Connections: The Bank Heist

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By Tuesday, May 13 Life In the Berkshires, Viewpoints  3 Comments

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history treat it as escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America 2014.

At 4 p.m. on March 10, 2014, Christopher Blair of Hillsdale, N.Y., allegedly entered the Stockbridge branch of Lee Bank and robbed it. It was a rare and shocking event in the sleepy law-abiding village. In its 275 year history (1739 – 2014) Stockbridge banks were robbed only twice before: Stockbridge Savings Bank in 1891 and the Housatonic National Bank in 1935.

A purist may not call the event in 1891 a stick-up; the proper term may be embezzlement. However, the act was so blatant and the result so harmful that the term bank robbery fits. Deposits were not insured; depositors were stripped of their savings, and the bank was closed.

The difficulties began in 1890. Bank examiners learned that the Stockbridge Savings Bank made unsecured loans in amounts greater than what they could cover. The bank was being bled and one of the beneficiaries was legal counsel for the bank, Henry J. Dunham Esq.

When it became clear that Dunham had borrowed from every other bank in South Berkshire, from every friend and relative with no hope of repaying any of them, the situation was declared grave, and a receiver was appointed.

The obligation of F.A. Hobbs, receiver, was to investigate, determine the net assets of the bank, pay off account holders whatever percent of their total deposits the bank could afford, and close the doors.

So Dunham was the whole problem, right? Wrong; Dunham was just the beginning. Early reports said things were not as bad as feared and depositors may receive as much as 87 percent of their savings account balances, but then everything stalled. It became a long and convoluted process stretching over years, confusing everyone in Berkshire who attempted to understand the situation or improve conditions at the little bank on Main Street. With the distance of 123 years, what happened is easier to understand. In fact, it is simple: The receiver was a crook.

F.A. Hobbs had no intention of distributing money to the account holders and no intention of closing the bank. Hobbs was in sole control of a cash cow, and he intended to milk it every day. Every day, that is, until the courts finally stepped in, demanded he pay the depositors from what was left, and go to prison for the vast amount he had been paying himself.

Between noon and 12:30 on Jan. 10, 1935, “four well-armed bandits” entered the Housatonic National Bank on Main Street Stockbridge. They forced the five people in the bank – three employees and two customers – into the basement where they were handcuffed. The quartet escaped with an amount reputed to be over $7,000 (almost $100,000 today). Within three days, the amount stolen was paid into the bank by its insurance company and no depositor was harmed.

One of the men involved, the one suspected to be the leader, was named Nathan Martin. Martin was 40 years old, a resident of Great Barrington, and an account holder at the bank. He was killed during a bank robbery in Canada later the same year.

What’s the connection? It is a sad one. Hobbs, Martin, and Blair were all three substance abusers. It is odd but true that Derek Gentile in The Berkshire Eagle writes almost the same words about Blair in 2014 that a reporter wrote about Martin in 1935, 79 years earlier, and another reporter wrote about Hobbs 123 years ago.

Derek Gentile, March 21, 2014: “He [Blair] had a respectable trade and a family. Several years ago he found himself in the grip of a terrible addiction [heroin].”

Springfield Republican, Dec. 11, 1935: “…Martin was known as a steady and sober workman having good employment [as a butcher on Railroad Street in Great Barrington]…then became involved with alcohol which led to his downfall.”

Springfield RepublicanJan. 29, 1896: “He [Hobbs] was a respected citizen and good family man until he developed a morphine habit which grew upon him…during the time he was acting as receiver of Stockbridge Bank, he was addicted.”

The District Attorney in the Hobbs case said addiction was neither an excuse nor an extenuating circumstance and the judge seemed to agree. Hobbs was sentenced to 10 years maximum; seven years minimum.

Martin’s erratic behavior escalated until in the last bank heist, he killed a teller. The Canadian police cared little if alcohol was the cause of his behavior. When they had a clean shot, they took it, and Martin died.

The issue is not if drug and alcohol abuse constitute a legal defense; the issue is that there is a statistically significant relationship between addiction and crime.

The War on Drugs is only decades old; the problem of the correlation between addiction and crime, history teaches us, is more than a century old…probably as old as the history of humankind.









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3 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Laury Epstein says:

    This is so interesting. Love the historical perspective.

  2. Alice Radosh says:

    the issue is NOT that there is a statistically significant relationship between addiction and crime, the issue is that the corporations that run the liquor industry are making big money creating addicts. Read Lethal But Legal by Nicholas Freudenberg

  3. Christopher F Blair says:

    Two contemporaries, roughly, unrelated by family, within the same employment classifications, and with the same name, have not followed the same paths. The myriad of opportunities to derail a life exist. Often there is little but judgement that keeps the top spinning upright. So where is the judgement from? How sharp and discerning? How strong a foundation is it placed upon? My college roommate left school before the end of first semester unable to substitute his own parental controls for those of his not-present parents. It’s a very complex playing field. You can not help but note the cheap, ready supply of illegal narcotics in our own neighborhood. It’s a sad story in all centuries. Thanks for the provocative piece.

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