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.”

Main Street from High Street, Brattleboro, Vermont (2)

Looking north on Main Street from the corner of High Street in Brattleboro, probably around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo is from an undated stereocard, and could have been taken anytime around 1865 to 1885. However, it may have been taken in the earlier end of that range, since the First Baptist Church is not visible on the left side of the photo. This church was completed in 1870, and its absence seems to suggest that the photo was taken before this year, although it is possible that it could be hidden by trees. Either way, this photo shows Main Street as it appeared in the second half of the 19th century, when Brattleboro was developing as a small but prosperous mill town in the southeastern corner of Vermont.

On the extreme right side of the first photo is the corner of the town hall, which was built in 1855 and stood here for nearly a century before its demolition in 1953. Further in the distance on the right is the Centre Congregational Church, which was initially built in 1816 on the town common. In 1842, the church was dismantled, moved, and reconstructed here on Main Street, where it originally featured a Greek Revival-style design that included a columned portico and a steeple above it. However, this steeple was destroyed in a windstorm in 1864, and was subsequently rebuilt with a new design that also eliminated the portico.

The first photo shows the 1864 steeple, possibly only a few years after it was completed. This steeple was damaged in a fire in 1929, but it was repaired and now looks essentially the same as it did when the first photo was taken. Today, the church is the only identifiable photo from the first photo that still survives. The buildings on the left side of the present-day scene date back to around the late 1920s, replacing the old Jonathan Hunt House that once stood on this lot. On the other side of the street is the old W. T. Grant department store, which was built in the mid-1950s to replace the old town hall. Overall, this section of Main Street has undergone far more changes than other parts of downtown Brattleboro, but some of these buildings – including the two churches – are now contributing properties in the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Francis Goodhue House, Brattleboro, Vermont

The Francis Goodhue House on Main Street in Brattleboro, probably around 1870-1885. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1894).

The scene in 2017:

This house was built in 1815, and was originally the home of Francis Goodhue, a businessman who had previously lived in Swanzey, New Hampshire, and Weathersfield, Vermont. In 1811, when he was about 43 years old, Goodhue moved to Brattleboro, which at the time was still a small town of fewer than 2,000 residents. He built this house a few years later, and went on to become a prominent local figure. He had a wide variety of business ventures, and was also involved in a proposed canal that, if constructed, would have linked Brattleboro New Haven by way of Northampton, Massachusetts.

An 1880 biographical sketch in Brattleboro, Windham County, Vermont describes how Goodhue “carried on a wool-carding, cloth-dressing, saw and grain mill, cotton spinning, distilling, and a large store of such goods as were sold from country stores at that time. He was also erecting a building of some kind every year, and largely, at the same time, engaged in farming, yet his note was never worth less than 100 cents on the dollar.”

Francis Goodhue lived here with his wife Mary and their three children: Joseph, Lucy, and Wells. In 1834, Francis gave this house to Joseph, and he and Mary moved to a house across the street, where they lived until Francis’s death in 1839 and Mary’s death a decade later. In the meantime, Joseph lived here in the old family home with his wife Sarah until his death in 1862. Sarah outlived Joseph by more than two decades, and was presumably still residing here until she died in 1883, at the age of 87.

The first photo was probably taken during Sarah’s lifetime or soon after her death, because around 1885 the house was demolished by businessman and philanthropist George Jones Brooks, in order to build a public library on the site. Brooks had grown up in the Brattleboro area, but made his fortune as a merchant in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Later returning to Brattleboro, he built the landmark Brooks House hotel in 1871, and in 1885 began work on a permanent home for the town’s public library. Brooks was the older brother of Mary E. Goodhue, whose husband was Francis J. Goodhue, the son of Joseph and Sarah, so Brooks likely acquired the property through this connection.

The George J. Brooks Library was dedicated in January 1887, only a few weeks after its benefactor’s sudden death, and it was used as the Brattleboro public library for about 80 years. However, by the 1960s the building was overcrowded, and the neighboring post office needed the room to expand. As a result, in 1967 the current library building was completed just to the north of here, and the old building was demolished in 1971. Today, there are no surviving traces of either the Goodhue House or the library that had replaced it, and the site is now a parking lot for the post office, which can be seen on the right side of the photo.

Revere House, Brattleboro, Vermont

The Revere House, at the southwest corner of Main and Elliot Streets in Brattleboro, around 1860-1877. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1894).

The same location, around 1894. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1894).

The scene around 2017:

The first photo shows the Revere House, a hotel that was built in 1849 by James Fisk, Sr. Born in Rhode Island, Fisk grew up in Adams, Massachusetts, and as an adult he moved first to Pownal and then to Bennington, Vermont. He became a successful peddler, traveling throughout western New England and eastern New York, where he sold silk dresses and other high-end dry goods. He moved to Brattleboro in 1843, and about six years later he built the Revere House. By this point, the Fisk family included James’s second wife Love, their daughter Mary, and Fisk’s son from his first marriage, James, Jr.

The Fisks moved into the Revere House after its completion, and the younger James, who was about 15 at the time, worked as a waiter here in the hotel. He later joined his father’s peddling business, before becoming a salesman for the Boston-based Jordan Marsh and Company. James, Jr. went on to make his fortune during the Civil War, obtaining contracts with the federal government to supply textiles for army uniforms, while also smuggling scare cotton from the south. With his earnings, he speculated heavily, gaining and losing significant sums in the process.

Fisk eventually became one of the most notorious of the Gilded Age “robber barons.” Using dubious tactics, he and fellow investor Jay Gould managed to gain control of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Erie Railroad, and in 1869 the two men triggered a nationwide economic panic in an unsuccessful attempt to corner the gold market. However, his career as a financier was cut short less than three years later, when he was murdered by Edward Stiles Stokes, who was a rival for the affections of Fisk’s mistress, Josie Mansfield.

Although Fisk was living in New York City at the time of his murder, his body was returned to Brattleboro for burial. An estimated 5,000 mourners – equivalent to the entire population of the town at the time – were on hand when his funeral train arrived in town at almost midnight, and his body was brought to the Revere House. The next morning, on January 9, 1872, his funeral was held here at the hotel, followed by his burial at the Prospect Hill Cemetery on South Main Street.

By this point, the Fisk family had moved out of the Revere House, and the building burned down only a few years later, in 1877, after a fire broke out in the hotel stables. The site was quickly rebuilt, though, and the current building was completed in 1880 as the home of the People’s National Bank. Unlike the plain Greek Revival-style hotel that preceded it, this building had an ornate design that was based on High Victorian Gothic architecture, and included an elaborate cornice with turrets, along with a highly contrasting exterior of red brick and white marble.

When the first photo was taken, People’s National Bank occupied the left side of the ground floor, with Brattleboro Savings Bank on the right. The upper floors housed professional offices, including the studio of noted local photographer Caleb L. Howe. People’s National Bank remained here until 1923, when they merged with Vermont National Bank, which was located directly across the street from here. After a series of mergers, the name has since come full circle, and the former Vermont National Bank building is now the location of a People’s United Bank branch.

Today, the old People’s National Bank building still stands here at the corner of Main and Elliot Streets. Its appearance has been somewhat altered over the years, most notably with the removal of the upper part of the cornice. However, it still remains a unique example of High Victorian Gothic architecture in downtown Brattleboro, and it is one of the many 19th century commercial buildings that still line Main Street. Along with the rest of the neighborhood, the building is now part of the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Crosby Block, Brattleboro, Vermont

The Crosby Block on Main Street, just north of the corner of Elliot Street in Brattleboro, around 1871-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

As mentioned in the previous post, the Crosby Block was built in 1871, replacing several earlier commercial buildings that had been destroyed in a large fire two years before. It was owned by grain and flour merchant Edward Crosby, who built it at a cost of almost $175,000, or around $3.6 million today. Its Italianate-style design was the work of local architect George A. Hines, and it was originally 26 window bays in width, extending along Main Street from the corner of Elliot Street north to the Brooks House. Upon completion, the ground floor of the building housed a variety of stores, while the second floor had professional offices and the third floor had apartments.

Nearly 150 years after it was built, most of the Crosby Block has seen little change. However, the southernmost section of the building – once the home of Vermont National Bank – was rebuilt in the late 1950s, with an International Style yellow brick and metal facade. Now occupied by People’s United Bank, this section is still standing on the left side of the scene, and sharply contrasts with the surviving three quarters of the Crosby Block. The rest of the building, particularly the upper floors, has remained well-preserved, though. Today, it is one of the many historic 19th century commercial buildings that still line Main Street, and it is a contributing property in the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Crosby Block and Brooks House, Brattleboro, Vermont

Looking north on Main Street, from near the corner of Elliot Street in Brattleboro, around 1871-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

This block, on the west side of Main Street between Elliot and High Streets, was the scene of one of the most disastrous fires in Brattleboro history, which occurred on October 31, 1869. All of the buildings along this section of Main Street, mostly wood-frame stores and hotels, were destroyed in the fire, including the Brattleboro House hotel and several other important commercial blocks. However, the property was quickly redeveloped, and within two years the ruins had been replaced by two large, brick commercial buildings, with the Crosby Block on the left and the Brooks House further in the distance on the right.

The first photo shows the Crosby Block as it appeared within about 15 years of its completion in 1871. It was owned by grain and flour merchant Edward Crosby, and was designed by local architect George A. Hines, whose plans reflected the prevailing Italianate style for commercial buildings of this era. Only about two thirds of the building is visible in this scene, as it was once 26 window bays wide, extending all the way to the corner of Elliot Street. As was often the case in downtown commercial blocks, it was originally a mixed-use building, with stores on the ground floor, professional offices on the second floor, and apartments on the third floor.

Further in the distance, on the right side of the scene, is the Brooks House, which was also known as the Hotel Brooks. Although completed in the same year as the Crosby Block, it featured far more elaborate Second Empire-style architecture that contrasted with the modest design of its neighbor. Designed by noted architect Elbridge Boyden, the hotel was reportedly the country’s largest Second Empire-style building outside of New York City at the time, and was a popular Gilded Age summer resort. It was owned by George Jones Brooks, a merchant who had grown up in the Brattleboro area but later made his fortune in San Francisco, as a merchant during the Gold Rush. However, he later returned to Brattleboro, where he built this hotel and also later founded the Brooks Memorial Library.

More than 130 years after the first photo was taken, this scene has remained remarkably unchanged. The facade of the southernmost section of the Crosby Block, just out of view to the left, was rebuilt in the late 1950s and is now completely unrecognizable from its original appearance. However, the section of the building in this scene has been well-preserved, and still continues to house a variety of shops on its ground floor. On the right side of the scene, the Brooks House is also still standing. The interior was completely rebuilt in the early 1970s and converted into offices and apartments, but the exterior was preserved. More recently, the upper floors were heavily damaged by a fire in 2011, but the building has since been restored and still stands as a major landmark in downtown Brattleboro.