Friday, June 02, 2006

Portland's First Bank Robber

Portland's First Bank Robber
Guest post by Dugan Murphy
(with apologies to Mr. Murphy -- I told him I posted this last week, forgetting it had been bumped by Zombie Kickball announcements! whoops!)
On the morning of August 3, 1818, Joseph Swift, a cashier at the Cumberland Bank, discovered that over $200,000.00 had been stolen from the vault. That may not buy you one of Portland's new luxury condos, but I can assure you that it was a tidy sum 188 years ago. Portland at the time was a small yet bustling settlement of three thousand people and the building in which the store Strange Maine currently resides wouldn't be built for another five years. The town was also decades away from organizing its first police force. There was only a loose, municipally-organized team of night watchmen – Spam really. Seth Bird, Inspector of the Watch, led the investigation.

He noted that the vault had little evidence of tampering and, upon questioning, the bank managers mentioned that the lock had recently been taken to Ellis' Blacksmith Shop for repair. It was there that Inspector Bird caught wind of one Daniel D. Manley, a Long Wharf junk shop keeper, who was seen eyeing the lock suspiciously while it was in for repair.

Bird found evidence of key copying at Manley's shop, but took in his accomplice, a man named Rolfe. He led the inspector to where he and Manley buried the money after being offered his freedom in exchange for compliance. It was near the water's edge, close to where the Portland Company complex now (still) stands off eastern Fore Street, that they started digging by candlelight. When they found no dough, Rolfe knew he had been betrayed and reportedly blew his brains out right there on the spot, his body collapsing into the very hole they had just dug.

Seth Bird soon caught up with Daniel Manley himself and confronted him with his partner's confession. The inspector also offered him the bank's finder's reward – one thousand dollars. This obliged Manley to lead the lawmen to Scarborough Marsh where they got to digging again, only to find the loot once again missing! One can only imagine how they each must have felt at this turn of events. The money had actually been found a day earlier by clam diggers, and only a few gold coins short of the reported total.

Daniel D. Manley spent twelve years in prison, afterward returning to business in Portland, supposedly with the reward money that he shared with the clammers. He was buried in Eastern Cemetery with the epitaph, “Portland's First Bank Robber.” Unfortunately, the stone is worn to the point of illegibility, but it nevertheless stands to this very day.

If you find any of this inaccurate, don't blame me, blame Herbert G. Jones, author of Old Portland Town, written in 1938 for Machingonne Press.

1 comment:

Chris said...

According to an article in the Eastern Argus of Aug. 4, 1818, the robbers would have had trouble spending their loot:

"A large proportion of the money taken by the thieves consists of Cumberland Bills, of the denomination of 50 and 20 dollars. No bills of this denomination are in circulation. The public are cautioned against receiving bills of this Bank, above five dollars, as their payment will be refused by the Directors."

Here's a copy of the reward notice, published the same day.