Checks and Balance Sheets of a City's History
Inventory Project Of Riggs Archive Underway in D.C.

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 20, 2006

On Aug. 28, 1861, a month after the Union Army's disastrous defeat at the first Battle of Bull Run, President Abraham Lincoln sat down and wrote out a Riggs Bank check for $3 to "Mr. Johns (a sick man)."

It is not known who Johns was, where Lincoln encountered him or what prompted the beleaguered president to pause amid the opening weeks of the Civil War to give him a donation.

It is but a tantalizing shard of local history, one of the thousands that reside not in the National Archives or Library of Congress but behind the thick steel door of a 40-year-old basement bank vault in downtown Washington, where the question has become: What to do with them?

The Lincoln check is among a trove of documents gathered over the decades by Washington's venerable and now-defunct Riggs Bank -- which, along with its antecedents, had customers ranging from Davy Crockett to President George H.W. Bush.

The collection includes letters, notes and checks written by, among others, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Brigham Young and Gen. John Pershing.

Now, Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank, which took over Riggs on May 13, 2005, is in the midst of a project to gather and inventory the artifacts, which include shelves of crumbling ledgers that go back a century and a half.

John Tydings, director of the PNC-Riggs Bank archives project, said last week that PNC has never acquired such a collection. PNC "recognized the need to address this in a much more sensitive way because of the connection of these records to the history of this country, as well as the history of the bank and the history of the city," he said.

The bank hired historian Mary Beth Corrigan, former curator of research collections at the Washington Historical Society, who had worked with the Riggs archive, to comb through the holdings and assess what was there.

Tydings, the retired head of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said PNC is trying to decide whether to donate, display or store what it has inherited from its historic predecessor. He said it was too early in the process to know exactly what to do with any of it or what the best options for donating some of the material might be.

Riggs traced its founding to 1836 and had a long history of close relations with the federal government, Corrigan said last week. The bank helped finance the Mexican War, the construction of the Capitol dome and the purchase from Russia of Alaska -- for $7 million in gold bullion, she said.

Lincoln, among 23 U.S. presidents who were Riggs customers, opened an account shortly after his inauguration in 1861, and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, closed his, she said.

Theodore Roosevelt's signature card is on file, stating that the president's account was opened Sept. 27, 1901, the year he was inaugurated. Address: "Executive Mansion."

Former president William H. Taft's June 19, 1919, check for $2.56 to Woodward & Lothrop is there, along with Vice President Richard M. Nixon's Dec. 29, 1958, check for $66.03 to the Washington Gas Light Co.

Many of the documents were purchased by the bank over the years for their historical value and for marketing purposes, Corrigan said. They also provide intriguing glimpses behind the sometimes dry tomes of history.

Lincoln's "Riggs & Co." check to Mr. Johns, No. 41, is handwritten and signed "A. Lincoln."

There is an account in the bank's lore of another check written by Lincoln in April 1863 for $5 to a "colored man with one leg." That check is even more mysterious. The recipient's name is unknown, as are the check's whereabouts. "We do not have it," Corrigan said. "We do not know where that check is."

Lincoln was known for his compassion and for his wanderings away from the wartime stresses of the White House.

"He was familiar with the area," Corrigan said. "He was not scared of going outside, even though the danger for him was quite great. I'm assuming [the one-legged man was] somebody that he knew right around the White House and that he saw very often."

The checks prompt other visions: Nixon paying his utility bills (there's also a Nixon check to the phone company) and the dapper, corpulent Taft shopping in a department store.

Corrigan said poring over the documents is fascinating and tedious. Most of the handwriting is good, she said, except for that of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, which is awful.

"It's just very exciting to see this stuff get organized and arranged in a way that people can actually begin to use it and have access to it," Corrigan said.

It's also interesting, she said, to see hints of extraordinary figures doing ordinary things: shopping, paying bills, giving to the needy.

But hints also raise questions, such as: Didn't Lincoln carry cash? A logical query, Corrigan said. The answer: "I don't know."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company