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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales from Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

The Man Who Tried to Defraud the Bank of Pocahontas

1910-era Movie Projector.
Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
1910-era Movie Projector.

Before the studio system and national theater franchises came into being after World War I, movie makers distributed motion pictures in two major ways. In the roadshow system, film makers entered into agreements with individual theaters. Theaters then sold tickets to generate revenue for the film maker and the venue. By limiting movie showings, theaters could drive up demand for tickets and enhance their prestige. This system increased earnings for film makers and large theaters, but limited release of movies to the regional level.

The states rights system involved sale of films on a local basis. Film makers sold the rights to a movie directly to either individual theaters or a franchise salesperson. The salesperson then played the film as often as they could in local venues in order to profit from their purchase. This system had the advantages of ensuring national release of shorter films and reaching smaller markets. The system generated smaller profits for feature-length films, however, because film makers only profited on the initial sale of each film copy.

Under the states rights system, franchise holders sometimes made the circuit of small towns. They brought their own equipment and showed the films in local venues. William Bright, a movie franchise salesman, arrived in late September 1915 in the Cape Girardeau village of Pocahontas with equipment and films. Local officials allowed him to set up in the town hall, where he gave several shows. Local people enjoyed the films, but Bright found that the clientele was too small. He was soon in financial trouble.

Bright needed to borrow cash quickly, and applied to John Bonney, President of the local Bank of Pocahontas, for a loan of $12, which translates to $365 in 2023. He offered the projector as collateral.

Bright failed to increase his profit after getting the loan, and he disappeared a short time later. Mr. Bonney also found the motion picture machine belonged to someone other than Bright, so he could not retain it as collateral for the loan. John Bonney was the wrong person for Bright to swindle. He had been the victim of a robbery some years earlier and was quite frugal. Furthermore, Bonney had served in prior years as County Treasurer and Assessor and was a local justice of the peace. He knew local law enforcement officers, including Sheriff William A. Summers. Bonney immediately came to Jackson, filed a sworn statement before a justice of the peace, and made sure a warrant was issued for Bright’s arrest on charges of obtaining money under false pretenses. Sheriff Summers began an investigation and managed to locate William Bright in Hickman County, Kentucky. Local authorities arrested him and asked for further instructions.

The Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney J. Henry Caruthers and Bonney agreed not to prosecute Bright, provided he pay the debt and costs. The Hickman County sheriff thought he could comply and would release Bright once he paid the money.

Local newspaper accounts later reported that Bright had balked. He would pay the debt, but not costs. Mr. Caruthers prepared requisition papers to call for Bright’s return to Cape Girardeau County to answer the charges. Bright responded defiantly and sent word to Cape Girardeau Sheriff’s officers that if they came after him, they should be prepared for a fight. The last word on this story suggests Bright probably paid the money: “The officers are getting ready to accommodate [Bright] in that respect.”

And thus ends the story of the movie franchise salesperson who tried to cheat the Bank of Pocahontas.

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.