A man walked up the steps of a well-known bank in lower New York one morning, about a half-hour before opening-time, and stood before the shut door. In a few minutes another came, and stood waiting beside him. Others came, one by one, until soon a small group stood in line, waiting for the door to open.
A messenger boy, coming down the street, quickly took in the unusual sight. He wasn't old enough to have been through any of New York's notable panics, and he had never witnessed a run on a bank; but quick as a flash, or as a Wall-Street messenger boy, he knew as though by instinct that a run was on at that bank. Instantly he started running down the street to tell others.
No prairie wild-fire ever spread so quickly as the news ran over 'phone wires of the beginning of that run. As though by some sort of invisible ether-waves, the news seemed to spread through the financial district. Every bank president seemed to know at once. Then it spread throughout the city, and the greater city.
So began what has been called the October panic of last year, which quickly spread through the land, and then throughout the world until every country bank here, and every capital city abroad, felt the sharp tightening of the money-bag strings.
It was a strange panic. You couldn't just tell what was responsible for it. The very variety of explanations, editorial and other, told of the lack of a common understanding of what caused it. There had been no famine or drought. The crops, the chief financial barometer of the country's condition, had been remarkably abundant. There had been no overproduction or glutting of the industrial world. Indeed, great numbers of concerns had been embarrassed by orders that they couldn't fill fast enough. The cause seemed to be wholly in people's minds. A spirit of distrust of some of the great money leaders and of their methods was abroad. That feeling of fear sent a few men, by an unplanned concert of action, to a certain bank before ten o'clock one morning.
The unusual sight of a few men standing in line waiting for the opening of that bank door was like a lighted match to a barn full of dry hay. At the first inkling of a suggestion of a financial panic money began to disappear. Nothing is so cowardly in its cautiousness as money. Scholarship comes next to it. The savings of years have the tightest grip on most human hands. As though by magic, money began hunting dark holes in stockings and cellars and safety-deposit boxes. And the hard grip of the panic was quickly felt everywhere. It was a fear panic. A terrible danger was at hand.
At once the regular habit of life was disturbed for great numbers of men. The Secretary of the Treasury quit his Washington desk and spent several days in New York so as to be able to give the help of the Government's funds and enormous prestige where they would count for most, and to give promptly. Bank officials and other financial leaders cut social engagements and everything else that could be cut, and devoted themselves to meeting the sudden emergency. They ate scantily, both to save time and for lack of appetite, and to help keep their heads clear for quick decisive thinking and action. The tension was intense. Men sat up all night conferring on best measures.
A group of the leading money men met in the private quarters of one of their numbers, about whose rugged personality and leadership they instinctively rallied. More than one night the gray dawning light of the morning found them, with white, drawn faces, still in conference. The emergency gripped them. An emergency always does. The habits of life are upset, helter-skelter, in the effort to avert the threatening danger. That was an emergency in the money world. Grave danger threatened. Everything else was forgotten, and every bit of available resource strained to turn the danger aside. It was turned aside. That was a splendid achievement. And even though men have been feeling the effects for this whole year, what they have felt is as nothing compared with what might have come.