by Pete Zizka


No matter what year or what century we look back to, there will always be a mixture of actual news, fake news, rumor and innuendo. In 2022, I wrote about the Risley Bank Scandal, probably the biggest scandal Willimantic ever experienced. But as I researched material, I was amazed to note the rumors that began to be associated with it. A quick recap of the story is that Risley  (today’s photo) died in April, 1895 and within a week it was discovered that he had misused hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ultimately this led to the closings of the First National Bank, the Dime Savings Bank, and the Natchaug Silk Company. Several other local businesses suffered losses and the general population, especially depositors, were negatively impacted due to the temporary unavailability of funds. Almost immediately after his death, it was reported that he had suffered from “Bright’s Disease” and had been “prostrate” for several days. Within two weeks, even the New York Times began speculating on what may have happened to the minimum $200,00 deficit. It was mentioned that Risley “had a pair of fast horses”, his board cost him $9 per week and that he drank and smoked, “but not to excess”. His salary was reported as being $3,500 annually, and he was “penurious”. And so, people began to believe there was an accomplice. The man who took Risley’s place said, I think I know whom he got the money for…I can mention no names”. And so, the Chronicle said, “what agitates the minds of business and financial men now is ‘What has become of the money’”. By April 27th, the prevalent rumor was that Risley had committed suicide since, because of his illness, he could not attend to matters all by himself any longer, and so he felt his exposure was inevitable. Despite protestations from his personal physician, it was believed that he had “taken something to hasten his death”. The rumor took on a new twist when it was reported that his body would be exhumed and examined before Aetna would pay his life insurance policy “of which he is supposed to have $20,000-30,000”. The best rumor, in my opinion, was that Risley had been seen in Chicago since the funeral and that only a wax dummy was buried. In early May, a “little black box”  belonging to Risley was found by U.S. Bank Examiner Dooley in the First National Bank’s vault. However he would not release the box to the Risley estate temporary administrators until a permanent receiver was appointed. Public anxiety over what the box may have contained “was at concert pitch”. A week later, much to the disappointment of many, the box was opened and, “the contents were so palpably without interest to the public, that the administrators decided not to make the contents known in detail”. Then, ridiculous rumors led to an absurdity. George Stiles, a Spiritualist medium, held forth at Excelsior Hall. He claimed to conjure up the spirit of Mr. Risley who supposedly said he was sorry for those he had injured, that he did not willfully bring this problem on various people who were affected and that he was influenced by others. According to the medium, Risley, during the session, said that he had seen the late Joel W. Webb and C.M. Palmer. They had been local businessmen and had died before Risley!  Now, interest turned to the Natchaug Silk Company which was associated with the bulk of the fraudulent transactions. Colonel J.D. Chaffee was traveling here and there trying to determine just what the assets of the company amounted to  The rumor circulating around town was that Chaffee, a prominent citizen in Willimantic, was in New York and that his local friends were of the opinion that he would not return to Willimantic to face the charges of false entries, embezzlement and misappropriation of funds. (The Silk Company’s treasurer, Frederick M. Barrows, had also been arrested.) Before their trials began in April, 1899, they were placed under arrest on yet another complaint charging them and Risley with conspiracy to defraud investors. Police Captain Hillhouse, who made return on the warrant, had an interesting comment. “I made diligent search within my precincts for the within named O.H. Risley and he could not be found herein”. Did some still believe he may have been alive? One last rumor was that the First National Bank was holding a note for $8,000 against the Town of Windham. Fortunately, the signatures on the note were proved to be forged and the town was off the hook. Visit for more stories and photos.   



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