Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Artifacts and a financial cataclysm

This photo of Frank R. Crocker as a young man was among the belongings of the late Inda Van Arsdale Post that were placed in the Lucas County Historical Society collection many years ago upon her death.

By Frank D. Myers

Halloween in Chariton was the 103rd anniversary of what was then the greatest financial cataclysm in Lucas County history, an event that literally reshaped its history.

At the center of the event was Frank R. Crocker, discovered early that morning, Oct. 31, 1907, dead in his bed of a self-inflicted overdose of morphine. The large Crocker family home on South Grand Street, where the suicide occurred, is today at the core of Fielding Funeral Home.

As news of Crocker's suicide spread rapidly around Chariton that morning, it also became evident that the doors of First National Bank, managed by Crocker as surrogate for its owners, Annie Mallory and Jessie (Mallory) Thayer, were locked.

First National had been acquired in the 1860s by Smith H. Mallory, who became Chariton's richest and most influential citizen and who also built the legendary Ilion, also known as Mallory's Castle. Under his leadership, First National became one of southern Iowa's largest banks with assets in the year of its failure that exceeded $1 million, a tremendous amount of money at that time.

Frank Crocker, who had come to Chariton as a young man, was Mallory's right-hand man and trusted associate. After Mallory's death in 1903, management of the bank was placed entirely in his hands by Mallory's widow, Annie, and only child, Jessie.

In the days after Crocker's death as the bank passed into federal receivership and Lucas Countyans began to realize the scale of their financial losses it became evident that Crocker, who had a long record of successful financial speculation, had overstepped himself, misappropriated the bank's assets and lost it all.

Frank's body was taken to Minneapolis for burial and soon his wife and children fled there as well, although they managed to hang on their Chariton home, a building sold to the Larimer family and finally to Sam Beardsley, who converted it into a funeral home.

Annie and Jessie Mallory declined to use personal assets to repay bank losses, leading to extensive and bitter litigation. Finally, they agreed to turn all of their assents in Lucas County, including the Ilion and the 1,000-acre farm associated with it, over to bank receivers for sale. As a result, bank depositors received reimbursement for relatively small parts of their losses. Nearly all of Crocker's assets were seized by federal authorities and sold as well.

In 1909, the embittered Mallory women had the contents of the Ilion moved permanently from Chariton to Orlando, Florida, leaving behind an embittered community. Annie never returned; Jessie returned once, in the 1920s, to have her father's body disinterred from the Chariton Cemetery and shipped along with his tombstone to Orlando.

Mary Elizabeth "Minnie" Crocker's parents, the Stephen Arnolds, also were prominent Chariton residents. Stephen died soon after the bank crash and his wife followed a few years later. After that, the Crockers broke their ties to Chariton, too.

It's useful to remember that Frank Crocker, before his death, was one of the most widely-respected citizens of Lucas County --- a skillful and widely-admired banker, a generous donor to every good cause, a leader in all progressive movements and by all accounts a nice guy. The Mallorys, in addition to their wealth, also were widely admired for their leadership in the community.

The collapse of First National ended all of that and traces of the two families began to disappear. Today, only the funeral home building remains as a reminder of the Crockers and the clock in the courthouse tower, donated by the Mallorys, as a minder of that family.

And several artifacts in the Lucas County Historical Society collection. Three photographs, one of Frank Crocker Sr. and the others of two Crocker children --- Guilford and Frank Jr. --- as infants, were returned to Chariton many years ago by the late Inda Van Arsdale Post, whose parents were contemporaries of Frank and Minnie Crocker.

A photo of Frank Crocker Jr. from the Inda Van Arsdale Post accession.

A faded photo of Guilford Crocker from the Inda Van Arsdale Post accession.

Another artifact, an invitation to the 1883 wedding of Frank Crocker and Minnie Arnold at First Presbyterian Church, cannot be tracked to a its source.

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