Joseph Duncan (Courtesy photo)

Joseph Duncan (Courtesy photo)

Joseph Duncan, the bank wrecker

When it comes to celebrity criminals, Los Angeles has it all over San Francisco — stars such as O.J. Simpson, Phil Spector and Robert Blake. San Francisco has to settle for criminal relatives of the stars, such as Theodore Durrant, dancer Maude Adams’ brother and Mike Gallo, the uncle of winemakers Ernst and Julio Gallo. But perhaps the most interesting was Joseph C. Duncan, father of the legendary dancer Isadora Duncan …

Joseph C. Duncan was many things: a newspaper editor, an art connoisseur, a poet, a real estate developer, a banker — and an embezzler. He was born in 1819 into a distinguished Philadelphia family who had fought in the American Revolution.

Duncan moved to Springfield, Ill., as a young man and started a business, but left the city owing $40,000 to his creditors. He next went to New Orleans, where he worked for a newspaper, and then to San Francisco, where he became a partner in a thriving auction business. Duncan’s success enabled him to pay off his Springfield creditors, but Joseph, like his famous daughter, was a risk-taker and always on the move.

He visited Paris and bought 400 paintings to sell back in San Francisco. He also got the idea of running a lottery in San Francisco. The lottery was a failure, and the paintings he brought back were largely unsold.

Duncan returned to the auction business and started a newspaper, which was the first to publish the poetry of Ina Coolbrith, California’s first Poet Laureate. Duncan became a mainstay of the cultural crowd, writing his own poetry and founding the California Art Association. He was often asked to choose the paintings and sculptures for the houses of his wealthy friends.

In 1875, Duncan opened the Pioneer Bank, a savings bank aimed at the working man. He offered an interest rate of 12 percent per year, substantially higher than the 8 percent other banks were offering. His bank was an immediate success, with thousands of working-class men and women opening accounts.

To earn money to pay these high interest rates, Duncan began speculating with the bank’s money. He bet the Consolidated Virginia Mining stock, which was selling at record highs, had peaked and would start declining. It hadn’t, and it didn’t.

Desperate, Duncan invested all his own money into this losing venture. Rumors emerged about the bank’s stability. To prop up the bank, he forged stock certificates and sold them to unsuspecting brokers. On Oct. 8, 1877, when he could hide the losses no more, Duncan closed the bank and disappeared. The bank was $1,240,000 in debt. Duncan’s real estate was seized, but it was all heavily mortgaged and worth very little.

Thousands of people milled around the bank in shock, having lost their life savings. “The creditors … included men of nearly every nation under the sun,” wrote the Chronicle. “The feeling of the crowd was most bitter against the absconding banker and no man ever was cursed in so many different tongues as Duncan.” The newspapers feasted on the story for months.

On Oct. 11, 1887, in a frenzy of alliteration, the Chronicle’s headline read ”Duncan’s Depravity. Deluded Depositors Driven to Distraction.”

With public outrage and pressure to find Duncan at a peak, Captain of Detectives Isaiah Lees faced his greatest challenge — and his wiliest opponent. Duncan’s house and the house of some of his friends were searched, but there was no trace of the banker. False Duncan sightings were reported throughout the country.

Duncan’s son, Willie, was arrested and charged with aiding the escape but was bailed out after a few days. Every train, ship, wagon, coach and ferry leaving The City was checked. Lees guessed the escape would most likely be by ship, and a schooner named the “McKinnon” came under suspicion when it was cleared for a trip to Nicaragua. Lees kept a steamer ready to intercept the McKinnon when it left the harbor. On the evening of Feb. 17, 1888, when the McKinnon entered the Bay, it was followed and boarded by Lees. Police found Duncan’s clothes and possessions, but not Duncan. He had jumped on another boat during the chase and had returned to shore.

Lees began following Willie Duncan and eventually tracked him to a three-story boarding house on Kearny Street, where he believed Joseph Duncan was hiding. On the evening of Feb. 24, 1888, Lees led a raid and captured Joseph Duncan, who was half-dressed and lying on a cot. Police carefully searched the place, and Duncan’s secret hiding place was revealed: a small bureau in the apartment in which the draws had been sealed up and the back removed. In the event of a search, Duncan, a small man, would sneak into the back of the bureau through a secret door.

Duncan was tried on forgery charges, but after four inconclusive trials, he was set free. Duncan’s wife divorced him after she learned that he had been having an affair. But like a phoenix, Duncan continued to rise from his own ashes.

In 1884, diamond merchant Henry Meyer hired Duncan to sell a large part of his jewelry inventory. Duncan invested his share of the profits in Los Angeles real estate and made another fortune. Over the next 14 years, he made and lost two more fortunes, married again and had another child. In 1898, Joseph Duncan died, along with his wife and youngest child, in a shipwreck off the English coast. The San Francisco Examiner devoted a full page to his obituary.

Joseph Duncan’s daughter, Isadora, who was performing in England at the time, is believed to have identified his body. Isadora often used her father’s poetry as inspiration for her dance.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit

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