Two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and University of Texas professor H.W. Brands has a flair for the dramatic, which means his histories often read with the verve of great fiction – or, in the case of The Murder of Jim Fisk for the Love of Josie Mansfield, a sudsy melodrama, this one starring a scalawag, a showgirl, and a pistol-wielding pretty boy.
In the first of a new series called American Portraits, Brands shaves down the sprawling purviews of previous works (including 2010's American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 and 2008's Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt; did we mention the author is also absurdly prolific?). Here, in a comparatively slim 224 pages, Brands revives characters most of us only faintly remember from a high school history class unit on the Gilded Age: "Boss" Tweed of Tammany Hall, Cornelius Vanderbilt ("The Commodore"), and Jay Gould. For the purpose of this book, though, these boldfaced names occupy only the periphery; front and center is Jim Fisk, Gould's partner in speculation, railroad takeover, market manipulation, and general chicanery.
The title of the book thoroughly tips its hand as to Fisk's fate – he's dead by page 98 – but Brands has a lot of fun getting there, detailing Fisk's many corrupt dealings as a partner in the Erie Railroad and his key role in the Black Friday financial panic. Surprisingly less fun – or, at least, disappointingly scrimpy with the dirt – is the rendering of the married Fisk's relationship with the markedly younger Josie Mansfield, a divorcée and "actress" who was just as much a schemer as her porcine lover. When a rival enters the picture – Ned Stokes, a smooth-talking oil man – an epic tussle over Josie ensues, with charges flying about of blackmail and libel and other unsavories. Murder most foul does indeed take place, but what happens next – a protracted battle in court – is edge-of-the-seat stuff (that is, if you haven't cheated and checked Wikipedia for the court's decision). Using court transcriptions that have the effect on the page of mimicking thumping monologues and heated back-and-forths between prosecution and defense, the narrative whizzes by in short, breathless chapters. By the end, the reader is spent – riots! failed love affairs! corruption mills! – but also rather purring with virtue, because history, after all, is good for you.
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