The Pitt Street Bank

The prompt for The Chatham Writers Group for today was to write about a bank, in any genre. I chose to write a fiction piece. This is linked to an earlier story published on this blog titled ”Freedom”. The slave owning tobacco farmer, Asa Washburn, is the link. In a sense, then, this is another chapter in the story of Galileo Washburn – although his name does not appear in this story, …yet.

The Underground Railroad in action

The Pitt Street Bank

Alexandria, Virginia 1854

The morning began on a good note for Nathaniel Dutton, owner of the Pitt Street Bank.  The first visitor that day had been an impressive looking gentleman from Savannah, Georgia, named Edward Farnsworth.  He owned a shipping firm, was expanding his operations in Alexandria, and wanted to open a business account.   Nathaniel expressed his interest in managing his accounts, however Farnsworth had some concerns he hoped could be addressed.

“First, I have to admit I am not a Quaker.  I understand you are and the rumor is you offer limited services to non-Quakers.”

Nathaniel assured Farnsworth the bank had many customers who were not Quakers, including several who had business accounts.  He mentioned the owner of the largest tobacco plantation in Fairfax County has his accounts with the bank,   “Asa Washburn’s his name.  He will be here later today if you would like to meet him.”

“I just might,” said Farnsworth.  “The second thing I need to know is how secure my deposits and banking records will be.  You are close to the Potomac River.  Will the damp basement damage them?”

“Everything is stored on our 3rd floor to prevent something like that from happening.  We have another safe on that floor,” assured Nathaniel.

Seemingly satisfied with Dutton’s answers, Farnsworth rose to leave and said he might come back to meet the tobacco farmer.  “Two of my associates will be in shortly to meet with you. Good day sir.” Tipping his hat to the cashiers, Farnsworth left the bank and turned towards Queen Street.

Three men on the corner of Queen Street watched Farnsworth striding from the bank.  Stopping in front of them he snarled, “I believe that damn abolitionist have my property on the top floor of his damn abolitionist bank.  Ya’ll go git ‘em now!”

Nathaniel was gathering the documents needed to open Farnsworth’s account when two of the seediest men he had ever seen swaggered into the bank.  Long greasy hair fell from the sweat stained hats to their shoulders.  Beneath their filthy linen dusters, he could see each man had a curled whip on one hip, and a Colt’s Dragoon revolver holstered on the other.  Hard eyes glared above bushy beards.  One was a good head taller than the other. Following them was the Fairfax County Marshal.  

“Can I help you gentlemen?”, asked Nathaniel.  The two hard cases scoffed at the word “gentleman”.

“We heared ya’ll got a rat problem in ya’ll’s attic,” said the short one.

“Yeah, us is gonna get rid of ‘em for ya’ll,” chuckled the other.  Both men were missing several teeth.

“What’s this all about marshal?”, asked Nathaniel.  Holding up a document, the marshal  apologized and said the two men were seeking runaway slaves.  “What’s that have to do with me?”

The marshal coughed and explained that someone believed Nathaniel was harboring runaway slaves somewhere in his bank.  He couldn’t hide his embarrassment.  “I’m sure it’s all a misunderstand, Mr Dutton,” he said, handing Nathaniel the document.  Under the Fugitive Slave Laws, the two men, along with the Federal Marshal were permitted to search a dwelling if the owners were suspected of hiding runaway slaves.  The document was signed by none other than Edward Farnsworth.  

A typical ”advertisement” associated with Fugitive Slave Act

Fugitive Slave Act in action

Pushing Dutton ahead of them, the two men clomped up the stairs to the 3rd floor of the bank.  Following them, the marshal puffed, “There’s no need to manhandle Mr. Dutton, he is a respected…”

“Don’t be tellin’ us how to do our bidness,”  growled the taller slave hunters.

Dutton unlocked the door to the records room on the third floor.  Shafts of light angled in from the windows on each side of the room.  Eight rows of oak file cabinets stretched back towards a large safe at the end of the room.  There were doors on either side of the safe.  Nathaniel was ordered by the tall man to,  “Open ‘em doors n’at safe now.”  Fumbling with the keys on a  ring, Nathaniel found the one he needed and reached for the door.  The slave hunters yanked the Colt’s from their holsters.  “Is that really necessary?”, asked Nathaniel.  

“You don’t tell us our bidness!”, hissed the seedy short man.  The door swung open to a reveal a room with tall oak cabinets lining the walls.  There was a table in the middle of the room with four chairs.  Light came from a single window high on the back wall.  

The same scenario was repeated when  Nathaniel opened the door to the other room and the safe.  “These are rooms for safety deposit customers to store valuable documents,” he explained.  With bewildered looks, the two slave hunters stalked around the outer room, shaking cabinets and asking Nathaniel to open some of them.

“We’re checkin’ for false fronts.”  The search was fruitless.  “Tain’t nobody here.  Looks like tain’t nobody ever been here.”  The seedy men were perplexed.  “What’s on the middle floor?”, asked the taller man.  

“Offices,” replied Nathaniel.

“We’d best have a look then.”

“You said your interest was on the 3rd floor,” objected Nathaniel.

Snatching the writ from the marshal’s hand, the shorter slave hunter proclaimed, “This here paper gives us the theority to look anywhere’s we want!”

“He means authority,” said the marshal.

“You got somethin’ there you don’t want us to see?”, asked the tall one. 

“Not at all,” answered Nathaniel.

The search of the 2nd floor offices also revealed nothing amiss.  They stomped out of the offices, clumped loudly back down the stairs and stormed from the bank without uttering another word.  The marshal apologized to Nathaniel and he left the bank.

Nathaniel let out a long breath, turned to the cashiers and said, “Well, that was very interesting.”  The cashiers gave nervous laughs.  “I have to go back upstairs and lock the safety deposit room doors.  I’ll be back down shortly.”

Entering the 3rd floor room, Nathaniel closed the safe and gave a spin to the combination lock.  He closed and locked the door to the right of the safe.  Entering the room to the left of the safe, he went to a cabinet of drawers on the right. Leaning against the cabinet, he softly said, “Everything will be alright, the hunters have left.  We will get you out of here and on your way to safety very soon.”  The 8 escaped slaves, huddled in the secret room behind the safe, let out a collective cry of relief.

Poster warning of presence of slave hunters
A Boston broadside warning presence of slave hunters

Ernie Stricsek

The Chatham Writers Group


3 thoughts on “The Pitt Street Bank

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