Jim Fisk [Laws F18]
DESCRIPTION: Jim Fisk, though a rich and fine man, still remembers the poor and gives aid to many at the time of the Chicago fire. Fisk is shot by Edward Stokes (his rival for a girl); the singer is afraid that Stokes's wealth will allow him to win his freedom
AUTHOR: William J. Scanlon ?
EARLIEST DATE: 1874 (broadside)
KEYWORDS: homicide trial money
Jan 6, 1872 - Edward Stokes shoots Jim Fisk, "his rival for... the actress Josie Mansfield." Stokes (who, despite the song, was not rich) spent four years in prison for manslaughter
FOUND IN: US(MW,NE,Ro,So)
REFERENCES (15 citations):
Laws F18, "Jim Fisk"
Cohen-LSRail, pp. 90-96, "Jim Fisk" (2 texts, 1 tune, plus a copy of the cover of the sheet music)
Cohen-AFS1, pp. 111-113, "Jim Fisk Song" (1 text plus a copy of the sheet music cover)
Belden, pp. 415-416, "Jim Fisk" (1 text)
Dean, pp. 30-31, "Jim Fisk" (1 text)
Peters, pp. 187-188, "Stokes's Verdict" (1 text, 1 tune)
Friedman, p. 207, "Jim Fisk" (1 text)
Flanders-NewGreen, pp. 213-215, "Jim Fisk" (1 text, 1 tune)
Flanders/Brown, p. 75, "Jim Fiske" (1 fragment, linked to this mostly on the strength of the line "He never went back on the poor.")
Burt, pp. 49-50, "(no title)" (1 text, 1 tune)
Hubbard, #137, "Jim Fisk" (1 text)
Sandburg, pp. 416-419, "Jim Fisk" (1 text, 1 tune)
Botkin-NEFolklr, pp. 550-552, "Jim Fisk" (1 text, 1 tune)
Gilbert, pp. 101-102, "Jim Fisk or He Never Went Back on the Poor" (1 text)
DT 631, STOVRDCT*
NOTES: Belden calls "Jubilee Jim" Fisk (1834-1872) "Jay Gould's fellow bandit in Wall Street."
The description is apt but incomplete. Fisk, unlike Gould, was largely a showman -- DAB, volume III, p. 414, notes that after his very brief schooling and a couple of minor jobs, he took employment as "salesman with his father's 'traveling emporium,' which he later purchased and operated himself, graciously admitting his father to his employ."
Bunting, p. 96, describes him this way: "Fisk was a preposterous figure, a kind of caricature of what he believed the world would admire and envy. Ostentatious, self-indulgent, promiscuous (he would be gunned down, many years later, by the husband of a woman he was seeing), a militia 'colonel' in the war and, by his own authority, admiral of a steamship line."
Economic conditions at the end of the Civil War hurt his business, but by 1866 he had founded the brokerage firm of Fisk & Belden.
It was after this that he started working with Gould to wrest control of the Erie Railroad from Cornelius Vanderbilt. His actions in this regard, according to Adams, pp. 218-219, were patently immoral -- although apparently technically legal because enough state legislators had been bribed that they changed the rules. In the conflict, Fisk and friends printed up ten million dollars of fake Erie stock, which they sold at discount, and started buying up real stock. Thus they ended up with both control of the company *and* a lot of money. They also issued what appear to have been a series of margin calls, resulting in a stock market crash.
Gould and Fisk weren't done. After the War, the goal of the Grant administration was to restore the nation to the gold standard, getting rid of greenbacks (Bunting, p. 95). Gould and Fisk realized that, if they could learn in advance how much gold the Treasury would release at its regular auctions, they could manipulate the price. So they worked to try to get this information (Bunting, pp. 95-96) -- what we would now call "insider trading."
As a matter of fact, they failed to get what they wanted, resulting in the "Black Friday" gold crash of September 24, 1869 (Bunting, pp. 97-98), with the result that "'the business of the whole country was paralyzed for weeks' and the 'foundations of business morality' shaken" (Adams, p. 219). DAB, Volume III, p. 515, says that Fisk went on to repudiate many of his contracts, leaving the blame at the door of his "responsible partner" Belden.
It's hard for me to see any real difference between Fisk's business practices and those of his contemporary robber barons, though -- and, unlike many speculators, he did try to appeal to the public (he has been called "the most opulent of the robber barons"). According to Gilbert, he sent supplies to help the survivors of the Chicago Fire (October 8, 1871).
DAB, Volume III, p. 515, says that he kept "numerous mistresses" in addition to his wife Lucy D. Moore (whom he had married in 1855), but that Josie Mansfield was his favorite. Stokes shot Fisk partly over the woman and partly over a business quarrel. It is ironic that it is Fisk's murder, rarely mentioned in the histories, that gained him a place in oral tradition.
Fisk's assassin, Stokes, died in 1901, reportedly having spent his last years in neurotic fear of Fisk's ghost (e.g. Stokes would only sleep in lighted rooms).
There is a twentieth century biography, W. A. Swanberg, Jim FIsk: The Career of an Improbable Rascak, Scribner's, 1974. I have not read it.
Much additional information can be found in Cohen, who notes incidentally that the recorded versions of this song are generally much shorter than the original "Stokes' Verdict" text.
Botkin, apparently quoting Barry, claims there are three Jim Fisk songs. This one (which exists in many variants, but is recognized by the fact that most stanzas end with the word "poor") is said to be the "most popular" -- and is, as of this writing, the only one I have encountered.
Spaeth, A History of Popular Music in America, mentions this song several times, noting on p. 217 both the fact that this song was attributed to William J. Scanlon (whom he calls a typical composer of the era) and the difficulty with this attribution: The first sheet music, published in 1874, has the initials "J. S.," rather than "W. J. S.," and Scanlon in any case was only 15 at the time. - RBW
Last updated in version 3.8
- Adams: James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America, Garden City Books, 1933
- Bunting: Josiah Bunting III, Ulysses S. Grant [a volume in the American Presidents series edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.], Times Books, 2004
- DAB: Dumas Malone, editor, Dictionary of American Biography, originally published in 20 volumes plus later supplementary volumes; I use the 1961 Charles Scribner's Sons edition with minor corrections which combined the original 20 volumes into 10
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