Sunday, February 10, 2013

46. The Great Erie War, part 2.


Mr. Fisk again, properly posed and sedate.
But the unwaxed mustache suggests that this
photo antedates his acquaintance with Miss
            At Taylor’s Hotel in Jersey City, Jim Fisk experienced three glories tinged by one passionate longing.  It was glorious when, piqued by news of the first absconding railroad in history, lawyers, messengers, brokers, confused Erie employees, and every ragtag and bobtail of Wall Street and the press swarmed across the river to New Jersey to be met in the downstairs lobby by Director James Fisk, Jr., aflash in a waffle-weave suit with rings and cuff links aglitter, who funneled reporters to the bar, then up to the Erie suite.  Awaiting them there was a table stocked with goblets and prime Havanas. 

            “Gentlemen, we welcome that great lever of opinion, the press.  They only who do deeds of darkness shun the light.  In fighting the injustice of New York justice, we’ve vowed to show pluck to the backbone.  Our battle is a crusade against monopoly and therefore” – he waved his gem-studded hand – “in the interest of the poor!”

            It was glorious to run a railroad by telegraph, issue communiqu├ęs, and with reporters listening, to give orders, call councils of war.  And it was glorious three times a day to banquet in a special dining room on Vanderbilt’s money, munching quail on toast and oysters with champagne amid quips, jokes, puns, bursts of song, and a cry of No Surrender.  (Only Uncle Daniel sat apart.)

            The passionate longing that tinged these roils and revels concerned the person of Miss Helen Josephine Mansfield, lately installed on Twenty-third Street, from whose eyes like wet stars, and purple-black and lustrous pink-plumed hair, Director Fisk had rarely till now been parted.  Even while issuing orders, scanning telegrams, or downing woodcock and wine, he envisioned his soul and pillow mate corsaged in her carriage, promenading, bust to the breeze, or at home clad only in a crucifix, a plush-lipped, peachlike Eve.  He itched, bristled with love.

            Jay Gould, sunken-chested, with a pianissimo voice and large dark quiet eyes, either glazed and distant or fixed and piercing, betrayed no lusts or pangs as he sat through Erie’s councils, his countenance masked by the bush of an ink-black beard.  His only gesture was the tapping of a pencil, as his wiry, fine-strung mind reckoned cannily each Erie director’s share in the Vanderbilt pie.

            Daniel Drew nursed in his innards a fierce longing for comforts left behind: his slippers, his steak and potatoes, his Saint Paul’s pew, the snug back room at Groesbeck’s, and spattering over him, the scouring voice of his wife, who for forty-eight years had kept him to the mark.  He was raveled out by the jibberjabber of endless councils of war, and by Jimmy’s champagne dinners, whose songs and blasts of mirth jarred him awake as he sat off hunched in a corner, trying to doze.  (How could he join those feasts where spirits gushed and grace was never said?)

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Here, at their home base in Manhattan, are the type of
characters whose presence in Jersey City so terrified
Daniel Drew.  Was his fear justified?
            On the fourth day of exile came dire news: forty man-crunching New York City roughs had arrived in Jersey City by ferry, straggled to the Erie depot, poked about.  Finding themselves outnumbered by Erie detectives and clerks, they had departed, announcing that the raid had been organized in a notorious Eighth Ward gin mill, where certain parties had offered them fifty thousand dollars to kidnap Daniel Drew!

            At Taylor’s Hotel these tidings disrupted the midday feast.  Startled awake from his doze, Uncle Daniel felt a quick, hot jab of fear.  Would Cornelius Vanderbilt – the wrastler, the thunderer of Harlem Lane – being pinched in purse and pride, stoop so low, play so foul?  Vanderbilt, who had bellowed more than once that the law was too slow for him – who, when his wife resisted moving back to Manhattan from her beloved Staten Island, was said to have locked her up in an asylum until she changed her mind?  Would that tyrant, that Samson of finance, resort to violence?  Yes, Drew concluded, yes!   The roughs, having scouted about, would return by night; he quaked for limb and life.

            While Jay Gould paled at the news, his stomach churning, and the other directors sat befuddled, Jim Fisk leaped to the fore.  “Inform the police chief!  Call up the militia!  Uncle Daniel, stand back from that window – don’t let yourself be seen from the street!”

            Couriers ran, telegraphs clicked, a conference was called.

            “Wait!” cried Fisk, dabbing his chin with a napkin.  “Sudden emotions are dangerous!  Gould’s stomach is delicate.  Let him finish that quail.  He’ll need it to sustain him in the perils before us.  Vanderbilt must be desperate.  There’s bloody work to do!”  All this within the hearing of the press.

            By nine that evening the entire Jersey City police force patrolled on the alert, under instructions to rush to the hotel, should rockets be fired from the windows.  Under Fisk’s personal command, fifteen picked men armed with clubs and revolvers were presented to the object of the “grab.”

            “Uncle Daniel,” said Fisk with a grin, “these men will take care of you.  They look like they can do it.”

            Drew, eyeing the weapons with a nervous smile, thanked them faintly; the men saluted smartly.

            Backing them up, Fisk announced, were three twelve-pounders on the docks, the Hudson County Artillery in reserve, and -- unique in the annals of railroads! – a navy of four small boats on the river manned by crews with rifles.  Before those bruisers could get to their prey, Erie would fight to the very last man!

            Dazed, nodding feebly at vows of No Surrender, Uncle Daniel retired to his room, double-locked the door, and plugged the keyhole with cotton.  All Fort Taylor and all Jersey City braced for the attack.  Long hours passed.  Uncle Daniel prayed, listened intently, and finally, fitfully slept.  But no rockets burst in the sky, no rifles crackled, no cannon boomed; the night passed untroubled.

            “A most ridiculous state of excitement!” pronounced the Times; “Stuff of romance,” said the World; “A desperate attack!” insisted the usually cynical Herald.  For three days the police kept watch and Erie employees were marshaled as reserves, while Erie’s treasurer hugged the premises.  Gradually, the kidnap scare abated.  Heartened by letters of support from Erie friends and workers, on the fourth day the Old Bear ventured forth -- by daylight, well escorted -- for a short walk into town.  Crossing his path came Miss Helen Josephine Mansfield, with servants carrying luggage, parasols, and a caged canary, summoned by Fisk from New York to be installed in a room of her own smack in the Erie suite. 

            In the Erie suite?  Jay Gould and Uncle Daniel, both conventional married men, must have protested vehemently: a fancy woman planted in their midst, when they were up to their ears in a crucial struggle, with hordes of reporters nosing about!  But Jim Fisk only winked and grinned.

File:Josie mansfield.gif
Miss Mansfield, whose abundant charms
enraptured James Fisk, Jr., even to the
point of importing her to Jersey City.
            Thereafter, from Miss Mansfield’s room by day  came perfume and an avian descant, and by night, perhaps catching Uncle Daniel at prayer, delicate hints of carnal festivities.  Thanks to Jim Fisk’s liberality with liquor, journalists confined themselves to veiled remarks in their articles about the home comforts with which the directors beguiled the weary hours, but the Old Bear was mortified.  Never had he dreamed that for fleecing Cornele of eight millions he would be lodged cheek by jowl with a fancy woman and all but witness the grossest fornication.  In the caverns of his mind the cry of  No Surrender, never resonant, dwindled to a whisper.

            Uncle Daniel's exile had come at the most awkward of times.  He had yet to deed the grounds and convey his endowment to the seminary, a matter he had meant to see to soon at the first formal meeting of the seminary’s board of directors – a meeting he couldn’t possibly attend, without exposing his person to the direst threats.  What must the gentle Methodists be thinking, having already thanked him abundantly for gifts that had yet to be gifted?  He wallowed in chagrin.

            The very next day came fresh warnings of an assault by New York roughs; stores closed and volunteers rushed from the suburbs, till a hundred men guarded Fort Taylor, with two companies of state militia in reserve.  On Jim Fisk’s orders Uncle Daniel was locked in his room with six hulking whiskey-scented bruisers, black cigars planted in their teeth, lest the old gentleman be snatched out the window by stealth.  All through the night, unnerved by ungodly talk and the taint of liquor and tobacco, Uncle Daniel watched, listened, quaked.  But the long night passed unvexed.

            Over the next few days, while seedy men in derbies slouched about, and Commander Fisk, strutting, barked orders, and to throngs of journalists vowed never to be taken alive, Uncle Daniel, guarded from thugs by thugs, began to suspicion a cruel and shameful hoax.  Had Vanderbilt wanted to cop him, he would have done it quick and clean.  Why then these alarms?  Didn’t Jay and Jimmy trust him?  Did they fear he might talk to Cornele?  Talk to Cornele …  Planted in his brain, the idea took quiet root.

            The next Sunday -- informed by his lawyers that under New York law no civil summons could be served on the Sabbath -- he slipped over on the Weehawken ferry, took a cab to Washington Square, knocked, was shown to an upstairs room.  There loomed the Commodore, his friend and enemy of almost forty years.  The Commodore’s blue eye ran him through.

            “Drew, you was a damn fool to skedaddle off to New Jersey!”

            “I’ll allow as how I’m circumstanced somewhat awkurd.”

            “I’ll keep my legal beagles at the lot o’ you, till you fork that money back.”

            “Naow Cornele, mebbe we kin compromise this, old friends that we be.”

            “You owe me eight million dollars!”

            “Two, Cornele, jist two.”

            So it went for an hour, the Commodore barbed and bristly, Uncle Daniel mitteny and soft.  What exactly was said is unknown, but they parted having agreed to meet again.  The Commodore was surely thinking, I'll worm little Erie secrets out of him, then big onesthen everything, and Uncle Daniel was perhaps reflecting, Them as grinds enough together ends up rubbin' smooth.  In the Great Erie War, treachery leaved and bloomed to the first scrawny hatching of the dove of Peace.


            After ploys and counterploys by thirty well-paid counsel in fine whack and kilter, followed through five courtrooms by clerks toting heaps of ever thickening documents tied with red tape;

            After fulminations from Judge Barnard, white topper raked at an angle as he whittled at a pinewood stick on the bench, leaving little mounds of shavings on the floor, while presiding over a legal fandango where he himself got enjoined, and being spied upon by Erie, boasted of hiring spies of his own;

            After rumors in Albany of thousand-dollar bills leaping forth from black carpetbags of lobbyists with rubicund noses into the open palms of legislators, who in deliberation did golden flipflops, then legalized the new Erie stock;

            After further meetings where Uncle Daniel whispered to the Commodore little Erie secrets, then big ones, but not everything, then pleaded tearfully to be allowed to go home, and even promised to hand over the Erie treasury;

            After Fisk and Gould, their suspicions aroused, wrenched the treasury away from the treasurer, guarded him, and kept him from the first formal meeting of his seminary’s board of directors, inducing in him an abundance of chagrin;

            After an Erie express train, leaping from a snapped iron rail, hurtled down a wilderness ravine where passengers, trapped in flaming wreckage, screamed and died in the night;

            After all this, and stealthy nocturnal parleys leading to deep scoopings into the Erie treasury to satisfy everybody’s claim, while Judge Barnard, having screeched like a jay and squawked like a parrot, huffed down and cooed like a dove, the Great Erie War was over.

             Lawyers and senators were richer, Erie poorer, and the Commodore out several millions.  “Erie?  What have I to do with Erie?” he told reporters.  “I’m runnin’ my railroads and racin’ my trotters like always.  If you needs to know more, see my lawyers.”  His lawyers were just as tight-lipped, but to his underlings the Commodore remarked with a scowl: “Never kick a skunk.” 

            Weary of tumult, Uncle Daniel resigned as treasurer and director of the Erie Railway, leaving forever his bedraggled goose that had laid golden eggs.  Having at last deeded the grounds and conveyed his endowment to the seminary, he went to his Putnam County farm to recover peace of mind and fatten up beeves for the market, thankfully inhaling clean air and the heady scent of manure.

            Jim Fisk and Jay Gould appeared before Judge Barnard, each to pay a fine of ten dollars and a clerk’s fee of twelve and one half cents.  To them alone went the railroad, its coffers unsweetened with money, its tracks two streaks of rust.  Buoyant as ever, Jim Fisk bought Pike’s Opera House, renamed it for himself, and over the astonished Jay Gould’s objections moved the Erie offices in, so that henceforth the company’s business was conducted amid sumptuous furnishings spiced by trills and a whiff of perfume.  Another Erie first: a railroad in an opera house.  (More of this in time.)

            As peace reigned with a great dying down of event, moralists inferred corruption in corporations, legislatures, and bench and bar alike.  But when Uncle Daniel, back from the country, set foot again on Wall Street and graced it with his smile, the market perked up, while men who had lately denounced him flocked round, grinned, shook his hand.  Not everyone who took on the Commodore survived.  Besides, the Old Bear had fulfilled an American dream: cheat big, get away with it.

File:US Navy 030626-N-1539M-002 The U.S. Navy's Flight Demonstration Team, Blue Angels soars over Old Glory as they perform the Delta Formation during an air show in North Kingstown, R.I.jpg

Note:  For a note on sources, see the previous post.  Next comes Discovering New York: three stories of how Bob, our intrepid friend John, and I separately explored the city in the 1950s.  In time there will be a sequel to the Great Erie War: the Saga of Jim Fisk, whose astonishing career is at this point just getting under way.  He always thought big, so big things can be expected, with a dash of spice and scandal.  Also some sailing vessels and steamboats along the way, and a look at Monumental New York.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder

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