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  • "How Deeply They Weed into the Pockets"Slave Traders, Bank Speculators, and the Anatomy of a Chesapeake Wildcat, 1840–1843

After President Andrew Jackson destroyed the Second Bank of the United States, oversight of the banking industry in the latter 1830s fell to state governments that were overburdened and unable to fulfill all of their regulatory responsibilities. The resulting financial climate enabled the growth of wildcat banks founded for the benefit of economically savvy but ethically bankrupt individuals who grasped the workings of the emerging capitalist economy. The Commercial Bank of Millington, Maryland, and its spawn institution in Hagerstown together offer a well documented case study showing how wildcat banks could sprout, function, and proliferate in the context of the antebellum South. Recent scholarship has demonstrated slave traders' centrality to slave-based capitalism's expansion southwestward and banks' generous extension of credit to facilitate traders' business. Yet the relationship between antebellum banks and slave dealers could go deeper still. Banking entrepreneurs appealed directly to slave traders to capitalize newly chartered financial institutions. Slave dealers, wealthy and calculating businessmen constantly in search of promising investment opportunities, not only sometimes agreed to underwrite the very enterprises that later extended them the ready cash they required to purchase slaves; they also then carried those bank notes tens or even hundreds of miles away from the issuing institution, permitting wildcat concerns to continue the reckless printing of paper money absent anxieties over the prompt redemption for specie. Based on legislative reports, court cases, and newspapers, this study chronicles the relationship—often reciprocal but at times contentious—between obscure Washington, DC, slave traders William H. Williams and Thomas N. Davis, on one hand, and, on the other, two suspect Maryland banking concerns run by a pair of unscrupulous brothers named F.A. and William Weed and their associate Joseph T. Guthrie. Through the collaboration of professional slave traders and bankers, bank notes and commodified bodies circulated throughout the antebellum South.

Bank notes, Thomas N. Davis, Gallipolis Bank, Banking, Joseph T. Guthrie, Hagerstown, Counterfeiting, Merril B. Sherwood, Millington, Domestic slave trade, F. A. Weed, Fraud, William Weed, Habeas corpus, William H. Williams, Money, Slave trade, Specie, Speculation, Wildcat banks

On October 12, 1840, the Commercial Bank of Millington, located on Maryland's Eastern Shore, closed its doors for the last time. Bigger-city papers condescendingly described Millington as "no great shakes of a place," a trifling, "obscure village … with a store and blacksmith's shop" and "about fifty houses." A stagecoach passed through three times per week, helping the town forge some commercial ties to Elkton, to the north, and Baltimore, across the Chesapeake Bay. But [End Page 709] despite Millington's generally sleepy countenance, it had nevertheless secured in 1836 a state charter for a bank, joining the financial institutions that proliferated after President Andrew Jackson's attacks killed the centralized Second Bank of the United States. The Millington Bank did not become fully operational until 1838, when broker Moses Holmes "opened an account" on behalf of the Commercial Bank of Millington at the Chesapeake Bank of Baltimore, where its notes could be redeemed. That account closed later the same year, however, and the Millington Bank continued to languish, barely surviving the depression of 1839. Throughout this time, it eked out but "a nominal existence" with little influence outside the vicinity of Kent County. Its cashier presided over a "large ledger," according to one report, "but there were few or no entries made in it."1

The small, initially insignificant bank's fortunes rose fantastically and deteriorated just as dramatically after the arrival of the enigmatic "stranger" William Weed, his brother F. A. Weed, and a third investor, a man identified only as Sherwood from Buffalo, New York—probably the banker Merril B. Sherwood. Together they purchased the establishment's charter from Moses Holmes in November 1839 for $10,000. The partners then installed F. A. Weed as bank president, reopened the Millington account at the Chesapeake Bank, and adopted "the high pressure principle," embarking upon the reckless printing of bank notes with wanton disregard to the concern's specie reserves, an increasingly common practice absent the regulatory constraints of the Second Bank. The speculative bubble of the 1830s that had burst so spectacularly in 1837, ushering in widespread bank failures and the ignominious end of the "flush times," might have cautioned the Weeds against the irresponsible issuance of bank notes. But in a climate of national deregulation, in which bank oversight devolved entirely upon overwhelmed state governments, the prospect of realizing immense profits through overly generous [End Page 710] lending policies proved too tantalizing. Issuing more paper than banks had specie in the vault backing it up had long been normative, but the practice was now carried to unprecedented extremes. As early as May 1840, the Millington lacked the "funds or coin sufficient to redeem its circulation." By the time the Millington Bank finally exploded in October, joining the Patapsco Savings Fund and a slew of "other defunct shinplaster factories" and "swindling shops" of Baltimore, as much as half a million dollars in Millington money had been dumped into circulation across the United States. Yet when the hapless "people of the neighborhood took possession of the banking house" in Millington to seize "whatever valuable funds they could lay their hands on," they found but $565 lying in the vault. William and F. A. Weed fled Maryland to avoid the public's wrath.2

The Weed brothers' speculative ventures in the banking industry rendered them briefly notorious. Like so many others of their shady ilk, the Weeds functioned as agents of capitalist excess in the age of Jackson. [End Page 711] They "belong to the wild-cat species of financiers," condemned one newspaper in 1841. As historian Stephen Mihm has explained, the term "wildcat bank" originally referred only to "institutions founded by unscrupulous financiers in remote areas for the express purpose of making it difficult, if not impossible, for the notes to be exchanged for gold and silver." By 1840, the American public had generalized the phrase to apply to any banking concern whose paper issues vastly exceeded its specie in the vault and, hence, its ability to redeem its notes. By either definition, the Weeds' Millington enterprise qualified as one of the dozens of wildcat banks that sprouted between 1836 and the 1863 passage of the National Bank Act crafted to impose financial order on the reigning chaos. Only a blurry line separated legitimate from illegitimate financial institutions in the age of Jackson, however, so perhaps the Commercial Bank of Millington's progenitors had originally conceived it in good faith and with the best of intentions. At the same time, the uncertainties of the emerging nineteenth-century American capitalist system supplied ample opportunities for all manner of fraud. As one scholar has pointed out, "the darker forces of greed and deception … prosper in new frontiers of commerce." Cons and swindles thrive in such environments. Rather than dismiss the Millington bank as a rogue institution, then, we may use it to illustrate the innovative if ethically questionable ways in which antebellum-era wildcat banks sprang up, operated, and spread to new, unsuspecting communities.3

By employing the history of the Commercial Bank of Millington as a case study, this essay takes a microhistorical approach to the macroeconomic transformations afoot in the age of Jackson. Like many other banks that popped up in the 1830s and early 1840s, the Millington was located in a tiny, rural community filled with farmers and other working people. For the first time, common folk gained convenient access, right in their hometown, to the services of a financial institution emblematic [End Page 712]

Figure 1. A five-dollar note issued by the Commercial Bank of Millington.
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Figure 1.

A five-dollar note issued by the Commercial Bank of Millington.

of the evolving capitalist system. Most residents assumed that its presence would be beneficial to the area. As the Millington's wildcat status soon became evident, however, locals who lost their deposits quickly soured on the penetration of a capitalist banking institution into the Eastern Shore. The village of Millington, then, stood as a microcosm for the overwhelmingly pastoral America of the time, its citizens representative of the disillusioned masses often confounded by the mysteries of the emerging economy.

If the town's setting and residents were broadly typical of the country as a whole, the Millington debacle was uniquely devastating and widespread in its impact. The Commercial Bank of Millington served as an incubator for failure and scandal with nationwide implications. A mother wildcat, the Millington birthed at least two known cubs. Its notes underwrote the creation of a pair of other doomed institutions—the Farmers and Millers Bank of Hagerstown, Maryland, and, more infamously, the Gallipolis Bank of Ohio—and exerted disastrous ripple effects across the economies of several states. The sheer quantity of worthless paper the Millington Bank spewed forth set it apart. Its notes became the fodder for counterfeiting operations for the next two decades (see Figure 1). Already in 1840, the New York Times dubbed the Millington fraud "the greatest shave extant," its spectacular demise thoroughly documented in newspapers and court cases. The scale of the Millington Bank's explosion and the scope of its consequences also prompted an investigation into its causes by the Maryland state legislature, the product of which was an exceptionally rich documentary record of the actions of a handful of greedy and opportunistic charlatans whose craftily engineered scams [End Page 713] wreaked havoc on the American economy. Investigators extracted testimony that pries into the obscure, inner workings of the real but elusive scoundrels so influential to the evolution of American capitalism but oftentimes lost or overlooked in discussions of impersonal market forces and sweeping macroeconomic shifts.4

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In churning out currency with reckless abandon, the Millington wildcat joined thousands of other, relatively more cautious and legitimate institutions in extending credit in the form of bank notes for the acquisition of land and slaves, the twin engines that drove the cotton economy and the development, as recent scholarship has shown, of American capitalism itself. Historians have demonstrated how antebellum banking institutions proved crucial cogs in the machinery of the domestic slave trade that redistributed surplus slaves from the Upper South southwestward to the advancing cotton frontier as well as to the cane fields of Louisiana. Banks fueled slave traders' entire operations by lending them the ready cash necessary to buy Chesapeake masters' excess slaves. As made clear by the peculiar history of the Commercial Bank of Millington, the relationship between banks and domestic slave traders could go deeper still.5

The propagation of all state-chartered banks in the 1830s demanded [End Page 714] start-up capital. Stephen Mihm recently inquired, "Who provided the capital for banks to get off the ground?" The testimony gathered in the fallout of the Millington wildcat permits us to "follow the money" and offer one direct, albeit incomplete, answer to Mihm's query. Located in the southern, slaveholding state of Maryland, the Commercial Bank of Millington found one source of funds in slave traders themselves. Despite being denounced in public discourse as ruthless, loathsome, marginal figures, slave dealers were, on the whole, prominent, respectable individuals and at times among the wealthiest of all Americans. Calculating profit-seekers, they entertained a wide variety of investment opportunities. With the monetary resources at their disposal, traders might underwrite the very banking ventures that later granted them credit and kept them awash in paper money.6

Banking entrepreneurs understood their importance to slave traders' livelihood and sometimes appealed directly to the purveyors of human chattel to capitalize their institutions. Unscrupulous bankers involved in risky wildcat concerns probably would not have divulged fraudulent intentions when soliciting funds from prospective slave-trading financiers, for the slave dealers would not have wished to alienate themselves with the local slave-selling public. At the same time, traders exhibited no qualms against profiting by economic endeavors other Americans condemned as morally objectionable and—unflattering popular rhetoric about their profession notwithstanding—suffered little by doing so. Wildcat bankers, in turn, appreciated traders' ability to circulate their dubious notes widely. Whether slave traders carried bank paper dozens of miles away from the issuing institution to purchase bondpeople or stuffed wads of bills in their pockets as they undertook slaving journeys across the country to New Orleans, they delayed that paper's redemption for specie by days, weeks, or even months. Relieved of the anxiety of their notes' prompt return, wildcat banks such as the Millington blissfully could continue the irresponsible printing of paper money. At the Commercial Bank of Millington, those who speculated in banks and those [End Page 715] who speculated in enslaved black bodies thus developed a close relationship, one at times symbiotic but at other times riven by tension.7

Slave traders' occupation inherently demanded expertise in local money markets. Their advertisements consistently promised "cash" for one hundred, three hundred, four hundred, or more "negroes," and they paid in bank notes of various sorts, sometimes bowing to the preferences of the seller for paper from a particular state or even a specific bank. Traders needed access to banks' paper, along with an acute understanding of the relative values of the multifarious bills through which they might complete their transactions. These were paramount to running a successful operation. Headquartered in Washington, DC, slave dealers and occasional business associates William H. Williams and Thomas N. Davis were as familiar with the currencies in circulation as anyone. When Williams first began advertising as an independent slave trader in 1835, he invited sellers to call at his residence or to visit him at Alexander Lee's Lottery and Exchange Office on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, where he was a partner.8

Although Williams eventually relocated to the Yellow House, his notorious slave pen within sight of the U.S. Capitol, it made ample sense for him to base his operations initially at a lottery and exchange office. One scholar suggested long ago that it was because frustrated lottery players could conveniently sell a slave to acquire the funds for more tickets, but this flippant remark overlooks the broader relationship between slave trading and finance in the Old South. Like slave traders, owners of lottery and exchange businesses understood money and grasped the emerging economic realities amid the dramatic transformations of the market revolution. Even as lotteries were growing more disreputable, proprietor Alexander Lee sold chances and drew "Lucky Numbers" at his establishment in the 1830s and 1840s. The geographic reach of his business was sprawling. Customers came from across the country as they visited the [End Page 716] nation's capital, and Lee accepted orders by mail as well. His office thus attracted a wide assortment of bank notes. With such intimate acquaintance with the dizzying array of notes in circulation, Lee routinely exchanged currencies at his office, discounting more heavily those notes from suspect or faraway banks. The confused state of American currency permitted a lively business, and at some point before 1840 Lee had partnered with William H. Williams in the exchange office. Each man pursued the maxim "buy low, sell high" as they profited through speculation, whether by playing the money markets or by human trafficking.9

With a solid understanding of bank notes and the wider financial system in which they circulated, Williams and fellow Washington, DC, slave trader Thomas N. Davis were both deeply involved in the Millington concern. Each had "exchanged with [William] Weed some thousands of dollars" in support of the Commercial Bank of Millington during its meteoric rise. They were invested in the institution, and the institution invested in them, channeling them the cash they needed. The system could theoretically function in ways mutually beneficial to bankers and slave traders alike, but the death of the Second Bank of the United States and the shockingly careless proliferation of little-monitored state-chartered institutions permitted the formation of banking concerns erected on fragile foundations, their metaphorical edifices susceptible to even the slightest financial breeze.10

The founders of the Millington Bank sowed the seeds of the establishment's own destruction. Buffalo, New York, financier and founder of the Erie County Bank Merril B. Sherwood and two unnamed "others"—perhaps the Weed brothers?—launched the Gallipolis Bank in 1839 with $200,000 in capital, including $80,000 in Millington money "as a special deposit, … not to be put in circulation" but "for the sole purpose of giving credit" to the institution so that it might commence operations. The Millington bills were supposed to sit in the vault and merely help accountants balance the Gallipolis Bank's books. The bank fraudulently put them into circulation, however, and in late August 1840 some [End Page 717] $12,000 unexpectedly returned to the Millington Bank for redemption. The Millington paid on the notes, but at great cost. It "exhaust[ed]" its "coin & funds," sending the institution into the suicidal tailspin that ended in its October collapse. Steeped in fraud from its reinvention and in the throes of insolvency, the Millington Bank, in desperation, aggressively printed notes for traders such as Williams and Davis to "broadcast over the land," floating them "as far away from home as possible, so as to prolong the time before they would return for redemption." The longer the notes stayed out, the more paper the bank could print and thereby extend its life.11

Some contemporaries expressed serious reservations about the soundness of Millington notes well before the institution collapsed. Alexander Lee, William H. Williams's partner in the exchange office, observed that he knew "nothing of the character of the money except that it was bad." John Corse, who ran an exchange office in Alexandria, declared that "he would have nothing to do with Millington notes, and refused to Exchange" them. Washington, DC, slave trader James H. Birch, infamous today for abducting the free black Solomon Northup, temporarily imprisoning him in Williams's slave pen, and selling him as a slave in Louisiana, insisted that he "did not consider the Millington money good & never did." Thanks to the institution's suspect reputation, "the only persons" Birch knew of who "circulat[ed] it in large amounts" were Williams and the "negro trader" Thomas N. Davis.12

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The financial ties between the pair of slave dealers and the Commercial Bank of Millington compelled the traders, as investors, to try and prop up the dying institution once they realized it was in trouble. The best means of doing so was to get its notes into circulation, as far away as possible from sites of redemption in Millington or Baltimore. In late September and early October 1840, only weeks and days before the [End Page 718] Millington Bank went under, William H. Williams and his two leading purchasing agents—his younger brother Thomas Williams and Ebenezer Rodbird, the jailer at his slave pen—conducted a brisk business, buying up slaves in northern Virginia and southern Maryland with Millington notes. After the Millington Bank's death, at least three sellers sued Williams, demanding recompense for the now-worthless money he or his agents had given them. Williams lost at least two, and probably all three, of these cases, the last in 1850, a full decade after the Millington failed.13

To rescue the institution, William H. Williams conspired with William Weed to hatch a concerted plot to disseminate notes from the Commercial Bank of Millington. At an unspecified date in the fall of 1840, prior to the Millington's failure, Williams rendezvoused with Thomas N. Davis at the railroad depot in Washington, DC, and persuaded him to meet with "two gentlemen … who would propose a … scheme" through which Davis "might make a large sum of money." Intrigued, Davis consented to a meeting between the four. Williams and the mysterious "two gentlemen"—Millington Bank investor William Weed and co-conspirator Joseph T. Guthrie—pressed Davis to accept $100,000 in Millington notes so that he might dump them, at a discount, into circulation in Washington, DC, in exchange for other, more valid funds. Even though the other bills would command a premium over Millington paper, Davis would be disposing of increasingly suspect Millington notes in favor of more sound currency that he could then forward to the Eastern Shore to keep the Millington afloat. Reports of this last-ditch effort to save the Millington confirmed that Williams most assuredly knew that the bills he and his agents Thomas Williams and Ebenezer Rodbird were using to purchase slaves in the fall of 1840 had been issued by a bank teetering on the brink.14

Ultimately, Davis "declined the … proposition" because his own suspicions of Millington paper made it too risky. Slave traders engaged in a sordid commerce, but they were also savvy, calculating businessmen. [End Page 719] Although often portrayed as dealing in slaves only temporarily, until they could amass the wealth to purchase a plantation or invest in other ventures, professional slave traders bought and sold enslaved people as they engaged concurrently in a range of other economic pursuits. Some owned a stake in general stores or were merchants in various commercial enterprises. Throughout a good portion of his decades-long career as an active trader, William H. Williams partnered with George M. Grant to sell boots and shoes at 18 Camp Street in New Orleans. Slave dealers willingly backed any number of concerns, but it made sense for Williams and Davis to gravitate toward banking institutions that not only promised to generate revenue but also financed the slave trade itself. Nevertheless, traders' drive for profit and shrewd cost-benefit analyses superseded any loyalty to financiers whose schemes might jeopardize their bottom line. Davis's unwillingness to participate in the latest machinations of William Weed and Joseph T. Guthrie gave Williams pause as well. Suddenly anxious over the proposal, he lost his enthusiasm for the arrangement and likewise withdrew.15

Undeterred, William Weed and Joseph T. Guthrie forged ahead with their plan to salvage the Commercial Bank of Millington. Paradoxically, the plot they concocted hinged on launching a new bank, the Farmers and Millers Bank of Hagerstown, Maryland. Located about seventy-five miles northwest of Baltimore, Hagerstown in 1840 was a rural outpost of only a few thousand souls. Maryland's country folk had been clamoring for easier access to credit for years, so despite—and in fact, because of—Hagerstown's small size and relatively remote location, the Maryland legislature had incorporated the Farmers and Millers Bank in 1836 to [End Page 720] appease lawmakers' rural constituents. The charter mandated the possession of $75,000 in specie, through any combination of gold and silver coin, before the bank could lawfully issue notes or commence operations. William Weed and Joseph T. Guthrie made it their mission to secure the necessary funds, for those monies were crucial to their plans. The pair calculated that they could raise sufficient resources to launch the Hagerstown bank and then, given Weed's connections to both institutions, divert a portion of the funds intended to capitalize the new institution for the purpose of propping up the struggling Commercial Bank of Millington.16

Slave traders William H. Williams and Thomas N. Davis had rebuffed Weed's and Guthrie's recent pleas to underwrite the Farmers and Millers Bank of Hagerstown and thereby indirectly funnel money into the Millington, but the determined entrepreneurs persevered. Both had a stake in the plan's success. Whereas Weed wanted the Millington Bank to survive, Guthrie was a significant shareholder in the Hagerstown concern. To fund the enterprise, Weed redirected funds that Williams and Davis had previously supplied the Millington to the embryonic Hagerstown venture, without either slave dealer's permission. But Weed's great coup came in securing for the Farmers and Millers Bank two specie certificates totaling $60,000, including one drawn on the Commercial Bank of Millington, to count toward the $75,000 specie requirement. "The Millington Bank at that time was in as good credit as any of the county banks in the State," boasted the Baltimore Sun, "their paper being at a discount of only ½ per cent in Philadelphia." In reality, as Weed surely knew, these were phantom funds. Specie certificates stated a bank's willingness to supply the quantity of gold or silver indicated on the paper; they did not guarantee the bank was in actual possession of that specie. And the Millington bank was not. Nevertheless, banks routinely counted money that was only pledged on paper and not physically present in the vault. In August 1840, the Treasurer of the Western Shore of Maryland dispatched a committee of three commissioners to certify the Farmers and Millers Bank's specie reserves. After consulting the [End Page 721] advice of legal counsel, the investigators, satisfied that the specie requirement had been met, handed over the requisite certificate for the bank to go into operation. Counting monetary promises that existed only on paper, the Farmers and Millers Bank opened its doors on September 10, 1840. When the Millington failed a little more than a month later, its specie certificate had already served its function, as qualified assets for the Hagerstown wildcat, and been cast, according to one chronicler, into the metaphorical waste basket. With the Millington's demise, William Weed promptly carried the institution's furniture, locks, and other portable assets to Hagerstown for use in the new facility. Although the bank president in Hagerstown denied "any official connection whatever" between the two establishments, truly the Farmers and Millers Bank was the specious "offspring" of the defunct Millington Bank.17

The Millington's spawn institution in Hagerstown fell into crisis soon after its September opening. The Commercial Bank of Millington's failure the next month caused, as the Baltimore Sun reported, "wide spread ruin and distress," and the Farmers and Millers Bank could not escape the deleterious effects of its mother's death. Facing financial ruin, Hagerstown bank co-founder, stockholder, and cashier Joseph T. Guthrie consulted Thomas N. Davis. He informed the slave dealer in the spring of 1841 that the Farmers and Millers Bank had, in its first weeks of operation, been "doing well, but when the Millington Bank … failed, the money came in on them very rapidly." It weathered the immediate storm, and by the time he spoke with Davis in 1841, Guthrie insisted that "the prospect was good." Nevertheless, the shifty Guthrie, now absent his absconded partner William Weed, devised a familiar strategy to relieve the Hagerstown bank from any similar fiscal misery in the future: He aimed to get another bank chartered and operational as quickly as possible. His particular focus was the salt-manufacturing center of Kanawha, Virginia (now West Virginia). The "object" of establishing a bank there, Guthrie admitted, "was to keep the Farmers and Millers [End Page 722] Bank good." He could certainly marshal funds from the Hagerstown bank to get the Kanawha venture "rightly under way," but he also required "some little specie" for launch. Guthrie confided to Davis that, behind the scenes, the proposed Kanawha concern "could be broke," but that was immaterial because "it was away from home," well more than two hundred miles from his base of operations in Hagerstown.18

Thomas N. Davis had made his customary fall slaving voyage to New Orleans, the South's foremost slave market, in late 1840, soon after the Millington Bank went under. While there, he not only occupied himself disposing of his enslaved cargo but also bumped into a pair of old acquaintances, the fugitives William and F. A. Weed, freshly absquatulated from Maryland. Though Davis discovered the Weeds in New Orleans, public conjecture held that the brothers were en route to Lafayette, Louisiana, to hole up, or perhaps to the Republic of Texas, a favorite destination in the late 1830s and early 1840s for those seeking to evade the reach of American law. Captain of the Watch H. S. Harper, keeper of New Orleans' Second Municipality prison on Baronne Street, and another officer took the brothers into custody on Monday night, November 30, or possibly December 1, at a Carrollton hotel. Prompting the arrest was an affidavit that Ambrose A. White, a Baltimore merchant, filed before Joshua Baldwin, recorder for the Second Municipality. White charged that F. A. Weed had "fraudulently obtained the presidency" of the Millington Bank and then "pass[ed] off and exchange[d], to a very large amount," its "worthless" paper "for the bills of other banks that were solvent." F. A.'s brother William, White added, had aided and abetted in the scheme.19

The Weed brothers' capture "created a great sensation" among the "'monied circles'" in New Orleans and across the country. Their pending trial before the recorder's court promised "to ascertain how deeply they Weed into the pockets" of the pair's unsuspecting victims, quipped [End Page 723] one Natchez, Mississippi, newspaper. The Weeds made frequent appearances in court during the month of December. On Wednesday the second, they pleaded not guilty in the recorder's court to the charge of fraud. Over the next several days, court testimony revealed that William Weed was involved with such "swindling" concerns as the Exchange Bank and Savings Institution of Philadelphia, an unnamed wildcat bank in Michigan, the Merchants' and Traders' Bank of Cincinnati, and one other Ohio bank not identified by name, but probably the Gallipolis. The most valuable testimony against the Weeds came from slave trader William H. Williams, then in New Orleans, having delivered his latest human cargo for auction. Of all the witnesses summoned, Williams marked the only one ever to receive Millington money directly from the defendants. The Picayune reported that "it was positively proven that William Weed had sold the notes of the Millington Bank, in the capacity of its agent, and that he had uttered or expressed a wish that the notes of the bank might be circulated largely abroad and at a distance, so as to prevent their quick presentation at the bank for payment." One other purportedly incriminating piece of evidence also emerged in the press as well. When William Weed checked into the Verandah Hotel on Common Street, he signed the register as "Mr. Wood, of New York." His use of an alias struck the editors of the Picayune as "a circumstance calculated to excite suspicion," even though the difference between "Weed" and "Wood" may simply have been sloppy penmanship.20

The case against William and F. A. Weed concluded on Tuesday, December 8. Their counsel argued for their clients' release because prosecutors had failed to show how they had violated the laws of Maryland, the state where the alleged fraud had been committed. They maintained that the Weeds should not have been arrested unless or until the governor of Maryland had ordered it. Prosecuting attorney M. M. Cohen thought the testimony of William H. Williams sufficient to secure William Weed's conviction. He furthermore saw the wisdom in detaining [End Page 724] the Weed brothers "for a reasonable time" until the court could determine the will of the Maryland governor, whom he believed legally entitled to have a say in the dispensation of the case. Joshua Baldwin agreed with the prosecution that the accumulated evidence was strong enough to merit the temporary detention of the Weeds until he could apprise the Maryland executive of their arrest. The recorder ordered the constable to take William and F. A. Weed into custody and deliver them to the Orleans Parish prison, where they would remain pending word from the Maryland governor.21

The Weeds dreaded further imprisonment in the calaboose and had no intention of remaining incarcerated a moment longer than absolutely necessary. Being jailed in an unfamiliar city and state, "in the midst of strangers," was bad enough, but with every passing day, the odds of Maryland's executive intervening in the Weeds' case increased, and the brothers surely understood the ill feeling their financiering had generated across the Chesapeake. Maryland, where hard economic times and the proximity of an adjacent free state combined to encourage masters to sell slaves to roving traders, bore the brunt of the Millington's failure. In Kent County, three Maryland small slaveholders initiated a suit against F. A. Weed's successor as bank president, J. C. H. Ellis, who inherited the Weeds' mess and then exacerbated it. His accusers alleged that Ellis had committed conspiracy and fraud by putting into circulation another $5,000 in Millington money almost a week after the bank had closed its doors. He was initially found guilty but secured a second trial and was acquitted in 1842. The seething anger of thousands of people in possession of worthless currency, but without the time, money, or inclination to pursue court action, went unsated.22 [End Page 725]

To avoid prolonged incarceration, William and F. A. Weed each petitioned Judge A. M. Buchanan of the First Judicial District Court on December 10, 1840, to obtain a writ of habeas corpus so that they might appear promptly before him to plead their case. Recorder Baldwin had "illegally & unjustly imprisoned" them, they explained. First, they pointed out that the state of Maryland had never prosecuted the Weed brothers, and the recorder lacked "authority to commit persons as fugitives from justice from other states, without proper evidence that the persons accused have been proceeded against criminally in the state from which they are alleged to have fled." Second, Baldwin had preemptively imprisoned the Weeds without instruction from Maryland's executive, but the recorder possessed "no authority to act in such cases except upon the requisition of the Governor of the state" in which the alleged crime was committed. Third, the Weeds' confinement was illegal because the offense for which they stood charged—an unspecified "felony"—was "unknown to the criminal laws" of Louisiana, and neither the rationale for it nor the term of imprisonment were clear. Nor were the brothers allowed to post bail. The Weeds asserted that the order for their incarceration had been "obtained by false pretences & by improper evidence," including "public reports or rumours, & hearsay testimony," motivated by the prosecution's desire to "detain [them] under colour of legal proceeding until civil suits can be instituted against [them]." The Weeds prayed that Buchanan issue them a writ of habeas corpus to discharge them from jail and get them an immediate hearing before the judge. Buchanan granted the writ the same day the brothers requested it and ordered Ursin Bouligny, sheriff of the criminal court and keeper of the Orleans Parish prison, to produce them in court.23

Handing down his decision, Judge Buchanan found most influential the Weeds' argument that they were being incarcerated on a charge of "felony." Louisiana law, Buchanan observed, did not recognize the generic term "felony" as a crime. He therefore ordered the Weeds' discharge because they stood accused of a crime that did not exist in his [End Page 726] state. The dispensation of their case would not depend upon the Maryland governor's desired course of action after all. "Our executive," noted the Baltimore Sun wryly, "is therefore saved further trouble."24

The Weed brothers' confinement ended, but the litigation in New Orleans targeting them continued unabated. Starting in early December, immediately after the discovery and arrest of the Weeds, plaintiffs began filing civil suits in Louisiana's First Judicial District Court against the Commercial Bank of Millington. Baltimore merchant Ambrose A. White filed an affidavit on December 2 in which he claimed the institution was "justly & truly indebted" to him in the amount of $1,100 because he was "holder & owner of Sundry Bills" of the very institution driven to bankruptcy by the Weeds' mismanagement. White was not alone in seeking reimbursement from the brothers for the Millington's devalued paper. Peter John Cockburn, James McMaster, William Biggs, James Jameson, and the firm of Horace Bean & Co. all filed separate suits against the Commercial Bank of Millington in amounts ranging from $465 to more than four thousand dollars.25

The plaintiffs all clamored for their share of the contents of two trunks confiscated from the Weed brothers at the time of their arrests. As Ambrose A. White explained, after the Millington collapse, the officers of the bank had "absconded with the greater portion of the assets" of the institution. Now, with the Weeds' apprehension, there were available "funds in Louisiana within the Jurisdiction" of the First Judicial District Court for use in compensating those taken in by the Millington fraud. Rumor held that the Weed brothers had "some twenty thousand dollars in current bank notes" in the chests they carried with them during their [End Page 727] flight from Maryland. Recorder Baldwin confirmed that, at the time of the Weeds' arrests, the police seized two trunks and all of their contents. Although Baldwin had the trunks in his possession, he did not know if they were the Weeds' property or contained anything belonging to them, "they not having been opened." White implored the First Judicial District Court to cite Baldwin to open the trunks and "declare on oath what property rights[,] credits[,] moneys[,] and interests" of the Millington Bank were in his "custody or control."26

On February 11, 1841, William Weed strenuously protested the continued impoundment of his trunk, now withheld from him for more than two months, and demanded its return. The chest "contains … clothing[,] wearing apparel & other property" that was being "illegally withheld," he complained. "Baldwin has no right to the possession of said trunk, having taken it forcibly & illegally." The plaintiffs' claims upon the trunk and its contents were equally groundless, Weed continued. All belonged to him. Over Weed's objections, authorities opened his trunk on February 20 and inventoried its contents. Recorder Baldwin, attorneys from both sides, and Weed himself were present. Upon unlocking the trunk and raising the lid, inside they found, among other things, a number of bank books, memorandum books, receipts of various amounts (including a receipt of the Millington Bank), "three Gold Watches & chains," "thirty six drafts on Phoenix Bank" of New York, and "15 Bonds [of the] City of Vicksburg."27

In 1840, amid Mississippi's continued economic struggles in the wake of the painfully slow recovery from the depression, the city council of Vicksburg sought out investors in their town to finance such projects as the installation of a sewer system and the macadamization of the streets. It therefore dispatched the city financier to Baltimore for the purpose of selling city bonds—a first for Vicksburg—as a means of raising more immediate funds. Of all possible currencies he might have traded for, the city's agent returned from the Chesapeake bearing tens of thousands of dollars in Millington bank notes, mere weeks before the institution failed. [End Page 728] Fifteen of the Vicksburg bonds ended up in William Weed's trunk. Baldwin seized them, valued at $1,000 each, and attached them to the civil suits pending against the Weeds, as assets for possible use in compensating the plaintiffs. He did not realize that the Mississippi river town, in an act of debt repudiation, had suspended payment on those very bonds two months earlier.28

The scramble for the funds the Weeds transported into Louisiana lasted into the late spring of 1841. In the suits initiated by White, McMaster, Cockburn, and Biggs, slave trader William H. Williams supplied the crucial testimony. As familiar as anyone with the Commercial Bank of Millington, he could verify the genuineness of both the Millington notes the plaintiffs produced in court and the signatures on them. He was also able to recount the bank's history to Judge Buchanan. That Williams had "no interest any way in any of these suits" lent his information weight and credibility. In June 1841, Buchanan ruled in favor of all the plaintiffs for whom the outcome of the civil suits is known, granting them the amounts they sued for, plus interest and court costs.29

________

One other holder of Millington notes approached William Weed in New Orleans to discuss the fallen bank: Thomas N. Davis. Either in late 1840 or early 1841, the slave trader encountered Weed and asked "how he came to act so badly." Weed "excused himself by saying he was deceived," although how or by whom he did not say. The trader next "asked him how I was to get my money back," referring to "the money which I had previously exchanged with him for the Millington concern." Had Davis pursued the matter smartly, he might have filed suit, as so many others had, against the Weeds to gain access to the "thousands in their trunks." But Davis had acquaintance with Weed and chose not to [End Page 729] pursue the matter in court. Besides, Weed had a ready response to the trader's query. He replied that "he and Guthrie had the Farmers and Millers Bank at Hagerstown … we must look there for our money, as this was his only hope."30

And so, upon returning to Maryland in the spring of 1841, laden with the defunct Millington Bank notes still in his possession, Thomas N. Davis journeyed to visit Joseph T. Guthrie, seeking repayment. The Hagerstown cashier "appeared glad to see me," Davis recalled. The slave trader supposed it was "all owing to his fear of my exposing him" for his role in bringing the dubious Farmers and Millers Bank to fruition. To the contrary, Davis recollected, Guthrie was excited to divulge his latest scheme. The cashier warmly "solicited me to join him" in his proposed banking institution in Kanawha. Progress on the new venture was slow. In the summer of 1841, Guthrie invited Davis to Hagerstown so that they might more "fully understand ourselves as regards our future business." "I am determined to push the Virginia concern," declared the cashier, "and nothing, except the want of funds, shall hinder my putting her in operation. I can give you my views more fully after I see you." But the Kanawha project never met with success. "This all failed," Davis related, "as I supposed the means could not be raised."31

Guthrie re-dedicated his energies to making a go of the Hagerstown institution. He first resigned his public role as cashier, in August 1841, to deflect any lingering concerns the community might have about his association with the controversial William Weed in getting the Farmers and Millers Bank underway. "[M]y interest and influence will not by this act, be any the less," Guthrie boasted to Davis, for his relationship to the Hagerstown bank had not been severed entirely. Guthrie continued on behind the scenes as a member of the board of directors, to which he had been elected the previous May. The next step in reviving the Farmers and Millers Bank was to acquire an influx of capital that would enable it to print a substantial "new issue" of its currency, one that elicited [End Page 730] greater public confidence than the old. By August 1841, Guthrie shared with Davis his growing desire "to make our money go current."32

Here was where slave trader Thomas N. Davis entered into the bank speculator's calculus. Guthrie's letters to Davis were filled with vague allusions to events and transactions only the two men would have fully understood, so his plan remains opaque at best. But its broad contours sound familiar, reminiscent of the Weed brothers' attempt to keep the Millington alive. Guthrie stated clearly that his scheme required Davis "merely to make exchanges," such that Farmers and Millers Bank notes should not be redeemed "at once or at least for a few days." Float "our notes in Philadelphia and Baltimore," he encouraged Davis. That would allow the Hagerstown institution "to raise our circulation and credit," because "all the [good] money we can raise together" would fund the "new issue." Davis would take the good notes he received and give them to Guthrie, who, in turn, would use them as collateral to get bank loans to underwrite the Hagerstown enterprise. In short, Guthrie's plan was to run a bank with borrowed money. To start this process, he gave Davis $1,000 in Farmers and Millers Bank notes to place in circulation.33

Guthrie had grand visions, but all of his plans required capital. His correspondence thus repeatedly impressed upon Davis the urgency of raising the operational funds for the Farmers and Millers Bank. "[I]f you ever raised a dollar in your life," Guthrie wrote, "do it now." He was relentless, and with the passage of time grew only more desperate for the slave trader's cooperation, promising that "it will lead to a good business for you and I both." Struggling to maintain good credit with the banks that financed his own, Guthrie implored Davis, "if you cant bring $1000 bring $500, and if you cannot do that, bring less to exchange; this will keep the good feeling. … I will work with you in good faith." But whatever you do, he reiterated, "act promptly," and remember that "we … are doing nothing we are ashamed of."34

But Davis's patience with the speculator was running thin. The slave [End Page 731] trader had gotten sued upon a draft that Guthrie had instructed him not to pay because the Farmers and Millers Bank lacked the means. As a consequence, their relationship had grown testy. Davis, increasingly disgusted, claimed to have had enough of Guthrie's entreaties. "I found from his letters that my money was all his aim," Davis declared in October 1841, "and of course he got no more out of me." On October 22, the same date as Guthrie's latest plea for funds, Davis departed with a cargo of bondpeople for New Orleans. He and Guthrie did not communicate at all for several months.35

Yet when Davis returned in the spring of 1842, his resentment had abated. Guthrie again pleaded for money, asking, as Davis recounted, "if I would give them some Virginia and other funds" in exchange for Farmers and Millers Bank notes. Probably feeling flush after his recent slaving voyage, Davis relented and channeled some of his profits back into the Hagerstown concern: "I gave them some thousand or eleven hundred dollars, part in Virginia and part in gold." He also accepted Guthrie's invitation to invest $1,000 in a flour store in Georgetown, the anticipated profits of which were to be funneled to the Hagerstown bank. Guthrie's fiscal mismanagement doomed this enterprise before it began.36

Throughout 1842, the Farmers and Millers Bank struggled on, chronically undercapitalized. In July, Guthrie groused about the "heavy demand" upon the bank for specie from notes coming "home rapidly." It "keeps us poor," he grumbled. The "brisk" "redemption of our own paper" during the November term of court, when Washington County's citizens descended upon Hagerstown en masse, exacerbated the drain on the institution's resources. Seeking relief, Guthrie turned, once again, to traders, consulting William H. Williams's slave-dealing younger brother Thomas Williams in his Washington, DC, office. Thomas, surely cognizant of Guthrie's increasingly toxic reputation, refused to cash a $500 bank draft Guthrie presented him. Guthrie next consulted his old accomplice Thomas N. Davis, complaining that he was "strapped hard" and "wanted money." "I would of [sic] exchanged some more" for him, Davis insisted, but the timing did not work out. "I had no money," he recalled. Guthrie then convinced Davis to take the $500 bank draft he had been unable to cash and present it for him at Thomas Williams's [End Page 732] office, presumably thinking that Williams would accept it if it came from Davis rather than himself. Having already visited Williams but not admitting that to Davis, Guthrie asked him to "take it and see." Alone, Davis ventured over to meet his fellow trader, but Williams was no fool. As Davis recounted, Williams "looked at [the draft] and read it, and handed it back to me." When Davis returned to Guthrie bearing only the draft, the bank speculator "was quite out of temper, because he could not get the money."37

Convinced that Guthrie could not "raise five hundred dollars at that time," Davis predicted a dim future for the Farmers and Millers Bank of Hagerstown, and he resolved to extract himself fully from the concern: "I … really abandoned it as all lost," he stated. "I wrote to Guthrie to make arrangements to pay the acceptance I was sued on, and pay me my expenses, and I wanted nothing more to do with them." Guthrie arranged with a different gentleman "to take the notes of the Farmers and Millers Bank west to circulate" and to secure $5,000 in specie to have on hand while filing the bank's annual statement for the Maryland legislature. The collapse of that plan prompted one, last-ditch appeal to Davis, sometime between Christmas Day 1842 and January 1, 1843, to "procure … any amount of specie, say from one to five thousand dollars." Even if Davis had access to that quantity of gold or silver, by then he had determined to divorce himself from the Hagerstown wildcat.38

In addition to a shortage of hard currency, another major liability that the Farmers and Millers Bank never overcame was the public's nagging association between it and the corrupted Commercial Bank of Millington. The Baltimore Sun, long a booster of both institutions even as they struggled to remain solvent, denied any such connection. In December 1842, the newspaper printed a public letter signed by the Hagerstown bank's president, cashier, and board of directors stating that the rumored ties were "without even the shadow of foundation." They acknowledged that some of the original stockholders of the Farmers and Millers Bank, such as William Weed, "were known to be deeply implicated in the Millington fraud, but they have long ceased to have any connexion with [End Page 733] this Bank." Although technically that was true, the Hagerstown bank, conceived in deception, could not shake public skepticism about the institution's integrity, and without public confidence, banks' notes amounted to nothing. In December 1842, eighteen citizens of Washington County, Maryland, and its environs petitioned the state legislature to investigate suspected fraud at the institution. The Baltimore Sun staunchly defended the Hagerstown bank from the aspersions cast upon it, primarily by smearing its accusers. The Sun denied that any of the petitioners hailed from "within twenty-five miles of Hagerstown." Almost all of them, the newspaper charged, did not even reside in Maryland; a number lived in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Some of these men were purportedly disgruntled simply because the Farmers and Millers Bank had repeatedly refused them loans. Unable to borrow money, out of "a spirit of cruel and gratuitous vengeance" and "vindictive malice," they purportedly mailed anonymous letters to Hagerstown threatening to publicly impugn the institution's character. Their petition to the legislature marked the fulfillment of that threat, intended "perhaps to depreciate the value of the notes, and enable speculators to profit by the panic." The Sun unilaterally dismissed the letter writers' accusations of a link between the Farmers and Millers Bank and the disgraced institution in Millington. "We believe the banking laws of this State are sufficiently rigid to protect the community," the paper declared, and should the legislature initiate an investigation, "this institution is prepared."39

The Sun's confidence in the Farmers and Millers Bank could not have been more poorly placed. On January 13, 1843, the Maryland House of Delegates appointed a five-man select committee to investigate the institution's affairs. The Washington County, Maryland, sheriff arrested Thomas N. Davis on a writ sought by Joseph T. Guthrie, to compel the slave trader to appear as a witness before the committee. Davis gave his testimony on January 20 and 21 and entered his extensive correspondence with Guthrie into evidence. Once Davis concluded his testimony, the committee chairman secured his discharge. Guthrie denied many of Davis's sworn statements and attempted to discredit the slave trader by arguing that he occasionally sent "letters containing threats that unless [End Page 734] the Farmers and Millers Bank did loan him as much money as he wanted, he would blow her up" by divulging what he knew about the institution. "I have been told" secondhand, Guthrie added, "that Davis has stated that if I would give him a thousand dollars he would go away."40

Based on the whole of the assembled evidence, including incriminating statements from the institution's employees, the select committee reported that the Farmers and Millers Bank of Hagerstown originated in "the most base and fraudulent pretences," "that it was the purpose and design of the principal agents of the bank to perpetrate a most stupendous fraud upon all who should be credulous enough to trust them," and that it was nothing but "a fraudulent device to plunder the unwary and confiding portion of the community." Little more than a crooked "offshoot of the exploded Millington Bank, … it never had any legal existence" because it had failed to attract the obligatory $75,000 in legitimate specie required by charter to open. "The Bank," reported the committee, "was frequently sustained by borrowed money." While filing yearly reports, bank officials borrowed specie, counted it toward the bank's annual statements, and removed it the same day. At its nadir, the concern housed "only four dollars [in] bankable funds … and no specie excepting some boxes of cents." The select committee, by a margin of three to two, elected to "introduce resolutions directing the Attorney General to issue an injunction suspending the operations of the Bank until it shall be determined if the charter has been forfeited." When news of the institution's troubles reached the public, a run on the bank ensued, driving it under.41

________

With the 1843 collapse of the Farmers and Millers Bank of Hagerstown, the elaborate con game that began three years earlier in the unassuming village of Millington reached its conclusion. The Millington Bank fiasco and its aftermath chronicle the type of sketchy, corrupt business practices enabled by the frenzied economic climate of the time. The Millington and Hagerstown wildcats illustrate, in particular, how such [End Page 735] economically irresponsible banks, formed first and foremost to enrich their initial investors, could function in the context of southern, slaveholding states. In the wake of the flush times of the 1830s, the Chesapeake played host to a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of unscrupulous shysters—in the Millington's case, confidence men who masqueraded professionally as respectable bankers and slave traders. Peddling currencies and enslaved bodies, respectively, those occupational categories graced opposite sides of the same slug in the Millington drama, bound as tightly as the wads of bank notes that filled their pocketbooks. The collaboration between professional slave traders such as William H. Williams and Thomas N. Davis and bank speculators such as the Weed brothers and Joseph T. Guthrie contained the potential to realize astounding profits through their participation in a financially sophisticated shell game in which the traders, needing ready money, conveyed bankers' notes as far away as possible from sites of redemption. Trafficking in commodified black bodies proved so lucrative for the slave dealers that they then turned around to finance new banking ventures that might rescue old ones and perpetuate the mutually beneficial cycle. But as the Millington and Hagerstown concerns also demonstrated, traders and bankers played a dangerous game. Banks' overly aggressive issuance of paper in an economy unregulated at the national level magnified the risks for those involved. Slave traders jeopardized their professional standing and faced legal action when they passed bad notes, and erstwhile banking entrepreneurs could be vilified by the press and transformed overnight into scam artists out to dupe the public. With such high economic stakes hanging in the balance, tensions between slave-trading and banking allies and co-conspirators occasionally bubbled over, but because they were equally ensnared in the pervasive "spirit of speculation" of the time, their fortunes rose and fell in tandem.42 [End Page 736]

Jeff Forret

Jeff Forret is professor of history and Distinguished Faculty Research Fellow at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. He has written the Frederick Douglass Prize-winning Slave against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South (Baton Rouge, LA, 2015); Race Relations at the Margins: Slaves and Poor Whites in the Antebellum Southern Countryside (Baton Rouge, LA, 2005); and other works. His next book, Williams' Gang: A Notorious Slave Trader and His Cargo of Black Convicts, will soon appear with Cambridge University Press. For their assistance with the manuscript, the author wishes to thank Dan Dupre, Doug Egerton, Paul Finkelman, Richard Follett, Maria R. Montalvo, Joshua D. Rothman, Calvin Schermerhorn, and the editors and anonymous reviewers at the JER, as well as departmental colleagues Rebecca Boone, Jimmy L. Bryan, Jr., Brendan Gillis, Mark Mengerink, Gwinyai Muzorewa, and Yasuko Sato. He gratefully acknowledges the staffs at the National Archives, the New Orleans Notarial Archives, the New Orleans Public Library, and the Kent County, Maryland, Courthouse for research assistance and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation, and Lamar University for funding. An early version of this paper was presented at the 110th Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians in New Orleans, Louisiana, April 2017.

Footnotes

1. "The Millington Bank," Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Dec. 5, 1840 (first, third, fifth through seventh quotations); "The Swindling Shops Are Bursting up …," Vicksburg Tri-Weekly Sentinel (MS), Sept. 30, 1840 (second quotation); Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York, 2014), 254; Cassedy v. Williams (1843), Records of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Case Papers, 1802–1863, Civil Trial #98, Box 663, National Archives, Washington, DC (fourth quotation).

2. Cassedy v. Williams (first quotation); "The Millington Bank," Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Dec. 5, 1840 (second quotation); Joshua D. Rothman, Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (Athens, GA, 2012) (third quotation); Stephen Mihm, A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States (Cambridge, MA, 2007), 9; Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, 230; Jessica M. Lepler, The Many Panics of 1837: People, Politics, and the Creation of a Transatlantic Financial Crisis (New York, 2013), 15–23; Wilkinson v. Williams (1850), Records of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Case Papers, 1802–1863, Civil Trial #15, Box 739, Folder 15, National Archives, Washington, DC (fourth quotation); "Another Exploded Bank," Boston Post, Oct. 20, 1840 (fifth quotation); "The Swindling Shops Are Bursting up …," Vicksburg Tri-Weekly Sentinel (MS), Sept. 30, 1840 (sixth quotation); "Important Arrest," Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Dec. 3, 1840 (seventh and eighth quotations). For a history of banking in Maryland, see Howard Bodenhorn, State Banking in Early America: A New Economic History (New York, 2003), 123–24, 135, 137–40. Joshua R. Greenberg defines shinplasters as unregulated, legally questionable paper notes that functioned as money. Real rather than counterfeit, they were used in local or regional money markets. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, the meaning of "shinplaster" evolved to include any note, legal or not, in which the public placed no confidence. See Greenberg, "The Era of Shinplasters: Making Sense of Unregulated Paper Money," in Capitalism by Gaslight: Illuminating the Economy of Nineteenth-Century America, ed. Brian P. Luskey and Wendy A. Woloson (Philadelphia, 2015), 55–56, 73.

3. "An Ex-President of a Bank in Trouble," Public Ledger (Philadelphia), Mar. 30, 1841 (first quotation); Mihm, Nation of Counterfeiters, 8 (second and third quotations), 186, 239; William H. Dillistin, Bank Note Reporters and Counterfeit Detectors, 1826–1866 (New York, 1949), 59; Ian Klaus, Forging Capitalism: Rogues, Swindlers, Frauds, and the Rise of Modern Finance (New Haven, CT, 2014), 3 (fourth quotation), 5. On the contested etymology of the term "wildcat," see Dillistin, Bank Note Reporters, 59–66.

4. Mihm, Nation of Counterfeiters, 185; Wilkinson v. Williams; New York Times quoted in Louisiana Courier (New Orleans), Nov. 12, 1840. On hidden, obscure, and/or shady historical economic actors, see the essays in Luskey and Woloson, eds., Capitalism by Gaslight. Lepler, The Many Panics of 1837, does a particularly admirable job of keeping human beings at the heart of her story of economic change.

5. Calvin Schermerhorn, "Slave Trading in a Republic of Credit: Financial Architecture of the US Slave Market, 1815–1840," Slavery & Abolition 36, no. 4 (2015), 586–602, 586; Steven Deyle, "Rethinking the Slave Trade: Slave Traders and the Market Revolution in the South," in The Old South's Modern Worlds: Slavery, Region, and Nation in the Age of Progress, ed. L. Diane Barnes, Brian Schoen, and Frank Towers (New York, 2011), 111. Recent works on the relationship between slavery and capitalism include Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA, 2013); Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told; Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York, 2015); and Calvin Schermerhorn, The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815–1860 (New Haven, CT, 2015).

6. Stephen Mihm, "Follow the Money: The Return of Finance in the Early Republic," Journal of the Early Republic 36 (Winter 2016), 784–804, 795 (first quotation), 783 (second quotation); Michael Tadman, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (Madison, WI, 1989, 1996), ch. 7, 179–210.

7. Deyle, "Rethinking the Slave Trade," 106, makes passing reference to traders' involvement with antebellum banks, but the work presented here offers a more detailed case study.

8. Deyle, "Rethinking the Slave Trade," 112–13; "Cash for Negroes," "Cash for 300 Negroes," "Cash for 400 Negroes," Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), Apr. 5, 1836; E. A. Cohen & Co., For 1834. A Full Directory, for Washington City, Georgetown, and Alexandria (Washington City, 1834), 58, 33, unpaginated advertisement for A. Lee's Lottery and Exchange Office.

9. Frederic Bancroft, Slave Trading in the Old South, introduction by Michael Tadman (1931; repr. Columbia, SC, 1996); Cohen, Full Directory, for Washington City, n.p. (quotation); Mihm, Nation of Counterfeiters, 236; Cassedy v. Williams.

10. Report of the Select Committee Appointed to Investigate the Affairs of the Farmers and Millers Bank of Hagerstown (Annapolis, MD, 1843), 19.

11. "Another Defalcation–Swartwouter," Nashville Union (TN), Aug. 30, 1841; John Jay Knox, A History of Banking in the United States (New York, 1903), 678 (first quotation); Wilkinson v. Williams (second through fifth quotations); Thomas J. C. Williams, A History of Washington County, Maryland, from the Earliest Settlements to the Present Time, vol. 1 (1906; repr. Salem, MA, 1990), 239 (sixth and seventh quotations).

12. Cassedy v. Williams.

13. Matthias Snyder, Jr. v. William H. Williams (1842), Alexandria County Circuit Court, in Baltimore Sun, Oct. 11, 1842; Cassedy v. Williams; Wilkinson v. Williams.

14. Wilkinson v. Williams (all quotations); Report of the Select Committee, 19. Although it cannot be absolutely certain, these two disparate sources appear to discuss the exact same meeting.

15. Wilkinson v. Williams (quotation); Steven Deyle, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life (New York, 2005), 120–23; Tadman, Speculators and Slaves, 47; Michael Tadman, "The Reputation of the Slave Trader in Southern History and the Social Memory of the South," American Nineteenth Century History 8 (Sept. 2007), 247–71, esp. 260, 262; Deyle, "Rethinking the Slave Trade," 105; Gibson's Guide and Directory of the State of Louisiana, and the Cities of New Orleans & Lafayette (New Orleans, 1838), 214; New-Orleans Directory for 1842 (New-Orleans, 1842), 422; "Boots and Shoes," Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Nov. 9, 1842; New-Orleans Annual and Commercial Directory, for 1843 (New Orleans, 1842), 341–42; Carlile Pollock, vol. 66, act no. 222, Nov. 28, 1843, New Orleans Notarial Archives; "Dissolution," "Boots & Shoes," Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Aug. 28, 1845.

16. Bodenhorn, State Banking in Early America, 139–40; Williams, History of Washington County, 239; "Report of the Select Committee Appointed to Investigate the Affairs of the Farmers and Millers Bank of Hagerstown," Baltimore Sun, Feb. 6, 1843; Report of the Select Committee, 19.

17. "BANK ROBBERY—The Farmers' and Millers' Bank of Hagerstown," Baltimore Sun, Feb. 11, 1843 (first and second quotations); Report of the Select Committee, 14 (third quotation), 19, 31, 49, 56; Williams, History of Washington County, 239; Joshua D. Rothman, "The Contours of Cotton Capitalism: Speculation, Slavery, and Economic Panic in Mississippi, 1832–1841," in Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development, ed. Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman (Philadelphia, 2016), 128–29; "Report of the Select Committee," Baltimore Sun, Feb. 6, 1843 (fourth quotation).

18. "Report of the Select Committee," Baltimore Sun, Feb. 6, 1843 (first, second, and fifth through eleventh quotations).

19. Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, MA, 1999); Report of the Select Committee, 19; "The Millington Bank," Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Dec. 6, 1840; "Arrested," Public Ledger (Philadelphia), Dec. 14, 1840; "WERE Bought to the Second Municipality Prison …," Times-Picayune, Jan. 7, 1841; "Important Arrest," Times-Picayune, Dec. 3, 1840 (all quotations).

20. "Important Arrest," Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Dec. 3, 1840 (first, second, and fourth quotations); "The Millington Bank again," Mississippi Free Trader (Natchez), Dec. 8, 1840 (third quotation); "The Millington Bank," Times-Picayune, Dec. 5, 1840; "The Millington Bank," Times-Picayune, Dec. 9, 1840; "The Millington Bank," Times-Picayune, Dec. 8, 1840 (all remaining quotations); "Big Swindling," Times-Picayune, Apr. 28, 1840.

21. "The Millington Bank," Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Dec. 9, 1840 (quotation); First Judicial District Court, Habeas Corpus Records #50-51, New Orleans Public Library (hereafter cited as NOPL).

22. "The Millington Bank," Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Dec. 9, 1840 (quotation); Max Grivno, Gleanings of Freedom: Free and Slave Labor along the Mason–Dixon Line, 1790–1860 (Urbana, IL, 2011); Grand Jury Inquest, Sept. 17, 1841, Kent County Circuit Court, Kent County Courthouse, Chestertown, Maryland; "J. C. H. Ellis, Late President of the Bank of Millington," Easton Gazette (MD), Apr. 9, 1842. To pay off its depositors and other creditors, the Commercial Bank of Millington meanwhile filed several lawsuits to recoup the money it was owed, including a successful suit in 1844 against the Phoenix Bank of New York, for the unimpressive sum of $77. See "Court of Common Pleas," New York Tribune, Nov. 2, 1844.

23. First Judicial District Court, Habeas Corpus Records, #50-51 (quotations). The wording is identical in the respective petitions of William and F. A. Weed.

24. "Habeas Corpus," Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Dec. 12, 1840; "Habeas Corpus," Times-Picayune, Dec. 13, 1840; "Wm. Weed and F. A. Weed," Mississippi Free Trader (Natchez), Dec. 15, 1840; "Discharged," Baltimore Sun, Dec. 24, 1840 (quotations).

25. Ambrose A. White v. Commercial Bank of Millington, Case #19741, First Judicial District Court, NOPL; Peter John Cockburn v. Commercial Bank of Millington, Case #19750, First Judicial District Court, NOPL; James McMaster v. Commercial Bank of Millington, Case #19744, First Judicial District Court, NOPL; William Biggs v. Commercial Bank of Millington, Case #19768, First Judicial District Court, NOPL; Horace Bean & Co. v. Commercial Bank of Millington, Case #19756, First Judicial District Court, NOPL; "Important Arrest," Times-Picayune, Dec. 3, 1840.

26. Ambrose A. White v. Commercial Bank of Millington (first, second, and fourth through sixth quotations); "More of the Millington Bank Business," Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Dec. 3, 1840 (third quotation).

27. Peter John Cockburn v. Commercial Bank of Millington (first through third quotations); Ambrose A. White v. Commercial Bank of Millington; Horace Bean & Co. v. Commercial Bank of Millington (fourth through sixth quotations).

28. "Our Corporation," Vicksburg Tri-Weekly Sentinel (MS), Sept. 28, 1840; "The Credit System," Vicksburg Tri-Weekly Sentinel, Oct. 2, 1840; "I Told You So—As the Man Said When the cow Ate the Grindstone," Vicksburg Tri-Weekly Sentinel, Nov. 4, 1840; "A Proclamation," Vicksburg Daily Whig (MS), Dec. 23, 1840.

29. Ambrose A. White v. Commercial Bank of Millington; James McMaster v. Commercial Bank of Millington; Peter John Cockburn v. Commercial Bank of Millington (quotation); Horace Bean & Co. v. Commercial Bank of Millington; William Biggs v. Commercial Bank of Millington.

30. Report of the Select Committee, 19 (first through fourth and sixth quotations); "The Millington Bank," Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Dec. 5, 1840 (fifth quotation).

31. Report of the Select Committee, 19 (first through third quotations), 63 (fourth through sixth quotations), 20 (seventh and eighth quotations).

32. Report of the Select Committee, 65 (first and second quotations), 63 (third quotation), 64, 20, 47.

33. Report of the Select Committee, 64 (first and second quotations), 65 (third through sixth quotations), 12, 20.

34. Report of the Select Committee, 65 (first and second quotations), 66 (third and fifth quotations), 67 (fourth quotation), 68 (fifth quotation).

35. Report of the Select Committee, 20 (first and second quotations), 66.

36. Report of the Select Committee, 20 (first and second quotations), 21, 61.

37. Report of the Select Committee, 61 (first quotation), 62 (second and third quotations), 68 (fourth and fifth quotations), 21 (sixth through twelfth quotations).

38. Report of the Select Committee, 21 (first through third quotations), 22 (fourth and fifth quotations).

39. "To The Public," Baltimore Sun, Dec. 29, 1842 (quotations); Williams, History of Washington County, 239. On the importance of public confidence, see Lepler, The Many Panics of 1837, 9, 15, 28, 30.

40. Report of the Select Committee, 34.

41. Report of the Select Committee, 59, 44, 33; "Report of the Select Committee Appointed to Investigate the Affairs of the Farmers and Millers Bank of Hagerstown," Baltimore Sun, Feb. 6, 1843 (first and second quotations); "Commercial and Money Matters," New-York Tribune, Feb. 9, 1843 (third through eighth quotations); Williams, History of Washington County, 239.

42. Edwin Adams Davis, ed., Plantation Life in the Florida Parishes of Louisiana, 1836–1846: As Reflected in the Diary of Bennet H. Barrow (New York, 1943), 170.

Additional Information

ISSN
1553-0620
Print ISSN
0275-1275
Pages
709-736
Launched on MUSE
2019-11-19
Open Access
No
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