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.

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.

Getting from paper pages to digital texts

Now that we’re elbow-deep in encoding the 300 or so documents for the Greenfield Digital Project, my colleague Faith Charlton and I are spending a lot of time at the keyboard.

As I’ve explained in past posts, we are digitizing, transcribing, and annotating primary source documents to tell the story of Bankers Trust Company, a large Philadelphia bank that failed in December 1930. This project is part of a larger effort funded by the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation.

We’ve selected our documents and passed them to HSP’s digital imaging team, and we are now focused on creating our XML text-encoded files.

Step one is getting the text from paper to a digital file.

One obvious method is simply to retype the text on a computer. That works great for brief documents and is essentially the only option for handwritten documents, where each author’s writing must be carefully deciphered. But we have another tool in our toolbox for longer typescript and print documents: optical character recognition, or OCR.

Software programs like ABBYY FineReader or OmniPage can perform sophisticated transformations of digital images into editable text files. For a variety of reasons, I decided it didn’t make sense to invest in that type of software for our project.

Instead, when we encounter longer typescript or printed documents in our project, we are using a free tool: Google Documents, or Google docs for short. You can upload .jpg, .gif, .png, or .pdf files to a private storage area, and the system will do its best to translate that digital image file into an editable text file. You can then copy and paste the text into any other software you’d like, including the software we’re using for text encoding, oXygen XML Editor.

The crucial check-box in the Google docs uploading process is near the bottom: "Convert text from PDF or image files to Google Docs documents."

Depending on your perspective, the Google results are either amazingly accurate or frustratingly imperfect. (I fall into the “amazingly accurate” camp.)

For example, the following four-page letter has about 1300 words total. I could type it from scratch in about 15-20 minutes; Google docs can do the same work in less than a minute.

The first page of the digitized letter, in which Bankers Trust Co. President Samuel Barker proposed a new business venture, Bankers Securities Corp.

Here is how Google docs transcribed the first page of the letter:

June 11, 1927
Mr. Albert Pi. Greenfield, Bankers Trust Building, Philadelphia.
Dear A 0
Let me give you more concretely than I did in brief conversation a few days ago my thoughts cmcerning a Bankers Securities Corporation and the much that can be accomplished through such an organization. I s11:’;ll try to put the proposition, as I vision it, with the strong conviction that the time has come to act in the matter.
When I first proposed it, immediately upon organization of Bankers Trust Company you and others thought the time premature. You were right. Since then the way has cleared and been opened in many and important ways for Bankers Securities Corporation to be brought into life. There is ready for it a largely advance prepared and very profitable field, with real things at hand for it to do-—things of creative as well as money-making character. What I see is this:
1. Bankers Trust Company is now safely and surely established. Already it holds recognized position in Philadelphia. Important financial interests elsewhere, as in New York, Boston, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, are glad to do business with it. From now forward there is pretty sure promise of earnings which will give increasing net income for the stock. There are about 500 stockholders. Without support the stock is much above both issue price and book value. The premium is one measure of the belief which exists that the Company has a large future.
2. Resources of Bankers Trust Company have more than doubled; its deposits have increased 60% in five months. Directly, some 12,000 people are banking with it. Already, with a securities department only in swaddling clothes, Bankers Trust Company has been welcomed to the table with grown-ups and taken into the inner circle by big financial groups. I fill in this picture as follows:
a. It enjoys full syndicate position with Kuhn,
Loeb and Company, so getting securities which that banking house issues at bottom issue price.

If you compare the original and the transcription carefully, you’ll see that Google skipped the printed letterhead at the top of the page and had problems with the recipient address, salutation, and first paragraph. But overall, it made relatively few mistakes.

Of course, both my typing and the Google docs transformation require careful proofreading. Google often skips over text that confuses it, and it seems to do worse if there are multiple styles of text on a page (like the letterhead and typescript above). It also has a hard time distinguishing between typescript 3s and 5s, among other issues. But for our purposes, these shortcomings are a fair tradeoff for the price.

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.

Untangling text encoding

Over the last few months, I’ve been spending a lot of my time focused on a fairly technical topic: text encoding.

Basically, text encoding is a method for representing text in a digital form. It allows you to record information about text — for example, whether it is handwritten, or mentions someone’s name, or is the salutation of a letter — right alongside the text itself.

And it’s a key component of our new Greenfield digital history project, part of a larger effort funded by the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation.

As I’ve described in previous blog posts, we are digitizing, transcribing, and annotating approximately 300 primary source documents from the Albert M. Greenfield papers (collection 1959) and other collections to tell the story of Bankers Trust Company, a large Philadelphia bank that failed in December 1930.

We will be coding each document in XML following the encoding guidelines set out by the international Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). We will present these documents, contextual essays, and teacher resources online in the fall of 2012.

So what does text encoding look like?

To give one small example, if I were transcribing a letter from 1928 in which the author wrote “Meet me on June 13!”, my encoded transcription would look like this:

<p>Meet me on <date when=”1928-06-13″>June 13</date>!</p>

The added coding allows a computer to recognize that the string of characters “June 13” represents a specific date, and it would allow a computer to recognize the same date whether it was written as “June thirteenth” or “6/13/28” or even “today.”

We will be encoding much more information than just dates in our Bankers Trust documents, from the physical appearance of the text to its structure to its intellectual content. Once we have completed coding, web users will be able to tackle sophisticated searching and analysis of the digital documents. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.

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.