William Wells Brown, Wildcat Banker

A cottage industry, yes, but a barbershop bank? Ross Bullen plots how a story told by William Wells Brown — novelist, historian, playwright, physician, and escaped slave — circulated, first through his own works, and then abroad, as a parable of American banking gone bad.

November 24, 2021

portrait of William wells brown Scroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Richard Woodman’s etching of William Wells Brown, which served as the frontispiece for Brown’s Sketches of Places and People Abroad (1855) — Source.

On January 1, 1834, a young man named William escaped from slavery near Cincinnati, Ohio. Travelling at night through the frigid winter, without an overcoat to keep him warm, William suffered from cold and hunger, and yet, as he recorded in the first of many autobiographical narratives, his thoughts were constantly drifting toward the future. “My escape to a land of freedom now appeared certain”, he wrote, “and the prospects of the future occupied a great part of my thoughts. What should be my occupation, was a subject of much anxiety to me; and the next thing what should be my name?”1 Although his mother had called him “William”, he had, for most of his life, been known as “Sandford” to the series of men who had legally owned him. But now he would be William.

A last name would be trickier to come by. Although William knew the name of the white man who was his biological father, he refused it, claiming “I would rather have adopted the name of ‘Friday’, and been known as the servant of some Robinson Crusoe, than to have taken his name.”2 Eventually, fate intervened in the form of a friendly Quaker who took William in when he fell ill. Grateful for the Quaker’s help, William gave him the privilege of choosing a new name: William Wells Brown.3 The newly named Brown continued his travels north, eventually settling in Cleveland, Ohio, on the southern shore of Lake Erie. Here Brown married a woman named Elizabeth Schooner, and found work on steamships, often ferrying fugitive slaves across Lake Erie to Canada and freedom.

In the years that followed, Brown would become a popular and prolific anti-slavery lecturer and a vocal supporter of social reform. While never working exclusively as a writer, he achieved success across multiple literary modes. With the debut of The Escape; or A Leap to Freedom (1858), Brown became the first published African American playwright, while his The Negro in the American Rebellion (1867) is considered the first military history of African Americans. He wrote the earliest African American travelogue and, later in his life, was a practicing physician.4 The story recounted above comes from Brown’s Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave (1847), and was reworked six years later in the “Narrative of the Life and Escape of William Wells Brown”, an autobiographical sketch in the third person that precedes Brown’s 1853 novel Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: the first published novel by an African American author. Brown’s novel tells the story of two sisters, Clotel and Althesa, who are the children of an enslaved woman named Currer and Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States. Clotel was based on the story — then a rumor, now confirmed by DNA analysis — that Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman whom he legally owned (and who was also his wife’s biological half-sister). Brown’s “Narrative”, however, contains another rumor, this one unsubstantiated, which numerous scholars have tried — with varying degrees of success — to square, thematically, with Clotel: the story of William Wells Brown as a Wildcat banker.

poster celebrating distinguished black americans from the 19th centuryScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

A hand-colored lithograph displaying portraits of William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, and P. B. S. Pinchback, among other distinguished men. Published by A. Muller & Co., ca. 1883 — Source.

As Brown tells it, in the fall of 1835, he found himself broke in Monroe, Michigan, having been cheated out of his summer’s earnings by a dishonest steamship captain. Brown sought employment with the local barber and, after being repeatedly turned down, he embraced the spirit of the free market and opened his own shop directly across the street from his competition. According to Brown, one of the barber’s customers offered him “a room in which to commence business. . . on the opposite side of the street” as well as his influence with the townspeople. Brown eagerly accepted and, in order to attract new business, made an impressive sign for the barbershop, advertising himself as the “Fashionable Hair-dresser from New York, Emperor of the West”.5 Although “the Emperor” had never actually been to New York, his marketing strategy was a great success. He reports that “in a few weeks I had the entire business of the town, to the great discomfiture of the other barber”. Flush with profit, Brown took the advice of a friend and printed and distributed “shinplasters”: promissory notes for small amounts of money — spare change, essentially — that he could give to his customers, and which would then circulate alongside other kinds of money in Monroe. Brown offers his readers a detailed explanation of this unusual economic situation:

At this time, money matters in the Western States were in a sad condition. Any person who could raise a small amount of money was permitted to establish a bank, and allowed to issue notes for four times the sum raised. This being the case, many persons borrowed money merely long enough to exhibit to the bank inspectors, and the borrowed money was returned, and the bank left without a dollar in its vaults, if indeed it had a vault about its premises. The result was that banks were started all over the Western States, and the country flooded with worthless paper. These were known as the ‘Wild Cat Banks.’ Silver coin being very scarce, and the [state-chartered] banks not being allowed to issue notes for a smaller amount than one dollar, several persons put out notes of from 6 to 75 cents in value; these were called ‘Shinplasters.’ The Shinplaster was in the shape of a promissory note, made payable on demand. I have often seen persons with large rolls of these bills, the whole not amounting to more than five dollars.6
 Image of an Philadelphia shinplasterScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

A fractional currency note issued in 1837 by a Philadelphia bank as a result of the 1837 financial panic. As the note promises, it could be redeemed for ten cents in specie (metallic coin), although this was not always possible — Source.

As Brown explains it, the lack of small change in Monroe — a nationwide scarcity in this period — created a demand for shinplasters: small denomination bills issued by private businesses serving as Wildcat banks (like Brown’s barber shop) and backed by nothing more than the confidence of the local community. In Bank Notes and Shinplasters: The Rage for Paper Money in the Early Republic, Joshua R. Greenberg recounts how during the 1830s these western banks were often labelled as fraudulent, “wild cat” organizations, the joke being that such banks — in order to discourage anyone from trying to redeem their notes — were “located in areas so remote that only wildcats lived nearby”.7 Value often decreased over distance: dollars from a Monroe, Michigan bank were worth less in New York City because the issuing bank was regarded as unreliable, while the note itself was harder to redeem (the note holder would have to travel almost six hundred miles to cash it, if it could be cashed at all). Americans would need to constantly haggle over the perceived value of hundreds of different bank notes in their day-to-day lives, while papers like Counterfeit Detector and Bank Note List and Thompson’s Bank Note Reporter provided detailed — and constantly shifting — lists of which notes were reliable and which were not.

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Masthead of Thompson’s Bank Note Reporter, one of several publications that tried to assess the validity of the numerous currencies circulating around the United States in the mid-19th century — Source.

image of a parody shinplasterScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

A “political parody note” mocking the proliferation of shinplasters and currencies in the United States, ca. 1837. Header text reads: “I leave this great people prosperous and happy”. The donkey, labelled “Roman Firmness”, mocks Andrew Jackson and his redistribution of federal funds to state banks — Source.

Although people in Monroe may have been skeptical of Brown’s shinplasters, their desperation for small denomination bills ultimately outweighed any suspicions about Brown. “At first my notes did not take well; they were too new, and viewed with a suspicious eye”, he writes, “But through the assistance of my customers, and a good deal of exertion on my own part, my bills were soon in circulation; and nearly all the money received in return for my notes was spent in fitting up and decorating my shop”.8 By giving his customers shinplaster promissory notes as change, Brown was able to keep more of their money, and to use this surplus to fix up his business. What Brown did not anticipate, however, is what would happen if his customers decided to redeem the shinplasters en masse, demanding payment. He was about to find out.

The rival barber, unimpressed with Brown’s entrepreneurship, orchestrated a run on Brown’s “bank”. First, a man visited Brown’s shop and demanded to exchange his shinplasters: “Emperor, you will oblige me if you will give me some other money for these notes of yours.”9 Brown complied by giving him the least reputable paper money he had on hand. Two more men followed, and Brown did the same. When he spotted a fourth man approaching with a handful of his shinplasters, he abruptly closed shop for the day, worried that he did not have enough other money to redeem the notes. Aware that the barber’s associates would continue the run, Brown asked his friend how he could avoid what seemed like inevitable financial ruin.

He laughed heartily, and then said, “You must act as all bankers do in this part of the country.” I inquired how they did, and he said, “When your notes are brought to you, you must redeem them, and then send them out and get other money for them; and, with the latter, you can keep cashing your own Shinplasters.” This was indeed a new job to me. I immediately commenced putting in circulation the notes which I had just redeemed, and my efforts were crowned with so much success, that before I slept that night my “Shinplasters” were again in circulation, and my bank once more on a sound basis.10
image of a parody shinplaster Scroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

A parody fifty-cent shinplaster, mocking Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, 1837. Jackson chases the “Gold Humbug”, a satirical critique of the president’s preoccupation with the gold standard — Source.

Did this really happen? Did Brown, an African American fugitive from slavery, actually move to a mostly white town, outwit a local business owner by opening up a successful rival shop, and then found his own small-scale bank? In Plagiarama! William Wells Brown and the Aesthetic of Attractions, Geoffrey Sanborn argues that while many African American anti-slavery lecturers (most notably, Frederick Douglass) used the rhetoric of authenticity and honesty to persuade white audiences of the evils of slavery, Brown preferred to use “attractions” — stories, tall tales, sketches, and jokes, including other people’s — to keep his audiences and readers entertained. Much of Brown’s writing, and his career as an anti-slavery lecturer, was seemingly modelled on Douglass, yet the two had a somewhat combative relationship, with Douglass exposing one of Brown’s instances of plagiarism in Frederick Douglass’ Paper in 1853. (As Sanborn has shown, Brown plagiarized significant portions of his written works, copying passages — ranging from a phrase or two to whole pages — from scores of other writers, including well-known authors like Washington Irving.)11 Brown was highly critical of slavery in his speeches and writing, but he also had no problem placing such criticisms alongside fictional comic vignettes that might have no clear moral, or which might rely on crude racial stereotypes about African Americans. “[Frederick] Douglass seems to want, above all else, to be authoritative”, Sanborn writes. “Brown seems to want, above all else, to be interesting.” Brown is, as Sanborn puts it elsewhere in his book, “always playing to the crowd”.12

Given the picaresque style of the shinplaster story, it seems likely that Brown first told it to live audiences, testing out and revising his material before committing it to print. Brown makes no mention of his bank or Monroe, Michigan in Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave (1847), his first autobiographical work, even though the barber/banker story ostensibly happened twelve years before it was published. The story first appeared in print during one of Brown’s chapters about England in his travelogue Three Years in Europe; or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met (1852). Having left the United States in 1849 to attend the Paris Peace Conference and to publish a British edition of his Narrative, Brown was forced to stay on in England after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law made it too dangerous for him to return home (Brown would remain in Europe until 1854, when his freedom was purchased by English friends).

Much of his account of England focuses on the relative lack of racial discrimination he encounters there, and his reverence for the hallmarks of British culture. Brown recalls the story of his own bank only after sharing an impression of the Bank of England, a “monster building of gold and silver” that “surpassed [his] highest idea of a bank”. This encounter with the “monster” bank, which seems to be made of the very metallic materials that backed the British financial system, causes Brown to recall “an incident that had occurred to [him] a year after [his] escape from slavery”.13 After telling his barber/banker story, Brown returns to the narrative present and highlights the odd juxtaposition between the Bank of England and his own Wildcat bank: “As I saw the clerks shovelling out the yellow coin upon the counters of the Bank of England, and men coming in and going out with weighty bags of the precious metal in their hands, or on their shoulders, I could not but think of the great contrast between the monster Institution, within whose walls I was then standing, and the Wild Cat Banks of America!”14

soane's bank of england appearing as if in ruins Scroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

J. M. Gandy, A Bird's-eye View of The Bank of England, 1830. While intended to show the extent and detail of Sir John Soane's architectural design, the image also evokes a ruinscape, so much so that after Soane's death it became known colloquially as The Bank in RuinsSource.

When Brown started publishing his barber/banker story in the early 1850s, shinplasters and Wildcat banks were still very much a part of everyday American life. As Greenberg shows, before the Civil War there was a perpetual shortage of reliable paper currency in the U.S. — Americans had to constantly think, talk, worry, and joke about low-quality paper money. Here are two Wildcat bank jokes from the 1850s that perhaps reflect this anxiety:

WILD CAT BANK CAPITAL – The St. Louis News says, Mr. Edeu Brown, of Brown’s Ferry Cedar River, Iowa, has caught, during the past Winter, twenty-three coons; ten minks, two otters, and a cart load of pole cats. One night last week he caught eight young wolves alive in a hollow tree. Mr. Brown is thinking of “starting a bank.”15
        Why is a good-for-nothing dog thrown overboard in the Atlantic, like the wild-cat money of the West?
        Because it’s a worthless cur-in-sea! (currency).16

These jokes may not be particularly funny, at least by contemporary standards, but they contain the kind of humor that played well to American audiences all-too-familiar with suspicious banknotes. A collection of literal wild cats (although the author of the first joke has a charitable sense of what constitutes a “cat”) probably represents as much of a “reserve” as many Wildcat banks actually held in their vaults. Brown knew that his banknote story also resonated with audiences and readers, at first — presumably — from telling the story during his anti-slavery lectures, and then after reading the reviews for Three Years in Europe. These reviews of Brown’s travelogue consistently excerpted the segment at length, with several singling it out as one of the best parts of Brown’s book. By my count, the barber/banker story was reprinted (either as an excerpt or as part of a more detailed review) at least thirteen times in U.S. and U.K. periodicals, including the London Athenaeum, the New York Times, and Frederick Douglass’ Paper, during the year before Brown published Clotel. In other words, it seems likely that the primary reason Brown reprinted this account in the “Narrative of the Life and Escape of William Wells Brown” is because it was a hit, and Brown — ever the showman — knew a good story when he had one.

Broadside advertising a UK lecture by William Wells BrownScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Broadside advertising a lecture by William Wells Brown at South Shields, England. Topics include: “Interior of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at Night”; “The Escape Through Disguise”; and “Meeting of Fugitives in the Land of Freedom” — Source.

Brown would reuse the Wildcat story several times throughout the 1850s. In addition to Three Years in Europe and Clotel, Brown included the story in: an 1855 American edition of his travelogue called The American Fugitive in Europe; an 1856 biography ostensibly written by his daughter Josephine (but almost certainly written by Brown himself); and 1859’s Memoir of William Wells Brown, an American Bondman, Written by Himself. And then he stopped. Although Brown would go on to publish three revised versions of Clotel, several volumes of African American history, and a new memoir, My Southern Home (1880), the barber/banker story does not appear in any of these books. Why?

The easiest answer is that the decline of Wildcat banking during the 1860s meant that, quite simply, Brown’s story was no longer relevant. “When taken together, the National Currency Act of 1863 and the National Bank Act of 1864 established a new financial and monetary structure in the United States”, Greenberg writes. “Rather than 1,500 separate banks’ currencies with dozens of different state regulations, there would be one uniform national bank note individually branded by its issuing branch”.17 Brown knew that tales about Wildcat banknotes and shinplasters would seem dated to readers in the 1860s (and beyond), and so he simply dropped them from his repertoire.

Regardless of whether or not the barbershop event actually occurred or was merely a well-crafted set piece, the story of William Wells Brown, the Wildcat banker, had a rich afterlife first in Brown’s own prose and then, internationally, as a parable of American banking gone bad. There is a curious symmetry between Brown’s shinplasters and the story about his shinplasters. Both originate with Brown, and Brown had some say over their printing and distribution, but ultimately both his banknotes and his story would circulate in ways that Brown could not control or anticipate. We have already seen how Brown’s notes came back to potentially ruin him during a bank run. But what about Brown’s story? How did it circulate beyond his own books?

Brown’s barber/banker story had a second act as an example of fast-and-loose American finance in at least two essays about British monetary policy. The first, written by William Neilson Hancock, was published in the Journal of the Dublin Statistical Society in 1855. Hancock’s essay defends the Bank Charter Act of 1844, which limited the number of banknotes that could be issued, and centralized economic power with the Bank of England. The Bank Charter Act positioned the Bank of England in stark contrast with American banks during the Free Banking Era. Hancock uses Brown’s story as a cautionary tale about why “free banking” must be avoided. He reprints it untruncated, italicizing passages that reveal the unscrupulous workings of the Wildcat banking system. Although Hancock acknowledges that Brown is “one of that race whom Americans despise and oppress”,18 at least one reader of Hancock’s essay — John Joseph Murphy, writing in the Belfast Mercantile Journal — drops the subject of Brown’s race altogether, referring to him simply as “an American writer” and “the American”.19 For Irish and British writers in the 1850s and 1860s, the salient element of Brown’s story is what it says about American banks and the American financial system on the whole, rather than anything about Brown or his status as a fugitive slave. This reading is completely at odds with modern interpretations of Brown’s anecdote, and almost certainly at odds with Brown’s intentions as well, since he knew his audience and readers would never lose sight of the fact that he was a Black man running a Wildcat bank in a mostly white town.

 portrait of william wells brownScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Frontispiece portrait from Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave (1847) — Source.

The second essay to revive Brown’s barber/banking story would take it even further afield — in fact, all the way to China. It was written by Colonel William Henry Sykes, a director of the East India Company and Member of Parliament for Aberdeen. Sykes read his essay, “Free Trade in Banking”, at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Nottingham, England, in August 1866 (it would later be published in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society in 1867, a society he helped found). Like Hancock, Sykes was no fan of American-style “free banking”. He introduces Brown as an “escaped slave” whose writing “may scarcely, if at all, be known in England”, but nevertheless states that his barber/banker story “may not be without its effect upon our free traders in money and banking in England”.20 After reproducing Brown’s story about Monroe in full, Sykes recognizes an international trend by noting that “the ingenious devices in the Western States of America for raising money have a parallel in Manchooria, in Tartary”, where a ubiquity of paper money had been reported by the British Consul.21 Sykes then goes on to quote a lengthy excerpt from Justus Doolittle’s 1865 book Social Life of the Chinese, recounting how an 1855 bank run was quashed when the local viceroy had two rioters beheaded in the streets. For Sykes, Brown’s Wildcat bank has wandered far away from its origin in Monroe, Michigan, and now rests comfortably alongside unregulated paper bills, Chinese money clubs, and the public execution of customers, as equally valid examples of banking gone bad.

In an essay on Clotel in the volume Early African American Print Culture, Lara Langer Cohen argues that Brown’s writing “demands fresh forms of analysis that would recognize citation as an important technique of African American print culture, theorizing modes of textual production that exceed origination to encompass reading, maneuvering, and rearrangement”.22 In other words, the meaning of Brown’s barber/banker story is not limited by whatever Brown’s original intention for it was when he first told it or wrote it down. By reprinting, revising, and recontextualizing his original story, Brown was able to repurpose it to suit whatever writing project he was undertaking. And when it stopped being a good story, he stopped using it. But the story did not stop with Brown. The “reading, maneuvering, and rearrangement” of the shinplaster tale includes its citation by other writers, like Hancock and Sykes (and their readers), who refashioned Brown’s Wildcat days. By my count, at least fourteen periodicals published, or republished, reviews of Sykes’ paper, and most of them included a sentence or two (or more) about Brown. Years after Brown had stopped telling one of his favorite anecdotes, it suddenly had thousands of new readers. This was an unexpected twist that one of American literature’s cleverest and craftiest writers would surely have appreciated.

Ross Bullen is a writer and teacher living in Toronto. His work has appeared in The Public Domain Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, American Literature, and elsewhere. Ross is an Assistant Professor of English at OCAD University. You can read more of his work here.

The text of this essay is published under a CC BY-SA license, see here for details.