When reenacting or acting as a historical interpreter, its good to have a few historical dates and stories to share. This series will publish a few.

Robbing the First Bank of the United States

In 1789, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton hammered out a great compromise that would create our nations first federal bank.  Under this agreement, the United States would abandon its capital in New York City and build a grand capital on the Potomac.  In the intervening ten years between reaching this agreement and transforming the “dismal swamp” into a grand capital, the federal government would operate out of borrowed facilities in Philadelphia but our nations first purpose built federal building would be in Philadelphia – the First Bank of the United States.  Our story won’t be in this grand edifice, however, because all building in the 18th Century took years and like the Congress, Supreme Court, and President, the first bank will operate for many years in borrowed facilities. 

Carpenters’ Hall as our city’s most significant rental building in the early years of our country.  While the grand bank was under construction, the Bank of the United States (aka the 1st Bank of the United States), operated out of Carpenters’ Hall.  In fact, four banks called the Hall home while awaiting larger quarters but in 1793, two banks shared the first floor of Carpenters’ Hall, The Bank of Pennsylvania and the Bank of the United States.  Both gained notoriety as the site of the 18th century’s largest bank robbery, which took place during the yellow fever epidemic of 1798.

Part of Alexander Hamilton’s financial genius was to create a unified coinage backed by a national bank.  Storing this coinage at Carpenters’ Hall required the construction of a brick “fireproof vault ” adjoining the Hall in the northeast corner. It was this vault that will be robbed on Sunday morning August 1, 1798.  $162,821 was stolen from the Bank’s vault.

The week before the robbery, a local blacksmith, Pat Lyons, was brought in to repair this vault.  Hired by Samuel Robinson of the Carpenters’ Company and Isaac Davis of the Bank of Pennsylvania, Lyons was brought in to replace locks and fittings thought to be substandard and not fit for purpose.   Mr. Lyons later reports, however that he “watched Davis try the new keys repeatedly.” After Lyon had finished working, he met both men at a restaurant and had an uneasy feeling that they were uncomfortable seeing him.

When the robbery was discovered, High Constable John Haines saw Pat Lyons as the natural culprit.  Lyons had left the city after completing the job and now over $162,000 is missing.  Haines didn’t have to hunt Lyons as upon hearing about the robbery, the master smith had made a 150-mile journey from Lewes, Delaware back to Philadelphia. Lyons had fled the city not to hide his crime but to protect himself from the Yellow Fever epidemic that was ravishing the city. 

The epidemic was claiming as many as 100 lives a day, including those of Lyons’ wife and child. Evacuation was on everyone’s mind.  The bereaved blacksmith had hoped to find a safe haven from the disease.  Unfortunately, his departure was delayed when at the last minute he was called upon to undertake the task of fixing the vault doors of the Bank of Philadelphia.

When Lyons heard about the bank being robbed, he felt he had no option but to return to Philadelphia and report his suspicions.  Unfortunately, he was promptly arrested.  Luckily, one of the actual robbers was utterly incompetent.

Isaac Davis, one of the men who had hired Lyons to repair the vault doors, and Thomas Cunningham, a porter for the Bank of Pennsylvania, began depositing large amounts of money stolen from the Bank of Philadelphia… back into the Bank of Philadelphia. It took about two months for the authorities to trace the money back the robbery.  When he was arrested, Davis soon confessed.   

By the time Davis confessed to the robbery, Lyons had been imprisoned for 2 months.  Though he was released in 1799, constable and the justices of the peace who had imprisoned him did not want to admit they had made a mistake. Instead, they tried to cast Lyons as an accomplice.  Meanwhile, Davis kept his freedom, with merely a legal slap on the wrist Perhaps because he was the son of a judge, he was only required to repay the stolen money and was removed from the Carpenters’ Company.

Lyons wrote a pamphlet about his ordeal, “Narrative of Patrick Lyon Who Suffered Three Months Severe Imprisonment in Philadelphia Gaol on Merely a Vague Suspicion of Being Concerned in a Robbery of the Bank of Pennsylvania With his Remarks Thereon.”  In 1805, Lyons won a civil case against the Bank of Pennsylvania, the Bank of the United States, and The Carpenters’ Company and was awarded $12,000 in damages for his imprisonment and defamation of his good name.  The defendants appealed and were granted a new trial set to begin in March 1807. Just as the second trial was to start, an agreement was reached awarding Lyon $9,000.”

Pat Lyon at the Forge by John Neagle.

He was now financially secure, but choose to move his funds to the new Bank of the United States rather than keep his funds in the vault of the Bank of Pennsylvania.


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Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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