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Philadelphia in the 18th Century experienced many of America's firsts as a new nation: the first American clipper ship goes to China, the first dining room built in the Western Hemisphere and the first bank robbery in America. It grabbed everyone's attention. The chief suspect was one of those ingenious Celts from the old country who could open up the cleverest locks devised within a minute. This then is the story of Patrick Lyon, who was falsely accused, and eventually vindicated.
Patrick Lyon grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland and started his mechanical studies at age 11. As a master smith at age 25, he emigrated to the city of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, which was the second largest city in America, in the year 1793. Despite some initial disappointments, he became a renowned artisan who owned extensive tools and had $1,400 in the Bank of North America.
The Bank of Pennsylvania made plans in the summer of 1798 to move to Carpenter’s Hall until it could build a new edifice, after a failed robbery at its old locale. Samuel Robinson was in charge of the move. He was a member of the Carpenter’s Hall, an important guild which made standards for the public buildings in the city. He decided that the iron vault doors would need new locks, and took them to Pat Lyon’s smithery.
Patrick Lyon had been planning on leaving Philadelphia with his 19-year-old apprentice because of the yellow fever epidemic which was killing hundreds of people in the late summer of 1798. He had already lost his wife and child to this plague. He was not enthusiastic about getting a 'rush' commission to refit the vault doors with fittings and locks. He argued with Mr.Robinson and the man who accompanied him, one Isaac Davis, a member of the Carpenter’s Company, that these were not secure enough for a bank. Patrick Lyon did the work and watched Davis try the new keys repeatedly. After Patrick Lyon had finished, he met both men at a restaurant and had an uneasy feeling that they were uncomfortable seeing him.
The job being done, Pat Lyon and his apprentice shipped out in a packet boat to Lewistown, Delaware (present day Lewes). Unfortunately, the youth had already contracted the fever and he died two days later despite Lyon’s attention and a doctor’s attendance.
The Perfect Heist
In the night of Saturday, 31 August or the early morning of 1 September, 1798 the Bank of Pennsylvania was robbed of the huge sum of $162,821 from Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia. Since there was no evidence of damage to the Hall doors or the locks, it was considered to be an inside job. Indeed the robbers were Isaac Davis and the bank porter Thomas Cunningham, who slept inside the building the evening of the robbery. Cunningham died of yellow fever two weeks later.
The bank directors, naturally looking for the culprits decided it was that uppity Scots blacksmith who had taken so long to refit the doors. Surely he had made an extra key and took the money – but where was he? Patrick Lyon became the prime suspect. Many people were looking for him in New Jersey – particularly High Constable John Haines, seeking the $2000 reward for his capture.
After the death of his apprentice in Lewistown, Patrick Lyon took various odd jobs, including one off the coast developing a 'diving bell' to be used for salvage operations for a British ship. He met an acquaintance in Lewistown and learned of the robbery and that he was considered the prime suspect. He walked back to Philadelphia - a distance of 150 miles - to clear his name, getting back to the city on 21 September 1798.
I found I was in the hands of those who are not the most intelligent of mankind. - Patrick Lyon
On that day tired and exhausted, he gave his alibi at the county estate of city magistrate and bank director John C. Stocker. Even though he gave a full account of his absence and had evidence and receipts, Stocker still considered him guilty. Lyon was arrested and given the ridiculously high bail of $150,000.
He was placed in Walnut Street Prison, where he languished for three months. He went into the prison with a copy of the Bible and a copy of Robert Burn’s Poems. Evidently he took quills and ink to write. His cell was 4ft by 12ft was in his words ’cold, damp, and unwholesome.’ He read and paced. He lost weight and, indeed, suffered from a bout of fever.
While he was in prison, the sole surviving culprit, Isaac Davis, was dumb enough to try deposit the loot in the very bank he had robbed. When closely questioned, he confessed to the crime some two months after Lyon’s arrest. Perhaps because he was the son of a judge, he was only required to repay the money and was removed from the Carpenter’s Company list. He also wrote a letter to Lyon declaring him innocent.
Perhaps because the directors of the bank did not want to face their irresponsibility in not examining the background of the bank porter and the character of Isaac Davis, they were unwilling to let Lyon out. They insisted that the blacksmith was an accessory.
After the Davis confession, Lyon’s bail was lowered to $2000. He was cleared by a grand jury in January 1799. From his prison notes, he published a pamphlet that would become the 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. which was published in 1799. After his release and despite his pamphlet, Patrick Lyon lived several years in poverty and disgrace. He therefore resolved to get redress for this in a civil court case.
The Civil Case of 1805 - Vindication
With some of the best lawyers in Philadelphia on both sides Patrick Lyon sued bank president Samuel Fox, head cashier Jonathan Smith, alderman and bank board member John Clement Stocker, and Constable John Haines. He won the case and was initially awarded $12,000 for being subjected to malicious prosecution. In the courtroom, there was such applause by the spectators when the verdict was announced, that the judge threatened to clear the court as it was not a theatre. It was a critical legal case for civil rights, and set precedents in the way cases in Pennsylvania were prosecuted.
Patrick Lyon became a popular hero of the working man and recent immigrants, although the revised damages award of $9000 was enough money to lift him out of even the artisan class. He became a businessman, a landlord, and manufacturer of fire engines. Following the pattern of economic growth in the Early American Republic he became part of the elite, rather than the honest, simple working man he believed himself to be. This was reflected in the famous portrait Pat Lyon at the Forge by John Neagle in 1826.
Pat Lyon at the Forge
I wish you, sir, to paint me at fall length, the size of life, representing me at the smithery,with with my bellows-blower, hammers, and all the et-ceteras of the shop around me. I have no desire to be represented in the picture as a gentleman - to which character I have no pretension. I want you to paint me at work at my anvil, with my sleeves rolled up and a leather apron on. - Patrick Lyon
John Neagle dutifully painted Lyon in his smithery with his frayed apron. The portrait measures 93 by 68 inches. There is a young apprentice labouring at the bellows in the background . In the upper left hand corner is the cupola and weathervane of the Walnut Street Prison. The present ‘gentleman’ status of Lyon however is indicated by the brilliant white shirt and the silver buckled shoes which were not usually worn in the smithery.
The portrait was often reproduced in media of the time. Patrick Lyon became a symbol of the ingenious craftsman. He went though persecution because he was an recent immigrant, was restored in fortune, to become affiliated with the same people who had oppressed him. As the industrial revolution came, it elevated clever mechanically-able people to manufacturers, breaking up forever the old system of apprentice, journeymen, and master. Unfortunately, in the new system most workers became wage slaves – unable to take pride in the work of their hands and instead merely associated with the machinery that produced the goods.