Bankers Trust Company becomes entangled in a ‘publishers’ war’

Several years after its failure, Bankers Trust Company became entangled in a ‘publishers’ war’ which pitted two of Philadelphia’s most prominent newspapers against each other: The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Record. The larger backdrop for this conflict was the vicious political battle raging in the city as well as the rest of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as Democrats, for the first time in years, began to wrest control of government from the Republican Party. George Earle III, elected Pennsylvania’s governor in November 1934, was the first Democrat to be elected to the position in 40 years.

In the summer of 1937 Moses Annenberg, staunch Republican and owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer, began to use his newspaper to attack Albert M. Greenfield. For years a backer of the Republican Party, Greenfield had by this time switched his allegiance to the Democrats and worked ardently to see them gain control of the government. Greenfield’s political involvement as well as the fact that he was the chief financial backer of The Inquirer’s rival Democratic paper, The Record, made him a prime target. Annenberg used these attacks as a way to discredit The Record, Greenfield, and others affiliated with the Democratic Party. J. David Stern, owner of The Record, and Greenfield did their best to reciprocate.

The Daily News, October 28, 1938

Besides alleging improper political dealings with top Democratic officials, the newspaper focused on his association with Bankers Trust Company. Bankers Trust, which was still undergoing liquidation, continued to be a sore topic for many Philadelphians. The Inquirer began to print articles blaming Greenfield for the bank’s failure. During the gubernatorial and U.S. senatorial elections of 1938, the newspaper, along with the Pennsylvania Republican State Committee, sponsored two radio broadcasts by Philadelphia attorney Daniel G. Murphy: “Let’s face the facts” and “The Closed Banks-who got the money.”

In the former address, Murphy accused the Earle administration and its backers of corruption, claiming that the State Banking Department had given preferential treatment to Greenfield and his associates who still owed millions of dollars to closed banks, including Bankers Trust Company.

In the second, Murphy contested that Greenfield had known about the bank’s impending failure, and had one of his firms withdraw $300,000 from the bank five days before it closed. The Inquirer gave the radio address full coverage, reproducing Murphy’s statement and including a photo-static copy of the check showing the supposed withdrawn funds.

Greenfield refuted these claims in a radio address, entitled “The Closing of Bankers Trust- the wrong of 1930.” This marked the first time that Greenfield had spoken publicly about the bank and his affiliation with it since its closure.

First page of the draft of Greenfield's radio address

Greenfield argued that his real estate firm, the Albert Company, paid Bankers Trust $300,000 for a loan it had received shortly before the bank closed.

Besides radio addresses, Greenfield bought newspaper ads denouncing Murphy and Annenberg. The Record also began to print slanderous articles about The Inquirer owner, including charges that he was involved in illegal horse betting.

Annenberg and Greenfield ultimately sued each other for libel, but the suits were withdrawn in May 1939 with the signing of mutual public apologies.

The story of Bankers Trust Company is being documented as part of the Greenfield digital project. The project is set to launch by the end of 2012.

Transparency in documentary editing

Postmodernist theory, which emphasizes the inevitable existence of individuals’ subjectivity and bias, has for the most part, become commonplace thinking. Within academe, postmodern critical analysis has affected all disciplines, including the “pure” sciences, which are no longer viewed as completely objective and neutral.

The reality of subjectivity has caused scholars in the humanities and social sciences to try to be more balanced in their work and/or transparent about their own personal biases as well as the biases inherent in their work. In the case of historians, this means acknowledging the subjective nature of the materials with which they use to construct past events. Historical records—primary source materials—are not static and objective carriers of truth. Among other things, they are the products of persons or groups who had the means to create and maintain them. Produced for specific purposes and within specific contexts, records harbor their creators’ biases and viewpoints.

With regards to the Greenfield Digital project, there is bias inherent in the records that Dana and I are using to tell the story of Bankers Trust Company. About 95% of the records that we are editing come from the Albert M. Greenfield Papers (1959). Thus, it is largely through Greenfield’s eyes that the history of Bankers Trust Company will be told. Although the story of the bank was closely interwoven with that of Greenfield, who played a principal role in the bank’s founding, expansion, and subsequent demise, his documentary records only captures part of the story.

Dana and I have made it a point to try to be as transparent as we can in order to make clear that this project is not an authoritative or all-encompassing analysis of the story of Bankers Trust Company. Following the lead of other documentary editing scholars and TEI best practices, we are employing several means with which to do this.

We have developed editorial principles for our document selection process as well as for our encoding and transcription practices. These principles will be included on the web site. The document selection principles outline the criteria we used to decide what materials from the Greenfield papers and other collections, including the Philadelphia Record clippings and photo morgue, to include to tell the story of Bankers Trust and why.

With regards to our transcription and encoding methodology, Dana and I agree with Michael E. Stevens and Steven B. Burg’s assertion that documentary editors “…have an obligation to explain how they have treated the text” since there are multiple ways to present the text of a document, “ranging from heavily emended to absolutely literal.”[1] In explaining our methodology, we will be following the lead of other digital editing projects, such as the Women Writers Project, that have provided such transparency.

We will also include information about our editorial decisions for each document and also document decisions such as the taxonomy we’ve chosen to use to describe the documents which will affect users’ search capabilities. For this project, we’re using the Library of Congress Thesaurus for Graphic Materials. This information will appear in the header of the TEI documents:

Moreover, Dana and I have discussed the possibility of incorporating Web 2.0 technologies into the project to allow users, especially educators and scholars, to contribute their knowledge of the materials as well as how their using the materials in the classroom.

Despite the inadequacies and biases that we face, the Greenfield project, part of a larger effort funded by the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation, will contribute new and intriguing information about bank failures and Philadelphia during the Great Depression, and serve as an important resource for educators and scholars among others.


[1] Stevens, Michael E. and Steven B. Burg, Editing Historical Documents: a handbook of practice (Walnut Creek, CA : AltaMira Press, 1997), 12-13.

The Philadelphia Record news clippings morgue

About 90% of materials that will be included in the Greenfield digital project on the Bankers Trust Company of Philadelphia come from the Albert M. Greenfield Papers (collection 1959). The other 10% include items from other collections here at HSP that also provide information about the bank.

One such collection that Dana and I have decided to use is the Philadelphia Record news clippings morgue (3344). Like Temple’s Urban Archives, which owns the Evening Bulletin clippings morgue, HSP holds the clippings morgue of the Record, a Philadelphia daily newspaper that ran from 1877 to 1947.

This large collection, dating from 1918 until the newspaper ceased publication, could potentially provide a wealth of information for researchers. However, its current condition makes access an issue. The clippings, folded and contained in envelopes, are housed in about 30 filing cabinets and 30 cardboard/wooden drawers.

Filing cabinets, wooden drawers where clippings are housed

Although the clippings are organized by person and subject, no subject guide or inventory currently exists. And the clippings themselves are extremely brittle.

Dana and I thus had some issues to deal with in using the collection. The approximately 25 envelopes of clippings relating to Bankers Trust Company that we pulled were given to Conservation. The staff humidified and flattened the clippings so that we could make preservation photocopies of them onto archival quality paper. These copies of the articles are those that we will digitize for the project.

post conservation treatment

These newspaper articles not only enhance the information found in the Greenfield Papers by offering a human side to the story, but also help to fill in gaps concerning the story of Bankers Trust. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, one of these gaps deals with the failed efforts to reorganize the bank and its subsequent liquidation. Articles from the clippings morgue have given us a much better understanding of this period in the bank’s history.

This article was published the day Bankers Trust closed

Some clippings in the collection are from other local papers, including this article from the Public Ledger dated August 27, 1931 about the bank's reorganization efforts

Although articles from the Record clippings morgue will provide key information, one factor that Dana and I, and researchers, need to keep in mind is the paper’s potential bias on topics relating to Greenfield and Bankers Trust. Albert M. Greenfield played an integral role in the newspaper’s history, including serving as one of its primary supporters and financial contributors.

Bankers Trust Company: too small to save?

One of the main tasks Dana and I have been working on thus far for the Greenfield digital editing project– part of a larger effort funded by the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation- is to try to piece together the history of Bankers Trust Company, the banking institution on which our project is focused. This can at times be rather difficult due to gaps in the historical record. We have looked through several hundred documents from the Albert M. Greenfield Papers (collection 1959), as well as materials from a couple related collections located here at HSP, such as the Philadelphia Clearinghouse Association (collection 1908)- an association that among other things, helped member banks during banking panics- but pieces of the puzzle are still missing.

One part of the story that I am grappling with is why the effort to reorganize the bank, rather than liquidate it, ultimately failed. For many affiliated with the bank, its closure on December 22, 1930 did not spell certain doom. Rather, it was most likely viewed as only a temporary suspension enacted to allow the bank to recover from the run it had been experiencing over the last couple months. The plan was to reorganize Bankers Trust and have it reopen as soon as possible.

Almost immediately after the bank’s closure, efforts for its reorganization were underway, and the possibility of its reopening looked promising. The bank was able to quickly pay off many of its loans. Also, by the end of 1930, Bankers Trust had formed a Depositors’ Committee that drafted a plan for the bank’s reopening by the spring of 1931. Moreover, in March 1931, William D. Gordon replaced Peter Cameron as Secretary of Banking. Gordon seemed to have been on the same page as Greenfield with regards to the rehabilitation plans for Bankers Trust.

Depositors' Committee reorganization plan (April 18, 1931), page 1

Depositors' Committee reorganization plan, page 2

Greenfield and Bankers Trust President, Samuel H. Barker, were involved in reorganization planning as well. As the bank’s principal depositor, Greenfield had plenty of motivation to see Bankers Trust reopen. He himself sent Secretary Gordon an in-depth proposal for reorganization.

Greenfield's letter to Secretary of Banking William D. Gordon outlining his ideas for the bank's reorganization (July 2, 1931), page 1

Greenfield's letter to Gordon, page 2

Understandably, the reorganization plans and goals of the bank’s rehabilitation envisioned by its directors, stockholders, and depositors differed. A split amongst the bank’s depositors emerged. Some depositors felt that the Depositors’ Committee was too closely aligned with Bankers Trust stockholders and directors, which they argued was reflected in the reorganization plan. They wanted to preclude any persons from the “old regime,” most notably Greenfield, from having any involvement with the bank’s reorganization. In May 1931 these depositors, under the leadership of Frank S. Dreeben, formed the Minority Depositors’ Committee, or Depositors’ Protective Committee and drafted an alternate reorganization plan.

Minority Depositors' Committee plan (May 16, 1931), page 1

Minority Depositors' Committee plan, page 2

Minority Depositors' Committee plan, page 3

By June 1931, the Depositors’ Committee had obtained the signatures of 60% of depositors who supported the reorganization plan it had drafted; however, the state required 80% of depositors to endorse the plan in order for it to go through. After months of going back and forth, on September 24, Secretary Gordon announced his rejection of a reorganization plan for Bankers Trust and his decision to instead proceed with the bank’s liquidation. Gordon denied depositors’ petition to bar stockholders, officers, and directors who may have been depositors from receiving payment from liquidation proceeds. He also denied depositors representation on the liquidation board. The first payment to depositors was issued in early November, almost one year since the bank’s closing.

Greenfield tried to meet with Gordon days before the latter announced his decision to liquidate Bankers Trust

On average, liquidations during the Great Depression lasted about six years. Bankers Trust Company’s liquidation process lasted sixteen. The sixth and final payment was not made to depositors until May 1946.