Sunday, March 22, 2015
When the Confederate elite fled the South they did not leave empty handed. They could not take their slaves with them, for any destination they wished to immigrate to had already outlawed the institution, but they could transport more liquid assets overseas. Privately owned banks throughout the South vanished between 1916 and 1917 as their owners closed down shop and absconded with the assets. A few of these were apprehended but even then the money was confiscated by occupation authorities and if it ever saw its lawful owner again it was pennies on the dollar.
The Bank of Georgia, owned by the State of Georgia, was the largest of the vanishing banks. In November 1916, when it closed its doors, its central bank in Atlanta held more than a million dollars in cash and gold. With the fall of the C.S.A., paper currency was all but worthless. The gold was another matter. It was swooped away by the bank’s regional manager, Reginald Louis, who promptly fled to New Grenada with two hundred thousand dollars worth of gold. The fleeing bank managers earned the disparaging name ‘Robber Baron’ for once they robbed the bank they lived like barons in a foreign land off the earnings of honest citizens.
Oddly enough, the small time bank robber was not condemned, for they struck at the Northern banks that filled the void. These were seen by Southern civilians as ‘the enemy’. A number of banks, Wells Fargo and US Bank being the largest, lent freely to would be farmers and those civilians trying to rebuild their lives. They were equally quick in seizing assets when bills were not promptly paid. When average citizens struck back against the bank, they were hailed as folk heroes.
The most notorious of them was John Dillinger, who was not even a Southern. Dillinger started his criminal career in Indiana, robbing a grocery store in Mooresville. With the whole of fifty dollar he managed to escape with, he fled Indiana for Alabama, one step ahead of the law. It was in Huntsville that he robbed his first bank in 1920, followed by another in Decatur the following year and Montgomery in 1922. In Montgomery, he was cornered by occupation authorities, narrowly escaping in a shootout over the corpses of two of his fellow gang members.
Thinking he would be safe in Florida, he high-tailed it to the State boundary. Unlike civilian police, the United States’ Army held a world-wide jurisdiction and word of his escape quickly reached authorities in Pensacola. Instead of striking the first bank he saw, Dillinger managed to get in contact with a friend from his Navy days, who hid him throughout 1922. His friend, Jim ‘Mackey’ McDonald had friends of his own in high places. He was an enforcer in the Jackson Company, a fancy name for an organized crime syndicate operating out of Pensacola.
The Jackson Family, headed by Thomas Jefferson Jackson former CS Army Sergeant and his brother Robert, controlled the flow of alcohol and other drugs from Cuba and beyond into the Deep South. They were reluctant to take on a face as familiar to the law as Dillinger, despite his abilities. One did not stay in the smuggling business long without remaining low key. They did agree to smuggle him to Havana where he could lay low. Unfortunately, the temptation to rob banks was too great. A month after arriving in Havana, Dillinger targeted a branch of US Bank in neighboring Jacksonville, where he was killed in a shootout with the bank’s hired guns.