This story appears in the April 2021 issue of Business Alabama Magazine.
The Bank of Mobile holds the distinction of being the first financial institution in Alabama to fall victim to a robbery. Although a far cry from the dramatic hold-ups depicted in popular books and film, the robbery was an early test of strength for the bank and its founders.
After a long colonial history, Mobile became part of the United States in 1813. American investment and opportunity raised the prospects of the century-old port considerably. Situated at the terminus of a vast system of rivers, all of which were finally part of the same nation, Mobile represented an important part of the emerging cotton economy in the land that became Alabama.
To the cotton-laden farms in Alabama’s hinterland, Mobile was a gateway to the global marketplace. Its population more than doubled between 1813 and Alabama statehood in 1819.
The prospect of great fortune enticed many new arrivals. An early observer noted that the eclectic townspeople were “governed entirely by personal interest, and exhibit very little of what may be termed National feeling.”
Money flowed freely in those early American years, most of it from the cotton trade. In 1830, 103,065 bales of cotton were exported from Mobile. The figure doubled within five years. By the beginning of the Civil War, few Southern ports could match its output.
Mobile’s rising commercial importance demanded fast access to capital to sustain it. In 1818, during its final day in session, Alabama’s Territorial Legislature approved a charter to establish the Bank of Mobile. To prove the new private bank’s soundness to open to investors, the legislature required it have on hand the relatively small sum of $8,750 in gold or silver. Charter members of the bank included local officials, businessmen and merchants, many of whose surnames grace Mobile buildings and streets today.
An unprecedented event in the summer of 1819 threatened to derail the nascent bank on the eve of its opening. While a charter member was away, traveling through Northern states securing investment partners, a thief broke into his home and stole the strongbox that contained the balance of the funds needed to launch the Bank of Mobile, a sum of $3,100 in gold and silver — which would total more than $53,000 today.
The newspapers and financial publications, which closely followed developments of the Bank of Mobile, were silent on the theft. In fact, the first mention of the incident appears to have come from the president of the rival Tombeckbe Bank in St. Stephens. In a caustic January 1820 letter to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, he reported that the robbery occurred during a “calamitous sickness” in Mobile, likely an outbreak of yellow fever, and that there “was not in the place a sufficient force to protect either public or private property.” He predicted the bank could not possibly survive.
Confident of the long-term success of their new enterprise, the charter members were undeterred. They quickly “resubscribed” the missing funds by raising the money amongst themselves. The Bank of Mobile opened on time and with great result. At the end of its first year in business, the bank paid its stockholders a 3% dividend.
Bringing the thief to justice took a considerable amount of time, even by nineteenth-century standards. An investigator named Soto identified a German native named George Bohannon as the culprit shortly after the robbery. But the suspect evaded capture by absconding to Spanish-controlled Pensacola. He later relocated to Galveston. Seven years later, Soto recognized Bohannon again on a busy Mobile street and arrested him for suspicion of robbery. George Bohannon confessed to the crime. In April 1827, a Mobile judge sentenced him to receive 39 lashes and to endure public humiliation in the town pillory, where he would be bound for one hour for three consecutive days.
A mainstay of Old World crime and punishment for centuries, the use of pillories in America had waned considerably by the nineteenth century. In nearby Florida, individuals found guilty of operating illegal gambling houses who could not pay a hefty fine could be sentenced to stand in the pillory for an hour as restitution. Uses of the pillory as punishment
in Alabama were less frequent. A few years earlier, Alabama Governor Israel Pickens pardoned three Shelby County men sentenced to stand in the pillory for three consecutive days for the crime of assault.
George Bohannan’s theft was a crime against some of Mobile’s leading men. With no hope of recovering the stolen funds, his punishment was swift, harsh and public. Amidst the ordeal of his lashing, he offered a full confession, during which he also named several co-conspirators. Only one of those men still lived in Mobile. Whatever happened thereafter to George Bohannon and the other alleged abettors of the crime is lost to history.
Newspapers throughout the country carried reports on the long-delayed arrest and punishment of the Alabama bank robber. “Thus does ‘even-handed’ justice generally, at last, overtake the villain,” wrote a Huntsville newspaper. Its editor also noted the fact that the now-shuttered Bank of Huntsville had been robbed in 1825. He held out forlorn hope that, in a few more years, the assailant might yet also be apprehended.
The resolute Bank of Mobile stood a few blocks from the place where George Bohannon received his punishment. Throughout its six decades of existence, the financial institution ranked among the nation’s most solvent, weathering global financial panics, Alabama’s ever-changing landscape of banking regulations and Civil War, before closing in 1884.