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Howard County History

Devastating robbery of county's first bank - Part One

(from Footprints, May 2018)
by Gil P

On June 22, 1862, a massive “nor’easter” tornado toppled a structure under construction on the east side of the Courthouse square onto the building immediately to the south. This adjacent building, situated on the northeast corner of Main and Sycamore streets, was demolished, curtailing the activities in the first-floor general store, whose partners were notable pioneers Harles Ashley, John Bohan, and Kokomo founder David Foster. The Howard Tribune, which at the time published from the building’s second floor, was also almost put out of business.

That disaster came a little more than a year after an equally devastating calamity had befallen the proprietors of that corner property. On Sunday night, April 28, 1861, more than $14,000 – all of the deposits – was stolen from the “Indian Reserve Bank.” Seven years earlier Ashley, Bohan and Foster had started the enterprise – Kokomo’s first bank -- which operated in the back of the store. This robbery remains unsolved, would forever change lives, reverberate in the legal system for more than a dozen years, and re-draw the map of Kokomo, Indiana.

The following text is the first of two excerpts from an upcoming book entitled “The Bank,” to be published by HCHS Publications Member Gil Porter. The complete story will take the reader back to Kokomo at the time of the robbery and then as witness to David Foster’s diligent -- and successful -- effort to raise the money he needed to pay back the depositors of the “Indian Reserve Bank.”  

“The Bank” –  Part 1

It was roughly the equivalent of $3 million today.

Howard County had just recently completed the collection of its “spring installment of taxes.” County treasurer Hiram Jones gathered up the hefty deposit totaling $11,832.41 – much of the county’s assets at that moment – to get it in the bank before the weekend. 

Jones’ office was likely in the one of the two small brick buildings on the northerly east and west sides of the courthouse square. These two smaller structures had been constructed around 1852, replacing the county’s original two-story courthouse that had been torn down. A bit of history on that first courthouse – and the significance of the names David Foster, Harles Ashley, and John Bohan: 

In May 1844, town founder David Foster had agreed “to build a good log building twenty four feet square” for the County Commissioners as part of a title bond that included his original donation of “forty Acres be the same more or less” to establish the county seat of Richardville County in Kokomo. In March 1845, Foster was released from this obligation (for reasons not recorded), and, according to the first county records book, he and a “Dennis McCormick” were ordered to “select a lot to set the Courthouse on and in Case they do not agree to call a third person.”

A range of contractors contributed to construction. Foster himself provided the lumber and was tasked “to get a suitable number of seats” for the small two-story log building (the 1844 title bond had also stipulated Foster "furnish in his store quality stores sufficient for all public buildings in said County."). Work progressed during the summer of 1845, and the county record book shows the commissioners “met at the Courthouse in Kocomo” Sept. 1 that year. The building wasn’t quite finished, as the commissioners on June 3, 1846, called on county auditor John Bohan to “sell the completion of the Court Hous (sic) to the lowest bidder” (apparently the roof still needed work). At that same June meeting, treasurer Harles Ashley had presented Richardville County’s first-ever financial report, for 1845.

(Another interesting trivia note: John Bohan was the first county official to write “Howard County” in the county record books, in an entry dated Jan. 11, 1847. The Indiana General Assembly changed the county name to “Howard” from “Richardville” on Dec. 28, 1846; the formal copy of the notification was filed by the Clerk of the Circuit Court here on Feb. 13, 1847.)

Commercial activity and civic concerns had thus often brought Ashley, Bohan and Foster together for collective community projects, and by the early 1850s, the three enterprising pioneers naturally enough picked up a new pursuit: establishing a bank.

This was the “Free Bank Era,” 1837-1862, when state banks had replaced the federal banking system. Bank charters during this time required only approved articles of incorporation, rather than an act from a state legislature. According to one source, the number of banks in the United States jumped from about 25 to more than 700 at this time. Kokomo itself had no bank during its first 10 years. Indiana’s “Free Banking Act of 1852” resulted in a peak of 77 newly created banks through 1854, of which 42 were shuttered by November that year. Caught up in this “new-bank” mania, our three successful businessmen focused on finance, assessed their assets, selected a site (space in the back of 100 N. Main St. behind the John Bohan and Co. general store), presented the appropriate paperwork to Judge Charles D. Murray of Howard County, and Kokomo’s first bank -- the “Indian Reserve Bank” -- was incorporated April 1, 1854. Harles Ashley was the “active figure in the banking enterprise,” John Bohan was cashier, David Foster president.

Of the hundreds of banks nationwide that were chartered and then failed during this heady time (also commonly referred to as – coincidentally – the “Wildcat Banking” era), the “Indian Reserve Bank” seemed to have been a success. It’s interesting to see its name in numerous contemporaneous archives, present among the 40 or so “Indiana specie-paying banks” operating statewide in the late-1850s. Messrs. Bohan and Foster are the respective officers duly listed in the illustrious Indiana State Gazetteer and Business Directory for 1858 and 1859 (page 193). 

Alas, the “Indian Reserve Bank” also failed, and closed its books sometime during the late-1860s or early 1870s (the bank was still listed on the state auditor’s reports regarding the condition of “the old free banks, not yet wound up” as late as 1867). We do know that the event that triggered the demise of Kokomo’s ill-fated “Indian Reserve Bank” after seven seemingly solvent years in the back of what was known as “the Buckhorn Corner” building was due not to mismanagement or malfeasance, corporate negligence or counterfeiting.  
Someone simply stole the key to the safe.


Tuesday, April 30, 1861
$12,000 STOLEN!


A letter – “of considerable length” – had arrived in the Kokomo Tribune office on or about June 1, 1931.

The newspaper had recently printed a front-page article about the 70th anniversary of the “Biggest Local Robbery” that was still a “Deep Mystery.” Seventy years on, “no one knows who robbed the ‘Indian Reserve Bank’” the sub-headlines stated. The event was a “Sensation of Early Days,” the thief “got $14,700 in cold cash,” and most significantly – and a fact unchallenged yet today – “Not a Penny Was Ever Recovered.” 

From the start, the event was well-documented. “Our town was startled this morning by the news that the safe in the store of John Bohan had been opened last night and all the money taken out” began the story in the Howard Tribune on Tuesday, April 30, 1861 (the newspaper published weekly then). The basic facts remained in circulation for decades, re-appeared as brief references in various county histories, and were more prominently re-presented in occasional retrospective accounts in the newspapers. 

The initial details reported in the Howard Tribune are as follows:
  • The robbery occurred on the night of Sunday, April 28, 1861.
  • The safe was the one used by Bohan, Foster and Ashley.
  • Ashley had one of the keys to the safe.
  • On Sunday night, Ashley’s house was entered. (He lived at 208 [402 old style] E. Walnut St., on property that later was the site of the former YMCA building at Union and Walnut streets.) 
  • His trousers were removed from the residence and left in the alley.
  • The safe key and $200 cash had been taken from the trousers.
  • The banking room was entered through a window.
  • Notes and other papers that had been in the safe were found scattered over the floor.
  • • The initial theft amount was reportedly $12,000, later amended to $14,700 (Tribune, May 7, 1861), of which $11,832.41 were the deposits for the county treasury. 
Additional reporting through the years revealed no goods were stolen from the store; indeed, “nothing about the property was molested except the bank’s safe.”


Louisa Eugenie Foster was born in Kokomo Oct. 7, 1855, the youngest of David and Elizabeth Foster’s 11 children. She was born at home in the first Foster cabin, which sat at that time in the middle of what is now South Main Street, its front facing north. Later in life, she shared stories from childhood about how her father “had to cut away the underbrush and trim the trees for my mother to hang out her first washing” and how Foster himself had carried the water to clean the clothes “up the hill from Wildcat creek.”

The twice married Louisa Foster at some point adopted the name “Ida” and is thus known to historical researchers through her two husbands -- Thomas Baker and later William Henry Harrison Clark – as Ida Foster Baker Clark.

“Mrs. W.H. Clark” was also the author of the letter “of considerable length” that appeared in the Tribune offices in early June 1931. She had seen the article about the Indian Reserve Bank robbery, and though she was just a child that Sunday night 70 years earlier, she now provided stunning new details about a pivotal moment in Kokomo’s history. 
In particular, Ida Foster Baker Clark seemed intent still on coming to the defense of her father’s considerable esteem and reputation (which was never really tarnished, for reasons to explored later in this story). The three “accommodating and useful citizens” that ran the bank – Harles Ashley, John Bohan and David Foster – in the very first week after the robbery apparently were the immediate subject of “malicious stories,” of an “undertone of gossip,” and outright innuendo as to what became of the money. Her father, Clark pointed out, was a titular president, not actively involved in bank affairs, and “was as much surprised” as everyone else by what had happened. (The Howard Tribune in its May 7, 1861, issue was much more forceful condemning the rampant rumormongers regarding the robbery: “We wonder that the lips of some folks are not sealed by a miraculous stroke from Omnipotence.”)

What’s more, the “whole burden of making good the loss” fell upon David Foster. As the owners of a privately run bank, the three principal officers were completely liable. Through an odd set of circumstances, Foster was the only bank owner of the three who “held property subject to execution;” Bohan and Ashley’s property was all in their wives’ names. At any rate, an even worse fate awaited Ashley (he would be killed three years later in the Civil War).

But Ida Foster Baker Clark had something important to add to the story – information that “seems to have not been printed” in any of the initial reporting from the 1860s. 
Appearing for the first time in print that day (June 3, 1931) was Mrs. Clark’s recollections of a young man “related to Harless (sic) Ashley” who “slept in the Bohan store every night.” This night watchman’s apparent purview primarily was protecting the store and the bank safe. Plus, his permanent companion was a “large and savage dog,” Mrs. Clark recalled, who was “particularly vigilant.” So attuned was the animal that a mere “footfall on the sidewalk” either in front of the store or in the alley behind would cause the dog to rush around the store, “barking and snarling.” Once alerted, “the master” would have to have a look around the building before the “dog could be quieted.”

Reference in the article is also made to persons passing the store on their way from church that very Sunday evening saying they “recalled hearing the dog, their footfalls having aroused him.” 

The day after the Tribune published the story about receiving Mrs. Clark’s letter with its startling new details, an 81-year-old man walked into the Tribune offices at the northeast corner of Union and Mulberry streets. He was no doubt greeted warmly and by name. His was a familiar face. 

DeLos Bell, besides being touted in 1931 as “one of Kokomo’s oldest citizens in point of continuous residence within its borders,” was at the time of his death three years later also regaled as the oldest member by “continuous connection” with the local branch of the Typographical Union. His appearance that June afternoon in the Tribune was thus not atypical, since “as long as he was able to get around he made almost daily calls at the Tribune’s composing room.” His association with the Tribune reached back almost 70 years. He had “barely entered his teens” when he was apprenticed with the newspaper, then still the Howard Tribune (undoubtedly his earliest typesetting tasks were original reports of Civil War battles). When Bell started, it’s possible the paper was still located on the second floor of the Buckhorn Corner building at Main and Sycamore, above the John Bohan and Co. store and the Indian Reserve Bank.

At age 81, therefore, his knowledge about Kokomo and its history was “fully and accurately informed,” his reminiscences practically unimpeachable. There was a very simple reason for that. He physically printed most of it. 


At the time of the bank robbery, Bell was “a lad of about ten years of age” and “resided within a block of the institution.” The Bell home was on “Buckeye street, a short distance south of Walnut,” which would put the residence presumably in the vicinity of Walnut and Sycamore on the west side of the Courthouse square, opposite the Buckhorn Corner at Main and Sycamore on the east side of the square. (Although the Tribune refers to the elder Bell as a “pioneer resident,” according to the first county records book, L.C. Bell was not one of the original lot purchasers in June 1845, so they perhaps bought a house in the second wave of settlers.)

While Ida Foster Baker Clark likely was relating details she had learned later (she was only 5 at the time of the robbery), Bell was not only older, but he was actually there. That day in June 1931 at the Tribune, he said Mrs. Clark’s letter stated “very accurately the facts and circumstances” of the Monday morning following the robbery as he recalled them. He remembered being “in the crowd that milled around the front of the building where the bank operated” and of the “excitement that followed the discovery” of the robbery. He remembered many of the people who had assembled there, though as far as he knew all “are now dead.” 
Bell too related the story of “the mysterious young man and savage dog” supposedly in the banking room the night of the robbery. Bell further confirmed to the Tribune that he “knew the young man and recalls the dog as a particularly large and savage animal.”

DeLos Bell and Ida Foster Baker Clark further agreed on one stupendous detail. According to Mrs. Clark, when the robbery was discovered that Monday morning, “neither master nor the dog could be found.” 

Their disappearance – and whatever happened to the $14,700 stolen from Kokomo’s “Indian Reserve Bank” – remain mysteries to this day.