Special Reports

Historical Perspective: Drama behind Fiske Block

A swashbuckler named John Dewey Fiske swept into Fresno in the 1880s, building an imposing structure to match his personality and attracting Wild West drama to an intersection where the Fulton Mall stands today.

In 1887, Fiske, then 30, and his 19-year-old wife, Amanda, settled in Fresno after a two-year honeymoon excursion around the world. He established himself as a lawyer, capitalist and theater manager.

He took over the Grady Opera House, renaming it the Fiske Opera House. Fiske bought a large home on M Street near Mariposa Street. He furnished it with luxuries not known at the time to many Fresnans, such as stained-glass windows and ornate mirrors, and he hired servants, French maids and governesses.

At Mariposa and J (now Fulton) streets, the crossroads of early Fresno, he built Fiske Block.

He bought the property from druggist Frank Ball after a fire damaged the then two-story building, and made extensive renovations, including the addition of a third floor. The ground floor had a saloon, pool hall and stores. The two upper floors had office space, with a communication system that used “speaking tubes” rather than telephones.

The 150-by-50-foot structure was built in the Modern Renaissance style, featuring large bay windows. The building’s defining element was a neo-classical clock tower that had a Seth Thomas clock with a 6-foot diameter face, reaching the highest point in the young city.

But even though the Mariposa and J intersection became associated with the posh building, it was also the scene of one of Fresno’s most notorious murders.

Fiske, who was described as having a strong, overbearing personality, became involved in business controversies. Soon after taking over the opera house, he was sued for nonpayment by the traveling road shows performing at the theater, and he also filed countersuits for breach of contract.

Fiske was rumored to have blackmailed people who he crossed, accusing them of being involved with his French maids.

The editor of the Fresno Morning Expositor published a front-page expose and several other stories detailing Fiske’s sordid past, including the fact that he had been disbarred in Plymouth County, Mass., for unprofessional dealings, fraud, misrepresentation and malfeasance in office. It was also disclosed that Fiske had been married twice before his present marriage, and both marriages ended in bitter divorces.

He became obsessed with obtaining a patent for a railcar coupling device from local inventor Joseph Stillman, who refused Fiske’s offer. Fiske threatened to spread a rumor accusing Stillman, a married man with children, of having an affair with one of Fiske’s maids. But even before Stillman could consider the threat, Fiske started the rumor mill.

On July 26, 1890, Stillman confronted Fiske outside his building. During a scuffle, Fiske got the upper hand, beating Stillman with his cane. Stillman pulled out a revolver and shot Fiske three times as he ran into the intersection. He was carried to the Burke and Monroe drugstore in the Fiske building, where he was pronounced dead, amid calls from bystanders in the street to “hang him.” Hundreds filed through a funeral home the next day to view Fiske’s body.

Stillman pleaded insanity after the killing. Despite public opinion favoring his actions, Stillman was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

At his trial, he explained his actions: “He tried to ruin my poor wife and children and I couldn’t stand it any longer.”

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