by Cole Schenewerk – The California Numismatist

The yellow fever outbreak of summer 1798 was the worst in Philadelphia’s history. Over 5,000 residents were infected, and nearly 1,300 died, causing even President Washington to flee. While yellow fever swept the city, hot heads prevailed when a huge sum of money went missing from the vaults of a bank. This was America’s first bank robbery.

Carpenter’s Hall was built in 1770 and had been a meeting place for the First Continental Congress, home of the Philadelphia Library, and until the year preceding the robbery had housed the Bank of the United States. The new tenant of the building was to be the Bank of Pennsylvania, who had hired Samuel Robinson to oversee the move. One of the first things that needed to be done before moving into the building was the changing of the locks on the vaults. During the summer of 1798, Robinson hired a local blacksmith, Pat Lyon, to do the job. Lyon was on the verge of leaving the city because of the yellow fever outbreak, but took on the rush job before he left town. While Lyon was working on the vault, Robinson brought a stranger to watch him work.

After completing the job, Lyon and his apprentice left town, taking a ship to Delaware. Two days after their arrival, the apprentice died of yellow fever. Reading the newspaper while he was away, Lyon was interested in accounts of a robbery at Carpenter’s Hall on the night of September 1, where he had changed the locks on the vaults just before leaving. The massive amount of $162,821 ($2.9 million today) had been stolen, and blacksmith Pat Lyon was a prime suspect.

There were no signs of forced entry, so it must have been an inside job. The authorities suspected that Lyon had simply made himself an extra key and entered the vaults the night before he left town. Lyon felt the need to return to Philadelphia and tell his side of the story. Lyon explained that he suspected Samuel Robinson and the stranger as the real thieves. The authorities were not convinced. Pat Lyon was arrested and thrown in Walnut Street Prison.

Elsewhere in Philadelphia, Isaac Davis (the stranger Robinson had brought to the vault) began to deposit large amounts of money in various banks around the city. The authorities were suspicious, and added up the total of his deposits. They found that he had deposited $162,821, the exact amount stolen, and that the deposits had started a few days after September 1, the night of the robbery. After questioning, Isaac Davis was imprisoned and charged with theft. The inside man, Thomas Cunningham, had died of yellow fever soon after the robbery. Samuel Robinson was never charged, but may have had knowledge of Davis’s plans. Even though the police had apprehended another suspect, Lyon was kept in Walnut Street Prison for almost three weeks before being released.

“Pat Lyon at the Forge,” painted by John Neagle in 1829. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Gift of the Lyon Family.

After leaving prison, Lyon wrote a book with the incredible title of “The Narrative of Patrick Lyon: who Suffered Three Months Severe Imprisonment on Merely a Vague Suspicion of Being Concerned in the Robbery of the Bank of Pennsylvania, with his Remarks Thereon”.

In 1805, Lyon sued the state for malicious prosecution. The greatest lawyers in Philadelphia argued their cases. At the end, the judge awarded Pat Lyon the massive sum of $12,000, later reduced to $9,000. This was enough to lift Pat Lyon from the artisan class and into the class of landowners.

Lyon’s portrait was painted by John Neagle, whose painting is titled Pat Lyon at the Forge. It is an excellent likeness of Lyon, and the spire of Walnut Street Prison where Lyon was held is shown in the background.

A modern numismatist would be willing to rob the bank himself to get some of the specimens that would have been inside. There were probably several chain cents, possibly an early half dollar, and certainly a large stash of Spanish dollars (the legendary piece of eight), which were legal tender in the U.S. until 1857.

Editor’s note: technically, this would have been the first bank burglary in America, the distinction being that a robbery is a theft committed under threat of force or fear, whereas a burglary is a theft committed via an unlawful entry or break-in. I’m just sayin…