The great-granddaughter of a Civil War-era storekeeper in Tampa, Fla. is
suing the city for a 147-year-old unpaid promissory note. With interest, the
note is now worth over $22 million.
The financially-strapped city of Tampa, in need of ammunition during the Civil
War, issued the note to Thomas Pugh Kennedy on June 21, 1861, the St.
Petersburg Times reported Sunday. Kennedy's great-granddaughter, Joan
Kennedy Biddle and her family are suing to collect the payment, plus 8 percent
annual interest.
"This thing has been in the family since the date on the note, and it has never
been repaid," Biddle, 77, told the Times. "My daddy told me, and I certainly
believe him."
Tampa City Attorney David Smith told the Times that he doesn't consider the
claim valid.
In legal documents, Biddle's attorney argues that the statute of limitations
doesn't apply, for at the time the note was issued, the state had no such
statute on such documents
TAMPA — In the early months of the Civil War, the city of Tampa needed
ammunition and other supplies to defend against attack but apparently was
short on cash.
So it issued a promissory note for $299.58 to storekeeper Thomas Pugh
Kennedy on June 21, 1861.
Kennedy's great-granddaughter says the city never made good on its loan.
Now, Joan Kennedy Biddle and her family are suing to collect the payment plus
8 percent annual interest.
The total bill: $22.7-million.
"Obviously we came at a bad time because the city seems like they're trying to
cut their budget," she said. "On the other hand, they're building the Riverwalk."
Attorney James Purdy filed the suit in the Hillsborough Circuit Court last week.
He did not return calls for comment.
Biddle wouldn't give specifics on why she decided to sue now, using as
evidence a piece of paper that has been handed down as an heirloom for
generations.
"This thing has been in the family since the date on the note, and it has never
been repaid," said Biddle, 77. "My daddy told me, and I certainly believe him."
Tampa City Attorney David Smith said he doesn't consider the claim valid.
In legal documents, Biddle's attorney argues that the statute of limitations
doesn't apply in the case because at the time the note was issued, the state
had no such statute on such documents.
And Biddle pointed out that in the 1990s the federal government agreed to pay
the Seminole tribe for land illegally taken in the 1820s.
But attorney John Grandoff said the city can defend against the case using the
"doctrine of laches," which prevents claims from being made after an
extraordinary passage of time.
"It's kind of how the court feels about whether it's been too long or not,"
Grandoff said. "It's total discretion on the judge's part."
Rodney Kite-Powell, curator at the Tampa Bay History Center, noted that the
Tampa of 1861 is not the same city that exists today — literally.
Tampa was originally incorporated in 1855, but was abolished in 1869 in part
because residents had no money to pay taxes, and the city had no money to
pay its bills, Kite-Powell said. It was reincorporated in 1887.
At the time the note was issued, Tampa was a tiny town with about 800
residents, city limits that included just a portion of downtown. It also was home
to Fort Brooke, where local Confederate soldiers were stationed.
Biddle's great-grandfather, Thomas Pugh Kennedy, was one of the city's most
significant pioneers, Kite-Powell said.
He operated a store with business partner John Darling.
"Merchants are always important because they're the way people get stuff —
from cannons to clothing and food," he said. "People really relied on these
early merchants to supply people with what they needed."
Joan Kennedy Biddle grew up on Davis Islands and attended Plant High
School. She moved to east Hillsborough in the 1960s and ran a lumber
business with her late husband. She now owns a three-bedroom home in
Brandon.
Biddle said she's known about the note since she was a little girl. "I showed it to
the attorney, and he said it looked very interesting," she said. "It's strange that
the thing has never been collected."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be
reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

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