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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

New York's First Bank Robbery


When workers arrived at the City Bank at 52 Wall Street* on Monday, March 21, 1831, they were in for a rude shock. Sometime over the weekend—probably the evening of March 19 or the early morning hours of March 20—the bank had been robbed of $245,000 in bank notes and Spanish doubloons. This was New York’s first-ever bank heist.

Though suspicion immediately fell on workers at the bank, the police had little time to investigate the employees before they received a tip from Mr. Bangs, the proprietor of a “respectable private boarding house” (according to the New-York Evening Post) who was leery of his newest tenant.

On the Monday following the robbery, a man calling himself Mr. Jones had arrived at Mr. Bangs's boarding house on Elm Street** with three small trunks, asking for a private room in which to write. He paid for the room in advance. After a few days, the landlord became suspicious over Mr. Jones’s apparent anxiety, especially concerning the contents of his trunks. When one of the trunks disappeared, Mr. Bangs contacted the police. The police—seemingly without probable cause or a warrant—picked the locks of the two remaining trunks and found bank notes they could positively identify as being from the City Bank robbery.

When Mr. Jones returned to the boarding house, he was promptly arrested. The robber was soon discovered to be Edward Smith, who lived on Division Street with his wife and two children and ran a shoe store. He was well-known to police, having been arrested for a store robbery in Brooklyn but not convicted due to lack of evidence. Stories soon began to swirl of other robberies Smith was allegedly connected to, including the attempted theft of cash from the steamer Chancellor Livingston and a daring mail coach heist in England.

Of the $245, 000, only about $176,000 was recovered from Smith. The bank soon began advertising for people to keep an eye out for the other bank notes (and the Spanish doubloons). One apparent accomplice was arrested in Philadelphia in April when some of the missing bank notes were identified on his person. But it is unclear if the remainder of the money was ever recovered or if that man was, indeed, part of the robbery.

A jury found Edward Smith guilty in a one-day trial (that one day included jury selection, testimony, and deliberations) and he was sentenced to five years hard labor in Sing-Sing prison.

* City Bank (aka The National City Bank) had been founded on this spot in 1812. At the turn of the 20th-century it would move across the street into the old Merchant's Exchange building at 55 Wall Street, now Cipriani. City Bank is today Citibank.

** Elm Street is now Lafayette Street.

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Read more about Wall Street banks--including the deadly Morgan Bank bombing--in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City

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