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Sunday, June 20, 2010
THE ETERNAL TRIANGLE: PART TWO
I have been in love and this stupid. You, probably, have been in love and just as stupid as this "triangle of delinquency"in our story. Or you will be. It is part of the human condition to be in love and be this stupid at least once in your life. And there is little shame in doing it twice. And although Edward Stokes had the opportunity to break free from his love sick stupidity when the judge threw out his arrest for embezzlement in early 1871, he did not. He could not. Like a Tom Cat with his eyes locked on a caged bird, Edward Stokes had lost what the Buddhists refer to as his third eye, the ability to see himself from afar, detached from the emotion of the moment. Edward Stokes was in love with Josie Mansfield, and love makes you stupid. Edward and Josie were both in love with money. And greed makes you doubly stupid. That made Edward a triple threat.
The judges’ decision was based on a technicality, that the Brooklyn Refinery was not a corporation but a partnership between Edward and “Big” Jim Fisk. As a partner Edward could not steal money owed to the refinery, which he had pocketed, since he would have been stealing from himself. So Edward walked out of court a free man. And if Edward had just left it there, he might have stayed a winner. But being Edward, it was in his nature to carry things too far. That was one of the things that made Josie fall in love with him. That made her a triple threat, too.
So Edward sued “Big” Jim for slander, asking for that $200,000 again. “Big” Jim counter sued, demanding that his love letters be returned. Why Josie had given them to Edward passes beyond common sense, but I think we are well beyond sense of any kind in this case. Edward's lawyers argued that the letters might provide evidence of Erie railroad stock fraud, and might be needed in some future criminal trial. In truth, the only crime the letters were proof of was blackmail, which Edward and Josie were attempting to commit, with the letters. And that was what “Big” Jim’s lawyers argued. So the judge ordered the letters be read by an arbiter, to determine just what they proved, if anything.
The arbiter came to the conclusion that the love letters were maudlin, melodramatic, meretricious and – surprisingly – mundane, and contained no evidence of stock fraud. Given that the letters had only prurient value, the judge issued a restraining order preventing anyone, including the newspapers, from publishing them as long as the various court cases continued. And with that their value as blackmail material against “Big” Jim, evaporated. After all, as James Gordon Bennet, Jr., publisher of the New York Herald, used to say, “The purpose of a newspaper is not to instruct but to startle.”
It was at about this point that Edward’s wife took their daughter and fled to Paris. And "Big" wife, living in far off Boston, did the same. Clearly the married women in this case were smarter than their husbands, because they thus escaped being tainted with what that blue-nosed blue-blooded lawyer George Templeton Strong described as “a special stinkpot”. All of New York was snickering about the tr-cornered stench. The newspapers kept fanning the stink, even without the letters, and day after day they mocked the participants’ peccadilloes. But “Big” Jim had long ago chosen to ignore the opinions of others, and Josie never had even the pretense of virtue. The only member of the triumphant with any self respect left, and with a super abundance of that, and thus the only individual wounded by the continued public mocking, was Edward. And he was being sorely tested.
Having lost the letters, Edward was forced to settle out of court. “Big Jim allowed him to keep the $27,500 he had filched from the refinery, plus $10,000 compensation for the weekend he had spent in jail, and $5,000 for his legal fees. Edward exchanged all of that for his half of the refinery. Edward was now freed from his immediate financial difficulty. Of course he was still $38,000 in debt to five different attorneys, all for lawsuits against “Big:” Jim Fisk, and Edward had yet to win a single one. But being a pompous popinjay, he was convinced that he deserved to win at least one. And so he urged Josie to push ahead with her lawsuit against “Big” Jim. Not that he could have stopped her.
Josie was claiming that during their multi-year affair James Fisk had invested $25,000 for her, and now she wanted it back, with interest. “Big” Jim’s lawyers were arguing that the cash had never been hers, and that Josie’s entire life had been one money scam after another. On the witness stand Jose began with another lie. “I will be twenty-four years of age on the 11th of December next.” She was actually 28.
It was perfectly predictable that under cross examination her past would be used to impeach her. She was asked if, in California “a pistol was pointed in your presence at a man's head?” Reluctantly Josie replied, “There was a circumstance of that kind happened.” “Was it a man by the name of D. W. Perley…Was (the gun) pointed at him by (Josie's stepfather)? (And) did (Perley) sign a check before he went out?” All of this, Josie was forced to admit, was the truth. The jury, and the press, knew a badger game when they heard one.
Over three hours on the stand Josie was also forced to admit that Fisk had bought her the house on 23rd Street, from the knocker on Josie's front door to the curtains in the parlor and the commode in the bedroom. She was even forced to admit that she had handed over her love letters from Fisk because Edward thought they “would benefit him in the case…pending between him and Mr. Fisk.” All of this was predictable, as her lawyer must have predicted. But Josie had insisted on proceeding. She was also three times stupid; she was in love with Edward, and she was greedy.
And then, on January 6, 1872, Edward took the stand in Josie’s case. Even under friendly direct examination, the spectators could not suppress a giggle when he insisted he and Josie were “just friends”. When court broke for lunch at 1:00 p.m. Edward stormed out, infuriated. He lunched at Delmonico’s on 14th street, and it was there that he learned from "a friend" that he and Josie had been indicted for blackmailing “Big” Jim Fisk. It was the last straw.