Tampa Woman Sues City for Unpaid Civil War Loan

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A 77-year-old woman in Tampa, Fla., is trying to collect on a loan her great-grandfather made to the city during the Civil War. She claims that after 147 years at 8 percent interest, the original $300 debt is now nearly $23 million.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And having just heard a lot of housing numbers from Kathleen, here's some historical math. A loan of just $300 made during the Civil War, if paid back today with compound interest, would amount to nearly $23 million. Imagine how officials with the city of Tampa feel now that the city is being sued by the descendent of a Civil War era shopkeeper who's trying to cover an unpaid debt 147 years later.

Here's NPR's Greg Allen.

GREG ALLEN: Joan Kennedy Biddle knows her family history. She's 77 years old and grew up hearing stories about how her ancestors helped settle and build the city of Tampa. And she has more than stories. She has letters and documents going back generations.

Among those documents is a promissory note that she believes is worth $22.7 million. It's an IOU dated 1861 at the beginning of the Civil War, after Florida had joined the Confederacy. It was signed by Tampa's mayor, and promised to repay Thomas Pugh Kennedy for cannon repairs, ammunition and other items needed to defend the city against a feared attack by the Yankees.

Biddle says the debt was never repaid, and she's now gone to court. She declined to be interviewed on tape, but when asked why she's trying to collect now, a century and a half after the loan was made, Biddle would only say better late than never.

Maybe so, but Tampa city attorney David Smith isn't worried. He ticks off some of the many laws and legal principles that he says invalidate the claim. There's the statute of limitations, and perhaps even more importantly, a provision of the 14th Amendment that said neither the nation nor any state need pay any debt incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States. And Smith says there are other reasons why the claim is invalid.

Mr. DAVID SMITH (Attorney): Payment was due in the currency at that time, which were Confederate dollars, which no longer exist or no longer have value as currency. They may have value as a collector's item. That's another issue that we believe is an appropriate and sufficient defense.

ALLEN: Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center, says there's yet another reason why a promissory note signed in 1861 by Tampa's mayor may not longer be good. The city of that era went bankrupt and was abolished by residents in 1869. A new city, the Tampa of today, was incorporated 18 years later.

But while he's skeptical of the suits merits, Kite-Powell says it's valuable in another way. It's opened up to public attention an important chapter in Tampa's history.

Mr. POWELL: Even the folks who are from here may be surprised to know that there was a city of Tampa in 1861. People think of Florida as starting in the 1950s. And so it's nice that people can be reminded that we do have a pretty long history here.

ALLEN: The city of Tampa has filed a motion seeking to dismiss the case. A state judge is expected to schedule a hearing where Joan Kennedy Biddle can finally try to collect her longstanding family debt.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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