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History

November 4, 2012

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: The 1882 theft at Patrick Shannon’s Bank

TERRE HAUTE — Thomas C. Anderson, cashier at Shannon’s Bank, 324 Ohio St. in Terre Haute, was trustworthy and gregarious.

On Wednesday, Feb. 15, 1882, Anderson was the sole employee on duty between 12:30 and 1 p.m., while proprietor Patrick Shannon was taking a lunch break.

A genteel-looking stranger, heavyset with side whiskers, wearing well-pressed dark clothes and a black, stiff hat, approached Anderson’s desk and asked him about a real estate advertisement in Tuesday’s Terre Haute Express.

The inquiry involved lots at First and Linton streets and Second and Eagle streets owned by Rufus St. John, recently deceased. Those interested were directed to contact George Planet, a paper-hanger, at John Armstrong’s locksmith shop, 10 N. Third St.

The newcomer asked about the location and ownership of the real estate and the reputations of Mr. Planet and Mr. St. John. In the course of the conversation, Anderson  stood next to the customer for a while with his back to the front door.

The two men were still talking when Shannon returned, entering the bank by unbolting the back door. As Anderson turned to greet Shannon, he saw a man going out the front door. He did not suspect anything, assuming the man had entered the bank and departed upon seeing Anderson engaged with another customer.

When Anderson went behind the counter to get his coat before departing for lunch, he made a discovery which caused him to yell, “The bank has been robbed!”

Three packages of paper money — each containing $500 of national bank notes — were missing.

Shannon, already under the pressure of an investigation regarding a loss of $2,000, excitedly grabbed the man with the newspaper and accused him of complicity. He also triggered the police alarm. The stranger, who gave his name as Benjamin H. Simmons of Chicago, was placed under arrest.

Downtown Terre Haute erupted with excitement as anxious crowds assembled in the area encircled by Third, Fifth, Ohio and Wabash – the loci of several banks and the Vigo County Court House, locally referred to as “Wall Street.”

An Express reporter wrote:

“It isn’t often that Terre Haute is treated to a genuine New York broad daylight robbery and Terre Hauteans consequently did not know what to make of it.”

One reporter matched the anxiety with what happened eight or ten years ago “when the Prairie City Bank was robbed of $1,800 while a parade of Barnum’s Circus was taking place.”

The man who stole the $1,500 was gone and Anderson, the only person who saw him, got only a fleeting glance of a small man with a dark mustache, wearing a stiff hat.

Simmons was taken to the Vigo County jail at the northeast corner of Water and Ohio streets. In his pockets were a gold watch, a receipt from the Terre Haute House for a valise and $971.25 in cash.

Simmons had registered at the hotel on Tuesday evening at the same time “G.H. Ashton” of St. Louis checked in. They were assigned Rooms 48 and 25 respectively. On Wednesday morning, “C.S. Hunt” of St. Louis and “J.W. Harris” of Boston registered. At their request, the registrants were assigned to Room 55.

There seemed to be no additional relationship among the men until shortly after 1 p.m., Wednesday,  when either Hunt or Harris, after paying for Room 55, agreed to pay Ashton’s bill. The man also asked for the valise but, because he did not have a receipt, was denied.

Police Lt. Charles E. Vandever arrested a small, thick-set man with red Burnside whiskers named Charles S. Hunt on N. Seventh St. at about 2:30 p.m. after chasing him from Union Depot. The man, who carried $219 and a gold watch, said he was a professional gambler. Before the day ended, Simmons and Hunt were indicted for theft by a grand jury. Bail for each was set at $5,000.

Vandever learned that a few “unfamiliar men,” including Simmons, were seen walking around Wall Street Wednesday morning. Demas Deming, president of the First National Bank at 401 Wabash, saw Simmons peer into his window around noon.

The chase for men matching the descriptions of Harris and Ashton took Vandever by horse and buggy through Ellsworth (now North Terre Haute), Atherton, Clinton Locks, Clinton and Hillsdale. The men were never apprehended.

Simmons engaged Terre Haute attorney Thomas Harper to represent him. A week later, Harper convinced Special Judge Richard Dunnigan to reduce Simmons’ bond to $1,500 and Hunt’s to $1,000. Though the men declared they did not know each other, a man named John Haley of New York professed to be a friend of both and posted bonds for them.

On Friday, March 5, prosecuting attorney Albert J. Kelley and Lt. Vandever expressed concern about the status of the investigation.

“We have used all means in our power to find out who these men are, and to get the other men, but so far have failed to discover anything of importance about them,” Kelley told the Terre Haute Daily Express on March 5.

“We can’t find the stolen bank notes or anything but slim circumstantial evidence of a conspiracy,” he added. “And we can’t find that any of them have a criminal record.”

Attorney Harper acknowledged that the defendants paid Shannon’s Bank $1,500, the sum stolen. He also disclosed that he and lawyer Sidney B. Davis each received a $1,000 fee to defend them and expected the indictments to be quashed.

According to Harper, Simmons and Hunt were “sporting men” who “stopped over here on their way north after attending a prize fight in New Orleans. They claim not to know each other but the man Haley, who came from New York, knew them both.”

After about two months of daily newspaper coverage, the case soon faded from the front page. It may still be pending.

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