The First American Bank Robbery Was an Epic Farce
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Sometimes you get the wrong man, and sometimes he gets you.
By Sean Braswell
Hands Up: A look at history’s greatest heists and most intriguing robberies. Read more.
In the permanent collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia there hangs an oil painting that depicts a ruddy blacksmith engaged in a rather unusual task for a portrait: manual labor. Even more strange is the fact that “Pat Lyon at the Forge,” painted by John Neagle in 1829, was commissioned by the red-haired blacksmith himself, who is pictured in his workshop with his leather apron and anvil. How did a blacksmith earn enough money to commission a portrait?
If you said by robbing a bank, you’d be close, but also wrong — just as wrong as the Philadelphia authorities who sent Pat Lyon to Walnut Street Prison — whose cupola looms in the painting’s background — in 1798. The story behind Lyon’s portrait, his wrongful imprisonment and America’s first great bank heist is one of history’s great farces, as well as that rare crime tale in which the accused gets the last laugh.
The person who had robbed the bank’s vault apparently had a key.
Founded in 1793, the Bank of Pennsylvania was the largest bank under state charter in the young American nation. In colonial times, as Jerry Clark and Ed Palattella chronicled in A History of Heists: Bank Robbery in America, currencies varied from state to state and banks were rare, especially those that housed deposits of bank notes, gold or silver. In fact, the first armed robbery in U.S. history did not happen until 1863, when a bank clerk was shot in Malden, Massachusetts — for a long time, there just weren’t many banks worth robbing.
Which made it all the more strange when more than $162,000 (the equivalent of $3.2 million today) went missing from the vaults of the Bank of Pennsylvania on September 1, 1798. The scene of the first major American bank robbery was Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia, in the same building that had played host to the First Continental Congress in 1774. Except it wasn’t technically a robbery — since nothing had been taken by threat of force — and there were no signs of forced entry. The Bank of Pennsylvania had only recently relocated to the hall, bringing with it a set of huge iron doors for its new vault. The man who had made those doors was an accomplished 29-year-old blacksmith from London named Pat Lyon, the same man who had just finished installing the bank’s new locks, ones that he claimed could not be picked.
And they had not been picked, because the person who had robbed the bank’s vault apparently had a key. So, what might loosely be termed an investigation almost immediately alighted on the perfect suspect — the blacksmith — and authorities began to comb the surrounding woods for the red-headed tradesman. But there was one enormous hole in the prosecution’s theory: Lyon had been 150 miles away in Delaware on the night of the robbery.
You see, the real story the summer of 1798 in the American capital was a deadly yellow-fever outbreak that had prompted thousands, including Lyon and his 19-year-old apprentice, to leave the city, settling in Delaware. Not long after his apprentice died from the fever, Lyon heard news of the theft at the very bank whose vault doors had been the last job he had completed before fleeing the city. He rushed home to clear his name and help investigators and was promptly thrown in the rat- and yellow-fever-infested city jail. As Lyon later wrote about those who dismissed his alibi and imprisoned him, “I found I was in the hands of those who are not the most intelligent of mankind.”
Lyon would spend three months losing weight, dodging fever and growing a beard in his 12-by-4-foot cell in the Walnut Street Jail. He likely would have remained there longer had not the real thief, Isaac Davis, done something unimaginatively stupid: start making deposits in the very bank he had just robbed. It turned out that Davis, a young carpenter and member of the trade guild that owned the hall, had pulled off the heist with the help of the bank’s porter, Thomas Cunningham, who had access to the key and remained inside the hall on the night in question.
When authorities confronted Davis about his suspicious deposits, he immediately confessed. Amazingly, he never served a day in prison, having been promised a pardon in return for full cooperation and returning the money. Pat Lyon, however, was not so forgiving: The year after the affair, Lyon published a book about his ordeal with the lengthy and embittered title 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.
He also sued the state for wrongful imprisonment and a jury awarded him $12,000 (about $250,000 today), enough to seed a successful manufacturing business that would make him wealthy — and cover the commission cost of a portrait further reminding posterity of the injustice he had endured. “[W]hat a horrid thing it is for an innocent man to suffer for another’s guilt,” Lyon wrote in his book. “[T]he horror of such a thing, none but an innocent man can feel.”