Traditional histories of Nantucket tend to bypass the period of the island's
history from the end of the American Revolution to the War of 1812; typically there is a passing reference to the hardships
faced by Nantucket families during this time, and that the whaling industry had entered a period of decline and neglect. Such
a brief mention might lead the reader to believe that very little occurred on the island during this time; in fact, it was
one of the most tumultuous and fractious periods in Nantucket's history. Old patterns of allegiance and behavior were fragmenting,
and national fault lines of political belief that divided one American from another served as convenient shorthand referencing
personal enmities. The final shock that ruptured these faults was a scarcely-remembered event called the Nantucket Bank Robbery
of 1795, but the origin of the initial fractures lay in the very foundation of pre-war Nantucket itself.
before the War for Independence is often portrayed as an idyllic, prosperous community, tightly knit and harmonious. Partly
the result of the necessities of island life, partly due to the tangled webs of intermarriage and relations that bound one
to the other, the cement that joined this happy extended family was undoubtedly their Quaker faith. Plain speaking, plain
dealing and plain dress defined their behavior and appearance, and any outward display of ostentation, frippery, or general
high-falutin' was frowned upon. Civil authority was virtually non-existent, and unnecessary -- the real power center
on the island was the Quaker Meetinghouse, and transgressors were dealt with there rather than in the courts.
was a dark side, of course -- human nature will find an out, and the overpowering nature of the Quaker domination of
the island demanded an eventual rebellion against its authority. The irony is that Quakers were originally seen as the "hippies"
of early Protestantism, recognizing only the authority of their own Inner Light, showing up naked at meetings, and generally
upsetting any upstanding citizens who happened to be nearby (what, you thought that early Quakers were whipped, branded and
hung for saying "thee" and "thou" to everybody?). There were two sources of discontent, generally speaking: the non-Quakers
on Nantucket, many of them Presbyterians or "Nothingarians", who accepted the dominance of the Quakers but still sought alternative
channels of activity, such as Freemasonry; and the younger members of the Quaker faith, who were experiencing a greater degree
of contact with the profane world as the island's prosperity increased.
The records of the Quaker meetings show an
increasing number of instances of members being punished for transgressions that were rather more entertaining than doctrinal
--owning a spinet, for example (a kind of small, upright harpsichord) or heading out to the House of Entertainment in Polpis
with a gaggle of Nothingarians. The Quaker domination of the island was beginning to falter, and the reaction of The Powers
That Were was to clamp down -- hard. The results, predictable as well as inevitable, was a further erosion of consensus
within the community. It was precisely at this moment that disaster struck, in the form of the rebellion of the American colonies
against Crown and Parliament.
Nantucket was hard hit by the American Revolution; our island lay open to the predations
of both the English and the American rebels, and could rely on neither for protection from the other. Consequently, Nantucket
was forced to follow the perilous path of neutrality during the conflict, with the inevitable result that the island';s merchant
and whaling fleet was subject to search and confiscation by both sides (of course Nantucket's reservations about the war weren't
simply economic -- there was a religious component as well. Pacifism was (and is) a cornerstone of the island's Quakerism,
and there were many instances of young men being "read out", or cast out, of the Meeting for sailing aboard armed vessels).
To make matters worse, the majority of Nantucket's whaling products were traded with England rather than the colonies (as
was required by law at the time) with the result that the local economy was in shambles.
Not everyone did badly during
the war; one woman became so famous, or infamous, for her activities during the Revolution that a book called Miriam Coffin,
or the Whale Fisherman was based upon her. Her real name was Kezia Coffin, and she was about as sharp as they came. Starting
with a small business selling pins she marshaled her enterprises into a commercial network that stretched from London to Boston,
New York and Philadelphia. With the outbreak of war Kezia saw an opportunity for a shrewd Tory businesswoman such as herself:
she made arrangements with the local British admiral to allow whale oil and candles to be shipped to Britain, and other goods
to be smuggled onto the island and stashed away in a bunker that she maintained in the vicinity of Quaise. Kezia then sold
these goods at vastly inflated prices to her neighbors and cousins. Fortunately this was the last instance of price gouging
ever noted on Nantucket.
Kezia's daughter, also named Kezia, married an aspiring young lawyer (Nantucket's first,
as it happens) named Phineas Fanning, who arrived on the island shortly before the war. It's a good indicator of Mother Kezia's
will that she encouraged her daughter to marry not only someone outside the Meeting, but a lawyer to boot, whom she no doubt
anticipated could help her with her many lawsuits. As it happens, Kezia's litigious nature proved her undoing -- her
many debtors banded together and Kezia's attempt to foreclose on a large number of properties collapsed, leaving her ruined
financially. She was sent to a debtor's prison in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and her daughter and son-in-law Phineas were left
penniless. More on them to come.
The end of the war found the island mired in deep depression. The whaling fleet was
scattered, sunk or captured by the British. Many Nantucketers had moved to the mainland in search of work; more than a few
of Nantucket's young men, serving on privateers, met their fates in the rotting hulks of British prison ships. Those who remained
often had to rely on the charity of others to survive. To make matters worse, Britain slapped high import duties on American
goods, such a whale oil, ir order to protect its domestic trade. Nantucket whalers moved to Nova Scotia (and eventually to
Milford Haven) or Dunkirk in France, to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the British and French governments.
Global events once again conspired to effect change on Nantucket. With the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789
and the resulting war with Britain in 1793, many of the diaspora Nantucketers returned to their island home, wealthy beyond
the dreams of those who had remained behind. They brought back with them a pro-French attitude and revolutionary zeal, at
just the moment in time when battle lines were forming throughout the newly christened United States of America over exactly
what form the new nation would take. Those battle lines would reach right into the shattered heart of Nantucket, running along
the fault lines within that lay hidden all this time, bursting asunder its treasured harmony and dividing neighbors and friends
alike. It was to be a time of great acrimony and bitterness, of wild accusations, slander and double-dealing. There's even
an astrologer involved.
Quakerism, which had begun the eighteenth century poised to become one of the major faiths
of the New World, ended it almost as an irrelevancy. As Quakerism became more and more respectable (in the 1600's being a
Quaker could have gotten you whipped, branded or worse), and as members of the Meeting gained worldly wealth and political
power (especially in Pennsylvania and Nantucket) many Quakers began to worry that their faith was losing its rigor. Consequently
a tightening of discipline occurred, resulting in the "reading out" or expulsion, of many Quakers from their local meetings,
for such infractions as wearing fancy clothing or dancing. These expulsions, combined with a voluntary loss of members and
a lack of converts (no surprise there), resulted in a smaller, more inward-looking movement that failed to thrive.
American Revolution accelerated this trend; many Quakers who joined the rebels were expelled, and the general perception persisted
that Quakers were more than merely pacifists -- that they were in fact closet Tories, with Nantucket leading the way.
Naturally after the war this proved less than popular, and Quakerism declined further, eventually falling into schism in the
early nineteenth century about the influence of other Protestant denominations on their beliefs.
Nantucket was not
immune to these external forces, and if anything they were accentuated by the loss of so many Quaker whaling captains and
owners to new home ports overseas. During this time the Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists and Episcopalians made great
headway on the island, especially the first two groups who followed an evangelical faith that provided a vibrant alternative
to the staid, dour Quakers. There was also a great degree of overlap in membership between these growing denominations and
Freemasonry, which was firmly planted on Nantucket in 1771 and remains active to this day. These group provided an alternative
social and political power structure for non-Quakers who were alienated from the power base of the Quaker meeting.
the power of the Quaker meeting began its inexorable slide on Nantucket, events were transpiring on the mainland that would
only increase the widening divide between Friends and families on the island. The nation as a whole was riven, for the first
time, by party politics: a struggle between the Federalists, the party of Washington and Adams, who favored a strong central
government and national bank, and the Democratic-Republicans, led by Jefferson, who opposed the bank and any centralization
of governmental powers. The Federalist camp tended to be dominated by wealthy merchants, and was concentrated in the Northeast.
They were generally pro-British, as much of their trade was with the former mother country. The Democratic-Republicans were
typically southern, agrarian and admired the French Revolution, at least until the Reign of Terror.
Quaker majority, many of whom were newly returned from France, were typically ardent Democratic-Republicans (presumably in
part due to an aversion to off-island influence over local matters). The problem was, however, that Nantucket was but a tiny
speck of Democratic-Republicanism in a sea of Federalism, at a time when the Federalist Adams was in the White House. At the
time the spoils system dictated that governmental appointments went to the party faithful, and Nantucket was no exception;
as a result, state and federal jobs, such as Postmaster, went to local Federalists on Nantucket. In the case of Postmaster,
the appointment was given to one William Coffin II.
William Coffin II was a fascinating, irascible old coot. His house
still stands at 29 Union Street; I gaze out of my bedroom window onto it each morning. Federalist, Freemason, Congregationalist
(and later Unitarian), Coffin was a man who lived on an island where the majority prided themselves on circumspection and
couldn't seem to keep his mouth shut. Throughout his entire long life Coffin repeatedly found himself in the middle of controversy,
sometimes on the side of the angels but often to his own detriment. His outspokenness made him many enemies, as we shall see.
While there were underlying faults that ran through the entire community, faults than would soon rupture and not be
healed for decades, William Coffin II seems to have been the focus of much discontent. Given his tendency for forthrightness
(to put it mildly), as a Federalist in Democratic-Republican Nantucket Coffin exacerbated an already antagonistic situation;
the return of the whalers from abroad added further tinder to pyre. All that was required was the spark to ignite it --
a spark that would take the form of the Great Nantucket Bank Robbery of 1795.
The bare facts of the matter are briefly
stated: on the very foggy night of June 20, 1795 three men, using keys fashioned from pewter spoons, broke into the newly-chartered
Nantucket Bank, located where the Sports Locker is now. The bank had only been in business for approximately two weeks but
had a substantial (for the time) amount of hard cash on hand, to the tune of $20,000 in various denominations of coins (when
the robbery was first discovered the bank directors kept a lid on things until the 26th, when a general alarm was raised,
in order to allow for a transfer of additional capital so that the bank would not fold if there were a run on its holdings).
Business in Nantucket came to a standstill as people milled about in the street for days; wild conspiracies theories
abounded, but curiously many locals refused to consider the possibility that the robbery had been committed by strangers.
Most people felt that they had a pretty good idea who had done the deed: suspicion immediately fell upon one Randall Rice,
a native Rhode Islander who had married a local girl, operated a slaughterhouse, and, most damning of all in the eyes of island
Quaker's, did some legal work on the side. One wonders also if Rice's combination of ruthless business and legal tactics used
to acquire his property (located at the base of Old North Wharf) at the expense of his impoverished neighbors, not to mention
being a Federalist, did not add to his patina of guilt.
Apparently Rice was initially fingered by one Walter Folger,
Sr. (whose son was a bank director), an avowed Democrat, amateur phrenologist (they claimed that the shape of a mans head
and the bumps on it could be used as a kind of lumpy psych test) and repeated targets of Rice's lawsuits. On June 22nd, Folger
averred, he had been walking from his house to the wharves along Liberty Street and had passed Rice in front of Uriah Swain's
house (another bank director, who owned 5 Liberty Street -- the present home of Catherine Flanagan Stover, our Town Clerk);
Rice, unsurprisingly, crossed the street to avoid him. Folger claimed that Rice "looked guilty of something", which was apparently
all his son and the other bank directors required as proof . On June 26th, the day news of the robbery became public, warrants
were sworn out for Randall Rice and two other men named Nichols, who were family friends of Rice. The prisoners were incarcerated
in a local store and were guarded, curiously enough, by the bank directors themselves. After a hearing before Josiah Coffin,
Esq., Justice of the Peace, the men were released; Rice soon after filed a lawsuit against Folger for slandering him.
the absence of actual evidence, rumors abounded and grew wilder with each passing day. Libbeus Coffin described by those who
knew him as an illiterate laborer of vile temper and questionable competency, claimed that he had seen several men, including
Randall Rice and William Coffin II, entering the bank that foggy June night and removing something that appeared to be quite
heavy. Over the course of repeated re-tellings the story morphed into a dream that Libbeus had in which he saw the sacks of
money in Randall Rice's house. A nephew of the bank president related that he had overheard Rice planning the robbery with
his co-conspirators. One woman of questionable repute named Rachel Gardner, who claimed to have been in a barn with a man
(a euphemism if ever I've heard one) the night before the robbery, also claims to have overheard some plotting.
the beat went on. With each new "witness" others came forth, swearing that they had seen or heard this or that, generally
basing their stories on the previous testimonies of their neighbors. The accusers, all bank directors, mostly Quakers and
Democratic-Republicans, won over a large segment of the population to their side based on little more than gossip and innuendo.
Before the affair was over their methods would include bribery and perjury, but before events reached this crescendo the rising
tide of hysteria overwhelmed one of the few non-Quaker bank directors: an outspoken Federalist and Freemason called William
Coffin II, who soon found himself in the middle of the firestorm, much to his chagrin.
On July 9th Coffin met the
bank president, Joseph Chase, in the lower square in front of the Pacific Club; as they rambled in the direction of Rice's
slaughterhouse at the foot of Old North Wharf Chase turned on Coffin and accused him of complicity in the robbery. Coffin,
caught off-guard, stammered out a denial, but it was obvious that the die was cast: as far as Chase was concerned, Coffin
was guilty. Apparently Chase decided that he needed more proof than the dubious claims of a prostitute and a village idiot
before he took legal action; accordingly, he traveled to Providence, RI to consult an astrologer (as one does in such situations).
Not surprisingly, the astrologer provided descriptions that matched those of the men already under suspicion.
progressed insults were hurled from one side to the other. On August 22nd a U.S. marshal came to Nantucket and, along with
several bank directors, searched the suspects' homes and business, with no results. Nevertheless, Rice and his fellow "conspirators",
minus William Coffin II (who was merely "strongly suspected") were brought before a Court of Inquiry held by a lawyer from
the Attorney General's office. Testimony was taken from the various alleged witnesses but when the most credible, William
Worth, admitted that he had lied previously many of the others' stories, based in part on his testimony, collapsed like a
house of whale blubber. Sylvanus Macy, another board director and apparently a central figure in the rumormongering against
William Coffin II, even offered one witness $3000 if he would just stick to his story. Amazingly, the presiding attorney found
sufficient credibility in the remaining witnesses to hold the men over for trial; however, William Worth, Libbeus Coffin and
Rachel Gardner were also charged with perjury (tellingly, their bail was posted by Uriah Swain, Walter Folger, Sr., and others
in the accusers' camp).
In September Sylvanus Macy renewed his attacks against William Coffin II, but refused to press
them in public. Coffin's attempts to bring him to account before a meeting of the bank's principal stockholders, but Macy
demurred. Coffin even went to the extraordinary length of appealing to the Quaker Meeting for relief from the depredations
of the Quaker Macy, but his pleas fell on deaf ears; perhaps he was receiving his comeuppance from his years of obdurate contrariness.
Finally, in December, 1795, Coffin had had enough; he financed his own "fact-finding" mission to New York in search
of the perpetrators. Apparently he met with almost instant success -- by the end of the month Coffin was writing his
wife and claiming that one of the perpetrators had been caught in Philadelphia. Two months later Coffin was back on Nantucket,
followed soon after by Joseph Chase, who brought a man named Weatherly with him in chains. In April of 1796 Chase and Uriah
Swain returned to New York and detained one John Clark, Jr., who confessed his role and named his accomplices, none of whom
were from Nantucket. This should have cleared Coffin, Rice and the others but incredibly, this evidence was never presented
in court; so eager were Macy, Swain, Chase and the other accusers to ruin their rivals that they suppressed the exculpatory
As recounted by Clark, on June 17th, three days before the robbery, the sloop Delphin arrived from New York
in Nantucket Harbor; on board were three men: John Clark, Jr., James Weatherly and Seth Johnson. The vessel left port before
daybreak on the 21st, the day after the robbery. News of the crime had spread rapidly to mainland towns and cities, and in
early July Johnson and Weatherley had actually been found in possession of a large quantity of gold coins and were arrest
for the bank robbery, but as no one from Nantucket bothered to follow up on this they were eventually released.
and Clark, who apparently couldn't keep their mouths shut, confessed again to their guard at the Nantucket Gaol (who was fired
for reporting the confessions) and later to their cellmate Phineas Fanning, recently incarcerated for alleged indebtedness
but actually locked up for siding with Coffin and the others. Fanning, Randall Rice's attorney, was the husband of Kezia Coffin
Fanning, the diarist, who was the daughter of Kezia Coffin, the infamous profiteer from the days of the Revolution. Kezia,
recently released from debtors' prison in Nova Scotia, was living with her daughter and son-in-law in rather impoverished
circumstances. Phineas and Kezia were divided over the guilt of their fellow Nantucketers and once again Sylvanus Macy intervened,
securing a new home for the Coffin-Fannings on Main Street and, it was hoped, Kezia's support. He also visited Phineas in
prison and promised his release if Fanning would testify that Rice had confessed to him that he had robbed the bank. To his
credit Fanning declined, and Kezia came to be convinced of the innocence of her fellow Nantucketers, eventually testifying
to the underhanded tactics employed by Macy and the other accusers.
When he was finally released Fanning slipped away
to an isolated stretch of the Long Island coast, presumably after the money that he was told was buried there, but returned
empty-handed. In the meantime, Weatherley and Clark "escaped" from the Gaol, allegedly with the assistance of some of the
bank directors, and hid in ropewalks and swamps before eventually finding passage off of Nantucket. In spite of the exonerating
confessions Rice and the others accused in the robbery were tried in July of 1796, fully a year after the event occurred --
only Rice was found guilty, and he was imprisoned in Boston. He eventually was pardoned and released, but by then his business
affairs were in ruins and he was jailed in Nantucket for his debts. Although he was eventually released and resumed some legal
work he never achieved the heights of success that he had known previously.
The other defendants, exonerated, were
spoiling for revenge, and sued Walter Folger, Uriah Swain and others for slander. And so it went. Five years later William
Coffin II was defamed in the State Legislature by his own Representative when Coffin came to provide testimony; naturally
he sued for slander. The island remained bitterly divided for decades, and only after all of the participants were dead were
the wounds fully healed. There were a number of other controversies on Nantucket involving William Coffin, and the old divisions
that underlay the animosities kindled by the Great Bank Robbery, but they must wait for another time. While they each concern
a distinct event they are united by their common origins in the bitter feud that rent Nantucket in two, a feud whose roots
lay deep beneath the cracked and shifting foundations of this house divided.