Murdaugh, Laffitte cases add to reputation of bankers in Lowcountry
Bluffton Today (SC)
Even as a member of a prominent Hampton County banking family was found guilty this week on six federal banking charges in the internationally known criminal cases involving disbarred attorney Richard "Alex" Murdaugh, locals here know that Hampton has a history of famous and unorthodox bankers.
Russell Lucius Laffitte was found guilty Nov. 22 of bank fraud, conspiracy and other charges in federal district court in Charleston. Laffitte, who was fired as CEO of Palmetto State Bank in Hampton in January, is an heir to the Laffitte banking family that has financial interests in banks throughout the South Carolina Lowcountry.
Laffitte is accused of conspiring with and aiding Murdaugh -- the former Hampton attorney who's himself accused of financial crimes and charged with murder in the deaths of his wife and son -- in stealing and misusing money from several of Murdaugh's personal-injury clients in a case that has made headlines around the world.
But Laffitte is not the first Hampton banker to make national news.
R.O. Bowden, a man who played by his own banking rules
According to a 2007 South Carolina House of Representatives resolution honoring its 100th anniversary, Palmetto State Bank began as the Loan and Exchange Bank in 1907. In 1955, the Laffitte family purchased that bank, and as the bank prospered and grew, it was renamed the Palmetto State Bank in 1970.
In the House resolution, the Loan and Exchange Bank was described as "a small, storefront exchange bank founded on Lee Avenue in Hampton which through conservative lending practices became one of few South Carolina banks to survive the Great Depression."
Perhaps that had something to do with the unorthodox banking practices of its original founder and president, R.O. Bowden.
While he was never accused of any crimes, state or federal, and he wasn't related to the Laffittes, Ralph Olen Bowden, commonly known as "Banker Bowden" or "Old Man Bowden" by the locals, was a colorful character who played by his own rules, doing business that other bankers wouldn't do.
Bowden was known for granting customers unusual loans and often asking even more unusual collateral. A supporter of the "wet" pro-alcohol movement during and after Prohibition, Bowden loaned money for items others considered suspicious, such as copper tubing, barrels, and other items often associated with the construction of a moonshine liquor still.
According to a celebrated local joke, he knew a smart, thriving business plan when he saw one.
He owned a side business, the Horses and Asses Farm, and would loan money to farmers for livestock, even mules. After one such case, when questioned by an external bank examiner, he had the mule brought in and showed him that because it had good teeth and a shiny, healthy coat it was a safe investment.
According to his family, Bowden once even loaned money with people as "collateral." In "Salkehatchie Stew" interviews conducted by the author for a University of South Carolina - Salkehatchie history project, his descendants recalled the exchange between a new, young doctor, fresh out of medical school, who moved to town with nothing but his hat in his hand to ask for a loan.
When Bowden asked what the doctor had for collateral, he said he had nothing at the moment but his wife and children. So the banker got their names and ages and put them down as collateral on the loan paperwork.
However, the old-fashioned banker was hesitant to make loans on modern items like automobiles. He called Model A Fords "contraptions" and reportedly said that he would rather loan money on a mule.
Bowden drew national controversy with Confederate flag
Bowden, who was known as an eccentric and old-fashioned Southerner, made national headlines in the early 1950s.
The old banker kept Confederate flags draped over the façade of his bank, and others flew out front. When the Associated Press widely circulated a photo of the bank and its flags, Bowden received mail and postcards from around the country in condemnation. A letter from a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy was among those expressing support, commending him on his "spirit."
Bowden kept the Confederate flags flying until he sold the bank to the Laffitte family in 1955.
Banker and bank robber became unlikely friends
While his antics made him widely known throughout the county, an unlikely friendship with a notorious bank robber would send Bowden to New York City to appear on NBC radio and TV programs.
In October of 1950, Bowden made national headlines and earned radio and TV appearances when he entertained at his Savannah River fish camp, Pink Ridge Hill, one of the country's most infamous bank robbers, James "Big Jim" Morton of Cleveland, Ohio.
This strange banker-bank robber friendship developed after Bowden read the "Saturday Evening Post" series on Morton, "I was the King of Thieves," and decided it would be interesting to meet such a criminal "artist." Bowden then wrote a lengthy letter to Morton, and after a brief exchange of correspondence, invited Big Jim to visit him.
"Ralph is the first banker, and probably will be the last, to invite me to his home," Morton told the press. "Though I did notice the invitation was to his Savannah River place and not to his home in Hampton near the bank."
In response, Bowden said, "I imagine I must be the only banker in the world who would entertain a yeggman (a burglar or safecracker). Jim, to me, looks like a Christian gentleman and has every earmark of a statesman, fine manners, and he is handsome, too. I consider him a literary artist as well as a torch artist."
While enjoying a fine dinner at the fish camp, the inquisitive banker had a slew of questions for the reformed robber.
"What was the biggest haul you ever made?" he asked.
"$184,000, from safety deposit boxes in an Indiana bank," the robber responded.
"Do you think a robber would ever try a night depository like the one I had installed at my bank some time ago?"
"No experienced robber would break it because he'd know in a town like Hampton it wouldn't be enough to make it worth the effort."
When asked by a reporter if he had ever robbed one of Bowden's banks, Big Jim replied, "No, I haven't robbed The Loan & Exchange Bank -- that is, not yet."
In a photo taken of the two in front of the safe at Bowden's bank, it would be difficult to guess at first glance which was the professional banking officer and the ex-criminal. Morton was clean-cut and well attired while Bowden appeared wild-haired and plainly dressed. Bowden and Morton later traveled to New York, where they made a hit on the "We the People" nationwide Thursday night radio broadcast and its Friday night television show.
"Radios in this section were tuned in to NBC for the Thursday night broadcast and many persons saw the show," reported The Hampton County Guardian at the time. "Most persons commenting who heard the show said it was a real thrill to hear, 'We take you to Hampton, South Carolina...'"