Friday, July 8, 2022

Maine’s first bank robbery has unique Raymond connection

A box of gold bullion taken during Maine's first bank robbery
in Portland in 1818 may have been buried in Raymond and
never recovered. COURTESY PHOTO 
By Ernest H. Knight

To every story there is a beginning, a middle and an ending. If the middle is missing or uncertain, it may be that there are simply two stories. The missing link may not be satisfactorily established, but the alpha and the omega are equally interesting in their own light.

On Saturday, Aug. 1, 1818, late at night, the Cumberland Bank in Portland was entered by two robbers using a key made from the bank lock while it was being repaired in Boston some time earlier.

Though the robber had obtained in excess of $200,000 in bullion, coins and bags and bank notes put into wooden boxes and bags made from sail cloth, much of it was abandoned in the bank building and adjacent yard when the culprits were scared off by some nearby residents returning from a night out, with intentions of returning on Sunday night to retrieve it and finish the job.

But on Sunday afternoon a customer of the bank, suddenly needing funds to take to Boston on business on Monday, prevailed upon the bank cashier to go to the bank to obtain those funds and while there he discovered the in-progress skullduggery. By Monday bank officials and police were investigating Maine’s first bank robbery. 

Though foundry sand was found in the boxes, investigators shifted their attention from foundry personnel to a Daniel Manley of Scarborough as a suspect. Through the sailcloth used for the bags and identification of men at a sailmaker’s loft, a Captain Benjamin Rolfe of Gorham was apprehended on Wednesday. He was promised some of the $10,000 reward offered by the bank directors and turned over to them $1,600 in coins in his possession.

Rolfe unsuccessfully attempted to lead them to banknotes supposed to have been buried by Manley in a wooded area near the waterfront. Continuing the search on Thursday, he excused himself from his escorts and while out of their sight put a small pistol in his mouth and “immediately expired.”

Without telling Manley of Rolfe’s actions, the authorities prevailed on Manley to disclose the location of his stolen holdings, which he had transferred from its first burial near Fort Burrows (near the present Bath Iron Works Portland Yard) to a hedge fence in Scarborough.

Though Manley could not find it there, his remorse was not as extreme as that of Rolfe. The day, and money, was saved when Amos Libby and his two sons of Scarborough, who had observed Manley acting in a suspicious manner and then dug up what he had hidden, turned that portion over to the searchers and were subsequently awarded $3,500 of the reward.

Benjamin Rolfe had raised a family of seven in Gorham before his wife died and after remarrying had moved back to Portland. McLellan’s “History of Gorham” book merely mentions that Capt. Benjamin Rolfe died Aug. 6, 1818.

Daniel Manley spent 12 years in the Charleston State Prison in Boston (Maine was still part of Massachusetts then), and he died on Oct. 5, 1837. He was buried in Eastern Cemetery in Portland with the epitaph on his headstone reading “Portland’s first bank robber – 1818.”

Some accounts say that all the money was recovered but one says “all except a bag of gold” was returned to the bank. With no FDIC to protect the depositors, a loss of $200,000 in 1818 dollars, would have been devastating to them and the growing new city of Portland.

But here’s where the story changes from Portland to Raymond.

One of the very early settlers of Raymond was William Rolfe, born in Portland on Dec. 25, 1787. His son William was born in Raymond on March 1, 1819. Their homestead was on Plains Road near the old house used by the caretaker of the Boy Scout Camp and Camp Hinds properties. The first William Rolfe born in 1787 in Portland could have been a brother or of the family of Capt. Benjamin Rolfe, who was born in 1780 in Portland before moving to Gorham.

It is also of interest that Benjamin’s father, also a Capt. Benjamin Rolfe, had come from France with General Lafayette in the Revolutionary War. A connection is strengthened by a statement made by William Jr. in a 1909 newspaper writeup on his 90th birthday. In that article, he said that he could distinctly remember the death of Napoleon Bonaparte at St. Helena in 1821, perhaps reflecting a family interest in French heritage.

The newspaper interview quoted William Jr. as saying when he was a boy there were five log cabins within a mile of his home. There was a legend connected with the Rolfe home or property concerning treasure buried somewhere near there.

Geneva Bean, who lived there for many years, once went to a spiritual medium with her concern and received an enigmatic answer that “She was walking on it.” In the basement of the old Rolfe house there is a strange and extensive maze of walls and foundations of granite and brick that could be thought of as suited for concealment or security of a treasure.

Is there gold to be found in Raymond, other than that once mined for on Raymond Hill in the gold rush days? And can Raymond claim fame, if not fortune, with a proprietary interest in Maine’s first bank robbery?

This article was written by the late Ernest H. Knight, one of the founders of the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and contained in his book “Historical Gems of Raymond and Casco.” It was submitted by the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and articles about Raymond history from the historical society will appear regularly in The Windham Eagle newspaper. To find out more about the Raymond-Casco Historical Society, call Frank McDermott at 207-655-4646. <

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