Who’s That Girl?

This is a United States $1,000 silver certificate from 1891:


The woman on the left of the note might seem unremarkable, little different from any of the other allegorical depictions of “Liberty” or “Columbia” often seen on American currency at the time. I can assure you, however, that this woman is different.

To ask who she is is to scratch the seedy underbelly of America’s Gilded Age.

*     *     *

Her name was Josie Mansfield. She was born either in Boston in 1842 or California in 1853; coin collecting sites mention the former, while original sources state the latter. One way or another, she became an actress and showgirl in San Francisco in her teens.

Like a lot of actresses at the time, Josie had trouble making ends meet. Many less famous actresses resorted to prostitution to earn extra cash, but Josie was different. Her stunning good looks and bubbly personality led to her becoming a “courtesan” for San Francisco’s elite. She eventually married fellow actor James Lawler, and within months she convinced him to move from San Francisco to New York.

There she met infamous financier James “Jubilee Jim” Fisk. Fisk was known for being a ruthless businessman in an age of ruthless businessmen. Together with partner Jay Gould, Fisk was able to literally steal the Erie Railroad out from under Cornelius Vanderbilt. Fisk used the proceeds from the deal to engage in ever more ambitious and barely legal stock manipulations. Fisk also bought several theatres, including the Grand Opera House on West Twenty-Third Street. There he staged lavish productions full of scantily-clad women, which, as you might guess, created a scandalous buzz about Fisk in society… but also (not surprisingly) proved to be very popular with theatregoers, especially men.

Mansfield was soon divorced from Lawler and living in a richly furnished house supplied by Fisk. It was close to the Opera House, and there was even a covered walkway between Mansfield’s house and Fisk’s office, allowing the two to go back and forth in “secret”.

Why the secrecy? Although Mansfield was divorced by that time, Fisk was not. His wife lived in a huge home in Boston with her lifelong female “roommate”. Although Fisk spent most of his time in New York, he’d still travel to Boston to be with her for a few weeks in the summer and for big holidays. Fisk’s (apparently lesbian) wife was okay with this, even if proper New York society was not.

Fisk seemed to have money to burn. He headquartered the Erie Railroad in the Opera House and spared no expense in furnishing his office. He owned several lavish carriages which he rode through the streets of New York, and he even had servants aboard to roll out a carpet when he arrived at his destination. Fisk bought himself a colonelcy in New York’s 9th Regiment militia, and bought everyone in the regiment new uniforms… after splurging on a $5,000 uniform for himself (that’s $121,000 when adjusted to 2024 dollars).

Despite being as rich as Croesus, it just wasn’t enough for Fisk. He always wanted more. And, with Gould, Fisk tried to corner the gold market.

*     *     *

Note: this article was updated in 2024 to fix a few typos and clunky sentences, but mostly to update the original 2009 inflation calculations.

For the rest of this article, I will mention an original value, followed by the 2024 value in parenthesis.

Also, for the first time, I chose to occasionally round the numbers up slightly for ease of reading instead of accuracy. For example, Fisk’s uniform actually cost $120,951, so I just rounded it up to $121,000 as it’s easier to read.

*     *     *

During the American Civil War, the United States issued money that was backed only by credit. After the war ended, everyone assumed that the government would buy back these so-called “greenbacks” with gold. So Fisk and Gould became friends with financier Abel Corbin, who was President Grant’s brother-in-law. They used this relationship to convince Grant not to sell government gold, and also convinced him to appoint Daniel Butterfield, a war hero mostly remembered today as the composer of the military tune “Taps”, as Assistant Treasurer of the United States. Butterfield would tip off Fisk, Gould and Corbin when the government was going to sell gold. The three would then use this knowledge to manipulate the market to their advantage.

President Grant eventually got wind of the plan and secretly ordered the government to sell $4 million worth of gold, which destroyed the “gold bubble” and wiped out the fortunes of thousands of investors. Corbin was ruined, but Fisk and Gould had sold just before the price fell, netting themselves an estimated $11 million ($258 million). The day became known as “Black Friday”, and it was yet another scandal in the seemingly endless line of scandals befalling the Grant administration.

*     *     *

You might wonder how Fisk and Gould were able to openly act as financial buccaneers without attracting the attention of law enforcement. This is because they were friends of William M. “Boss” Tweed. The son of a furniture maker, Boss Tweed early on recognized the byzantine nature of New York politics and used this as leverage to literally take over not just the city, but the state, too.

Tweed was able to seize control of Tammany Hall, the headquarters of the local Democratic Party, which had long had a stranglehold on city politics. There he was able to control which candidate was voted to which seat, and use that to get kickbacks from people wanting to do business with the city. He’d then use that money to bribe police officers and judges, which created a sort of “feedback loop” which allowed him to constantly expand his influence.

Tweed soon had control of not just every board or commission in the city, but state legislators and judges far from the city as well. Within a few years, Tweed was literally one of the most powerful men in America. It’s hard to imagine today just how much power Tweed had back then. When some of Tweed’s contractors came under fire for receiving a lot of money for doing not a lot of work, Tweed didn’t worry. When a committee was formed to look in to the matter, Tweed awarded his own printing company a vastly inflated $8,000 ($220,000) contact to print their report!

*     *     *

One of Tweed’s favorite people was Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum. Born in Prussia, Marm came to New York City in 1848 with her husband, Wolfe. Together the couple opened a dry goods store on Clinton Street. In just a couple of years, Marm was operating as the premier fence in New York City. Thieves of all kinds came to her to sell their wares, and soon Mandelbaum needed two warehouses to store the stolen goods. However, Mandelbaum wasn’t content to simply sit back and have criminals bring merchandise to her. She funded many heists and ran a “school” to teach street criminals how to become “proper” thieves.

Mandelbaum was able to separate her criminal and social life, and she often held elaborate parties for the city’s elite in her lavish home… decorated with the finest stolen rugs, tapestries, silverware, china, chandeliers and furniture. These were parties where the guests thought nothing of smashing expensive china and glassware, smoked cigars rolled in multiple $100 ($2,731) bills, gambled ten of thousands of dollars without a thought, or happily showed off the $15,000 ($410,000) diamond-studded dog collars they’d just bought for their well-groomed poodles. Mandelbaum often used her “students” as servants for the parties, and had only one rule for them: no stealing from guests like Fisk, Gould, or Tweed at the parties.

*     *     *

One of Mandelbaum’s favorite criminals was George Leonidas Leslie, a man who would become infamous as the “King of Bank Robbers”. Leslie was born in Cincinnati into a wealthy family. His father owned a successful brewery, which enabled Leslie to earn an architecture degree from the University of Cincinnati. After graduating, he founded a successful design firm. But Leslie had a romantic streak in him. He constantly read books about the “Old West” (which wasn’t actually old at the time), and eagerly tracked down every news story he could about bank robbers like Jessie James.

When his parents died, Leslie sold their house, cashed in his inheritance and moved to New York, where he decided to become a bank robber. Upon his arrival in the city he used his architectural background to get an introduction to John A. Roebling, the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Roebling suggested that they meet for lunch at Delmonico’s, famous as the “first restaurant in America”. There Leslie was introduced to Fisk and Mansfield, who got him an invite to one of Mandelbaum’s parties.

At the time, most bank robbers used guns to rob banks during the day or dynamite to blast open safes at night. Leslie didn’t care for either approach. He abhorred violence, especially against bank employees, whom he considered “working men”. He didn’t care for blasting open safes at night, because this attracted the attention of police and often destroyed the very money people were trying to steal.

Leslie, an engineer at heart, came up with something he called his “little joker”: an aluminum disc encircled by a cutter. One simply pried off the safe’s dial, inserted the little joker, and replaced the dial. The next time a bank employee unlocked the safe, the little joker would cut notches into the disc, revealing the numbers of the combination. All one had to do then was break into the bank, pry off the dial, retrieve the joker, and figure out which order the numbers notched into the disc opened the safe.

This, of course, required finesse. Instead of simply storming the bank with guns and demanding money, or throwing a rock through a window and blasting a safe, Leslie’s method required entering the bank at least twice: once to plant the little joker, and another time to retrieve it. Leslie’s heists needed a lot of planning, and often took months to execute. He often built exact replicas of a bank in one of Mandelbaum’s warehouses, and had his Mandelbaum-supplied gang practice the heist over and over again. He sometimes posed as a businessman and rented space above, below or next to banks to provide a way in, using fake papers provided by Mandelbaum’s forgers. He often had gang members hired as night janitors at banks and work there for months to allay suspicion. He insisted on his gang members wearing disguises (provided by Fisk’s theatres) to throw police off the trail. Leslie thus became America’s first “glamorous thief”, and if you’ve a fan of the “heist film” genre, you now know where the inspiration came from.

Leslie’s methods were successful because his intricate planning left nothing to chance, and most of the time very little evidence – if any – was left behind. Leslie was also patient, and he sometimes had to force his impatient gang to wait until he was certain that the bank had as much cash as possible in the vault. Unlike most “shoot ’em up” or “smash and grab” bank robbers, Leslie was able to pull off heists for years. Law enforcement estimated that Leslie was responsible for up to 80% of all the bank robberies in the United States at the time.

Leslie was able to evade police for most of his life for two other reasons.

First, most Americans didn’t have bank accounts back then, so it was only the rich who were stolen from. That’s why Leslie (and Jessie James, and other bandits) were able to become folk heroes. People just wouldn’t rat on Robin Hood. But this would change with a single robbery. Leslie often worked as a “robbery consultant” for a flat $20,000 ($550,000) fee, and he’d done all the planning for the robbery of the Dexter Savings Bank in Dexter, Maine. He took no part in the actual robbery, and when things didn’t go as planned the gang raided a bank employee’s home, held his family hostage and tortured the poor employee for the combination to the safe. They even stole the man’s gold watch, something Leslie termed “despicable”. Robin Hood had apparently “gone bad”, and so public support of bank robbers waned.

The second reason Leslie evaded capture was because he worked for Mandelbaum, who was friends with Boss Tweed, who had bought off all the cops. But Tweed was eventually brought to trial and convicted of stealing between $40 million and $200 million from the city of New York (that’s $2.1 to $11.5 billion current dollars). With Tweed’s men being weeded out of the police force, a new detective was brought in: Thomas Byrnes.

*     *     *

Byrnes was the Elliot Ness of his age, a man with enough money and moral backbone to be incorruptible. Brynes, who coined the term “third degree” for his extreme methods of questioning suspects, was relentless. So too was Robert Pinkerton, son of Pinkerton Detective Agency founder Allan Pinkerton, whose “seeing eye” logo became the basis of the term “private eye”. Byrnes and Pinkerton worked day and night to clean up the streets of New York.

They eventually caught most of Leslie’s gang, but not Leslie himself. If Leslie had a weakness, it was for beautiful women, and he often sent members of his gang to banks in other cities on “reconnaissance missions”. This allowed him to romance the gang’s wives and girlfriends in their absence. One of the gang members found out about this when his girlfriend suddenly began wearing an expensive cashmere shawl. Suspicious, the crook went to the store helpfully embroidered on the label, where the clerk described Leslie perfectly. Leslie’s body was found a few days later in Yonkers with a bullet in his head. His murder was never solved, and his single largest heist – the $3 million robbery of the Manhattan Savings Institution – went ahead without him several months after his death.

Tweed, who had been convicted largely due to the efforts of reformist NYC mayor William H. Wickham and New York state representative Samuel J. Tilden, was sent to prison for a year, then slapped with a civil suit. On December 4, 1875, Tweed escaped the custody of sheriff William C. Conner and fled to Cuba, where he boarded a ship for Spain. Although the United States had no extradition treaty with Spain, the US government asked Spanish authorities to arrest Tweed, which they did. Tweed arrived back in New York on November 23, 1876 and was sent to prison, where he died from severe pneumonia on April 12, 1878.

Amusingly, Spanish authorities recognized Tweed thanks to his likeness in the political cartoons of Thomas Nast, the illiterate German-born American cartoonist who invented the donkey and elephant mascots for the Democratic and Republican parties. Tweed tried to buy off Nast for years, due to the bad press Nast generated against him. Tweed reportedly told Nast to “[s]top them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!”. Nast always refused Tweed’s offers, even a $100,000 ($2.3 million) bribe to stop publishing his anti-Tweed cartoons.

The Pinkerton Agency was eventually able to infiltrate Marm Mandelbaum’s gang and build enough evidence to have her arrested on a variety of charges. Marm was able to make bail, and she fled to Canada with an estimated $1 million ($34.5 million) in cash. She spent the rest of her life in comfort in Toronto, albeit alone: her husband having passed a few years earlier. She died of natural causes in 1894.

Jay Gould wound up becoming a “robber baron”, controlling several railroads as well as Western Union… which is ironic because during the Black Friday scandal a Western Union employee committed a grammatical error in a telegram that almost cost Gould everything. He died of tuberculosis on December 2, 1892, leaving his entire $72 million fortune to his family. Adjusted for inflation, that’s conservatively around $2.5 billion in today’s dollars. He’s buried in a large, but unmarked, mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx. And, as bad as Gould might have been, he once described inventor Thomas Edison as “having a vacuum where his conscience ought to be”. Whether that says more about Gould or Edison is up to you.

Samuel J. Tilden, the great reformer, ran for president as a Democrat in 1876. In an ironic twist, he ended up losing the most crooked election in American history. Tilden won the popular vote, getting 4,288,546 votes to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes’ 4,034,311 votes. However, due to political and racial infighting between white Democrats and black Republicans in the states of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, those states each submitted two sets of electoral votes, one favoring Tilden and another favoring Hayes. Congress created a 15-member “Electoral Commission” to look in to the matter. Although initially designed to allow equal representation from both major parties, power in the commission shifted to the Republican side when Supreme Court Justice David Davis, an independent from Illinois who had won a Senate seat in the same election, resigned from the Court. His seat was given to Justice Joseph P. Bradley, a Republican. Not surprisingly, the commission voted 8-7 along party lines to give all the electoral votes – and thus, the election – to Hayes. Angry Democrats then threatened a filibuster in the Senate, but were thwarted by the so-called “Compromise of 1877”, where southern Democrats gave their support to Hayes in return for the immediate withdrawal of all remaining Union troops from the former Confederate states, as well as the appointment of a southern Democrat to Hayes’ cabinet. Tilden retired from public life after the election. His health failing, he died in at his home in Greystone, New York in 1886.

Daniel Butterfield, central to Fisk and Gould’s plan to corner the gold market, apparently survived the fiasco thanks to his reputation as a war hero. He was buried by special order at West Point Cemetery at the United States Military Academy, even though he never attended the school. “Taps” was played at his funeral, and his version of the tune remains standard in the United States military to this day.

Thomas Byrnes was appointed Chief Inspector of New York in 1888. Although mostly remembered today for developing the “third degree”, Byrnes was also one of the first police detectives who valued intelligence gathering, and he created an organized database system for indexing all that data. However, an 1895 commission appointed to look in to corruption discovered that Byrnes had somehow amassed a $400,000 ($14,000,000) fortune while receiving a $5,000 annual salary. An embarrassed Byrnes was publicly humiliated by one of the commissioners – future President Theodore Roosevelt – and resigned before he could be removed from office. He started his own private detective agency specializing in financial crimes and died in 1910.

Cornelius Vanderbilt shrugged off the loss of the Erie Railway, although he and Gould would snipe at each other for years afterwards. He went on to make a fortune estimated at $100 million – adjusted for inflation, that’s around $205 billion in today’s dollars. When this article was originally written in 2009, that was about $10 billion more than the net worth of the four richest people in the world – Bill Gates of Microsoft, Warren Buffet of Berkshire Hathaway, Carlos Slim Helú of Telmex and América Móvil, and Larry Ellison of Oracle – combined.

Vanderbilt lived his life modestly, with gambling on race horses apparently his only frivolity. He left token amounts to his wife, daughters and younger sons, leaving  95% of his fortune to his eldest son, William. William was able to expand his father’s business empire even more, and it was William who to turned “Vanderbilt” into a household name. It was under his reign that the family built huge estates like Biltmore, The Breakers, and Hyde Park.

John A. Roebling designed the Brooklyn Bridge, but did not build it. One day in July 1869 he was out scouting locations for the bridge when his foot was accidentally crushed between an incoming ferry and a dock. All toes on one foot had to be amputated, but Roebling refused further medical treatment, preferring “water therapy” (constantly pouring water over the wounds). He worked feverishly over the next few days, staying up into the wee hours of the morning dictating engineering instructions and sending messages back and forth to various contractors. But it was clear that he had contracted tetanus from the accident, and he died of the disease on July 22. His son, Washington Roebling, took over design and construction of the bridge, which opened on May 24, 1883. Washington Roebling’s son, Washington A. Roebling, II, died in the Titanic disaster.

As for Josie Mansfield – remember Josie Mansfield, the woman who started this whole article? – although she was was “Fisk’s girl”, she had affairs with many men (including George Leslie, the “King of Bank Robbers”) and a few women before falling in love with one of Fisk’s business partners, Edward S. Stokes. Mansfield and Stokes attempted to blackmail Fisk for large sums of money using Fisk’s love letters to Mansfield as evidence of his illegal financial shenanigans. But Fisk took them to court, where his Tweed-appointed judge friends shot down every suit and motion the couple filed. Stokes, infuriated with Fisk and close to bankruptcy, shot Fisk twice in the gut at the Grand Central Hotel on January 6th, 1872. Fisk died in the hotel within hours, but not before identifying Stokes as his assailant. After three trials, Stokes was sentenced to six years in prison, serving four. Shunned by his old friends, he bought a share of a restaurant, which he owned for ten years. For the rest of his life he was paranoid about Fisk’s friends finding and killing him, and he allegedly never ate at the restaurant with his back to the entrance. He sold his share of the restaurant in 1897 and moved in with his sister. He suffered a series of strokes and died in 1901.

Josie ended her relationship with Stokes after he murdered Fisk. She moved to Europe shortly after the incident, settling in Paris and marrying American lawyer Robert Livingston Reade in 1891. By 1897, Reade was put into an asylum due to an addiction to alcohol and a powerful sedative called chloral hydrate. Mansfield took over his fortune, living out the rest of her life like a queen. In 1931, at age 78, she fell in a department store in Paris and died of complications from her injuries.

But her legend lives on in the $1,000 note, which was originally designed by contract engraver Charles Kennedy Burt. Burt’s original design, taken from a photograph of Mansfield, has the siren wearing a liberty cap in honor of the nation’s centennial. However, the final design that ended up on the note was done by G.F.C. Smillie, who depicted her with a tiara of stars instead of the liberty cap.

And thus, one of the bloodiest, most public love triangles in American history has been forever enshrined on a piece of the nation’s currency.

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