The Bank of Maryland fiasco: anarchy in the streets of Baltimore

On Maryland History

October 08, 1990|By Peter Kumpa

THE HANDBILL WAR continued for tiresome weeks and months in the spring and summer of 1835. "Have the people of Baltimore any spirit, or are they a parcel of cowards?" one handbill asked. "The widows and orphans have been robbed," it protested, then it listed the culprits -- officers, trustees, directors attorneys for the closed Bank of Maryland. Some broadsides argued about the closing -- who was responsible and how much might be lost. The tougher ones called for action. Citizens were asked to arm themselves and prepare to defend their rights. To )) gain justice, Baltimoreans were told they could depend only on that "free and unbiased judge Lynch." In other words, a lynching -- mob justice.

The frustration was understandable. It had been a heavy shock to the city when the Bank of Maryland closed its doors on March 24, 1834. It had issued too much currency and couldn't continue business. One committee of bankers and merchants was formed to take over the assets. Another was formed to protect the creditors. Audits were taken. Lawsuits were filed. The sorry affair dragged on for painful month after month.

It was the long delay that did the damage. A wealthy depositor could afford to wait for the courts to settle the bank's fate. A poor one could not. There were thousands of these small depositors with accounts that totaled $100 or $200. They couldn't touch their savings. Their frustration was multiplied because failure to pay a debt, even a $10 one, made a person eligible for debtor's prison. The only alternative was to sell the deposit or credit at a discount. Speculators were available to snap up credits for a price.

As the months rolled on after the bank closing, so did the sale of accounts by smaller depositors. After a year, they were bitter over reports that the bank could pay in full. Court action blocked disclosure of audits. Tempers flared. Talk of massive fraud spread in the city, the kind of talk that inspired the mob.

Scholars confirmed the chicanery years later. The Bank of Maryland case, according to the Chronicles of Baltimore, was nothing less than "one of the most stupendous and general frauds ever committed, bearing specially hard upon the industrious poor."

Along with the failures of other banks that year, an insurance company and some stock brokerage firms, it was estimated "the people were plundered" out of some $2 million, perhaps $3 million -- an incredible sum for that time.

Maybe it was the hot summer. Maybe it was the spectacle of a handful of wealthy merchants and lawyers building elegant town houses when so many were suffering. Some of these people had speculated. Some protected speculators. On Thursday evening, Aug. 6, a small crowd threw stones at the "splendid residence" of a high-price lawyer, Reverdy Johnson, which was located on Calvert Street near the Battle Monument, then called Monument Square. A few windows were broken.

Mayor Jesse Hunt was alarmed enough to call a town meeting the next day. Resolutions were passed calling for an end to the Bank of Maryland impasse, a public accounting of its status and a turnover of all assets to the creditors' committee. But the evening brought larger crowds and more violence that ended only after an appeal by the mayor for everyone to go home.

The situation was so frightening that the mayor reinforced the police with about 200 citizen volunteers, later referred to as "Mayor Hunt's rolling pin brigade." About 30 members of the citizens guard mounted. The mayor opposed the use of arms, suggesting that it might be necessary only as a last resort. As soon as darkness fell, the street crowd began throwing bricks and paving stones at the guard on Calvert Street. Some were drunk. When some of the rioters were arrested, the mob charged in to rescue them. Then the mounted patrol charged several times to break up the mob. When one member of the patrol fell, a rioter grabbed his sword but was prevented, at the same moment, from running him through.

Part of the mob went streaming up to Charles Street to the unguarded home of banker John Glenn. It was barricaded. Some of the mounted guard followed the mob a half hour later, but they had lost. The mob had already entered the Glenn house -- books and furniture had been thrown out the windows. The guards retreated, giving the house up for lost.

Outside the Johnson home the siege continued. So many citizen volunteers were injured that a city judge granted permission to use firearms. It was after midnight, about 1 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 9, that one volley was fired into the mob. It was enough to kill five people, most of whom were bystanders not participants. One of the dead, described simply as a hatter named Potts, was identified as a peacemaker. The blast scattered the crowd, which carried off the dead.

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