It is almost essential for any live interactive murder mystery to include at least a few characters with a shady background. The most intriguing characters are the ones who seem to have a clean reputation on the surface, but they have many secrets for the audience to dig up. In this addition of Murder Mystery NYC diaries, we explore how one of New York’s most respected businessmen of the 19th Century concealed a hidden life of greed, betrayal, and murder.
The Beginning of an Empire
James Fisk, commonly known as “Jubilee Jim” was a stockbroker and businessman who gained a notoriety for his questionable business practices. Coming from a humble background, Fisk was born in a small Vermont town where he dropped out of school at age 12 to join his father’s business. At 15 he ran away from home and joined the circus.
He had several different jobs before he made his fortune working for Jordan Marsh, where he sold textiles to the army during the Civil War. Fisk got into insider trading with help from his business partner, Daniel Drew. Fisk and Drew went to war with Cornelius Vanderbilt to gain control of the Eerie Railroad. They won this battle by issuing fraudulent Eerie stock, resulting in Fisk and his partner Jay Gould gaining full control of the railroad. Their corrupt business practices didn’t stop here. From there they formed an alliance with Tammany Hall and bribed politicians and judges.
A Demanding Affair
In 1867 Fisk became involved with the Josie Mansfield, an out of work actress who he took pity upon and paid her various expenses. Despite being already married, his wife, Lucy Moore, was not bothered by Fisk’s affairs, most likely because she was carrying out an affair of her own. As their relationship progressed, Fisk became more generous with his money. Josie had given up on acting and moved into her 4-story home, provided by Fisk.
In 1869 Fisk became business partners with Edward Stokes, a wealthy, good looking playboy who became infatuated with Josie. After Fisk discovered secret letters between the two he confronted Fisk. He demanded he leave Josie alone, but refused. They decided on to compromise and let Josie decide who she wanted to stay with. However, Josie insisted she could continue relationships with both of them.
Despite her infidelities, she continued to request money and gifts from Fisk. After a series of business disagreements, Stokes demanded $200,000 or else he would release his letters with Josie to the press. After a legal battle which resulted in Fisk receiving control of the letters, Stokes sued him for another $200,000. It was widely speculated that the letters not only proved her infidelity, but also exposed Fisk’s illegal business practices. When Fisk won in court, he decided to sue Stokes and Josie for blackmail.
He Couldn’t Run Forever
Infuriated, Stokes tracked Fisk down and confronted him at the Grand Central Hotel. He cornered him at the entrance and shot him twice. Fisk died on the spot, but was able to identify his attacker before his death.
At his trial, Stokes made several differing claims in his defense, some of which included that he shot him in self defense, he acted out of insanity, and that Fisk died from morphine poisoning administered by his doctors. His first trial resulted in a hung jury. At his second trial he was sentenced to death, but the verdict was overturned. At his third trial he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 6 years in prison.
Despite his philandering and criminal activity, Fisk was a very popular figure in New York at the time. Thousands attended his burial to pay their respects after the notorious New York murder. When the secret letters were published in the New York Herald, none of them pointed to incriminating evidence against Fisk. Josie eventually died in poverty in 1931.
Stay tuned for our next entry in our exciting Murder Mystery NYC Diary series!