America's First Bank Robbery
by Ron Avery
It was late summer 1798 and again the deadly yellow fever was raging in Philadelphia. Many abandoned the city. Others were forced to stay. About 1,300 would die a swift but horrible death.
One of those lucky enough to escape the city was blacksmith Patrick Lyon and his 19-year-old apprentice. They booked passage aboard a small sailing vessel to Cape Henlopen. By the time they disembarked at Lewistown, Delaware, (now Lewes) the young man was ill.
Despite Lyon's attention and the aid of a doctor the apprentice was dead in two days.
The talk in Delaware was about the plague ravishing Philadelphia, which was then the nation's largest city — a city that was both the national and state capital. And eventually news arrived in Lewistown of an amazing bank burglary in the Quaker City.
An enormous sum of $162,821 had been taken from vaults of the Bank of Pennsylvania at Carpenters' Hall during the night of Saturday, August 31 or the morning hours of Sunday, September 1, 1798.
Pat Lyon was enormously interested in newspaper accounts of the robbery. The last job he completed — a rush job — before fleeing the city was to change fittings and locks on two iron vault doors for the Bank of Pennsylvania.
The robbery was obviously an "inside job." There was no sign of forced entry into the building or the vault.
Lyon immediately suspected carpenter Samuel Robinson, hired by the bank to oversee its move into Carpenters' Hall and a stranger Robinson had brought to Lyon's shop while the blacksmith worked on the doors.
Then an old acquaintance — a former landlord — arrived in Lewistown. The pair discussed the robbery. Although the man was reluctant to say it outright, Lyon discovered that he was a prime suspect in the robbery.
In fact, lawmen were then in New Jersey combing the woods for the missing red-haired blacksmith. Lyon immediately headed back to Philadelphia to clear his name and pass on his suspicions about Robinson and the stranger.
His story was not believed, and Lyon would spend three harsh months in the Walnut Street Prison. Bank officials were certain that the man who changed the locks had made an extra key.
In the end, the affair would take on the flavor of a farce. The bank would get its money back and innocent victim Pat Lyon would regain his good name, and eventually profit handsomely from his imprisonment.
The culprit would turn out to be the stranger who had visited Lyon's shop, Isaac Davis, a member of The Carpenters' Company. Davis and a partner, who died of yellow fever within days of the robbery, were the only conspirators. The "inside man" was bank porter Thomas Cunningham, who slept in Carpenters' Hall the night of the robbery.
The pair had apparently pulled the perfect heist. Then in a move that will live in the annals of stupidity, Davis began depositing the missing money in the very bank he had robbed and other Philadelphia banks, casting suspicion on himself.
Confronted with questions about his sudden wealth, Davis gave a full confession and made a deal to return all the money. The governor of Pennsylvania promised a pardon in return for full disclosure and full restitution. He apparently never served a day in prison.
Even after the confession, the bank and law officers stubbornly insisted that Lyon was involved in making a false key to the vault; he would languish several more weeks in the prison until the charges were dismissed.
Less than a year after his release, Lyon wrote a book about the affair. By turning author he was paving the way for a major lawsuit against the bank and law officials.
The most renowned lawyers of early 19th century Philadelphia would clash during Lyon's civil case in 1805, and a jury would return with a verdict awarding $12,000 to the blacksmith for false imprisonment.
That the largest bank robbery in 18th century America took place inside Carpenters' Hall may seem odd. However, the Hall was the temporary home of three banks. They provided rental revenue for The Carpenters' Company and the building provided a solid edifice for the banks while they put up their own buildings.
Robert Morris' Bank of North America leased the Hall from 1791 to 1793. Then, Alexander Hamilton's First Bank of the United States used the facility until 1797.
The Bank of Pennsylvania appears to have moved to Carpenters' Hall shortly before the robbery following a failed attempt to burglarize its office in the city's Masonic lodge on Lodge Alley.
Much of our information of the affair comes from Lyon's 1799 book with the absurdly long 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."
Lyon was born and raised in London, starting his mechanical studies at age 11. He immigrated to America about age 25 to make his fortune "although relatives were against it."
He writes that his first American employer cheated him of wages. Eventually, his skill as a locksmith, blacksmith "and clever mechanic" earned him a good reputation and a decent living. His work impressed many, especially his creation of an excellent fire engine.
At the time of his arrest, Lyon had his own shop, extensive tools and $1,400 in the Bank of North America — a sum that officials found suspicious.
Lyon said he was contacted by Robinson to change locks and fittings on two iron doors, which were brought to his shop. He claims he told Robinson and several others that the doors were not proper for a bank and the locks were insecure, but "there was haste to have the work done."
Robinson visited Lyon's shop with the stranger, who turned out to be Davis. He remembered that Davis spent a good deal of time examining the doors, keyholes and locks.
Shortly before Lyon left for Lewes, he encountered the two men drinking near the Market Street Wharf. Both seemed uneasy and disturbed by his appearance. Lyon remarked to his apprentice, "I don't think they are after any good."
When he learned of the robbery, he immediately "focused on the carpenter and the stranger." But bank and law enforcement officials were focusing on Lyon. High Constable John Haines was eager to pin the rap on Lyon and collect a $2,000 reward.
After sailing as far as Wilmington, Lyon walked to Philadelphia. "I had come 150 miles to surrender myself," he wrote.
The constable, bank president and chief bank cashier questioned Lyons. They later said his story of leaving for Delaware two days before the robbery seemed too detailed and practiced. And when the suspect said he felt faint and asked for water, they were sure he was guilty.
Lyon writes: "I found I was in the hands of those who are not the most intelligent of mankind." A magistrate committed the blacksmith to the Walnut Street Prison under an impossibly high bail of $150,000.
Lyon knew yellow fever was raging inside the stone walls of the lockup and feared for his life. He did not expect to come out alive, and it appears that he did survive a bout of the fever. Lyon described the prison as "cold, damp, unwholesome and solitary."
His cell was only 12X4 feet. "I read until I was tired and walked until I was weary." He also prayed. He lost weight. He grew a beard. He found himself abandoned by old friends. He wrote bitter letters.
Lyon said that other innocent men were also in jail charged with the same crime. Apparently, the two outside watchmen who worked that night with their dogs were locked up, too.
Bail was eventually lowered to $2,000 after the Davis confession, and a grand jury cleared Lyon in early January, 1799.
Davis fled Philadelphia after returning all but $2,000 of the missing loot, but Lyon obtained a letter from Davis declaring the blacksmith was totally innocent.
Lyon's civil case named as defendants bank president Samuel M. Fox; head cashier Jonathan Smith; alderman and bank board member John Clement Stocker and Constable John Haines.
An all-star line-up of lawyers represented the two sides. Jared Ingersoll, signer of the U.S. Constitution and William Rawle were major legal stars for the defendants.
Lyon's attorneys included Alexander J. Dallas, a distinguished lawyer who would later be appointed U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and Joseph Hopkinson, son of Declaration of Independence signer Francis Hopkinson and one of the nation's most skilled lawyers.
About two-dozen witnesses were called. It was up to Lyon's legal team to prove that bank and officials acted with malice.
Some key testimony focused on cashier Smith's vow to keep Lyon in jail even after Davis confessed. "Instead of discharging Lyon and compensating him for his suffering, they went on with the prosecution of him — not as a robber but an accomplice," Hopkinson told the jury.
In his charge, the judge told the jury it must rule on the question of malice, which hinged on "probable cause" to arrest and detain Lyon. If there was "probable cause," said the judge then there was no malice.
The jury deliberated four hours and returned with a whopping $12,000 verdict in favor of Lyon.
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.
It was a large sum, equal to several years' wages for a workingman. Lyon apparently lived out his days in financial comfort. One source declares that he became "a successful manufacturer." Another source says Lyon manufactured fire engines.
Photography was in the future, but we have a fine likeness of Pat Lyon. He had his portrait painted by artist John Neagle.
One version of the portrait, titled "Pat Lyon at the Forge" is prominently displayed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The painting has been reproduced in several books.
It's an unusual portrait for the period because it depicts Lyon with his leather apron, hammer-in-hand working at his anvil. Those with the money to have their portrait painted usually posed very formally in their finest garb.
In the background of the painting, the artist shows the cupola of the Walnut Street Prison.