermont. He attended school for short periods, but spent most of his time earning money as a waiter, circus worker, and traveling salesman. Later, Fisk became associated with Jordan & Marsh, for whom he successfully managed war contracts during the Civil War. Early in life, Fisk amassed a considerable fortune by smuggling Southern cotton through the Union blockade, selling Confederate bonds to Europeans and, later, dealing in cotton in the South during Reconstruction. Despite this success, his forays into the dry goods business in Boston and a brokerage in New York City were huge failures. Primarily by association with another great robber baron of the era, Daniel Drew, Fisk managed to rebuild his fortune. With Drew’s backing, the brokerage firm of Fisk & Belden was formed in New York City, in 1866. Fisk joined with Drew and Jay Gould to wage the Erie War, a scheme to use the Erie Railroad to pry huge amounts of money from the equally avaricious Cornelius Vanderbilt. The most notorious plot of Fisk’s short career was the attempt to corner the gold market during 1868 and 1869. Fisk's and Gould's effort collapsed when President U.S. Grant intervened to halt the Black Friday scandal. Fisk brazenly refused to honor his contracts, leaving thousands ruined. Fisk unapologetically used stockholder money to bribe judges and other public officials. He also feathered his personal interests, such as backing Broadway shows. Fisk was shot to death on the main stairway of the Broadway Central Hotel in New York City, in January 1872. His murderer, Ned Stokes, was a rival for the attentions of Josie Mansfield, an actress of limited talent. Fisk’s funeral was a massive affair, featuring appearances by a 200-piece band and his own state militia unit. Known popularly as the “Barnum of Wall Street” and “Jubilee Jim,” Fisk was one of the most outrageous figures of the Gilded Age. He was a huge man, extremely extroverted, and the owner of a large wardrobe of loud clothing. His exploits were the fodder of innumerable newspaper reports, but the Black Friday episode finally made virtual outcasts of both Fisk and Gould.

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