Sunday, January 27, 2013

44. Robber Barons of Yore: Jim Fisk, Cornelius Vanderbilt


Jim Fisk in all his glory, hair slick, mustache waxed,
both physically and entrepreneurially expansive
           Jim Fisk bounced.  An oval man, short, rotund, and joyous, he had grown up in Brattleboro, Vermont, the son of a Yankee peddler, and bounced all over town telling jokes on himself that left the folks in stitches.  A-tingle with get-up and go, he bounced all the way to Illinois and back again as a circus roustabout in love with spiel and glitter -- a taste he would harbor all his life.  Joining his father in the peddling trade, he amiably informed Pop Fisk that Pop’s horses were played-out and shabby, his overalls dreary, and his wagon fit to be hauling manure.  Curbing an impulse to smack down his smart-aleck son, Pop allowed as how he knew a thing or two about peddling and dismissed his son’s fancy ideas, then watched in amazement as Jim Fisk set out in a high hat and a striped coat, atop a jingly wagon with yolk-yellow and flame-red wheels, to bounce over half of New England eyeing the girls, while he sold their mamas whiskbrooms, Jew’s harps, frying pans, and calicoes and silks by the yard.  From this first foray he returned with more cash in his pocket than Pop had seen in a year.

            Within months Jim Fisk had five more gaudy wagons on the road, each drawn by four smart-looking horses in a polished harness, and driven by a hired salesman into whose brain he had dinned his creed: “If you can’t sell ’em silks, sell ’em calicoes, and if that don’t work, sell ’em thimbles or tinware or thread.  Just make sure you sell!”  Soon known as the Prince of Peddlers, at the start of each season he paraded his flashy wagons down Main Street in Brattleboro to the strains of a cornet band; the whole town turned out to watch.

            When Jim Fisk saw he’d gone as far as he could go in peddling, he disposed of his business at a profit and bounced off to Boston to get a job in wholesale as a fast-talking salesman.  When the Civil War broke out, he bounced down to Washington to sell some mildewed blankets to the government.  As the war dragged on, he bounced down deep into Dixie, buying up contraband cotton from the Rebs that he smuggled through the lines to the North, distributing generous bribes right and left.  Selling the cotton for a whopping profit, he insisted this was a patriotic act, supplying uniforms to the Boys in Blue.  When the war ended, and with it this lucrative trade, to where else could he bounce but that mecca of hustlers, New York.

            Eager for a crack at the market, he opened a fancy office on Wall Street, plying all callers with fine champagne, bad jokes.  Within two months the greenhorn had been fleeced by the pros; Jim Fisk left town broke.  “I’ll be back,” he warned, “or I’ll eat bone-button soup till Judgment Day!”  Packing a carpetbag, he bounced up to Boston and back again, refinanced by friends.  “I’ll make things squirm,” he said.  “Damn ’em, they’ll learn to know Jim Fisk!”

            This time he went to see Dan Drew, the wiliest man on the Street (see post #42).   All snap and dazzle, Fisk talked railroads, steamboats, Wall Street, and most of all Jim Fisk, tossing ideas in the air like gold coins or the seeds of a money-green spring.  He tickled Uncle Daniel, whose steel-gray eyes cut deep, detecting beneath the jokes and puffery, and the reddish-yellow hair sleek with the scent of pomade, a bold schemer, a canny operator.  Quietly he set Fisk up on Wall Street with a brokerage house of his own, and through him bought and sold on the sly.  For twelve months no one on Wall Street realized Fisk was a front for Drew.  Waxing fat on Uncle Daniel’s commissions, plus some side bets of his own, Jim Fisk strutted in bold check suits, his thick fingers bright with diamonds, and sported a gold-headed cane.  “I’ll make Rome howl!” he said.

            Jim Fisk had a wife in Boston.  Lucy Fisk didn’t bounce around, she stayed put.  Neat and delicate, she had small hands, small breasts, small teeth, and nut-brown eyes, and wore dresses of bluebird blue.  Childhood sweethearts, they had married young.  “Now Jim,” she said on their wedding night, “let’s not be too carnal.  Some things are painful, gross.”  So with great effort Jim forbore; he didn’t want to hurt his Lucy.  She was his jenny wren, his cupcake, his star; he was her little boy. 

            When her husband bounced away on business, Lucy slept alone in a bed with a pink counterpane and puckered frills.  She played the piano, did needlepoint, went with lady friends to lectures.  On holidays Jim came home.  Every Christmas they held hands, sang carols, played house; he gave her canaries, pearls, and a jeweled music box from Tiffany’s that tinkled a waltz.  By New Year’s he was back in New York.  She didn’t mind; she loved her Jim, even liked him, but his big ideas wore her out.  In Boston she lived small.

            In New York City Jim Fisk met Josie Mansfield at the establishment of the notorious Annie Wood.  Josie wasn’t one of Annie Wood’s girls, just a friend of the madam. “Mind your manners, Jim,” said Annie.  “This here’s a lady.”

There was something about Josie that the boys liked, 
and Josie knew it early on.  In those days svelte was 
out; plump, abundant beauty was in.
            Miss Helen Josephine Mansfield admitted to twenty-two years.  Silken-sighed, abundant, she had eyes of smoked green, and a pure complexion set off by cascades of purple-black hair and the gold fire of her dress.  At one touch of her furry voice, and one glimpse of her snowy bosom and pearlike derriere, Jim Fisk was smitten into the eighth heaven of love.

            Learning that Miss Mansfield, an  aspiring actress whose delicate feet had yet to tread the boards, had but one good dress to her name, he paid the back rent on her flat, and over her mild protestations set her up in a fancy hotel, corsaged her, jeweled her, plumed her, then squired her to the Park.  Josie liked this gaudy talker; money and jokes gushed from him like ale from a spigot, or better still, champagne.  In the warmth of his fervor her virtue, such as it was, melted.

            Before he met Josie, Jim’s mustache had sprawled like a bramble; now he waxed it and twisted the ends knife-thin.  Scented, pomaded, he went at his Dolly, his Dumpling, all whack and merriment.  Together they bounced on the bed; it squeaked, pillows poofed, pictures on the walls hung crooked.  She nibbled his plump, ringed fingers, he tickled her; they laughed and whooped.  Night after night he devoured his candy-eared, peach-bottomed mistress, yearned for more.  

            When Jim Fisk bounced back to his office in the morning, his mind was sharp as a pistol crack, and he marched like a cornet band; he had big hopes, big plans.  Meanwhile in her boudoir Josie was counting her diamonds, while in Boston Lucy Fisk in starched white moved through a ruffled mansion on little bird-feet.



Known endearingly as Old Sixty Millions.
Later it would become Old Eighty Millions.
            When Cornelius Vanderbilt, white-whiskered, lordly, erect, drove on Harlem Lane, where the young bloods of the city (aged eighteen to eighty), racing in light-wheeled wagons, yelled  eeeaaow, yippee, and  yo yo yo yo yo, no man tried to pass him; he did a mile in just over two minutes.  One afternoon, riding with a banker friend beside him, he cocked his eye on an express train fast approaching, shouted “Giddap!” and with a whipcrack, raced it toward a crossing just ahead.  While the hurtling engine blew warning blasts on its whistle, team and wagon whisked across with seconds to spare.  Roaring a laugh, his bright blue eyes ablaze, he waved to the gaping fireman, then announced:

            “No other man in this city could have done that!”

            “And you never will again with me along!” spat out the ashen-faced banker.

            Of iron horses too, Cornelius was a swift, hard driver.  Some years back his heroic nose had sniffed in the wind the cindery smell of millions to be made in railroads.  Having sold his steamships, he marched into Wall Street, snatched up three weak lines, whipped them into shape, made them pay.  The result, the New York Central system, was an empire of rails stretching from New York to Buffalo.  Only one line competed: the debt-ridden Erie, which hadn’t paid a dividend in years.

            “A scandal!” announced the Commodore (not hitherto known for acute morality).  “That railroad should be cleaned up, made shipshape.”

            He began buying Erie stock.  But Erie was the pet of Daniel Drew, who over the years had jiggled its stock, made millions (see post #42).

            “By God,” said Vanderbilt, “I’m a-goin’ to boot that rascal out!”

            Dan Drew was, by most standards, a smaller man than Vanderbilt.  He shunned cards, whisky, sport, and profanity, in all of which Vanderbilt indulged freely.  Afternoons, when the Commodore and much of Wall Street were churning up the dust of Harlem Lane, Uncle Daniel lounged about in the snug back room at Groesbeck’s, drowsing, dozing off, his breath puffing in and out in little wheezes and buzzes that amused the tiptoing clerks.  Away from there he was most at home in dewy cattle pastures, pews, hearthside chairs.

Fast trotters on Harlem Lane, N.Y.
Fast trotters on Harlem Lane, 1870.  A Currier & Ives print.  Vanderbilt is in the left center
foreground, top-hatted.  The Commodore wanted to be the fastest as well as the richest man

in the country, but when it came to trotters a few friends took him on.
 Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

          “Dan Drew,” Vanderbilt had barked more than once, “hain’t got no spunk nor spine!”

            But when Uncle Daniel woke up from a nap, he fixed his eye on the ticker tape, ever ready to plant a rumor, hatch a panic, or fleece some cocky young lawyer or natty bank clerk duped by his spidery charm.  He was known as the wiliest man on the Street.

            When the Old Bear learned that Vanderbilt, his enemy and friend of forty years, was boasting of booting him out, his heart was pinched: from what other money tree could he shake down such sweet fruit?  Hurrying over to Vanderbilt’s brick residence on Washington Square, in a parlor where a full-length portrait of the Commodore stared down at him every bit as stern as the original, Uncle Daniel with a voice smooth as beech bark pleaded, whined, cajoled, bubbling his canny juices in spouts of sentiment.  Sentiment gushed scantly in the Commodore’s iron-bound breast, but it occurred to him that Dan’l inside as an ally might be less risky than Dan’l outside as an enemy.  His terms: Drew could remain on the board and even become treasurer, if he worked hand in glove with Vanderbilt.  Uncle Daniel agreed.

            At the Erie election in October old faces were swept out and new faces swept in, among them a Vanderbilt flunky and two unknowns likewise said to be partial to Vanderbilt: Jim Fisk, the bouncy Vermonter, and his new friend Jay Gould, a small man with black clipped whiskers and a piercing eye.  Uncle Daniel, elected treasurer, formed a pool with Vanderbilt cronies to “h’ist up Ayrie on the market.”  In all this the Commodore’s hand was nowhere evident, since he worked at a royal remove, leaving the daily chores to subordinates.  But from a distance he sketched out a smile.

           One month later in Madison, New Jersey, in a handsome Greek Revival mansion fronted by columns and ringed by noble oaks, Brother Daniel Drew witnessed the formal opening of the Drew Theological Seminary, attended by educators, the press, pious ladies, and all nine bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  That the West Point of Methodism, training young men to drive cohorts of evil from the world, should have sprouted from the seed of his money and bear his name, moved, awed Brother Drew, the man who couldn’t spell “door.”  Four orators adorned the morning and four the afternoon, mounting eulogies of the Christian use of money.  Proclaimed one: “Non timeo Danaos dona ferentes!” (I  don’t fear the Greeks bearing gifts).  Though no one thought to translate for him, when the whole audience smiled at him and applauded, Uncle Daniel pursed his lips, looked wise.  Later, in the company of bishops and college presidents, the old ex-drover kept mum, lest the genteel talk be salted with hisns and ain’ts.  But when, within his hearing, a young lady asked about the founder and was told that the quietest, kindliest, most unassuming gentleman present was Mr. Drew, his crinkled features beamed.
Mead Hall of Drew Theological Seminary (now Drew University),
where the seminary's formal opening was held.  It was named for
Drew's wife, Roxana Mead, whose stern portrait hangs in the

Main Hall beside a portrait of her husband, who looks 
uncomfortably distinguished and not the least bit wily.  

            “Never seen sich a queer performance,” Uncle Daniel, face puckered, announced to the pool, as soon as he had returned to Wall Street.  “After all this time, Ayrie still won’t h’ist on the market; seems there’s always more to buy.  But don’t be skeered, gents.  Keep a-buyin’, it’s sartain to rise!”

            For another month they bought.  Erie flipped, flopped, went nowhere; Uncle Daniel shook his head.  Meanwhile to the ears of the Commodore came dark rumors:  Erie, under the whispery leadership of Drew, was holding talks with other railroads.  And where in hell, he wondered, was all this stock on the market coming from?  Belatedly his brokers nosed about: it had come from Daniel Drew!

            Vanderbilt felt a quick, hot jab of ire.  Dan Drew, stooped, whiny-voiced, wrinkled, his whiskers as meager and straggly as Vanderbilt’s sideburns were ample, had tricked him, lied to him, mocked him.  Against Drew if not with him, he would have the Erie.  He summoned his brokers and lawyers for a council of war.

File:New York Stock Exchange 1882.jpg
The Stock Exchange, at 10-12 Broad Street, is the white
 marble building in the center background, not the one in
the left foreground.
            In Wall Street offices and somber parthenons of banks, vault doors clanged, stacks of greenbacks thumped on counters, bonded messengers scurried, quills scratched, rumors teemed.  For this epic locking of horns – this clash of might versus cunning to be fought out by two modern Colossi of Roads through the hard, jeweled fists of brokers brandishing certificates of stock within the cold marble confines of the Stock Exchange – hordes of money men braced.

          Note:  This story will continue in two posts entitled The Great Erie War, with a full cast of robber barons: Vanderbilt, Drew, Fisk, and Gould.  Expect high drama laced with farce.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder