As it were

Early banks fraught with peril

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COURTESY OF THE COLUMBUS METROPOLITAN LIBRARY
Samuel Strasser Rickly was shot during a robbery at his bank.
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Banking today is a relatively safe business to pursue. Banks are still robbed occasionally, and violent behavior is still seen as well from time to time. But with the rise of electronic oversight and the rapidity of police response, many people looking to steal some money look to places other than banks.

Life was not always this secure in Ohio's capital city. To illustrate the point, we need look no further than the example of S.S. Rickly and his bank.

Samuel Strasser Rickly was born in Switzerland in 1819 and migrated with his family to America in 1834. The entire family of 16 people settled near Baltimore in Fairfield County, where in short order nine of the 16 died, as one account put it, due "to change of climate and diet."

Apprenticed to be a carpenter, Rickly held a variety of jobs before settling on teaching as a career. After attending Marshall College in Pennsylvania and getting married in 1845, Rickly arrived in Columbus in 1847. He opened a German-English school at the corner of Third and Mound streets.

In a town with a lot of recent German immigrants, the school was quite successful. Over the next several years, he was instrumental in founding Heidelberg College in Tiffin, while making money in the milling business.

In 1857, he joined his brother in opening a bank called Rickly and Brother.

As a trusted member of the German-American business community, the Rickly Bank was quite successful. In fact, it became so successful that it became a target. In a long letter to the president of the First National Bank of Denver in 1889, Rickly explained just how dangerous banking can be.

"Though a total stranger to you, I wish to condole with you in the loss of money you have sustained on account of a villain, as reported by telegraphic dispatches from your city, and also to congratulate you on your escape with life and limb. Two episodes in my life will doubtless satisfy you that you pursued the wisest course under trying circumstances."

Rickly went on to describe how he had been robbed in broad daylight of more than $20,000 when two men entered the bank while he was working alone. They tricked Rickly into opening his safe. While he busy with them, a third man stealthily approached the safe and made off with $6,000 in currency and $14,000 in government bonds.

"The next episode was nearly nine years ago, when a fellow about noontime came into the bank, and presented a certificate of the trustees of one of our bankrupt coal firms, calling for about one hundred dollars, and said in an imperative manner: 'Give me fifty dollars.'"

After some further conversation, Rickly resolved to end the conversation. "I said kindly but firmly to him, 'I have not got the money to spare,' and as quick as thought he presented a revolver to my forehead and fired. The last I saw was that revolver within an inch of my forehead, and in my effort, I presume, to escape the consequences I must have slightly turned my head, for the ball entered my left temple and passed through both eyes lodging against the right cheek bone. Two thoughts seemed to be slowly passing through my mind; one was 'Is this fatal?' the other 'Shall I fall?'

"My son, who was in the next room and heard the conversation but did not see either of us, says I fell instantly, although it seemed several seconds at least while I felt the excruciating pain and the light of day forever passing from me. He aimed at my son who was coming to my assistance, but who succeeded in escaping from the room, and going out to the street called for assistance.

"In the meantime the would be assassin went around behind the counter where I lay, and thinking no doubt that I was dead, shot himself dead, and never bled a drop or made a stir. ... I am still living but totally blind and am having this written by an amanuensis.

"Of course life is sweet, and it is gratifying to possess that which all men aim to get -- money and possessions -- but oh, how much sweeter would be the light of day, at least to me, without one dollar or one foot of ground, and you, my dear fellow banker, may congratulate you and yours on your fortunate escape."

Despite his disability, S.S. Rickly continued to have a prominent place in the civic and business affairs of the capital city.

A later history of the city noted that "Mr. Rickly has continued his business, and taken an active part in the proceedings of the Board of Trade, advocating the improvement of our streets in the central and business portions of our city, and lighting it by electricity."

Samuel Strasser Rickly died Nov. 22, 1905. He was a man whose whole life demonstrated the power of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.

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