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“Bank-Wreckers, Defaulters, and Embezzlers”: America’s Popular Fear and Fascination with the Misappropriation of Bank Deposits during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 January 2018

THOMAS A. MACKAY*
Affiliation:
Thomas A. Mackay is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide. He is interested in the history of American capitalism and social and cultural histories and twentieth-century Australian history. The author thanks Thomas C. Buchanan for reading and critiquing various versions of this article. Thanks also go to Paul Sendziuk, Steven G. Anderson, Mark Neuendorf, Hilary Locke, Malcolm Mackay, and Amalia Thompson for their helpful suggestions, and to the anonymous reviewers for their very thoughtful and valuable recommendations. E-mail: thomas.mackay@adelaide.edu.au

Abstract

This article explores how “bank-wreckers, defaulters, and embezzlers” were popularly perceived during Gilded Age and Progressive Era America, and how they contributed to a broader concern over the safety of deposits and helped drive efforts to achieve greater financial security. Their actions, often described as “wrecking,” referred to instances in which a banking institution was damaged or destroyed due to the embezzlement or general misappropriation of depositor funds by bank officials or employees. Wrecking occurred inside and outside of the era’s major banking panics, and attracted popular and critical attention over this period, especially between the 1880s and the early 1910s. It is argued that this phenomenon resonated within the popular imagination, which was reflected, reinforced, and even instilled through the media, and that this helped sustain doubts on the reliability of the nation’s banks and bankers. This article shows how notions of class, character, and gender influenced how people thought about the problem: wrecking demonstrated that respectability could be illusory and that men of the era could be tempted to “get rich quick” through dubious means. Some of the major attempts to resolve the problem are also discussed to highlight how efforts to prevent wrecking relate to the period’s general push to bolster economic stability. Ultimately, the article shows how seemingly disparate events can aggregate into a larger problem, which can in turn motivate solutions and reforms.

Type
Articles
Copyright
Copyright © The Author 2018. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Business History Conference. All rights reserved. 

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References

Bibliography of Works Cited

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Cairo Bulletin (Illinois) Google Scholar
Chicago Daily Tribune (Illinois) Google Scholar
Daily Missoulian (Montana) Google Scholar
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Evening World (New York) Google Scholar
Guthrie Daily Leader (Oklahoma) Google Scholar
Herald (Louisiana)Google Scholar
Iron County Register (Missouri) Google Scholar
Jackson Herald (Missouri) Google Scholar
New York Daily Tribune (New York) Google Scholar
New York Times (New York) Google Scholar
New York Tribune Sunday Magazine (New York) Google Scholar
Perrysburg Journal (Ohio) Google Scholar
Republican (Massachusetts) Google Scholar
Rising Sun (Missouri) Google Scholar
Salt Lake Tribune (Utah) Google Scholar
San Francisco Call (California) Google Scholar
Sun (Florida) Google Scholar
Virginia Enterprise (Minnesota) Google Scholar
Willmar Tribune (Minnesota) Google Scholar
Arkins, Frank J. “Trapping the Bank Looter.” Collier’s, no. 49 (May 18, 1912): 3438.Google Scholar
“Bank Wrecking and Clemency.” Nation 92 (1911, June): 547548.Google Scholar
Barnett, A. R. “Era of Fraud and Embezzlement: Its Causes and Remedies.” Arena 14 (1895, July): 196204.Google Scholar
Clapp, Henry A. “Sympathetic Banking.” Atlantic Monthly 48 (1881, July): 121136.Google Scholar
Dodge, M. A. “The Gentlemen’s Contribution to the Ladies’ Deposit.” Atlantic Monthly 48 (1881, July): 111121.Google Scholar
Flower, Elliott. “The Safety of Banks,” New York Tribune Sunday Magazine, May 19, 1907.Google Scholar
“Record Is Bad.” Spanish Fork Press, April 25, 1907, 4.Google Scholar
“Story of the Greatest Bank Steal of the Age, ”Perrysburg Journal, May 12, 1905, 3.Google Scholar
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Barnett, George. Publications of the National Monetary Commission, Vol. 3: State Banks and Trust Companies Since the Passage of the National-Bank Act. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911.Google Scholar
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Adams, William T. Living Too Fast; Or, The Confessions of a Bank Officer. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1876.Google Scholar
American Film Institute. The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Made in the United States, Part 3. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.Google Scholar
Balleisen, Edward J. Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.Google Scholar
Booker, M. Keith. Film and the American Left: A Research Guide. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999.Google Scholar
Bremer, C. D. American Bank Failures. New York: Columbia University Press, 1935.Google Scholar
Bruner, Robert F., and Carr, Sean D.. The Panic of 1907: Lessons Learned from the Market’s Perfect Storm. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2007.Google Scholar
Campbell, Ballard C. Growth of American Government: Governance from the Cleveland Era to the Present. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.Google Scholar
Calomiris, Charles W., and Haber, Stephen H.. Fragile By Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.Google Scholar
Cressey, Donald R. Other People’s Money: A Study in the Social Psychology of Embezzlement. Reprint, Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1973.Google Scholar
Duis, Perry. Challenging Chicago: Coping with Everyday Life, 1837–1920. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998.Google Scholar
Fowler, Martin K. The Cause and Prevention of Bank Defalcations. New York: Bankers Publishing Company, 1924.Google Scholar
Fraser, Steve. Every Man a Speculator: A History of Wall Street in American Life. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.Google Scholar
Garon, Sheldon. Beyond Our Means: Why America Spends While the World Saves. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.Google Scholar
Haines, Gerald, and Langbart, David A.. Unlocking the Files of the FBI: A Guide to its Records and Classification System. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1993.Google Scholar
Horwitz, Robert. Irony of Regulatory Reform: The Deregulation of American Telecommunications. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.Google Scholar
Levy, Jonathan. Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.Google Scholar
McCulley, Richard T. Banks and Politics during the Progressive Era: The Origins of the Federal Reserve System, 1897–1913, 2nd ed. Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2012.Google Scholar
Mihm, Stephen. A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men and the Making of the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.Google Scholar
Olegario, Rowena. A Culture of Credit: Embedding Trust and Transparency in American Business. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.Google Scholar
Ott, Julia C. When Wall Street Met Main Street: The Quest for an Investors’ Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.Google Scholar
Pak, Susie J. Gentlemen Bankers: The World of J. P. Morgan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.Google Scholar
Postel, Charles. The Populist Vision. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.Google Scholar
Ritter, Gretchen. Goldbugs and Greenbacks: The Antimonopoly Tradition and the Politics of Finance in America. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1997.Google Scholar
Rush, Phil A. The Teller’s Tale: A Banking Story for Bankers, A Law Story for Lawyers, A Love Story for Lovers. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1905.Google Scholar
Sandage, Scott A. Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.Google Scholar
Sprague, Oliver M. W. History of Crises under the National Banking System. Washington, DC: National Printing Office, 1910.Google Scholar
Steeples, Douglas O., and Whitten, David. Democracy in Desperation: The Depression of 1893. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.Google Scholar
Teel, Leonard Ray. The Public Press, 1900–1945: The History of American Journalism. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.Google Scholar
Wharton, Francis, and Draper Lewis, W. M.. A Treatise on Criminal Law (Vol. I), 10th ed. Philadelphia: Kay and Brother, 1896.Google Scholar
Wicker, Elmus. Banking Panics of the Gilded Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.Google Scholar
Wiebe, Robert H. The Search for Order, 1877–1920. London: Macmillan, 1967.Google Scholar
Wilson, Harold S. McClure’s Magazine and the Muckrakers. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970.Google Scholar
Zuckoff, Michael. Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend. New York: Random House, 2006.Google Scholar
Bolles, Albert. “The Duty and Liability of Bank Directors.” Yale Law Review 12 (1903, March): 287305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Canova, Timothy A. “Bottom-Up Recovery.” In When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal, edited by Collins, Sheila and Goldberg, Gertrude, 6185. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Google Scholar
DuPuy, William Atherton. “The Bank Wrecker.” In Uncle Sam: Detective. True Stories of Celebrated Crimes, 2447. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1916.Google Scholar
Garner, James Warner. “The Cases of Walsh and Morse.” Journal of American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology 2 (1911, July): 172174.Google Scholar
Mitchener, Kris, and Jaremski, Matthew. “Evolution of Bank Supervisory Institutions: Evidence from American States.” Journal of Economic History 75 (2015, September): 819859.Google Scholar
Moxey, Edward P. “Bank Defalcations: Their Causes and Cures.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 25 (1905, January): 3242.Google Scholar
Moxey, Edward P. “Causes, Methods and Prevention of Bank Defalcation.” Journal of Accountancy 1 (1906, January): 223232.Google Scholar
Osborne, Nicholas. “Little Capitalists: The Social Economy of Savings in the United States 1816–1914.” PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 2014.Google Scholar
Ramirez, Carlos D. “Bank Fragility, ‘Money Under the Mattress,’ and Long-Run Growth: US Evidence from the ‘Perfect’ Panic of 1893.” Journal of Banking and Finance 33 (2009): 21852198.Google Scholar
Robb, George. “Depicting a Female Fraud: Sarah Howe and the Boston Women’s Bank.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 34 (2012, December): 445459.Google Scholar
Stockwell, Herbert. “State and National Examination of Banks.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 36 (1910, November): 191214.Google Scholar
Tarr, Joel A. “J. R. Walsh of Chicago: A Case Study in Banking and Politics, 1881–1905.” Business History Review 40 (1966): 451466.Google Scholar
Wadhwani, Daniel. “Protecting Small Savers: The Political Economy of Economic Security.” Journal of Policy History 18 (2006): 126145.Google Scholar
Cairo Bulletin (Illinois) Google Scholar
Chicago Daily Tribune (Illinois) Google Scholar
Daily Missoulian (Montana) Google Scholar
Donaldsonville Chief (Louisiana) Google Scholar
Evening World (New York) Google Scholar
Guthrie Daily Leader (Oklahoma) Google Scholar
Herald (Louisiana)Google Scholar
Iron County Register (Missouri) Google Scholar
Jackson Herald (Missouri) Google Scholar
New York Daily Tribune (New York) Google Scholar
New York Times (New York) Google Scholar
New York Tribune Sunday Magazine (New York) Google Scholar
Perrysburg Journal (Ohio) Google Scholar
Republican (Massachusetts) Google Scholar
Rising Sun (Missouri) Google Scholar
Salt Lake Tribune (Utah) Google Scholar
San Francisco Call (California) Google Scholar
Sun (Florida) Google Scholar
Virginia Enterprise (Minnesota) Google Scholar
Willmar Tribune (Minnesota) Google Scholar
Arkins, Frank J. “Trapping the Bank Looter.” Collier’s, no. 49 (May 18, 1912): 3438.Google Scholar
“Bank Wrecking and Clemency.” Nation 92 (1911, June): 547548.Google Scholar
Barnett, A. R. “Era of Fraud and Embezzlement: Its Causes and Remedies.” Arena 14 (1895, July): 196204.Google Scholar
Clapp, Henry A. “Sympathetic Banking.” Atlantic Monthly 48 (1881, July): 121136.Google Scholar
Dodge, M. A. “The Gentlemen’s Contribution to the Ladies’ Deposit.” Atlantic Monthly 48 (1881, July): 111121.Google Scholar
Flower, Elliott. “The Safety of Banks,” New York Tribune Sunday Magazine, May 19, 1907.Google Scholar
“Record Is Bad.” Spanish Fork Press, April 25, 1907, 4.Google Scholar
“Story of the Greatest Bank Steal of the Age, ”Perrysburg Journal, May 12, 1905, 3.Google Scholar
Anderson, A. C. “Report of the Committee on Fidelity Insurance.” In Proceedings of the Twenty-Seventh Annual Convention of the American Bankers’ Association, 4854. New York: American Bankers’ Association, 1901.Google Scholar
Barnett, George. Publications of the National Monetary Commission, Vol. 3: State Banks and Trust Companies Since the Passage of the National-Bank Act. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911.Google Scholar
Branch, James R., ed. Proceedings of the Thirtieth Annual Convention. New York: American Banker, 1904.Google Scholar
Branch, James R., ed. Proceedings of the Thirty-First Annual Convention. New York: Daily Bank and Stockholder, 1905.Google Scholar
Comptroller of the Currency. Annual Report 1911, 62nd Congress, 2nd Session. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1912.Google Scholar
Comptroller of the Currency. Annual Report 1913, 63rd Congress, 2nd Session. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1914.Google Scholar
Comptroller of the Currency. Annual Report 1919, Vol. 1, 66th Congress, 2nd Session. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1920.Google Scholar
Comptroller of the Currency. Annual Report 1920, vol. 1, 66th Congress, Third Session. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1921.Google Scholar
Comptroller of the Currency. Annual Report 1924. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1924.Google Scholar
Comptroller of the Currency. Annual Report 1927. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1928.Google Scholar
Ridgely, William. “Duties of our Bank Directors.” In Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual Convention of the Pennsylvania Bankers’ Association, 7886. Clearfield: Pennsylvania Bankers’ Association, 1906.Google Scholar
An Act to Proved An Act to Provide a National Currency, Secured by a Pledge of United States Bonds, and to Provide for the Circulation and Redemption Thereof. 36th Congress, First Session. Congressional Globe. June 3, 1864, Chapter 106, 99118.Google Scholar
Federal Reserve Act of 1913 , H.R. 7837, 63rd Congress, Second Session, Public Law 63–43.Google Scholar
Keppler, Joseph. Broken Banks, Defaulting cashiers, Negligent Directors, Who is Responsible? Cartoon in Puck 10 (1881, November): center. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. https://lccn.loc.gov/2012647302 Google Scholar
US Fidelity and Guarantee. No System Is Embezzlement Proof. Advertisement for the US Fidelity and Guarantee Company of Baltimore, ca. 1907. Emergence of Advertising in America, Duke University. https://idn.duke.edu/ark:/87924/r44q7sh5v Google Scholar
Rosenfeld, Monroe, H. “I’ve Just Been Down to the Bank.” New York: W. A. Evans and Bro., 1885. Music Division, Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/sm1885.1980 Google Scholar