Philadelphia in the 18th Century experienced many of America's firsts as a new nation: the first American clipper ship going to China, the first dining room built in the Western Hemisphere and the first bank robbery in the US which 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 is the story of Patrick Lyon, who was falsely accused, wrongly-imprisoned and eventually vindicated.
Lyon grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, and started his mechanical studies at the age of 11. As a master smith at the age of 25, he emigrated to the city of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, which was the second-largest city in America, in 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 Carpenters' 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 Carpenters' Hall, an important guild which made standards (flags) for the public buildings in the city. He decided that the iron vault doors would need new locks, and took them to Lyon's smithy.
Lyon had been planning on leaving Philadelphia with his 19-year-old apprentice due to the yellow fever epidemic which was killing hundreds of people late in summer, 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 Carpenters' Company, that these were not secure enough for a bank. Lyon did the job and watched Davis try the new keys repeatedly. After Lyon had finished working, he met both men at a restaurant and had an uneasy feeling that they were uncomfortable seeing him.
The job completed, 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 died two days later, despite Lyon's attention and a doctor's attendance.
The Perfect Heist
During the night of Saturday, 31 August, or the early hours of the morning of 1 September, 1798, the Bank of Pennsylvania was robbed of the huge sum of $162,821 from Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia. Since there was no evidence of damage to the Hall doors or 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 on the evening of the robbery1.
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? Lyon became the prime suspect. Many people were looking for him in New Jersey – particularly High Constable John Haines - enticed by the $2,000 reward for Lyon's capture.
After the death of his apprentice in Lewistown, Lyon took various odd jobs, including one off the coast developing a 'diving bell' to be used in salvage operations for a British ship. He met an acquaintance in Lewistown, learned of the robbery, and that he was considered the prime suspect. Lyon walked back to Philadelphia - a distance of 150 miles - to clear his name, reaching 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, had evidence and receipts, Stocker still considered him guilty. Lyon was arrested and given the ridiculously high bail of $150,000.
The blacksmith was placed in Walnut Street Prison, where he languished for three months. He entered the prison with a Bible and a copy of Robert Burns' Poems. Evidently he took up quill and ink to write. His cell was 4 feet by 12 feet and described in his own words as 'cold, damp, and unwholesome'. He spent his time reading and pacing the floor. He lost weight and, indeed, suffered from a bout of fever.
While Lyon was in prison, the sole-surviving culprit Isaac Davis, obviously not the sharpest tool in the box, attempted to 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 stolen money and was removed from the Carpenters' Company list. He also wrote a letter to Lyon declaring him innocent of any knowledge of the crime.
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 set Lyon free: they insisted that the blacksmith was an accessory.
After the Davis confession, Lyon's bail was lowered to $2,000. 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, Lyon lived several years in poverty and disgrace. He therefore resolved to get redress for this affront in a civil court case.
The Civil Case of 1805 - Vindication
With some of the best lawyers in Philadelphia serving both sides, Lyon sued Bank president Samuel Fox, Head cashier Jonathan Smith, Alderman and bank board member John Clement Stocker and Constable John Haines. Lyon won the case and was initially awarded $12,000 for being subjected to malicious prosecution. There was such applause by the spectators in the courtroom 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 future hearings in Pennsylvania were prosecuted.
Lyon became a popular hero of the working man and recent immigrants. The revised damages award of $9,000 was enough to lift him out of 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 full length, the size of life, representing me at the smithy, with my bellows-blower, hammers, and all the etceteras 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 smithy wearing a 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 weather-vane of the Walnut Street Prison. The present 'gentleman' status of Lyon, however, is indicated by the brilliant white shirt and his silver-buckled shoes, which were not usually worn in the smithy.
The portrait was often reproduced in media of the time. Lyon became a symbol of the ingenious craftsman. He went through persecution because he was an recent immigrant. Restored in fortune, he became 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.