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The Story of the Phantom Banks of 1893
By Peter Huntoon

Bob Hearn and Bob Kotcher, both serious New Jersey National Bank Note aficionados, made a pilgrimage to the Smithsonian to study the New Jersey proofs in March 2001. They thought they had found a sorting error when they came upon a Series of 1882 Brown Back proof on The First National Bank of Perth Amboy. It was mixed in among the New Jersey proofs in the 4000 charter number range, and both knew the bank was charter 5215.

A closer look revealed that the proof bore charter 4868. There was no such charter in New Jersey. Charter 4868 belonged to The Chapman National Bank of Portland, Maine, chartered in 1893. The First National Bank of Perth Amboy received charter 5215 in 1899.

We pulled the $5 Series of 1882 proofs for all three banks. Each bears a different plate date, and the Treasury signatures that go with those dates. They are:

l Charter No.: 4868. Town: Perth Amboy. Plate Date: Feb. 18, 1893. Type of Date: batch. Treasury Signatures Rosencrans-Nebeker.
l Charter No.: 4868. Town: Portland. Plate Date: Sept. 30, 1893. Type of Date: charter. Treasury Signatures: Tillman-Morgan.
l Charter No.: 5215. Town: Perth Amboy. Plate Date: July 22, 1899. Type of Date: organization. Treasury Signatures: Lyons-Roberts.

During 2004-2005, Tom Conklin, Kathleen Kimball and I made a comprehensive search of the more than 50,000 certified proofs in the Smithsonian holdings in order to determine the exact names of the banks used on the proofs. We discovered one more plate from a phantom bank.

This was The First National Bank of Stockton, Ill., shown here bearing charter 4919. Stockton didn't have a national bank until 1933, and that one was assigned charter 13666. Stockton, a town of about 2,000, is in the extreme northwest corner of the state in Davis County along U.S. 20, about 20 miles west of Freeport. The plate for this phantom bank also was made in 1893, three months after the Perth Amboy.

Charter 4919 was eventually assigned to The Blairsville National Bank, in Pennsylvania. Blairsville is located in western Pennsylvania, on U.S. 22, 38 miles east of Pittsburgh. It is about three times larger than Stockton. Ultimately Blairsville had three note-issuing banks, The Blairsville National Bank being the second.

The data for the Stockton and Blairsville plates are:

l Charter No.: 4919. Town: Stockton. Plate Date: May 22, 1893. Type of Date: unknown. Treasury Signatures: Rosecrans-Nebeker.
l Charter No.: 4919. Town: Blainsville. Plate: Oct. 11, 1893. Type of Date: charter. Treasury Signatures: Tillman-Morgan.
With both phantom banks dating from 1893, it was time to examine other records to determine if there was some sort of pattern. The duplicate charters in the National Archives provided a solution, and a fascinating story began to unfold.

The Hepburn Experiment in 1893

Charter numbers traditionally were assigned in date sequence. The final step in the organization of a bank was the deposit of the bonds required to secure its circulation, so the procedure was for the charter number to be assigned at the time the bonds were deposited. Next, the plates were ordered, and, in due course, notes were printed and sent to the bank.

In contrast, the dates of charter for the period Feb. 6 through Sept. 12, 1893, were not assigned in chronological order. The affected charters were 4846 through 4928. Obviously, the procedure for handling organizations had changed. The charter numbers were being assigned previous to the deposit of the bonds, and plates were being ordered before the charters were perfected.

The change in procedures was instituted under Comptroller A. Barton Hepburn, an appointee of Republican President Benjamin Harrison the year before Harrison left office. Hepburn was replaced on April 26, 1893, by James H. Eckels, who was appointed by Democratic President Grover Cleveland, at the beginning of the second of Cleveland's split terms of office. Hepburn thus became the shortest serving comptroller, having been in office less than nine months.

It appears that Hephurn was in the process of streamlining the organization process for new banks during the months before he left office. Part of this involved ordering plates for new banks before their officers had deposited their bonds. This would allow the bankers to receive their circulations without delay once they completed this final step. Obviously the change would have been very popular in the banking community.

The streamlined procedure had its down side. The officers for the First National Banks of Perth Amboy, N.J., and Stockton, Ill. (4919), failed to complete their organizations. Plates were made for both, at a cost that probably had to be absorbed by the comptroller's office.

Their charter numbers were then reassigned well out of sequence to The Chapman National Bank of Portland, Maine, and The Blairsville National Bank, Pa., respectively chartered Sept. 30 and Oct. 11, 1893.

Eckels, who inherited the new procedure, eventually abandoned it by Sept. 13, 1893, in favor of the traditional approach. Having to swallow the Perth Amboy and Stockton plates provided at least one incentive for reinstating the old procedure. Charters once again were issued chronologically after that time, so no more plates for phantom banks were forthcoming.

Plate Dates

Plate dates on Series of 1882 plates for new banks in the range Feb. 16 through July 28, 1893, were not the date of charter, but rather were some sort of batch dates that usually were intermediate between the dates of organization and charter. The dates for three, charters 4863, 4875, and 4893, were dated one day after the date of charter. The dates appear to be batch dates that reflect when the plates were ordered.

The plate dates on successive plates made for the affected banks, such as title change and extension dates, followed the traditional dating rules.

The Panic of 1893

Slightly over a month after Eckels' appointment, the most violent financial panic of the era descended on the country, the ruinous panic of 1893. The root of the panic was the collapse of a speculative bubble. Former Comptroller Edward Lacey (1891) had warned of dangerous trends that he sensed as early as 1890, characterized by overtrading, unhealthful expansion, investments in speculative securities, investments in various forms of corporate enterprises and developments in new and untried fields, and undue expansion of credit by banks. Speculation in railroads was at its height. By the end of 1893, 158 national banks lay in ruins in the wake of the panic.

It is more than likely that the aborted organization for the Stockton bank was caused by the withering of capital and credit attending the panic. The money simply wasn't there when it came time to buy the bonds. The Perth Amboy situation predated the panic.

Note-issuing banks with the same titles as the unfinished Perth Amboy and Stockton banks ultimately were organized. The first was The First National Bank of Perth Amboy, charter 5215, in 1899. The Perth Amboy bank was still in business at the end of the National Bank Note era. The First National Bank of Stockton came along in 1933, bearing charter 13666. It issued only Series of 1929 Type 2 notes.

Acknowledgements

This work was supported in part by a grant from the Currency Club of Long Island. James Hughes, collections manager, National Numismatic Collection, Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, provided access to the certified proofs from the National Bank Note plates. Tom Conklin provided immeasurable help in the search of the proofs.

References Cited and Sources of Data

Bureau of Engraving and Printing, 1875-1929, Certified proofs from National Bank Note face plates: National Numismatic Collection, Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Comptroller of the Currency, 1863-1935, Annual reports of the Comptroller of the Currency: Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.
Comptroller of the Currency, 1863-1935, Duplicate charters for national banks: Record Group 101, U. S. National Archives, College Park, Md.
Comptroller of the Currency, 1865-1934, Organization reports for national banks: Record Group 101, U. S. National Archives, College Park, Md.
Huntoon, Peter, September 2003, "Error links Perth Amboy and Portland, Maine": Bank Note Reporter, p. 44.
Kane, Thomas P., 1922, The Romance and Tragedy of Banking: The Bankers Publishing Co., New York, 549 p.
Lacey, Edward S., 1891, Annual report of the Comptroller of the Currency to the First Session of the Fifty-Second Congress of the United States: U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 342 p.

 



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