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Howard County History

Devastating robbery of county's first bank - Part Two

(from Footprints, August 2018)
by Gil Porter

 
He had humble beginnings. Carpenter, shop-keeper, an unpretentious yet uncommon businessman who turned a mud hole into a town. His family’s name is forever a part of the history of the United States of America.
In February 1836, the 27-year-old Virginia-native David and 21-year-old New York-native Elizabeth Foster arrived in Carroll County by way of southern Indiana, where they had married, and sold “dry goods and groceries” to the Miami Indians living in the area. In March 1840, the Fosters moved to the extreme eastern edge of the settler-friendly Seven Mile Strip (land acquired from the Miami as part of 1834 Forks of the Wabash treaty). They set up shop in a small cabin and trading post about a half-mile north of the Wildcat Creek, right on today’s boundary line between Ervin and Clay townships. In 1842, the family ventured six more miles to the east and stopped at a clearing on the north side of the landmark Rapids of the Wildcat.

At that time, as Amanda Foster Welsh would tell the Kokomo Tribune in 1927, there was an “Indian village located on the high ground” about a quarter-mile south of the creek, “near where Main St. now runs.” Mrs. Welsh was David and Elizabeth’s second-to-last child and the last surviving member of the immediate family (she died in 1946). If she had her distance estimated correctly, the village was where West Harrison Street meets South Main Street. According to Amanda, the traditional story that the present city was named for the head man of the village is “authentic” and “correct,” since she heard the story directly from her parents. Her father called him “Ma-ko-ko-ma.”

Shrewd trader, prosperous land owner, consummate civic booster, David Foster was a family man, “kindly of heart” and a devoted friend of the Indians. Manually and materially, Foster was involved in his town and always willing to help a fellow citizen. Though no doubt eccentric, “Uncle Dave” was generous, well-remembered, and there “wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for a friend.”

Surely he knew every single depositor of the Indian Reserve Bank very well. They were his neighbors, his customers, his business associates, and his friends. He donated the land for the county seat, and the county government was one of his top depositors. When their money went missing from his bank, he immediately set to work to pay them back. 

*****

When the Indian Reserve Bank was robbed on the night of Sunday, April 28, 1861, the principal officers of the privately run bank – notable pioneers Harles Ashley, John Bohan and town founder David Foster – were completely liable for the loss; there was no FDIC insuring deposits in the 1860s. The robbery – and whatever happened to the $14,700 that was stolen – remains unsolved to this day.

Of the three men, Ashley was the “active participant in banking activities,” a modest brick mason and contractor by trade and although he had for years been a partner in John Bohan’s general store, he had “comparatively meagre holdings.” (Ashley was killed in the Civil War in 1864.) Bohan was the more successful merchant; he owned property and thus was “in good circumstances.” David Foster, on the other hand, at the time was unquestionably the wealthiest individual in Howard County.

Regarding the robbery itself, a “vigorous investigation” was begun immediately by county authorities. The Howard Tribune in its initial account of the robbery (April 30, 1861, two days after the event since the weekly paper published on Tuesdays then) reported that “Persons are out in all directions this morning” and yet “no clue to the thief” was known. The subsequent investigation turned up nothing, although it was generally understood that the thief was “well-posted about all the arrangements of house and the business.” (The day of the robbery, Ashley’s home was burglarized and the bank’s safe key and $200 stolen from his trouser pocket.) Furthermore, it was always suspected “the thief knew” that the county’s tax funds had been deposited in the bank, and that “robbery of the safe would yield several thousand dollars.”

Most of the money stolen – $11,842.31, the equivalent of about $3 million today – represented county deposits. The morning after the robbery, the county is nearly insolvent (the majority of the stolen money was the county’s spring collection of taxes). County taxes did in fact go up the following year; the grading of the streets around the Courthouse Square, the relief fund for Civil War “volunteers’ families,” and the “robbery of the county money” (emphasis added) altogether made “additional tax necessary,” the Howard Tribune reported in June 1862.

In May of 1862, treasurer Hiram Jones, as plaintiff representing Howard County, brought suit against the bank owners. The defendants -- Harles Ashley, John Bohan and David Foster -- were represented by David C. Metsker, an eminent attorney “prominent in the early history” of Kokomo, at the time also serving a four-year term as county clerk, and appeared before Judge Joseph S. Buckles of Muncie, only the sixth circuit court judge to serve young Howard County. Interestingly, the three bank officers immediately chose to “waive the issuing and service of process herein and confess judgment in favor of said plaintiff.” Furthermore, in their affidavits, the defendants acknowledged the “debt is just and owed” and the intent of this confession was “not made for the purpose of defrauding” their creditors. Finally, the defendants further waived “all right and benefit” of appeal.

On May 30, 1862, Judge Buckles ruled in favor of the plaintiff (the treasurer of Howard County). A “writ of execution” on the “foregoing judgment” was duly issued by the “Clerk of Said Court” to the sheriff of Howard County who was “commanded” to “recover of the defendants the said sum of $11,832.41 and all costs laid out and expended.” The sheriff was to “have the money at the Clerk’s Office to Satisfy said judgment” within 180 days “from the date thereof.”  

*****

Early on Friday, Oct. 17, 1862, Sheriff Napoleon “Ned” Brown made his way across the courthouse square on a fine fall day in Howard County. The original two-story log courthouse was gone, and work would not begin on a new building for another six years. County business was conducted in two temporary one-story brick buildings on the north end of the lot. (Town officials were over on Main Street between Mulberry and Taylor.) The Auditor and Treasurer offices were in the west building. The east building housed the county Clerk, Sheriff and Recorder.

Sheriff Brown affixed to the east building’s door that day a paper publicly announcing that between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. a “sale at public auction” would be held for “said real estate.” “Sheriff’s Sale” notifications are also printed in local newspapers, then and now, and the appearance of this one in the Howard Tribune on Sept, 25, 1862, provides an interesting side note to history. On a preceding page in that issue, an article appeared datelined Washington, D.C., Sept. 22. The headline at the top of the column: “A Most Important Proclamation from the President.” It was the first public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, which would take effect Jan. 1 the following year.

Back at the Courthouse Square, “no bids” were received during the allotted time at the makeshift court house that afternoon, so the sheriff then “offered the fee simple of the following real estate for sale.” In anticipation of the sheriff’s sale, the “levied on” property had previously been “surveyed and laid off” in 18 separate lots. The survey was completed Oct. 16, 1862, by county surveyor John Newlin and duly recorded in the Recorder’s office Oct. 18. In all, 401.8 acres from David Foster’s original 640-acre “float” were now for sale to satisfy the county debt. 

*****

In May 1862, Foster’s property is “levied upon” in the court judgment for the County to be made whole for the robbery. In October 1862, after no bids are received during the sheriff’s sale of Foster’s property, all 401.8 acres of the newly surveyed “Plat of Foster’s Float Section South of the Wildcat Creek” is sold “in fee simple” to the highest bidder (Bohan also sold several of his properties as part of this sale to satisfy the court judgment). All 18 lots were sold to only five individuals: Nelson Cooper (22.5 acres), William Garr (76.3 acres), N.R. Linsday (5 acres), John Walters (10 acres), and Collin A. Jones, a “pioneer” farmer in Monroe Township (and likely a friend of the Fosters) who paid $6,682.50 for 288 acres “more or less” at the sheriff’s sale.

In hindsight, Foster apparently used “straw-man deed” agreements (a regular and legal method of conveyance whereby an "owner of land may desire to borrow money using land as security") and the Indiana “sinking fund” to raise more than sufficient funds to pay back the depositors of the Indian Reserve Bank for their loss. (Sinking funds are like a “loan loss reserve” fund. Institutions or individuals could use property to raise money to cover future loan or other unanticipated losses, rather like insurance.) That the money was paid back is a matter of record as well. The original judgment against the three bank officers in May 1862 stipulated “said Sheriff was commanded to levy said sums of money of the property of the Defendants” and to “have the money at the Clerk’s Office to Satisfy said Judgment Interest + costs.” The sheriff was to “return said writ” within “one hundred eighty days.” The return of which was so noted Nov. 4, 1862, 158 days after the judgment and 555 days after the money was stolen.

Not only was the debt satisfied, but Foster was able to regain most of the land as well. Two “quit claim” deeds (including the 288 acres Collin Jones bought) over the next 10 years transferred more than a third of the south side properties back to the family.

But why did Foster go to such lengths to pay back the debt? One (probable) “straw-man deed” transfer in November 1861 raised more than enough to cover the $14,700 stolen from the Indian Reserve Bank. It may be Foster and fellow bank officers Bohan and Ashley wanted to get a judgment and subsequent levy against their property “on record,” which may have accomplished a couple of things. Remember that the three officers were the immediate subject of “malicious stories” when the robbery occurred. Once in court, recall too they immediately waived all right of appeal. So the court judgment basically prevented any further action against them (by an individual depositor, for example). Even more forward-thinking, the judgment, sheriff’s sale and all future transactions is now a matter of public record and is and will be recorded in every property abstract for every single lot in the 401.8-acre area in perpetuity. While the stolen money has never been recovered, that the amount lost was paid back by the bank officers is indisputable. 

*****

The transaction that triggered the development of South Kokomo happened on April 6, 1875, when a “warranty deed” for $9,500 was filed in the Recorder’s Office of Howard County. The purchasers were Edward C. Scoven, Addison F. Armstrong, Harrison H. Stewart, Isaac C. Johnson, and Theodore A. Davis. The seller: David Foster. The deeded property contained “47 1/2 acres” that originally were Lots No. 3-9 in the 18 lots surveyed for the 1862 sheriff’s sale following the judgment against Foster’s property in the aftermath of the bank robbery. The resulting “Plat and Field Notes of South Kokomo” – entered at the Recorder’s Office on June 2, 1875 -- describe how “Main Street is laid off Parallel to Union Street and both are 60 feet wide.” The cross streets were “laid off at right angles” and originally were ordinal numbers, starting with Second, Third, Fourth down to Ninth (the names have since been changed or the thoroughfares altered; only South 17th Street retains that nomenclature).

The sale of those 40-odd acres and the resulting “Plat of South Kokomo” in 1875 would be followed by a rapid series of property deals that fueled the further development of Kokomo. Within 10 years, the discovery of natural gas in the county would lead to even more explosive growth, bringing industry and opportunity for entrepreneurs and working families alike. Indeed, by the late 1880s, the south side as we know it today was beginning to take shape.

History does not help us know what Foster may have originally had in mind for the south side before he began to sell it. The story goes that he wouldn’t give it to the locating commissioners in 1844 for the county seat. Maybe he envisioned family farmland, community greenspace, or a traditional hunting and fishing haven like the Indians used. It is documented that from the very beginning he supported various “improvements” relating to the burgeoning roadways and eventually for the railroads. The county record book shows in December 1846 Foster "solemnly and without any reservation grants and gives to the public forever a sufficient width of ground" for “any bridge that may be erected across said Wild Cat River” (the county commissioners then almost immediately approved the site for a bridge “at the foot of Buckeye Street”). Beyond that, we may never know. 

We do know it forever affected the fortunes of the Foster family. Some of the 401.8 acres from the 1862 sheriff’s sale had already been sold, and the 314.52 acres the Foster family retained from David’s original 640-acre float were divided among his surviving heirs as “tenants in common” after his death, intestate, in 1877. (It took a full year for the courts to sort out the heirs’ property partition request and five years to settle the estate.) Absent a definitive collective plan, the 13 heirs – five living children and eight grandchildren (Elizabeth had died in 1871) – during their lifetimes presumably enjoyed their respective portions and over time each parcel was eventually sold out of the family for personal profit. Foster’s daughter Margaret, who married into the Markland family, received about 60 acres. Her “generous disposition” and “cheering and helpful presence” (though born in Burlington, when she died in 1904 at age 67 she was considered the oldest resident of Kokomo in terms of continuous years) no doubt led to her married family’s namesake: Kokomo’s most prominent south-side east-west thoroughfare (Markland Avenue).

Have a look at the 1877 Combination Atlas and that unmistakable extension of Main and Union streets south of the Wildcat Creek is vivid testimony to all that went before. Expansion was bound to happen, but the consequential robbery of the Indian Reserve Bank – and David Foster dying without a will – certainly expedited the inevitable. After buying the first 47½ acres of land from Foster, over the next few years Armstrong, Harrison et al. surveyed, platted, and sold lots that quickly seeded new subdivisions. Kokomo’s south side land rush was about to begin.