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Tampa sued to collect on 147-year-old promissory note worth millions

Tampa issued a promissory note for $299.58 to pioneer storekeeper Thomas Pugh Kennedy on June 21, 1861. And his great granddaughter Joan Kennedy Biddle, 77, who has known about the note since she was a little girl, wants to collect with interest.

Special to the Times

Tampa issued a promissory note for $299.58 to pioneer storekeeper Thomas Pugh Kennedy on June 21, 1861. And his great granddaughter Joan Kennedy Biddle, 77, who has known about the note since she was a little girl, wants to collect with interest.

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.

Tampa sued to collect on 147-year-old promissory note worth millions 03/16/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 23, 2008 6:03pm]
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