Many historians cite the first bank robbery in the United States as February 13, 1866 when associates of Jesse and Frank James robbed the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, Missouri. If that date sounds way to modern, you’re history senses are keen.

To find out more about the real first U.S. bank robbery you’d have to travel back to 1798, 68 years before Jesse and Frank James, and travel 1,127 miles northeast to the city of brotherly love, and Carpenters’ Hall.

Listen Below:

Carpenters’ Hall Bank Robbery:

If you know of Carpenters’ Hall, located just a short distance from Independence Hall, and the Liberty Bell, you probably think of the many architects who’ve called this institution home for over 240 years, or perhaps you know it as the site of the First Continental Congress in 1774. But like all buildings, Carpenters’ Hall is rich in history, and many firsts happened inside the walls of this building – including our Nation’s first-ever bank robbery. 

In late summer 1798 yellow fever was raging in Philadelphia, and those who could flee the city were doing so as quickly as possible. Others, who were not so fortunate, were forced to stay. All in all about 1,300 people would die a swift and horrible yellow fever death.

One of those fortunate enough to seek refuge outside of Philadelphia was local blacksmith Patrick Lyon and his 19-year-old apprentice. They booked passage on a small sailing vessel headed for Deleware’s Cape Henlopen, but by the time they disembarked at Lewistown, Delaware, (now known as Lewes) the young apprentice was ill. Despite Lyon’s best efforts and the aid of a doctor, the young man died two days later.

As talk in Delaware swirled around the plague ravishing Philadelphia, which at the time was both the national capital and Pennsylvania’s state capital, news arrived in Lewistown of a bank burglary in the nation’s largest city. A staggering sum of $162,821 had been taken from vaults inside the Bank of Pennsylvania at Carpenters’ Hall during the late-night hours of Saturday, August 31st, or the early morning hours of Sunday, September 1.

For Lyon the news went beyond just general interest as the last job he completed—a rush job before fleeing the city—was to change fittings and locks on two iron vault doors for the Bank of Pennsylvania. With no signs of forced entry into the building or the vault, it soon became clear this was an “inside job.”

Lyon instantly suspected carpenter Samuel Robinson, hired by the bank to oversee its move into Carpenters’ Hall and a stranger who had accompanied Robinson to Lyon’s shop while the blacksmith worked on the vault doors. Later Lyon would claim he told Robinson and several others that the doors were not proper for a bank and the locks were insecure, but “there was haste to have the work done.”

As news of the robbery began to circulate, Lyon ran into an old acquaintance, a former landlord, in Lewistown. The pair discussed the robbery and Lyon could sense the man was holding something back. Lyon would go on to learn that he was a prime suspect in the case and that lawmen were combing the New Jersey woods for the blacksmith. Lyon immediately headed back to Philadelphia to share his suspicions regarding Robinson and his associate, and to clear his name. After sailing as far as Wilmington, Lyon walked to Philadelphia. “I had come 150 miles to surrender myself,” he would later go on to write.

Unsurprisingly, Lyon’s story was not to be believed. Bank officials were certain that the man who changed the locks had made an extra key, and High Constable John Haines was eager to wrap things up and collect the $2,000 reward. Lyon would go on to spend three brutal months in the Walnut Street Prison.

The bank would eventually get its money back, and Patrick Lyon would gain back his freedom, his reputation, and a hefty sum for his imprisonment thanks to one blockheaded move by the actual bank robber. 

The culprit would turn out to be none other than the associate Robinson had brought with him to Lyon’s shop, Isaac Davis, a member of The Carpenters’ Company, and a partner, who died of yellow fever within days of the robbery. The “inside man” was bank porter Thomas Cunningham, who slept in Carpenters’ Hall the night of the robbery.

The pair had pulled the perfect heist, but then in a move that is truly baffling, Davis began depositing the stolen money in the very bank he had robbed as well as other banks around the city. Immediately suspicion was aroused.

Confronted with questions about his sudden wealth, Davis immediately gave a full confession and cut a deal with the governor of Pennsylvania for a full pardon in return for complete disclosure of the event and complete financial restitution. Davis never served a day in prison.

Despite Davis’ full confession, the bank and law officers insisted that Lyon was involved in making a false key; forcing the blacksmith to languish several more weeks in prison until the charges were eventually dismissed.

Less than a year after his release, Lyon wrote a book about the incident, with the absurdly long title: “Narrative of Patrick Lyon Who Suffered Three Months Severe Imprisonment in Philadelphia Gaol on Merely a Vague Suspicion of Being Concerned in a Robbery of the Bank of Pennsylvania With his Remarks Thereon.” The book was a precursor to a lawsuit for his wrongful imprisonment.

Famous lawyers clashed during Lyon’s civil case. For the defense: Jared Ingersoll, signer of the U.S. Constitution, and William Rawle, United States district attorney. For Lyon: Alexander J. Dallas, a distinguished lawyer who would later be appointed U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, and Joseph Hopkinson, son of Declaration of Independence signer Francis Hopkinson. A jury ultimately rewarded him with a $12,000 restitution. 

The defendants appealed and were granted a new trial set, but a settlement was reached awarding Lyon $9,000, equal to several years’ wages. Lyon used the award to build himself up as a successful manufacturer of fire engines. Men of his class were rarely represented in paintings, but Lyon had a portrait painted by artist John Neagle, which shows him in his leather apron, hammer-in-hand working at his anvil. In the background: the cupola of the Walnut Street Prison.

Carpenter Hall was the temporary home of three banks, which provided rental revenue for The Carpenters’ Company. Robert Morris’ Bank of North America leased the Hall from 1791 to 1793. Then, Alexander Hamilton’s First Bank of the United States used the facility until 1797.

The Bank of Pennsylvania moved to Carpenters’ Hall shortly before the robbery following a failed attempt to burglarize its office in the city’s Masonic lodge. 

Visiting Carpenters’ Hall:

Carpenters’ Hall is a treasure in historic Philadelphia. It hosted the First Continental Congress in 1774 and was home to Franklin’s Library Company, The American Philosophical Society, and the First and Second Banks of the United States.

Set humbly back from Chestnut Street, the Hall has been continuously owned and operated by The Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia, the oldest craft guild in America, since 1770. Today, Carpenters’ Hall is free to the public and welcomes over 150,000 worldwide visitors. Admission has been complementary since 1857 when it became the first privately owned American building to be opened as a historic monument.

Want more great destinations? Continue exploring unique overnight destinations with a stay at the Lizzie Borden Bead & Breakfast, or check out the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Co.


* indicates required