The Killing of Jim Fisk by Edward Stokes, 1872
Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
“Celebrated Criminal Cases of America”
Part III: Cases East of The Pacific Coast
James Fisk, Jr., was born in the hamlet of Pownal, Vermont, on September 12, 1835.
Being of a roving disposition, he left home at the age of 14 years and worked for Van Amburgh’s circus for eight years.
He then returned to his native town and assisted his father, who was a peddler. Fisk, Jr., displayed much business ability and soon quit peddling to go into the dry goods business. He rapidly built up such a trade that the Boston firm, Jordan, Marsh & Co., deemed it advisable to purchase Fisk’s stock and engage him as a salesman.
About this time the Civil War broke out. Fisk’s employers had an immense supply of blankets at the time and Fisk suggested that if he were permitted to go to Washington he could sell them at a fabulous price to the War Department. He went and not only sold the entire stock of blankets, but procured such a large order for others that the firm found it advisable to purchase the only woolen mill in that part of the country which produced the particular blanket specified in the contract. This mill was in Vermont.
In two years, the firm, in which Fisk then had an interest, cleared over $200,000.
In 1865 Fisk left the firm and went to Boston. Remaining there but a short time, he moved to New York, where he entered into the brokerage business.
Shortly afterward, Daniel Drew gave the sale of the Bristol line of steamers into Fisk’s hands. He made enough money out of this sale to begin operations on a large scale, and so successful was he that he soon possessed a $1,000,000 bank account.
In 1867 he and Jay Gould became directors of the Erie Railroad.
It was said that in February, 1868, Fisk and one or two others so manipulated the stock of this road that they cleared over $1,250,000.
It was also claimed that Fisk was at the head of the ring which attempted to “corner” all salable gold in Wall Street on Friday, September 24, 1869, the day thereafter being referred to as “Black Friday” because of the panic created. He was also Colonel of the Ninth regiment, National Guard of New York, and became a great power in politics.
Edward S. Stokes was born in Philadelphia on April 27, 1841, his family being one of the oldest and most aristocratic in Pennsylvania. He was schooled in the best academies and enjoyed every comfort that wealth could provide.
Leaving college in 1860, he went to New York, where he became a member of the firm known as Budlong & Stokes, which was located at 25 Water Street.
The operations of this firm amounted to millions and they were highly successful.
In 1865 Stokes withdrew from the firm and at once began the erection of the Brooklyn Oil Refinery, which was completed at a cost of $250,000.
Stokes also invested heavily in numerous petroleum companies which were then organizing in Pennsylvania and bought his stock when the oil fever was at its height. In less than one year the panic came, and with the bursting of the bubble Stokes was financially ruined.
At this time, his refinery, upon which he had no insurance, was completely destroyed by fire. His friends came to his assistance, however, and the refinery was immediately rebuilt, and during the following three years Stokes made enough money to liquidate his indebtedness.
In 1870, Fisk determined to get control of Stokes’s refinery in the interest of the Erie Railroad, and a co-partnership was entered into. The two men were then fast friends.
Helen Josephine Mansfield was born in California and developed into a young woman of such beautiful face and form that she attracted attention wherever she went.
She married an actor named Frank Lawler and shortly afterward, they drifted east, where Mrs. Lawler obtained a divorce. On the day the divorce was granted, Fisk called at the home of Anna Woods, the actress, who then resided in New York, and on that occasion he met Josie Mansfield Lawler for the first time.
He became infatuated with this beautiful girl at first sight and shortly afterward he established her in a palatial home in New York, although he was at the time living with his wife in the same city.
Stokes frequently dined at the Mansfield house as the guest of Fisk. After a while, Fisk began to pay a great deal of attention to a very pretty French opera singer, and it is claimed that while he was with the singer, Miss Mansfield was entertaining Stokes.
This rumor reached Fisk’s ears, and he ordered Stokes never to enter the house again. As Stokes ignored the command, Fisk, in a fit of passion, wrote a farewell letter to Josie, but repented shortly afterward and a temporary reconciliation was effected.
But this was the beginning of the end. Fisk and Stokes began to quarrel over their business transactions, and on Saturday, January 4, 1871, Fisk swore to a warrant charging Stokes with embezzling $50,000 of the company’s funds, but he delayed having the warrant served until late at night. The result was that Stokes, not being able to raise the required bail at that hour, was compelled to stay in jail over Sunday.
On Monday, he was brought before Judge Dowling, who released him on $50,000 bail, but the case was subsequently dismissed and Stokes then had Fisk arrested on a charge of false imprisonment.
Josie Mansfield, who had ceased her intimate relationship with Fisk, extended all her sympathy to Stokes, and shortly afterward claimed that Fisk owed her $40,000, for the recovery of which she expressed her determination to sue him.
In reply, Fisk charged that the woman and Stokes, who had severed all business relations with Fisk on January 8, 1871, were attempting to blackmail him.
Josie Mansfield’s answer to this was a libel suit, and Stokes was her principal witness.
The case was being tried on Saturday, January 6, 1872, and Stokes was present at the trial. After court adjourned in the early afternoon, Stokes drove to Delmonico’s for dinner.
After dinner he proceeded toward the Grand Central Hotel, arriving in that neighborhood about 4 p. m.
According to Stokes’ statement, he was on his way to purchase theatre tickets, and as he passed the hotel, he saw a lady sitting by the parlor window on the second floor whom he thought he knew.
At this moment he met a merchant named George Bailey, to whom he excused himself while he went to speak to the lady.
He then went into the hotel and proceeded up the stairs to the parlor. Seeing that he had mistaken a strange lady for his friend, he started down stairs, where he met Fisk, who was coming up stairs. Both men stopped and glared at each other.
Stokes claimed that Fisk drew a pistol and that he (Stokes) believing that Fisk intended to kill him, drew his own pistol and shot Fisk twice. One bullet passed through the arm and the other penetrated the abdomen, causing a wound from which Fisk died at 10:45 a. m. the following day.
Fisk was immediately removed to room 213, where he was visited by Captain of Police, afterwards Inspector, Thomas Byrnes and Coroner Young.
To these officials he made the following statement :
“This afternoon at about 4 o’clock I rode up to the Grand Central Hotel. I entered by the private entrance, and, when I entered the first door I met the boy, of whom I inquired if Mrs. Morse was in. He told me that Mrs. Morse and her youngest daughter had gone out, but he thought the other daughter was in her grandmother’s room. I asked him to go up and tell the daughter that I was there. I came through the other door, and was going upstairs and had gone up about two steps, and on looking up I saw Edward S. Stokes at the head of the stairs.
As soon as I saw him I noticed that he had something in his hand, and a second after I saw the flash, heard the report, and felt the ball enter my abdomen on the right side. A second after I heard another shot, and the bullet entered my left arm. When I received the first shot I staggered and ran toward the door, but noticing a crowd gathering in front, I ran back on the stairs again. I was then brought upstairs in the hotel. I saw nothing more of Stokes until he was brought before me by an officer for identification. I fully identified Edward S. Stokes as the person who shot me.
“JAMES FISK, JR.”
Stokes surrendered immediately after the shots were fired and on June 19, 1872, his trial began.
It was the theory of the prosecution that Stokes visited the hotel and laid in wait for his victim, but the defense claimed that Stokes acted solely in self-defense, and that the reason no weapon was found near Fisk was because someone had concealed it.
On July 13, 1872, the case was submitted to the jury, and after deliberating for forty hours they stood seven for conviction and five for acquittal. The jury was then discharged.
On December 18, 1872, the case again came to trial, and on January 2, 1873, Stokes was found guilty of murder.
On January 6, one year after the assault, he was sentenced to be hanged on February 28, and was placed in the condemned cell in the Tombs.
An appeal was taken and a stay of execution granted.
On June 10, 1873, the Court of Appeals granted a new trial, which began on October 17.
Several new witnesses were introduced by the defense.
John Moore, an attache of the Grand Central Hotel, testified that he was standing in front of the hotel when the shots were fired and that he immediately ran inside. Seeing Fisk leaning on the banisters on the stairs, he approached and said to Fisk: “What’s the matter?” Fisk is alleged to have replied: “He was too quick for me this time.”
Moore also testified that the bellboy, Redmond, who was one of the principal witnesses for the prosecution, informed him immediately after the tragedy that he knew nothing about the shooting except what he had heard.
Evidence was also produced tending to show that Stokes entered the hotel five minutes before Fisk, and that it was impossible for him to have known that Fisk intended to visit the place at all.
Robert Stobo testified that he saw Stokes meet Bailey in front of the hotel and also observed Stokes when he bowed to a lady sitting by a window, and that he immediately afterward left Bailey and entered the hotel.
For the purpose of proving that Fisk probably carried a revolver on the day of the tragedy, his tailor testified that he made the trousers which Fisk wore when he was shot and that in ordering the pants Fisk left instructions to have a pistol pocket put in them, something he had never done before.
Patrick Logan, a former policeman, but a court officer during Stokes’ first trial, testified that while Hart and Redmond, the Grand Central Hotel bellboys, who claimed to have been eye-witnesses to the shooting and gave the most damaging evidence against Stokes, were in his custody, detained as witnesses, they informed him (Logan) that they had been told what to testify to. According to Logan, these boys claimed that Mr. Powers, the proprietor of the hotel, had promised them $1000 each for their testimony.
When asked why he had not testified at the previous trials, Logan answered : “I did not want to get mixed up in the case, but before I would let Stokes hang, I would have told Governor Dix what I knew.”
On October 28, 1873, the case was submitted to the jury and the defendant was found guilty of manslaughter in the third degree.
On the following day, the defendant appeared before Judge Davis for sentence.
After criticising the jury for the mercy extended the prisoner, the judge said to Stokes:
“The sentence of the court is that you be imprisoned in the State Prison at Sing Sing at hard labor for the term of four years.”
Stokes was removed to Sing Sing four days later, where he remained until his discharge, on October 28, 1876.
Stokes died in New York City on November 2, 1901. He was buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.