Overlooked Gilded Age crooked financier Jim Fisk receives a compelling historical exhumation.
Intending to highlight “forgotten chapters of American history,” the inaugural volume in the American Portraits Series reanimates the heady histrionics of eccentric stock broker and corporate executive Jim Fisk during his zenith in the mid 19th century. The narrative begins with Fisk’s funeral procession through the streets of Manhattan, lined with mourners both personal and professional. As his girlfriend many years prior, buxom showgirl Josie Mansfield grew weary of the “spectacle” and business cunning that garnered Fisk many lucrative associations, including partnering in 1868 with slick entrepreneur Dan Drew and tycoon Jay Gould, who, altogether, managed to seize control of the Erie Railroad from formidable Wall Street kingpin Cornelius Vanderbilt. Together with duplicitous politician William Tweed, Fisk was already embroiled in lawsuits and Mansfield had fallen for handsome associate Edward Stokes. Wanting his money but not him, she and Stokes attempted blackmail with personal letters incriminating him in illegal mischief. Brands (History/Univ. of Texas; American Dreams: The United States Since 1945, 2010, etc.) takes particular joy in unfolding the high-profile courtroom melodrama in the second half of the book with seemingly verbatim exchange of emotional testimony cresting with the imbroglio of Fisk’s violent murder at Stokes’ hand. The author makes liberal use of photographs, journalistic accounts, summaries of court proceedings and trial transcripts, all offering “blow-by-blow and word-for-word coverage” of the key players. With swift prose and exacting detail, Brands transports readers back in time to an ostentatious era rooted in swift industrialization, avarice and corruption, in which men like Fisk thrived—and ultimately perished.
A wonderfully creative beginning to what promises to be a revitalizing history series.