Wednesday, June 26, 2013

67. Jim Fisk, part 4: Foremost in the Fray

            This post continues the Saga of Jim Fisk, the nineteenth century's most colorful robber baron, following up posts #61 and #63.

Our hero, more at home in civilian garb.
            Summoned to an emergency meeting in the middle of the night by the superintendent of police, Colonel James Fisk, Jr., learned that his beloved Ninth and four other regiments had been ordered to protect the city’s tiny community of Orangemen when they marched on the morrow, July 12, Orange Day, in celebration of the 1690 victory of Protestants over Catholics in Ireland.  Colonel Fisk knew little and cared less about the history of Orange Day, but was well aware that the city’s Irish Catholics had threatened mayhem in reprisal, and that the Orangemen’s march a year before had provoked a pitched battle leaving five dead and many injured.  Since neither the colonel nor his men had until now anticipated any action other than Opera House galas and parades, this news inspired in them a nest of anxieties.

            July 12 dawned hot and sticky.  The regiment assembled that morning at its armory, well aware that Irish quarry workers and stevedores were already quitting work to mass in protest, tanking up in grog shops en route.  Early that afternoon when, few in numbers, the Orangemen marched down Eighth Avenue, they were entirely screened by police and the military, with Fisk’s Ninth guarding the rear.  Catcalls and jeers greeted the marchers, then tomatoes, eggs, cobblestones, and finally bricks hurled from rooftops that hit the pavement with a hard, crisp smack.  Fisk and his men marched grimly on, sweat streaming, staring straight ahead, through smack after smack all around them.   

            At Twenty-third Street a bullet suddenly zinged, then more.  Furious, several of the marchers, including some of Fisk’s men, broke ranks and opened fire.  Near him a private toppled, his skull shot away, spattering those beside him with brain.  A second man crumpled, then a third.  Fleeing the mayhem, a crowd of onlookers surged across the avenue, engulfing Fisk, who toppled into a swirl of blurred bodies, screams, trampling feet.  When the fugitives were gone, the men of the Ninth saw their colonel sprawled on the pavement, bruised, his sword shattered, groaning in pain. 

            “My ankle!” he yelled.  “It’s broken!”

            All around him soldiers and civilians lay in pools of blood, some moaning, some mute. 

File:Orange Riot 1871 crop.jpg
The marchers fire into the mob.  From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.

            At Lieutenant Colonel Braine’s command, a squad of soldiers hoisted their colonel’s hefty frame and hustled him over to the curb.  Seeing a doctor’s shingle posted by a doorway, they carried    him up the stairs, deposited him in the office of the startled doctor, wished the groaning colonel good luck, and rushed off to rejoin the parade, which was continuing in spite of the bloodshed.  Examining his patient’s ankle, the doctor found it was dislocated, not broken; he reset it and loaned Fisk a cane.  An hour later the colonel, his ankle reset and bound, left by a back stairway so as to avoid the hostile crowd in the street.  Hobbling down an alley, with great effort he mounted a barrel and scaled a fence, then retreated through back yards past clotheslines and privies.  Donning an old coat and hat given him by a sympathetic householder, he ventured out again on the street and flagged down a cab on Ninth Avenue.  In it, by a quirk of chance, was his pal Jay Gould, who after one glimpse of this sinister intruder, yelled to the cabman, “Drive on!”

            “Wait, Jay!  It’s me!”

            Astonished, Gould let him into the cab.  Traversing streets jammed with hostile Hibernians, the wounded colonel conceived a great yearning for Long Branch, that festive, peaceful haven, and instructed the driver to deposit him on the North River docks.  Catching the next boat to the Jersey resort, he found refuge at last in the Continental Hotel, where he was perennially persona most grata.  Soon he was reclining on a veranda, nursing his swollen ankle while sipping a lemonade.

            Back in the city the parade ended with over forty dead; no Orangeman had been hurt.  The Ninth Regiment, with three dead and four wounded, had been in the thick of it, but where, the press asked, was its colonel?  Stories were circulating about his “wounded (?) ankle,” his back-yard flight past ash cans and privies, his alleged fainting from terror, or fleeing the state in an old lady’s bonnet and dress.  All the dailies sneered. 

            From Long Branch the recuperating colonel issued a communiqué stating that his ankle  constituted a dangerous wound attended by several physicians; he keenly regretted not being able to attend the funeral of the Ninth’s slain heroes.  Lieutenant Colonel Braine hastened to his side and defense, though somewhat at a loss to explain why his superior’s strategic withdrawal had taken him all the way to New Jersey: “Colonel Fisk did his duty to preserve the public peace. He was foremost in the fray.”

            Recovering his health and dignity at Long Branch, where the press fantasized him as attended by a troop of winsome females, the colonel was in no hurry to return to New York.  When he did, more battles awaited him: a suit by his former lady friend Josie for fifty thousand dollars (the alleged debt having marvelously doubled), and one by his rival Stokes for quadruple that -- more tangles in a legal imbroglio that included two suits by irate English stockholders, seventeen Black Friday lawsuits, claims of damages from Erie accidents, actions against Drew and Vanderbilt, and even Fisk himself didn’t know what else.   “Lawyers lap up money,” he remarked, “like kittens lap up milk.”

            Josie had mentioned having Fisk's letters, and the press seized on them greedily.  The Herald proclaimed them “a pillar of fire by night and a column of smoke by day to the redoubtable Fisk,” thus whetting the public’s suspicion that these complaints of a lovesick swain contained lurid secrets of Erie.    Since nothing in his letters to Josie mentioned Erie, Jay Gould urged him to publish them himself and stop Stokes and Josie's attempted blackmail once and for all.  Fisk’s eyes welled with tears:  “I can’t, Jay.  That’s my heart!

            Gould was amazed at the tears, the hurt.  His comrade in arms, who had challenged Vanderbilt, whipped Drew, thumped up gold in the Gold Room, flummoxed a Congressional committee, and reportedly thumbed his nose at the President, couldn’t bring himself to share with the world his whines and pleas to a doxy.  A nasty mess, and where might it lead?  

            Still smarting from his loss as an investor in the Erie Railway, editor Horace Greeley now viewed Fisk as Antichrist.  Joining in the Herald's campaign, his Tribune published a letter to Fisk from Josie supplied by “an unknown source” that could only have been the lady herself.  She denied trying to extort money from him, but mentioned having a whole trunk full of his "interesting" letters, some of which she blushed to have received.  She claimed to know too well the crimes he had perpetrated, but would leave all matters in dispute to their respective counsel.

            Here again Prince Erie saw shameless venality and cunning, with a literary assist from her fancy man.  But the public was now convinced that these innocuous billets-doux reeked with the corruptions of Erie. 

            Though winning on several fronts, Ned Stokes was still desperately short of funds.  His legal fees were soaring, and his social standing was fraying at the edges, with even the Tribune calling him “Fisk’s too successful rival.”  So he sued Fisk for libel and pressured Josie to do the same – two more suits for Prince Erie.

            At this point it occurred to Jim Fisk -- perhaps at Jay Gould's suggestion -- that he knew precious little about Josie Mansfield's past.   Into this tantalizing void he now unleashed his legal beagles, to sniff out what they could.  In time, piquant details began to emerge; he was shocked, amused, enraged.  If she wanted a fight, she would get it.  He brought formal charges against her and Stokes for attempted blackmail.  With all these suits in the offing, the public anticipated a feast, an orgy of scandal.

            Jim Fisk was alone.  Viewed with smirks by many, pursued daily by reporters greedy for another scrap of gossip, another glimpse of his lovelorn heart, he kept more and more to himself.  Holed up in his brownstone with his valet, he dreaded breakfasting alone.  His whole life had been movement, noise, and glitter; stillness terrified him.  So he invited the young Belgian who interpreted for his French performers to move in with him as a sort of handyman, but really to keep him company, to stave off the abyss of nothingness.

            “George,” he said one morning over breakfast, “the papers are making fun of my early days as a peddler selling calicoes and silks by the yard.  But I’ll tell you something: them was the happiest days of my life.  I had friends, stock, trade, credit, the best horses in New England, and by God, a reputation.  There wasn’t no man could throw dirt onto Jim Fisk!”

            Wrenched from the rumpus of his life -- from gilt, cancans, braid, and champagne -- Jim Fisk may well have wondered who, what was he?  He had always dreaded silence and shunned it, but now it engulfed him.  He was lonelier than ever in his life.

            Lament:  What ever became of Occupy Wall Street, which I chronicled more than once in this blog?  Alas, it seems to have vanished.  When it first surfaced, commentators wondered if it was a movement or a moment.  A moment, it would seem.  Unlike the Tea Party crowd, they never organized, so they seem not to have had any long-term effect.  I miss their rousing chant:

We / are / the ninety-nine percent!  We / are / the ninety-nine percent!

In Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Brazil the people have been staging mass demonstrations in the streets, and it looks like some tangible reforms may result.  But not here.  We Americans are slow to kindle.  I'm not a rabble rouser, but nothing will change unless the impulse comes from below, from us. Meanwhile, the status quo prevails.  Well, we can divert ourselves by watching the ongoing drama of Mr. Snowden's peregrinations.  I haven't definitively made up my mind yet, but so far I'm inclined to say, "Go, Ed, go!"  I don't really want him caught and locked up in durance vile like Bradley Manning;  we lock up too many people as it is.  But at least there are moments of farce.  Snowden was supposed to have seat 17A on a special flight from Moscow to Havana, so the press filled up the other seats.  The plane took off without Snowden, taking all the journalists to Havana when their story was still back in Moscow.  The Russians are probably laughing, and so am I.

            Coming soon:  Next Sunday, as announced: Farewells (coffins, liquidators, kiss-offs, and a mother's rage).  Next Wednesday, July 3:  fittingly, just before the fireworks of the Fourth, the last of Jim Fisk.  After that, a return to the weekly posts, subjects to be announced.

(c)  Clifford Browder  2013