Banking Panic

I’ve been considering bank closings, and the panics that ensued,1 and how that would have manifested itself in the small town where Rose and Harold lived?

We’ve seen pictures of the mobs that rushed banks in New York after the big stock crash in ’29. But stories about smaller crowds, smaller towns, smaller banks, are harder to find.2

Crowd gathers outside the American Union Bank

So, I’ve had to rely on my imagination. And the things I know about mob mentalities.3 And how folks process fear.

What better way to see if one has a grip on both digested information and the disposition of mankind? Write a little scene, of course…

Mrs. Keilor had always loved red. She often wondered if it was her name, Ruby,4 that predisposed her to that color, or if her parents had somehow divined this particular affinity and had named her accordingly.

Whatever the reason, there she was, fingering the claret silk in Eliasen’s Department Store, when the commotion outside began.

She looked around the store to see if the ruckus had disrupted other shoppers, but there was only one other customer, a vaguely familiar young woman, about her own age, deep in conversation with the store’s owner.

Ruby moved closer to the store window for a better look, but her view was blocked by the queue passing the store front and ending at the bank a block and a half away. Surely all of Henderson was waiting to get into the bank.

Her husband’s bank. What in the world could be going on?

No sooner had the thought formed than she began hearing bits and pieces of the angry conversations outside: “Thief! That’s what he is—”; “Don’t he know that’s all we got?”; “I’ll get what’s owed me if I have to—”; “Didn’t I say you could never trust a banker?”

In the months since the stock crash, there had been a lot of unease about banking. Her husband, Lou, had worked hard to dispel the fears, even going as far as to visit several of the depositors in their homes to reassure them.

If the bank was in trouble–and Lou had not indicated that it was–didn’t these people realize it could never be his fault? Unlike the banks in larger cities, he had never speculated in the markets. He was, perhaps, too lenient in granting loans, wanting his friends’ and neighbors’ farms to succeed and doing whatever he could to make sure they were eligible. But, if the larger banks were trying to recoup their speculation losses by calling in loans from the smaller establishments…Well, that would be disastrous for Lou.

She put her nose to the glass, trying to get a better look at what was happening, when she heard a voice outside shout, “Hey! Ain’t that the banker’s wife in Eliasen’s? Figures she’d be buying expensive doodads while we’re being swindled outta our whole life savings.”

More of the men turned to look at her, shouting ugly lies about her and about Lou. She wanted to tell them they were over-reacting. Instead, all she could do was stand, transfixed, as the crowd grew larger and angrier.

Some of the people she recognized: Jan Peterson from church; a young man who often delivered her grocery order to her home; old Mr. Miller who sat outside the Five & Dime playing checkers with anyone willing to lose. Others she did not recognize. But they all had one thing in common—the anger on their faces.

Somewhere from the depths of the crowd, a rock was unleashed. She ducked, a moment too late, as it shattered the store window where she stood.

The world took on an echo-y tone. Outside, the men yelled her name and said it served her right, since she was married to a crook. Behind her, her son, Teddy, who had been eyeing the candy counter while she shopped, shrieked “Mama! Mama! Are you alright?”

She ought to reassure him, but she couldn’t stop staring at the broken window and the angry mob on the street.

Someone brushed against her shoulder. “Ma’am. You’re hurt. Let’s get you away from the window.”

As the young woman she’d seen earlier pulled her behind the bolts of cloth, Ruby noticed Mr. Eliasen at the entrance, a rifle aimed at the door. Teddy knelt by the lady’s side, sobbing, “Is she gonna die? Lady? Is she gonna die?”

The girl patted him on the head. “Shhhh. It’ll be alright,” she told him, then asked the owner, “Is there a back door we can use?”

Eliasen nodded at a swinging door behind the cash register. “Back there,” he said, keeping his eyes fixed on the entrance.

“Ma’am, I’m going to take this piece of glass out of your arm, okay?” The woman tore a piece of hem from her slip. “As soon as I’ve got it bandaged, we have to run. Can you do that?”

Ruby nodded, and for the first time, pain registered. She looked down at her upper arm. A shard of glass, the size of a small butcher’s knife, was lodged there amid a growing ring on her shirt.

She noted that blood on a red shirt appeared black, and then thought, what a stupid thing to notice at a time like this.

Then they were up and running and there was no room for thinking; it was all she could manage to put one foot in front of the other. Later, when she was safely home and Lou arrived, she would recall the young woman’s name. But for now, she was just a shock of flowing black hair that led her through the back streets and away from the panic-stricken throng.


  1. Correspondent Clearing and the Collapse of the Banking System, 1930 to 1933 (Thanks to my cousin’s son Mike for freely sharing his banking acumen to help me understand how and why banks failed.)
  2. Bank Failures, Farming in the 1930s, Wessel’s Living History Farm
  3. Examining the Mob Mentality
  4. Ruby Keilor is a bit character–the wife of Henderson’s banker, more a name, really, than a flesh and blood character–in Rose & Harold’s story. But I thought it would be fun to see this scene through her eyes.

2 thoughts on “Banking Panic

  1. Ooh, that was very evocative! It’s so true to people and how circumstances enfold, too — how difficult it is to explain the levels of the banking system to everyone, how she happens to be in the shops at the time, how right away the mob looks for someone to pin their anger on…


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