"Pat Lyon at the Forge," an 1829 portrait by John Neagle. Lyon was falsely accused of perpetrating the first bank robbery in the United States in 1798. (Photo credit: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)
"Pat Lyon at the Forge," an 1829 portrait by John Neagle. Lyon was falsely accused of perpetrating the first bank robbery in the United States in 1798. (Photo credit: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)

One night this week back in 1831 two men broke into the City Bank of New York and made off with nearly $250,000. This is not that story.

That’s because although the 1831 robbery is often cited as America’s first-ever bank robbery, another heist from more than three decades earlier actually holds that title—a bizarre tale that ended with a blacksmith’s oil painting currently hanging in Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

It was 1798 and the blacksmith, Patrick Lyon, was in Lewiston, Delaware, absorbed in a newspaper. The paper relayed a stunning story about a theft from the Bank of Pennsylvania at Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia in the early morning hours that netted more than $160,000—an astounding amount equivalent to more than $3 million today.

People love to read about bank robberies (maybe why you’re reading this right now), but Lyon had a more personal interest in the case. Lyon’s last job before he came to Delaware was in Philadelphia, where he was tasked with replacing fittings and locks on the vault doors of the Bank of Pennsylvania—the one that had just been robbed, according to a Carpenter’s Hall history.

It appeared to be an inside job, and Lyon immediately had two suspects in mind: carpenter Samuel Robinson who did some work for the bank and another man, an associate of Robinson, whom Lyon didn’t know.

What Lyon didn’t appreciate at the time was that as a blacksmith who worked on the vault doors and who happened to leave Philadelphia shortly thereafter, he was also looking pretty good as a suspect himself.

After an old acquaintance caught up with Lyon and suggested he was a suspect in the brazen theft, Lyon did what he thought was the right thing and returned to Philadelphia to clear his name.

For his trouble, he was thrown in prison.

Bank officials suspected Lyon had simply made an extra key to the vault while he was working on it. For three months Lyon was held in Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Prison.

The one key thing Lyon had going for him, however, was the idiocy of the actual thief, who turned out to be the stranger Lyon had suspected all along and was since identified as Isaac Davis. The latter had enlisted an accomplice to help him with the theft.

“The pair had apparently pulled the perfect heist,” the history says. “Then in a move that will live in the annals of stupidity, Davis began depositing the missing money in the very bank he had robbed and other Philadelphia banks, casting suspicion on himself.”

The man apparently had no plan for what to do with the cash after the heist and hadn’t even come up with a cover story for all his incredible new-found wealth.

“Confronted with questions about his sudden wealth, Davis gave a full confession and made a deal to return all the money,” the history says.

Somehow, Davis was given a pardon and full restitution, and never served a day in prison.

But that’s where Lyon was still stuck, even after Davis’ plot had unraveled. In fact, he was kept in prison for weeks until eventually the charges were dismissed.

After his release, Lyon wrote a book about his strange ordeal, which became a best-seller despite its comically long title: “Narrative of Patrick Lyon Who Suffered Three Months Severe Imprisonment in Philadelphia Gaol on  Merely a Vague Suspicion of Being Concerned in a Robbery of the Bank of Pennsylvania With his Remarks Thereon.”

Then Lyon filed civil lawsuit in 1805 for false imprisonment. In a landmark legal case, he won and was awarded $12,000—or about $240,000 today.

The proceeds from his book and his settlement presumably set Lyon up for many years financially. But when he commissioned a portrait of himself in 1825, he made sure the artist rendered him as a humble blacksmith.

“The red-headed blacksmith is imposing, yet accessible, commanding the viewer’s attention as surely as he does his admiring apprentice,” the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts says of the painting. “The cupola in the left background represents the Walnut Street Jail, where Lyon had unjustly languished nearly thirty years before.”