LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Washington, D.C.-based Riggs Bank once proudly called itself the Bank of Presidents. Twenty-three presidents banked at Riggs. Last year, Pittsburg-based PNC Financial Group acquired Riggs Bank, and a dusty treasure trove of bank documents written by some of those ex-presidents.
NPR's Guy Raz went along with the bank's archivist to explore the building's subterranean vault.
Ms. MARY BETH CORRIGAN (Archivist, PNC-Riggs Bank): My name is Mary Beth Corrigan(ph), and I'm the PNC-Riggs Bank archivist.
GUY RAZ reporting:
But Mary Beth is selling herself short. You see, she's what you might call a history detective, a woman whose second home is a bank vault.
(Soundbite of bank vault)
RAZ: This is the vault that houses the papers, the bank slips, the ledger books, the loan documents, of the Bank of Presidents, or rather was the Bank of Presidents. Riggs Bank doesn't exist anymore, probably because it took its motto too seriously.
Yes, there were presidents who banked here, from Buchanan to Polk to Hoover to Lincoln to - Pinochet? Well, that's a different story. But back to Lincoln and the ledger books.
Ms. CORRIGAN: I think this is one for Lincoln. Yes, it is.
RAZ: What's at the top of the page is the account holder?
Ms. CORRIGAN: Yeah, that's right. It's the account holder's name, and you can see it's always written in very perfect handwriting. And here we come across Abraham Lincoln's first account. And this is December 13th, 1861. And it appears to be the account that he - well, this is his first account with Riggs and Company.
Here you can see listed his deposits, and his monthly paycheck of $2,083.53 is listed every month.
RAZ: That was his presidential salary?
Ms. CORRIGAN: That's correct. That's correct. And here you can see the various withdrawals.
This here is a check written by Abraham Lincoln, made out to Mr. Johns, in parenthesis a sick man.
RAZ: And do we know who he was?
Ms. CORRIGAN: No, we don't.
RAZ: But we do know, based on what Mary Beth Corrigan has found, that Lincoln wrote a lot of these weird checks, one of them to quote a colored man with one leg, for $3.
Now, during its heyday, Riggs Bank was something like the personal banker to the federal government, and in October 1867, Riggs moved mountains of gold, literally, to help with the purchase of Alaska.
Ms. CORRIGAN: The Russian minister wanted to make sure that he was receiving gold bullion, because they were transferring this money right after the Civil War. And at this time, U.S. currency was pretty suspect and generally worthless. And what Riggs was able to do was to supply bullion, and that enabled the United States to purchase Alaska.
RAZ: By the end of the year, Mary Beth Corrigan will have finished the project she began in 1998, and every once in awhile, she still comes across something that offers a small glimpse into the lives of extraordinary people. A large withdrawal signed by James Buchanan, or Jefferson Davis' appeal to the bank to close his account on the eve of the Civil War.
She still has the 1970s to troll through. Richard Nixon banked at Riggs, and the plumbers had to be paid somehow.
Guy Raz, NPR News, in Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.