Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Vigilance Committees in Kansas During the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression

August 19th, 2021

When people find out about my job, or when students are interviewing me to figure out their career options, they often ask me what my favorite thing about my job is. I usually say something about the variety or about the fact that I get to learn something new every day.

Take, for example, when I was creating a finding aid for a manuscript collection we’ve held at Spencer Research Library for several decades but that never had an online presence before. The Lawrence National Bank & Trust Company was located downtown on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence, Kansas, from the 1860s until the early 1990s. After several mergers and changes of hand, what was this bank and trust is now part of the U.S. Bank banking system.

This collection has been minimally processed—in archival parlance, this means we haven’t done a lot of physical rehousing of the materials, and we’ve described at the box or volume level without going into a whole lot of detail for each folder or individual volume. In order to describe the collection, I had to do some quick surveying for the inventory, which is how I learned about vigilante committees of the 1920s and 1930s.

Vigilante, or vigilance, committees were formed by bank associations in order to stop bank robberies. They were apparently formed throughout the Midwestern United States during the 1920s, when the likes of John Dillinger and “Pretty Boy” Floyd were headline news. Daytime robberies increased exponentially in the early 1930s during the Great Depression, typically against banks with few staff in towns of small population, according to a member of the American Bank Association’s Protective Department.

Black text on a neutral background or page.
Part of an address by James E. Baum, deputy manager of the Protective Department of the American Bankers Association, from the Proceedings of the 44th Annual Convention of the Kansas Bankers Association, May 21-22, 1931. Call Number: RH C679. Click image to enlarge.

Kansas had one of the earliest bank associations, organized in 1887, according to the Story of Banking in Kansas, available at Spencer Research Library (Call Number: RH C4040). The Kansas Bankers Association began its vigilante system in 1925. Individual banks throughout the state contributed vigilantes (over 3,500 individuals in the 1920s), who were commissioned as deputy sheriffs and provided with arms and ammunition by the local banks. Another part of this security program was installing alarm systems.

A vertical form with instructions to operators in case of a bank attack and a grid to record names and phone numbers.
A blank placard used by the vigilance committees to provide names and telephone numbers for local vigilantes in case of bank attacks. Lawrence National Bank & Trust Company Records. Call Number: RH MS 264, Box 2. Click image to enlarge.

The Kansas Bankers Association, and other associations around the country, established these vigilance committees not only to slow down the number of robberies taking place but also to lessen robbery insurance rates for banks. James E. Baum, a deputy manager with the American Bankers Association, noted in his 1931 address at the annual state convention that Kansas had 97 out of 105 counties organized into vigilante committees.

W.E. Decker, an employee of the Lawrence National Bank & Trust, was the Secretary for the Douglas County Bankers’ Association in the 1930s. The bank’s records at Spencer Research Library include approximately half a box of correspondence and financial records from the association.

Page listing receipts and disbursements, each $601.86. Receipts are for "regular meeting" ($37.34), "vigilante maintenance" ($324.02), and "4-H Club Banquet" ($240.50).
“Vigilante maintenance” brought the Douglas County Bankers Association the most receipts from 1934 to 1935, more only than the 4-H Club Banquet, according to the secretary’s report for that fiscal year. Lawrence National Bank & Trust Company Records. Call Number: RH MS 264, Box 2. Click image to enlarge.

Much of this material details the local association’s vigilante committee, records they kept to be in good standing with the Kansas Bankers’ Association. Other records from the local association include information regarding a banquet they held annually on behalf of the 4-H Club, as well as agreements amongst the county banks about interest rates and other banking matters.

Short typed letter with First National Bank letterhead.
In between organizing the vigilantes committee, the Douglas County Bankers Association also discussed savings rates and other banking matters. Lawrence National Bank & Trust Company Records. Call Number: RH MS 264, Box 2. Click image to enlarge.

Members of the local association participated in regional and statewide Vigilante Shoots, both a competition and an opportunity to improve one’s marksmanship.

Full-page typed letter with Kansas Bankers Association letterhead.
A form letter from the Kansas Bankers Association regarding logistics for county shoots around Kansas in the fall of 1934. Lawrence National Bank & Trust Company Records. Call Number: RH MS 264, Box 2. Click image to enlarge.

I’ve studied a lot of Kansas history over the years working at the Spencer Research Library and elsewhere, but I had never heard about these vigilante committees until I stumbled across the information in the Lawrence National Bank & Trust records. As the old adage says, “You learn something new every day!”

Marcella Huggard
Archives and Manuscripts Processing Coordinator

“Books That are Helping Us to Know Our Country”: The American Guide Series

August 10th, 2016

With the end of summer, and the start of school just around the corner, perhaps you are thinking about squeezing in just one more road trip. Maybe you’d like to explore a state you’ve never been to, or get to know the one you’re in a little better. You’ll need a good, concise guidebook for the journey, one with interesting facts and historical information, as well as reliable maps and tourist information. To start with, you might consider consulting the American Guide Series. Although they were published from the late 1930s through the mid-1940s, they still provide excellent background information to get you started, although you’ll probably want to get an up-to-date map.

Image of title pages for American Guide Series volumes on Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas

American Guide Series for Missouri (1941), Colorado (1946), Nebraska (1939),
and Kansas (1939). Call Numbers: RH C9550, RH C11457,
RH C11415, and RH C11429. Click image to enlarge.

When Franklin Roosevelt became our 32nd president in 1933, the biggest national issue he and his administration had to contend with was the country’s severe economic depression, then in its fourth year with no end in sight. The plan they came up with to address this predicament became known as the New Deal, and it put in place a series of programs created by Congress and by presidential executive order to provide relief, recovery, and reform, all aimed at getting people back to work and the national economy on its feet again. The Works Progress (later Projects) Administration (WPA) was the largest of the New Deal agencies.

Fold-out map of Kansas from the American Guide Series for Kansas, 1939.

Fold-out map of Kansas from the American Guide Series volume on the state, 1939.
Call Number: RH C11429.Click image to enlarge.

One of those WPA projects was the agency called the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). Begun in 1935 and ending in 1943, the FWP, at its peak, employed approximately 6,600 unemployed writers, editors, researchers, historians, art critics, archaeologists, geologists, cartographers, and clerical workers. They produced more than 276 books, 701 pamphlets, and 340 other publications, such as articles, leaflets, and radio scripts. The most popular of these works was the American Guide Series. Each state, through the FWP, hired staff to create a guidebook that contained information about the state’s history, cities, landmarks, and historic sites; the culture of its people; and the geology and geography of the land. Each guidebook also contained a detailed highway map, usually folded up at the back of the book. In addition to the states, guidebooks were created for the territories (except Hawaii) and large cities, such as Washington, D.C. and New York. Some states, including Kansas, were able to create guidebooks for a few of their towns, as well. For their time, there is also a surprising amount of information about minority populations in the guidebooks, although often stereotypical and exploitative. The goal of the guidebooks was to familiarize Americans with their own state and country and to keep them in the United States on their vacations, where their tourism dollars were most needed.

Title page of American Guide Series for Washington, D.C., 1937

Title page of American Guide Series for Washington, D.C., 1937.
Call Number: RH C3424. Click image to enlarge.

Title pages for American Guide Series for Leavenworth and Larned, Kansas

Title pages for American Guide Series for Leavenworth (1940) and Larned (1938), Kansas.
Call Numbers: RH C4787 and RH C4999. Click image to enlarge.

Describing the Series, Harry Hopkins, federal relief administrator, perhaps said it best when he noted:

The American traveler gets into his automobile and travels for four days…and has the conviction that there is nothing of interest between New York and Chicago. Outside of a few highly advertised [sites]…he isn’t conscious of what America contains, of what American folk habits are. Americans are the most travel-minded people in the world; but their travel is two percent education and 98 percent pure locomotion. Speeding through towns whose chain stores look as if they had been turned out on an assembly line, the American motorist is unaware of the infinite variety and rich folklore of the American scene…For the first time, we are being made aware of the rich and varied nature of our country…By producing books that are helping us to know our country, the Writers’ Project helps us become better acquainted with each other and, in that way, develops Americanism in the best sense of the word.

Sources:

Hobson, Archie. Remembering America: A Sampler of the WPA American Guide Series. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Shortridge, James R. The WPA Guide to 1930s Kansas. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1984.

Stewart, Catherine A. Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

Kathy Lafferty
Public Services