James Fisk, Jr. Monument, Brattleboro, Vermont

The gravesite of James Fisk, Jr., in Prospect Hill Cemetery on South Main Street in Brattleboro, around 1872-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

This ornate marble obelisk marks the final resting place of James Fisk, Jr., a Vermont native who became a prominent Wall Street financier and, in the process, one of the most notorious of the Gilded Age robber barons. Fisk was born in 1835 in Pownal, Vermont, and was the son of James Fisk, Sr., a peddler who sold silk dressed and other high-end dry goods. The family moved to Brattleboro in 1843, and in 1849 the elder James opened the Revere House, which became a successful hotel at the corner of Main and Elliot Street. James, Jr. was about 15 at the time, and he lived in the hotel with his father, his stepmother Love, and his half-sister Mary.

For some time, the younger James worked as a waiter at the Revere House, but in 1850 he quite literally ran away with the circus, joining Van Amburgh’s Mammoth Circus and Menagerie. His flamboyant, outgoing personality was perfectly suited for the circus, although he primarily performed menial tasks like taking ticket, feeding animals, setting up tents, and cleaning cages. However, his time with the circus gave him valuable business experience. When he returned to Brattleboro a few years later, at the age of 18, he joined his father’s peddling business, where he applied some of the techniques he had learned with the circus, including traveling in brightly-colored wagons and wearing fancy clothing.

Fisk’s success as a peddler led to him being hired as a salesman for the Boston-based dry goods firm of Jordan Marsh & Company. However, his career remained unremarkable until the start of the Civil War. In 1861, he traveled to Washington, D.C., where his personality and business skills helped win him lucrative government contracts to provide textiles for army uniforms. He became a wealthy man, largely because of these contracts, but he also profited from the war in less scrupulous ways, including smuggling cotton from the south and selling Confederate bonds to European speculators.

Near the end of the war, Fisk became a stockbroker, and in 1866 he established his own brokerage firm of Fisk & Belden. He worked closely with Daniel Drew and Jay Gould, two of the most ruthless business tycoons of their era. Fisk followed in their ways, teaming up with them to gain control of the Erie Railroad and prevent Cornelius Vanderbilt from adding it to his railroad empire. To do so, the trio issued fraudulent shares of the company, which Vanderbilt purchased in large quantities. He lost a considerable amount of money in the process – over $100 million in today’s dollars – and, despite the fraud, Drew, Fisk, and Gould were able to retain control after bribing the New York state legislature to legalize the fraudulent shares.

A few years later, in 1869, Fisk and Gould would attempt an even more ambitious scheme to corner the gold market. They managed to drive the price as high as $160 per ounce before President Ulysses S. Grant ordered Treasury Secretary George S. Boutwell to release $4 million in treasury gold. The price of gold quickly plummeted, breaking their corner on the market. Fisk and Gould managed to avoid serious financial losses, but many investors were ruined, and the scheme triggered a nationwide economic panic.

Aside from his questionable business practices, Fisk’s personal life also had its share of scandal. He had married his wife, Lucy Moore, in 1854, not long after he left the circus. They remained married even after his rapid ascent from dry goods peddler to Wall Street tycoon, but she spent most of her time in Boston rather than with Fisk in New York. During this time, Fisk had a mistress, the actress Josie Mansfield, whom he housed in a brownstone on 23rd Street in New York. However, after a few years she fell in love with one of Fisk’s business partners, Edward Stiles Stokes, and she began threatening Fisk with blackmail. Fisk refused to pay, and the love triangle eventually led to Stokes shooting Fisk on the staircase of the Grand Central Hotel, in January 6, 1872. Fisk died the following day, at the age of 36, although not before identifying Stokes as the shooter.

Fisk’s body lay in state on January 8, at the Grand Opera House, where around 20,000 mourners came to pay their respects. On Wall Street, Fisk has been a ruthless businessman, but the poor and working-class of New York admired him for his charity work, and many saw him as the typification of the American Dream: a circus laborer and country peddler who rose to greatness through hard work and determination. That night, his body was returned to Brattleboro, where around 5,000 people – equivalent to the town’s entire population at the time – were on hand when the funeral train arrived at almost midnight. His funeral was held the next morning at the Revere House, and then his body was brought here to Prospect Hill Cemetery for burial.

At the time of his death, Fisk’s estate was valued at just under $1 million, or about $20 million today. Of this, $25,000 was spent on a marble obelisk here at his gravesite. It was designed by prominent sculptor Larkin Mead, a Brattleboro native whose other works of this era included Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois. His design for Fisk’s monument included a bas-relief portrait of Fisk in the center, surrounded on all four corners by partially nude female figures. Each figure symbolized trade and commerce in some way, with one representing railroads, another steamships, a third the stage, and the fourth finance.

The first photo was probably taken soon after the monument was installed, because at this point it did not yet include Fisk’s dates of birth or death. His widow, Lucy, outlived him by 40 years, and she was interned here after her death in 1912. Her inscription was added to the base of the monument, and over the years other members of the family were buried here in this plot, as shown by the many gravestones in the present-day photo.

Overall, though, the monument has not aged well. No longer the brilliant white of the first photo, its marble has been weathered and blackened by nearly 150 years of New England’s climate. Along with this, the bas-relief of Fisk was removed in the early 2000s, leaving a faint shadow in the oval. Souvenir hunters have also caused damage over the years, with Fisk’s admirers occasionally chipping off pieces of the marble. However, as one of Fisk’s friends noted many years later, in an excerpt published by Jay Gould biographer Edward J. Renehan, Jr., these visitors “have made the monument more fitted to commemorate Jim’s career – striking from many aspects, picturesque, but blemished.”

Old Burying Ground, Cambridge, Mass

The Old Burying Ground in Cambridge, across from Harvard Yard, around 1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The cemetery in 2016:

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Cambridge was first settled in 1631, just a year after Boston, at a location a little further up the Charles River from Boston. Originally given the creative name of Newe Towne, the settlement centered around the Harvard Square area, and this was the town’s only cemetery for nearly 200 years. The first burials here date back  to around 1635, but headstones were not common at the time, so the oldest one still standing is dated 1653.

Most of the headstones here are from the late 17th and 18th centuries, with very few after the early 19th century. Because it was the town’s only cemetery, the burials here represent people from all classes and walks of life. Some of the prominent citizens have more elaborate monuments, such as the table stone in the foreground, which marks the grave of Colonel John Vassall, who died in 1747.

Today, the historic gravestone remains essentially unchanged since the first photo was taken some 117 years ago. In the background is Christ Church, one of two churches that borders the cemetery on either end. It was built in 1760, and although partially hidden by trees in the 2016 scene, it is still standing as one of the few surviving works of prominent colonial architect Peter Harrison.

North Main Street Cemetery, Monson, Mass

A view of the North Main Street Cemetery in Monson, probably around 1900-1920. Image courtesy of the Monson Free Library.

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The cemetery in 2015:

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The area of present-day Monson was first settled in the early 1700s, but at the time it was part of the town of Brimfield.  Among other things, this meant that residents of this area had to bury their dead in Brimfield’s town cemetery, over six miles away from the current center of Monson. The 1960 History of Monson book quotes a petition signed by some of the area’s residents, complaining of “the Badness and length of ye way,” and pointing out that a more convenient burial ground would be of no harm, “it being no matter to the body where it lies when Dead.”  Their request was granted, but in any case the point was soon moot when Monson separated from Brimfield in 1760.

The town’s first large cemetery was established here, just a few hundred yards north of the meeting house.  The first burial was in 1777, and it was used until 1850, at which point the much larger Hillside Cemetery up the road became the town’s primary public cemetery.  Around 250 people were buried here, mostly in the first few decades of the 19th century.  The oldest headstones are carved of red sandstone or slate, and have survived the past few centuries in excellent condition.  The more recent white marble stones, though, have not weathered as well, and many of the inscriptions are no longer legible.

There has not been a burial here since about 50 years before the first photo was taken, but the cemetery is still well-maintained by the town, and it looks essentially the same as it did a century ago; some of the headstones are even still leaning in the same direction today.

Hillside Cemetery Arch, Monson, Mass

The arch at the entrance to Hillside Cemetery, at the corner of Main and Mill Streets in Monson, probably taken around 1900-1920. Image courtesy of the Monson Free Library.

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The arch in 2015:

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The mid-1800s saw a major shift in the way cemeteries were designed.  Especially in larger cities, simple graveyards were replaced with elegant, landscaped cemeteries that felt more like a park than a place for burying the dead.  Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, just outside of Boston, helped to pioneer this idea in the 1830s, and soon major cities across the northeast were creating similar cemeteries.  Here in Monson, the town had its own scaled-down version of such cemeteries with Hillside Cemetery, which is seen in these two photos.  It is the final resting place for many of the town’s prominent citizens of the 19th century, many of whom had large family plots with ornate stones carved of Monson granite.

One of the defining features of Hillside Cemetery is this granite arch, which was built in 1897 with funds provided by Emma Field Page Norcross.  Although she lived in Germantown, Pennsylvania, she had the arch built in memory of her family members who are buried here, including prominent factory owner Cyrus W. Holmes.  Nearly 120 years later, the arch is still standing, and not much else has changed in this scene, aside from the increase in the number of headstones in the background.

Saint Thomas Cemetery, Southington, Connecticut (3)

Another photo of the All Souls’ Day Mass in Southington’s Saint Thomas Cemetery, in May 1942. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection.

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The cemetery in 2015:

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As seen in the previous two posts, photographer Charles Fenno Jacobs took a number of photos of the All Souls’ Day Mass.  This event probably had a special significance for those attending; it was right around Memorial Day, and some perhaps had already lost a loved one in the war.  Many of the others certainly would have had a son, grandson, brother, or husband serving in the military, and although they wouldn’t have known how long the war would last, it would end up being over three years before it ended.

Today, this section of the cemetery has hardly changed.  The two large crosses that Jacobs used to frame his 1942 shot look the same, and the only obvious difference – aside from the lack of people – is the addition of a few more headstones in the foreground.

Saint Thomas Cemetery, Southington, Connecticut (2)

Another photo of the All Souls’ Day Catholic Mass at the Saint Thomas Cemetery in Southington, in May 1942. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA-OWI Collection.

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The cemetery in 2015:

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Like in the previous post, this is a rather eerie contrast.  By now, nearly all of the people from the first photo have since died, and many of them are probably buried in the same cemetery that they once attended Mass in some 73 years ago.  The cross on the right side of both photos is the main focal point of the cemetery, and the headstones in the western half of the cemetery are arranged in circles radiating outward from the central cross.  It was from here that Reverend Francis J. Mihalek can be seen officiating the Mass in the 1942 photo, as explained in photographer Charles Fenno Jacobs’s caption, which reads: “Southington, Connecticut, an American town and its way of life. On All Soul’s Day the Catholic congregation is gathering in the Saint Thomas cemetery for an outdoor Mass which in 1942 was officiated by the Reverend Francis J. Mihalek.”