Jim Fisk

With Partner Jay Gould, the Flamboyant Fisk Manipulated Gold and Railroad Stocks

Engraved portrait of Wall Street schemer Jim Fisk
Jim Fisk. public domain

Jim Fisk was a businessman who became nationally famous for unethical business practices on Wall Street in the late 1860s. He became a partner of the notorious robber baron Jay Gould in the Erie Railroad War of 1867-68, and he and Gould caused a financial panic with their scheme to corner the gold market in 1869.

Fisk was a heavyset man with a handlebar mustache and a reputation for wild living. Dubbed “Jubilee Jim,” he was the opposite of his sullen and secretive partner Gould.

As they engaged in dubious business schemes, Gould avoided attention and avoided the press. Fisk couldn't stop talking to reporters and often engaged in highly publicized antics.

It was never clear whether Fisk's reckless behavior and need for attention was a deliberate strategy to distract the press and public from shady business deals.

Fisk reached the zenith of his fame when his scandalous involvement with an actress, Josie Mansfield, played out on the front pages of the newspapers.

At the height of the scandal, in January 1872, Fisk visited a hotel in Manhattan and was gunned down by Richard Stokes, an associate of Josie Mansfield. Fisk died hours later. He was 37 years old. At his bedside stood his partner Gould, along with William M. “Boss” Tweed, the notorious leader of Tammany Hall, New York's political machine.

During his years as a New York City celebrity, Fisk engaged in activities which today would be considered publicity stunts.

He helped finance and lead a militia company, and he would dress in an elaborate uniform that seemed like something from a comic opera. He also bought an opera house and saw himself as something of a patron of the arts.

The public seemed fascinated by Fisk, despite his reputation for being a crooked operator on Wall Street.

Perhaps the public liked that Fisk seemed to only cheat other wealthy people. Or, in the years following the tragedy of the Civil War, perhaps the public just saw Fisk as much-needed entertainment.

Though his partner, Jay Gould, seemed to have genuine affection for Fisk, it's possible that Gould saw something valuable in Fisk's very public antics. With people turning their attention to Fisk, and with "Jubilee Jim" often giving public statements, it made it easier for Gould to fade into the shadows.

Early Life of Jim Fisk

James Fisk, Jr., was born in Bennington, Vermont, on April 1, 1834. His father was a traveling peddler who sold his wares from a horse-drawn wagon. As a child, Jim Fisk had little interest in school — his spelling and grammar showed it throughout his life — but he was fascinated by business.

Fisk learned basic accounting, and in his teens he began to accompany his father on peddling trips. As he showed an unusual talent for relating to customers and selling to the public, his father set him up with his own peddler’s wagon.

Before long the younger Fisk made his father an offer and bought out the business. He also expanded, and made sure his new wagons were finely painted and pulled by the best horses.

After making his peddler’s wagons an impressive spectacle, Fisk discovered that his business improved. People would gather to admire the horses and wagon, and sales would increase. While still in his teens, Fisk had already learned the advantage of putting on a show for the public.

By the time the Civil War began, Fisk had been hired by Jordan Marsh, and Co., the Boston wholesaler from whom he had been buying much of his stock. And with the disruption in the cotton trade created by the war, Fisk found his opportunity to make a fortune.

Fisk’s Career During the Civil War

In the earliest months of the Civil War, Fisk traveled to Washington and set up headquarters in a hotel. He began entertaining government officials, especially those who were scurrying to supply the Army. Fisk arranged for contracts for cotton shirts as well as woolen blankets which had been sitting, unsold, in a Boston warehouse.

According to a biography of Fisk published soon after his death, he may have engaged in bribery to secure contracts. But he took a principled stand in what he would sell to Uncle Sam. Merchants who boasted of selling shoddy merchandise to the troops enraged him.

In early 1862 Fisk began to visit areas of the South under federal control to arrange to buy cotton, which was in very short supply in the North. According to some accounts, Fisk would spend as much as $800,000 in a day purchasing cotton for Jordan Marsh, and arranging to have it shipped to New England, where the mills needed it.

By the end of the Civil War, Fisk was wealthy. And he had gained a reputation. As a biographer put it in 1872:

Fisk could never be content without making a display. He loved bright colors and elegant trappings, and from his early boyhood to the day of his death nothing suited him that was not the best of its kind.

The Battle for the Erie Railroad

At the end of the Civil War Fisk moved to New York and became known on Wall Street. He entered into a partnership with Daniel Drew, an eccentric character who had become very wealthy after starting out in business as a cattle drover in rural New York State.

Drew controlled the Erie Railroad. And Cornelius Vanderbilt, the richest man in America, was trying to buy up all the railroad’s stock so he could take control of it and add it to his own portfolio of railroads, which included the mighty New York Central.

To thwart Vanderbilt’s ambitions, Drew began working with financier Jay Gould.

Fisk was soon playing a flamboyant role in the venture, and he and Gould made unlikely partners.

In March 1868 the “Erie War” escalated as Vanderbilt went to court and arrest warrants were issued for Drew, Gould, and Fisk. The three of them fled across the Hudson River to Jersey City, New Jersey, where they fortified themselves in a hotel.

As Drew and Gould brooded and plotted, Fisk gave grandiose interviews to the press, strutting about and denouncing Vanderbilt. Over time the struggle for the railroad came to a confusing finale as Vanderbilt worked out a settlement with his adversaries.

Fisk and Gould became directors of the Erie. In typical style for Fisk, he bought an opera house on 23rd Street in New York City, and placed the railroad’s offices on the second floor.

Gould, Fisk, and the Gold Corner

In the unregulated financial markets following the Civil War, speculators like Gould and Fisk routinely engaged in manipulation that would be illegal in today’s world. And Gould, noticing some quirks in the buying and selling of gold, came up with a scheme by which he, with Fisk’s help, could corner the market and control the nation’s supply of gold.

In September 1869 the men began working their scheme. For the plot to work completely, the government had to be stopped from selling gold supplies. Fisk and Gould, having bribed government officials, thought they were assured of success.

Friday, September 24, 1869 became known as Black Friday on Wall Street. The markets opened in a pandemonium as the price of gold shot up.

But then the federal government began to sell gold, and the price collapsed. Many traders who had been drawn into the frenzy were ruined.

Jay Gould and Jim Fisk came away unscathed. Sidestepping the disaster they had created, they sold their own gold as the price had risen on Friday morning. Later investigations showed that they had broken no laws then on the books. While they had created panic in the financial markets and hurt many investors, they had gotten richer.

Fisk’s Lifestyle Caught Up to Him

In the years following the Civil War, Fisk was invited to become the leader of the Ninth Regiment of the New York National Guard, a volunteer infantry unit which had become greatly reduced in size and prestige. Fisk, though he had no military experience, was elected colonel of the regiment.

As Col. James Fisk, Jr., the unscrupulous businessman presented himself as a public spirited individual. He became a fixture on New York’s social scene, though many regarded him as a buffoon when he would strut about in gaudy uniforms.

Fisk, though he had a wife in New England, became involved with a young New York actress named Josie Mansfield. Rumors circulated that she was really a prostitute.

The relationship between Fisk and Mansfield was gossiped about widely. Mansfield’s involvement with a young man named Richard Stokes added to the rumors.

After a complicated series of events in which Mansfield sued Fisk for libel, Stokes became enraged. He stalked Fisk, and ambushed him on a staircase of the Metropolitan Hotel on January 6, 1872.

As Fisk arrived at the hotel, Stokes fired two shots from a revolver. One struck Fisk in the arm, but another entered his abdomen. Fisk remained conscious, and identified the man who had shot him. But he died within hours.

After an elaborate funeral, Fisk was buried in Brattleboro, Vermont.

Though Fisk died before the phrase came into use, Fisk is generally considered, due to his unethical business practices and extravagant spending, an example of a robber baron.

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McNamara, Robert. "Jim Fisk." ThoughtCo, Dec. 31, 2017, thoughtco.com/jim-fisk-1773958. McNamara, Robert. (2017, December 31). Jim Fisk. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/jim-fisk-1773958 McNamara, Robert. "Jim Fisk." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/jim-fisk-1773958 (accessed January 22, 2018).