Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Rogue in the Sunlight: The Life and Death of James Fisk

Robert W. McAlpine. The Life and Times of Col. James Fisk, Jr. (New York, 1872).

We discovered James Fisk (1834-1872) in the course of developing our current exhibition “Capitalism by Gaslight.” Unlike most of the petty criminals, con artists, and other shady characters featured in the show, Jim Fisk swindled his way into legitimate finance and became a Wall Street tycoon. Fisk was shot and killed in the entrance to his residence—not by a victim of one of his many schemes, but by his former business partner Edward Stokes.

Stokes, a dandy from a wealthy family, had made an enemy of Fisk by becoming romantically involved with Fisk’s mistress. Knowing that Fisk had arranged to have him arrested, Stokes surprised Fisk at the entrance to his residential hotel and shot him on January 6, 1872.

Reportedly 100,000 New Yorkers watched Fisk’s funeral procession. Despite his cutthroat business practices, the public loved him because of his showmanship and good humor. Publishers rushed biographies into print; we now have four, all published in 1872. The following year, in his sensational Lights and Shadows of New York Life, James McCabe included an account of Fisk’s “remarkable life and tragic death.”

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