Murder in Manhattan: The Death of Jim Fisk

“THE STOKES-FISK TRAGEDY,” The Elk Mountain Pilot (Irwin, CO), November 12, 1901

On the last day of his life, millionaire Jim Fisk was embroiled in attempted blackmail, ongoing legal battles, and a contentious love triangle, all involving his mistress and his one-time closest friend. Little did he know that the drama would climax with his murder.

Jim Fisk was the Gilded Age robber baron personified. He gained wealth and fame manipulating gold and railroad stocks on Wall Street and never shied from broadcasting his wealth. He strutted around Manhattan in elaborate uniforms with perfumed hair, waxed mustache, and fingers adorned with diamonds. Although known as a crooked businessman, “Jubilee Jim” as he was called in the press, was a celebrity in the New York social scene.  

Failed actress Josie Mansfield was already aware of the flamboyant capitalist when she caught his eye at a notorious bordello in Manhattan in the Fall of 1867. The married Fisk was immediately infatuated with Josie and lavished her with an extensive wardrobe, jewels, townhouse, and regular checks for tens of thousands of dollars.

Josie Mansfield. The New York Herald (New York, NY), March 12, 1922

In the Summer of 1869, Fisk befriended Edward S. “Ned” Stokes, an attractive young man from a well-to-do family who divided his time between saloons and the racetrack. The two went into business together, Fisk fronting the capital to reopen a Stokes’ family oil refinery in Brooklyn.

The stage was set for tragedy on New Year’s Day in 1870, when Josie hosted a party. Fisk brought his good friend Stokes as his guest and introduced him to their hostess. In the days following, Stokes paid call on Josie, which quickly evolved into a love affair.

When Fisk learned of the relationship between his mistress and closest friend, he demanded to know where he stood. The confrontation was chronicled in a long succession of letters between Fisk and Josie that reveal the passion and jealousy in the love triangle.

When Fisk asked Josie to settle things with Stokes, Josie wrote, “I don’t see why we can’t all three be friends?The New York Herald carried Fisk’s reply:

“FISK JEALOUS,” The New York Herald (New York, NY), January 14, 1872

When Fisk believed Josie had chosen Stokes over him, she continued to demand more money from him, claiming that he owed her a trust of $25,000, but Fisk rebuffed her claim.

Amidst the turmoil, Fisk and Stokes began a legal battle over the oil refinery. Stokes attempted to blackmail Fisk for $200,000, threatening to release the lovers’ letters to the press, but Fisk refused to pay. Ultimately, a court forced Stokes to surrender his oil stocks and hand over the letters to Fisk. Undeterred, Stokes then attempted to sue Fisk for the money in oil profits he claimed he was owed, but a judge quickly dismissed the case.

“THE FISK TRAGEDY,” The Charleston Daily News (Charleston, SC), January 10, 1872

On the heels of that defeat, Stokes learned that Fisk planned to charge him and Josie with blackmail and the news was more than he could handle. He headed straight to the Grand Central Hotel on Broadway where he knew FIsk was heading to that afternoon.

At half-past 4 o’clock on January 6, 1872, Fisk entered the hotel lobby unaware that Stokes lay in wait with a Colt revolver. As Fisk began to climb the stairs, the assassin fired twice and struck him once in the arm and once in the abdomen. Fisk dropped to the ground and cried out, “For God’s sake, will no one save me?

After the shooting, Stokes attempted to flee the scene, but was captured. As Fisk lay dying from his abdominal wound, he lived just long enough to identify Stokes as his assassin.

One week after his death, the New York Herald published the letters between Josie and Fisk.

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