FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.
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Sunday, June 27, 2010
THE ETERNAL TRIANGLE; PART THREE
I can’t think of a love triangle that ever turned out productively for the participants, from King David who did not let morality stand between him and separating Bathsheba from her husband, Uriah the Hittite...
...through King Arthur, who let morality prevent him from separating his beloved Guinevere from her lusted after Lancelot....
, through the swelled egos of John Edwards, Elizabeth Edwards and Rielle Hunter...
...and winding down the Appalachian Trail with the romantically addled Maria Belen Chapur, Jenny Sanford and the man in the middle, Governor Mark Sanford. And the “ménage-a-fools” between “Big” Jim Fisk, Josie Mansfield and Edward Stokes repeated the same sad story, with an unfortunate familiar final twist.
These self destructive convergences usually leave the participants exhausted and mumbling some absurd self justification, like “The heart wants what the heart wants”, when, in truth, the more apt description might be, “Stupid is as stupid does.” It needs to be noted that none of these disasters, which we all are suffer from, from time to time, could occur without the active participation of all members, and the participants may be helpless, but they are never blameless.
“Big” Jim’s friends, who knew his love letters to Josie to be harmless drivel, urged him to publish them first, and thereby remove their threat. But this “Prince of the Erie Railroad”, this master of Wall Street, this robber baron supreme, refused to do. Instead he bemoaned his fate, “By the Lord, this is my heart that you want me to make a show of, and I won't.” He was, however, willing to make a lesser show of it, slower and more deliciously painful, and far more dramatically detailed, by not either paying the $200,000 demanded by Stokes (he could easily afford it) or publishing the letters. So, the curtain went up on the Third Act of the melodrama
About one on the afternoon of January 6, 1872, “Big” James Fisk got the word that a grand jury had indicted Josie and Edward Stokes for blackmail. He was in the offices of the Erie Railroad, on the second floor of his own Grand Opera House, when he heard. At about 3:30 pm, a visiting friend, gambler John Chamberlain, was leaving the Opera House, when he saw a carriage crossing the intersection of 8th Avenue and 23rd Street. As the carriage clipped past him, Chamberlain saw, peeking out from the passenger compartment, and staring up at the Erie Corporate offices, Edward Stokes.
Ten minutes later “Big” Jim Fisk was in his own carriage, heading uptown, to 44th Street and Amity Street, later to be renamed 3rd Avenue, to the Grand Central Hotel, around the corner from “Commodore” Vanderbilt’s brand new Grand Central Railroad Station (above). As he entered the hotel “Big” Jim recognized a porter by the name of John Redmond, and asked him to contact one of the guests, a daughter of Samuel B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph. She was living at the hotel, and had recently suffered a death in her family. Redmond followed “Big” Jim up to the stairs toward the second floor lobby.
As they turned the corner at the base of the stairwell, with “Big” Jim leading the way, they were confronted by Edward Stokes, waiting at the top of the stairs. Arm outstretched, he was pointing a handgun down the stairs - at them. “Big” Jim Fisk stopped, halfway up. Edward said firmly, “I’ve got you now,” and fired twice. Bang! Bang! Both shots hit Fisk, who cried out, “For God’s sake, will anybody save me?” Redmond, the porter, dove for cover. Fisk staggered back to the foot of the stairs, where Redmond and other employees helped him back up the stairs and into an empty room. He never left it.
A bellboy followed Edward (above), and the shooter was arrested trying to leave the hotel a few minutes later. As the police were transporting Edward to jail, he asked if he could go into a bar for a drink. The answer was “no”. He later asked his jailer, “What do you think, is the man seriously injured?”
The man was. To one visitor, “Big” Jim explained he felt as if he had just eaten green apples. “I've got a belly-ache.” The gambler, John Chamberlain, did not believe it when he was told of the shooting. “I’ll lay $500 against $100 that it's false.”
Josie, the self-centered center of this melodramatic triangle affair, had no such doubts. Shocked when a newspaperman told her of the shooting, she blurted out, “Edward must have been insane!” Then she immediately added, “I wish you to understand that I am in no way connected with this sad affair.” And finally she insisted, “I have only my reputation to maintain.” Yes, it was a little late for Josie's reputation, and to contend she had not connection to what had happened, but she still had hopes.
“Big” Jim Fisk, who had long ago lost his reputation because of his love for Josie, died at 10:45p.m. the next night. They took his body back to his childhood home, in Brattleboro, Vermont.
The newspapers were endless in their praise of the man, as unrelenting as they had been, just days before, in their ridicule of him. His love letters, published a week after his death, were so banal, that they created barely a ripple.
As writer Edmund Stedman noted, “"Had Stokes been an illiterate laborer, he would have dangled in a noose two months later.” But Edmund was still wealthy enough, that, with the help of his family, it took three trials to convict him of manslaughter, and even then he was sentenced to only six years in Sing Sing prison. He was a popular and entitled inmate, and served only four years. Once out he operated restaurants, and ended his life locked in lawsuits with the very people who had rescued him financially after prison. He died in 1901, at the age of 61.
For Josie Mansfield, the loss of “Big” Jim meant not just the loss of financial security, but, more importantly, the loss of drama in her life. She testified at Edmund’s first trial, but was unavailable for the two that followed. She sued “Big” Jim’s widow, Lucy, for that $50,000 she alleged "Big" Jim had invested for her, but the case was thrown out of court. She moved to Paris. She married a rich alcoholic in 1891, and divorced him six years later. In 1897 she moved to Boston to live with a sister, then to Philadelphia to live with another sister. In 1899 she moved to Watertown, South Dakota to live with her brother. She died, back in Paris at the American Hospital, in 1931, having out lived her sugar daddy James, “Big” Jim Fisk, by a lifetime - 60 years. She even outlived the man she had overthrown a fortune for, Edmund Stokes – by 20 years.
At times the three had been a national laughingstock, a pubic delinquency and a media soap opera on a par with Jesse James, Sandra Bullock and Michelle "Bombshell" McGee (et al), with the minor addendum that one member of this most recent triangle seems to have insisted upon being an actual adult. And that brought the entire drama to an early conclusion, much to the media's regret.
But fear not, it will not be long before another trio of thespians feels compelled to raise the curtain on another performance of the same play, and carry the character arc to its illogical and inevitable dramatic conclusion, again. And again. And again. To quote Charley Harper, from "Two and a-Half Men"; Love is not blind. It's retarded."