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Thursday, March 21, 2019

March 21, 1831: NYC's First Bank Robbery

In honor of the 188th anniversary of this notable event, enjoy this entry from the Inside the Apple archives.

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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.

* Elm Street is now Lafayette Street.


Read more about the history of Wall Street in

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Alexander Graham Bell and the St. Denis Hotel

On March 7, 1876, the US Patent Office granted Alexander Graham Bell the patent for his brand-new telephone or "harmonic telegraph." Bell was in a race to secure a patent with Elisha Gray, who'd essentially invented the same device; there's been controversy ever since as to which person should get credit. At least one reason Bell received the patent is that his lawyer showed up at the patent office first.

Some in Bell's corner argue that the patent itself is less important than the fact that he was the first to get a telephone to actually work, on March 10, 1876, when Bell was able to summon his assistant by saying "Watson, come here" into a working phone.

It was also Bell who successfully demonstrated the telephone was more than just a novelty. Of particular importance was his demonstration at the St. Denis Hotel in Greenwich Village in early May 1877 was instrumental in getting the technology adopted.

The St. Denis was opened in 1853, just across from Grace Church. Both buildings had been designed by James Renwick, who would later go on to build St. Patrick's Cathedral. (James wrote a story about Renwick's buildings in the Village for The New York Post, which you can read at

Billed as the "most centrally located hotel in the city," the St. Denis was within walking distance of most of New York's prime theaters, restaurants, and department stores, many of which lined Broadway south of Union Square. The hotel quickly developed a celebrity clientele, including first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who stayed there during one of her frequent trips to the city. Ulysses S. Grant worked on his memoirs at the hotel and, when he was stuck with writer's block, his publisher, Mark Twain, moved in for three months to get him over the hump.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
Though [Alexander Graham Bell] had already patented the device and made public demonstrations of its efficacy—[including a call from Boston to] Providence, Rhode Island, 43 miles away—he hadn’t yet found a market for it. At the St. Denis a crowd of about 50 filled the drawing room on the second floor where Bell made telephone calls to the A and P Telegraph office in Brooklyn, using wire strung across the not-yet-completed Brooklyn Bridge. In the audience were potential financial backers, such as Cyrus Field, the president of the company that 11 years earlier had successfully laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable. 
At least one observer at the St. Denis, telegraph pioneer Walter P. Phillips, derided the invention as “a toy, if not an absolute humbug.” But it is clear that others were impressed. Later that year, the first telephone was installed—connecting J.H. Haigh’s home on John Street to his factory in Brooklyn. By 1878, the first telephone directory was published: it contained 252 listings: 235 businesses and 17 people who had telephones installed at home.
Alas, the St. Denis hotel -- converted into an office building in the early part of the 20th century -- is now slated for demolition, so that it can be replaced with a 12-story glass tower.

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Read more about Bell and the St. Denis in

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