By Hank Nuwer
About the time Butch Cassidy and his gang robbed banks for fun and profit out West, Ohio also had its own dirty, lowdown bank robber.
Only difference, instead of stickups, Zachariah T. (Z. T.) Lewis of Urbana, Ohio, did sit-downs. A banker, Z. T. did his thieving from behind a bank desk in Dayton.
Instead of a pearl-handled revolver, Z. T. Lewis acquired an ill-gotten fortune using a fountain pen and forged bonds.
Investors who signed with him on the dotted line lost their precious savings even as the country still reeled from the Panic of 1893.
And all those bilked customers of Z. T. didn’t get so much as a free-gift blender.
Lewis’s scheming ways took years to detect.
What he did was print counterfeit bonds carrying the names of banks and school corporations. He peddled worthless bonds tied to legitimate institutions such as the German National Bank of Cincinnati and Tippecanoe City Schools.
When he realized the jig was up, he took the money from a $78,000 mortgage on his house, a pile of cash and absconded to parts unknown.
That’s when his own brother and even fellow bankers realized they had been swindled. The Greenville Democrat of September 4, 1895, carried legal notices from the Citizens’ Bank of Ansonia asking for multiple judgments against Lewis in absentia. He also had conned banks as far off as Boston, Mass.
Rumors began to fly. Newspapers suspected Z. T. of absconding to Mexico with a quarter-million in ready cash. “He ought to be able to set up a pretty fine café,” sniffed one editor.
At last, the long arm of the law plucked Z. T out of his hideout in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he hid out with his wife and family. He had bought a house, and his wife ran it as a rooming house.
Authorities escorted Z. T. to Champaign County, Ohio, and arranged a trial.
An army of onlookers jammed the courtroom.
The judge read 30 indictments against the prisoner. He decided to try only two to save time and court costs.
Z.T. called out his plea, “Not guilty.”
The prisoner looked emaciated, tuckered out, and worn from his time on the run. His spiffy suit now held extra fabric in the shoulders and fanny.
As he entered the courtroom, he tapped the floor with his cane. Guess the banker was, ahem, checking his balance.
The judge set bail high on April 13, 1897. Unable to afford $30,000, a fortune in that time, Z. T. was forced to linger in jail until his trial in July.
Z. T. had squandered a fortune on fine clothing, expensive furniture, and tuition for a son in medical school. Mrs. Lewis begged the court to let her keep household belongings, and her wish was granted.
No one in the family was charged with being an accessory.
It turned out he blew much of his ill-gotten loot on costly furniture.
In court, a defense lawyer argued that Z. T. had no intent to defraud investors.
To which the judge said, “Horse bleep.”
No, what the old boy said was this: The argument “does not touch a responsive chord in the mind of this court.”
His honor continued: “You had forged an endless chain of fraud and deceit.”
The judge scolded Z.T. “for bringing nothing less than ruin and loss to many of those who had been beguiled by your colossal scheme of unparalleled forgeries.”
The court sentenced the white-collared criminal to eight years in jail. Some of the hard time was to be in solitary confinement.
That light sentence drew screams of outrage from his investors, news editors, and the public. No one seemed to know exactly how much he defrauded. Estimates went as high as $400,000.
Less than two years later, around Independence Day, 1899, a penitentiary board paroled Z. T. due to his advanced lung disease.
He died in October 1900, at his wife’s boarding house.
Folks from Ansonia to Boston agreed that old Z. T. was so crooked that if he swallowed a needle, it would come out a fishhook.
Hank Nuwer is an author, columnist and playwright. He and wife Gosia live on the Indiana side of the Union City state line. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.