Monday, August 07, 2017

After the fall: "Thus is the ruin described"

Frank R. Crocker stands behind the counter as other First National Bank staff members pose to the right in this interior photo taken before the crash. Bank founder Smith H. Mallory looks down from his gilded frame in the distance.

The course of history can turn on a dime, or so the old saying holds, although in Chariton during the autumn of 1907 the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of those slim silver coins were involved.

It was early on the morning of Oct. 31, 1907, that a colleague discovered the body of Frank R. Crocker, dead from a self-inflicted overdose of morphine, still warm in his bed in the family home --- now Fielding Funeral Home --- on South Grand Street. I've told that story before (The remarkable self-destruction of Frank R. Crocker). 

To make a long story short, Frank was CEO of the Mallory family bank, First National, considered to be one of southern Iowa's soundest and strongest. He was trusted implicitly by its principal owners, Annie Mallory and Jessie (Mallory) Thayer, widow and daughter of financier Smith H. Mallory, who had died during 1903.

But a federal bank examiner, H.M. Bostwick, had arrived in Chariton on the evening of Oct. 30, having scheduled an audit for Oct. 31. It was the prospect of his visit that drove Frank to suicide. Crocker knew that Bostwick would discover that he had misappropriated, embezzled and frittered away hundreds of thousands of dollars (millions in today's terms) in bank assets.

So rather than opening for business on Oct. 31, the corner doors of the "big red bank" remained sealed as Mr. Boswick took control and began to unravel the disaster. There was no deposit insurance program in those days, so depositors would receive only a fraction of their treasure --- whatever federal agents could recover by disposing of bank assets and skewering the institution's sureties, those who had expressed their faith in Mr. Crocker's honesty by signing on the dotted line.

The process took more than two years and during that time countless Lucas County projects both public and private were curtailed or cancelled for want of cash to carry them out.

The main doors of the bank were unlocked for the first time after the crash on Saturday morning, Nov. 16, 1907, but only so that depositors could ask questions and recover personal paperwork unrelated to the institution's crash and seizure.

Chariton Leader editor and publisher Henry Gittinger was there on that Saturday morning and published this report under the headline "The Fountain is Dry" on Thursday, Nov. 21:

"On Saturday morning the front doors of the First National Bank were thrown open, the first time since the fatal Thursday. The crowds entering and coming out were as if nothing unusual had happened, so far as outward appearances went, but they were there only to ask about private affairs left with the bank and to get papers not connected with the affairs of the concern.

"No change was noticeable in the appearance of the furniture. The decorations on the walls were as when last the public had been permitted to enter and the corridors bore no evidences of the sensations brought to light during the fortnight past. To the rear on the wall of the vault hung the life-size picture of the bank's founder and former active president, Hon. S.H. Mallory, encased in its gilt frame as if surveying the prospect and viewing the throngs of customers.

"But this was only passive. F.R. Crocker was not behind the cashier's desk. Instead a stranger halted to answer some questions in a laconic manner or else dictated some order to an attendant. The clink of metallic change being handed out over the counter was unheard and no rapid clerks or cashiers wrote out and added signatures to drafts to be honored in far away places.

"All about was a stillness and an awe. It was like a strange place --- a desert. The fountain of wealth had been exhausted --- deflected from its natural course and there was no monetary streams to gush forth. 

"Give a little scope to the imagination and the skeleton of want might be seen protruding from the empty vaults; and out of the private chambers, the snarlings of the wolf --- and a chilliness pervaded the place.

"A shudder shook one as he lingered and a clammy dread stole through the brain while the echoes of footfalls had an uncanny effect on those who were want to linger on account of a hope they dare not feel. Thus is the ruin described."

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