Banker, Can You Spare a Dime?

Given all the headlines about the struggling economy over the last couple years, it feels remarkably timely to be transcribing documents from the early months of the Great Depression as part of the Greenfield Digital Project.

Recently, I’ve been working on letters from depositors of Bankers Trust Company, which became one of the first large banks to fail in Philadelphia when it closed on December 22, 1930.

Though the bank’s leaders claimed that it would reorganize shortly, their optimism was misplaced. The bank never reopened for business.

I can only imagine how devastating that closure was for the 100,000+ depositors of the bank, who lost all access to their accounts the day Bankers Trust failed to open. (FDIC protections did not exist until 1933.)

Philadelphians faced about 30 bank closures during the Great Depression. Here, depositors waited to try to withdraw their money from Erie National Bank at 6th and Erie Ave. in 1931. (Philadelphia Record Photo Morgue collection, collection V7)

For some of those customers, Albert M. Greenfield became a lightning rod for both their anger and despair. Greenfield was a prominent personality in Philadelphia and a highly visible member of the bank’s board of directors.

This anonymous group threatened to kill Greenfield if he did not immediately pay Bankers Trust depositors.

According to one scholar, Greenfield hired a police officer to protect himself and his family for a time.

But he also received letters from Bankers Trust customers pleading for his help to get their money back. Those letters are heart-breaking not only because of the hardships they describe, but also because we know that the correspondents likely did not receive the relief they sought (at least not from the bank itself).

This nurse wrote to Greenfield and his wife asking for help getting her $2,000 before Christmas. She'd had five operations and had been saving the money for a rainy day.

This correspondent offered a brief business proposition to Greenfield: buy out a frozen savings account for a potential $200 profit.


This writer did some name-dropping while appealing to Greenfield's religious side. (He was a member of the church of Greenfield's friend, Cardinal Dougherty.)

Greenfield’s secretary dutifully responded to each letter, explaining that the situation was out of Greenfield’s hands and that he had no control over who could receive payments from the closed bank.

In fact, the Pennsylvania Department of Banking oversaw a lengthy legal process that returned to depositors about 59 cents on each dollar on deposit there. Depositors received their sixth and final payment from the liquidation process in May 1946 – more than 15 years after the bank closed.

You can read more about HSP’s Greenfield Digital Project, part of a larger effort funded by the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation, in these past blog posts.

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