My book (coming out soon, I swear!) focuses on a Southern murder in 1872. In the eyes of the jury, it was a pretty open and shut case.
By contrast, a much higher-profile murder that occurred in New York in January of that year required three trials (and the space of about a year) before all was said and done.
You might have heard of Jim Fisk. He was a war profiteers. He and Jay Gould snagged the Erie Railroad from Cornelius Vanderbilt. His effort to corner the gold market triggered the 1869 “Black Friday” market crash/panic. (This was back before Black Friday was a shopping thing. I think it might have been the first time a market crash was referred to as “black” but I can’t verify that.)
Jim put the gild in Gilded Age. Waxed moustache. Diamond studs. Velvet collars. He aimed for the biggest and best in all things and in sating all his appetites. Naturally, he was married, and just as naturally, he catted around as he saw fit.
One of his Kept Women was Josie Mansfield. Now, this woman is routinely described as amazingly beautiful. (Which… well, look at her. I don’t reckon she’d do so well today. It’s kind of funny how often this pops up in historical commentary, when someone is described as particularly handsome or lovely, and then you see a photo and go, ‘Huh? Him? Really!?”) Anyway, the lovely Josie aspired to be an actress (at least, that was her story) until she landed Diamond Jim, who set her up with a snazzy house near his own, not to mention clothes, jewelry (LOTS of jewelry) and whatever else she wanted. Maybe a nice coach and four.
Edward (Ned) Stokes ran a refinery controlled by the aforementioned Erie Railroad. Ned and Jim had a lot in common—both married, both big spenders with extravagant lifestyles—except Ned wasn’t as good at it as Jim because he had a bad habit of spending money he didn’t have.
(Incidentally, Jim’s wife apparently didn’t care he cheated on her; according to some reports she was off with a woman of her own.) So things are moving along nicely, everyone’s having a grand old time, til New Years 1870. Josie throws a party; Jim brings Ned. Josie and Ned hit it off—better than Jim anticipated. (Surprise!) Josie doesn’t bother to change partners, she just hides her dalliances with Ned from Jim.
So, Jim finds out he’s not the only one getting bang for his buck, so to speak, and he sends a letter to Josie telling her to set things straight. Not entirely unreasonably, she points out the he sees other women (although she’s not subsidizing his affairs—so maybe there’s a little bit of difference there). Anyway, one thing leads to another, and Josie chooses Ned. But she also chooses Jim’s money and tries to get him to hand over money she says he promised her. He declines, but does agree to pay any bills incurred up until the time she formally dumped him.
Meanwhile, Jim and Ned are also at odds. (Surprise! Again.) Fisk and Stokes fight over the refinery. Stokes says he’ll give the newspapers all Jim’s old love letters to Josie if Jim doesn’t pay up. Jim tells him to stuff it and sues him. In arbitration, Ned ends up with somewhere around $10,000—$15,000 and Jim’s attorney gets the letters.
But $15 grand doesn’t last long with Ned. So he goes back to court, saying Jim owes him $200,000 in refinery profits. He also says the love letters prove his claim. The press gets all excited, convinced that the letters are full of racy sex talk AND juicy business intrigue. Jim thinks for half a minute that he might as well have them published, but decides against it.
So things have dragged on like this for two years. A judge finally rules that Ned’s got the wrong end of things, and that the letters are where they belong. Jim decides to toss some salt in the wound and charge Ned and Josie with blackmail. Well, sir, this will not stand. On January 6, 1872, Ned sets off to confront Jim at the Grand Central Hotel, waits for him on the second floor landing, pistol in hand, and plugs him twice before trying to run off. Jim, hit once in the gut and once in the arm, lives just long enough to identify Ned as the killer.
Jim Fisk did a lot of living in the time he was around. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, it is sobering thought that when Fisk was my age, he’d been dead for nearly a decade. More than 100,000 people showed up at the Grand Opera House, where his body lay in state. A week after he died, the New York Herald printed about 40 of the disputed letters. Turns out, it was all domestic intrigue: loving on Josie and hating on Ned.
Ned is put on Murderer’s Row in Manhattan’s Tombs prison. Maybe you’ve heard about the posh digs that Al Capone had during his time at Eastern State Penitentiary? Ned did it first. He had a fancy carpet, meals brought in from Delmonico’s, bottles of cologne shipped in. He met with reporters wearing a ruffled shirt with diamond studs.
Ned goes to trial during June and July (which is why I’m writing this now) with several defense tactics: He shot in self-defense. He was insane because of Jim’s persecution of him. The shot didn’t kill Jim, the doctors poking around in his guts did—or maybe they gave him too much morphine. Result: a hung jury, with a couple jurors suspected of being bribed.
So Ned goes to trial again in December. That time he’s convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to be hanged, but the verdict is appealed and overturned on a technicality (the judge didn’t give the jury sufficient explanation on the explicit intent to kill that is required for first degree murder).
In his third trial, in October 1873, the jury finds Stokes guilty of manslaughter. He’s sentenced to six years at Sing Sing Prison, but is let out after serving half that time for good behavior (but not before his wife divorces him). He continues to have disputes in all his business dealings until he dies of kidney disease in 1901.
Josie, after trying to sue Fisk’s widow for $200,000, throws in the towel on the whole mess and takes off for Paris with a friend of hers in 1873. She dies there in 1931.