Thursday 26 March 2009

One Day In Liberty

Tuesday the 13th February 1866 was a cold overcast day. A blustery wind had picked up that carried a hint of snow. This did not deter the ten men who drifted into the town of Liberty, Missouri in twos and threes and who met up outside the Clay County Savings Association Bank.
Nobody took much notice after all it was not unusual to see groups of men meet up and hang around outside the bank.
Nor did it cause the bank cashier, Greenup Bird or his son, the teller, William much concern when, at 2 pm that day, two men entered the bank. One paused by the stove to warm his hands while the other approached William Bird with the request that he change up a $10 dollar bill.
So began what was to become the biggest bank robbery in the annals of the west.
What made this robbery different from any other was that it was the first bank robbery to be carried out in broad daylight.
Both the vault and the tills were cleaned out though the amount taken varies to different accounts. James Love, the bank president, claimed that only $50,000 in cash, gold and bonds were taken whereas contempory accounts put the figure as high as $75,000. The only consistent figure is that part of the haul amounted to between $40 -$45,000 in bearer bonds.
The robbery would have gone unnoticed had the robbers thought to have locked the vault where they had imprisoned both Greenup Bird and his son. The Birds escaped to raise the alarm and that was when the shooting started - fire was exchanged between robbers and citizens during which 19 year old William Jewell College student, George Wymore, was killed. His killing was laid at the robbers feet.
James Love posted a reward of $5000 for the capture of the robbers and return of the money - it was never claimed.
So who were the robbers?
Whoever robbed the Clay County Savings Association Bank knew the two Birds for when locking them up one of the robbers was heard to say: "All Birds should be caged." And, I rather imagine that Greenup Bird was well aware of who was pointing a gun at him.
Also of note is that at the outbreak of the American Civil War the State of Missouri declared for the Union while a vast majority of the people backed the Confederacy. Most of the inhabitants of Clay County alone were from Tennessee and Virginia and had brought their slaves with them and had hemp and tobacco plantations.
The Clay County Savings Association Bank was a pro-Union bank - therefore, a prime target for returning disgrunted Confederate soldiers some of whom would have not been happy with the state of their farms and greedy banks calling in loans etc.
Months later suggestions of names were put forward suggesting people who had ridden with Frank and Jesse James who lived 10 miles to the north at Kearney, Missouri. Feasible as the robbers rode north out of Liberty followed by a posse who lost the trail when a blizzard struck wiping out the trail.
The reward flyer put out by James Love states that the gang operated out of Sibley in Jackson County - which is to the south of Clay County.
One problem that I see with the James boys being involved is that at the time of the robbery Jesse was at home recovering from a chest wound.
Nor do any accounts of the James-Younger gang reveal that they were responsible for the first daylight bank robbery - then again, they didn't deny it.
Of one thing that is certain is that the robbery was carried out by people who were local to Liberty or residents of Clay County.
After reading many accounts of this robbery there are two things that stand out.
The first is that one of the robbers mentioned the Birds by name and I suspect that the elder Bird knew who at least one of the robbers was. Also, accounts say that when the Birds were placed in the vault the robbers forgot to lock the door. I do not think that the robbers forgot - they never intended to lock the door. This was not an oversight but carried out by someone who knew that it might be some time before they were discovered and released - by which time the Birds could have suffocated and died.
I believe that it was expected that the Birds would be too scared to try the door and thus give the robbers the chance to escape undetected.
The second thing that strikes me is the matter of the bearer bonds. There is no paper trail - though it was just about two and a half years after the robbery that the last bond was cashed.
To my mind this was a robbery that was planned down to the last detail and may have been a one off.
One other thought that occurs is that many of the investors were also Union supporters who were hit by the robbery. The bank trading was suspended and they were paid out at 60 cents to the dollar - damaging enough to put some people out of business.
Of course, all those involved in the events of that one day in Liberty are long dead and the truth may never be known. The identity of those who committed the first and largest daylight bank robbery will remain a mystery.


Nik Morton said...

Interesting piece of history, Ray. I've got a bank robbery in the latest BHW I've begun and wonder how the investors in the bank fared after a robbery. Did insurance cover their losses? From what you say, it sounds like some compensation was payable... But was this the norm? I imagine the banks had to guarantee the money's safety otherwise people would rely on the mattress.
Nik/Ross Morton

Ray said...

That is the one thing that I could not discover whether they were insured or not. Also, it appears that there was a gap between the robbery and the payout. This may have been done by the Wymore family who, one source suggests, took over the bank.
Just one of those stories that will remain a mystery.