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The Heist of the Century: Who Cracked the Manhattan Savings And Loan Safe?


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Thomas Byrnes was still in his Sunday best on the morning of October 27, 1878, when he heard that the Manhattan Savings Institution had been robbed. It was unimaginable that this venerable bank, located at the corner of Bleecker Street and Broadway, within Byrnes’s own Fifteenth Precinct, had been breached. Thought to be an impregnable fortress, it featured a maze of bolts, locks, and thick steel doors that opened to a steel vault with a separate safe within. In addition to holding millions in cash and securities, the bank was a repository for the money, jewelry, and other valuables of wealthy New Yorkers.

Just as astonishing was the reported haul: nearly $3 million in securities and cash, equivalent to $70 million in 2021 dollars. It was, and remains, the greatest bank robbery in the city’s history.* Conducted during daylight, it was also, opined The New York Times, the most audacious.

When newspapers, in subsequent months, referred in headlines to “The Great Bank Robbery,” no one needed to be told what that meant.

Byrnes arrived at the scene around eleven, along with his boss, George Walling, who’d been promoted from inspector to police superintendent in 1874. Byrnes personally took charge of the investigation. The first witness he questioned was the bank’s janitor, fifty‑year‑old Louis Werckle, a German immigrant and “little old man,” as the Times described him, who had worked at the bank for twenty years.

Just before ten in the morning, Werckle had burst into the barbershop in the bank’s basement and shouted out that the bank had been robbed. The barber then ran to police headquarters on Mulberry Street to report the crime.

Listening to the excited janitor’s story, Byrnes was, by contrast, the very picture of self‑confidence. A man of military bearing, he wore an expensive, dark cutaway coat, tie, and wide‑brimmed derby, and puffed constantly on an ever‑present cigar.

Janitor Werckle, who lived in a second‑floor apartment above the bank, told Byrnes that just after six in the morning, a group of masked robbers in business suits entered his apartment and bound and gagged him, his sickly wife, and his feeble mother‑in‑law. They forced him at gunpoint to give them the combination to the bank’s outer vault door (30‑9‑25) and threatened to return and kill him if he gave them the wrong numbers. Then they took the keys to the bank’s entrance that were laying on Werckle’s table and let themselves into the lobby.

Inside the bank, the burglars opened the vault doors with the combination and confronted the steel safe. Using jimmies and wedges, they ratcheted the safe door open and sledgehammered and chiseled their way into the inner compartments. The burglars stuffed as much as they could into satchels and exited the bank, somehow unnoticed by anyone on the street, around nine‑thirty.

There were only about six “yeggs,” or heist men, in the entire country capable of pulling off a theft of this complexity and magnitude.[/pullquot]

Upon inspecting the vault, the police found the floor littered with jewelry and silverware and broken tin deposit boxes. The thieves also left behind an elaborate set of the newest, state‑of‑the‑art burglar tools that cost several thousand dollars to collect. The cops called it the cleanest job they’d ever seen; no blasting had been done. This was the work of professionals.

Counterintuitively, the burglars had raised the shades on the bank’s side windows, partially exposing themselves to view, so that their guards could signal to them the approach of any beat patrolmen. When the Werckles’ milkman showed up to make his morning delivery, one of the watchmen told him not to bother because the family had gone out of town.

So, who were these guys? They had left no solid clues. But Thomas Byrnes knew that there were only about six “yeggs,” or heist men, in the entire country capable of pulling off a theft of this complexity and magnitude. And he had some names in mind.

***

Professional criminals in the 1870s and 1880s formed a hierarchy. At the bottom were common, everyday thieves: shoplifters, pickpockets, highway robbers (street muggers), and house burglars, known as sneak and house thieves. Others on the lower end of the totem pole were the river thieves—desperate, brutish types who preyed upon immigrants or seamen just off the boat—and butcher cart thieves, who jumped off their horse‑driven wagons to grab hogs in the street or carcasses in a butcher shop before making off with them.

But most run‑of‑the‑mill thieves aspired to what Byrnes called “the higher walks of predatory industry.” Criminal occupation, he explained, “is, like everything else, progressive.”

Further up the chain were forgers and counterfeiters—skilled artisans who preferred to work in secret. Confidence men, or “con” men, used their wiles to swindle well‑heeled and gullible tourists. Pretending to be an acquaintance or nephew of a friend from back home, the con man greeted his mark in the street and persuaded him to loan him some cash for a few minutes, after which he disappeared into the crowd. Or, he lured the dupe to a card or dice game of bunco (originally known as banco) in which the bettor is allowed to win successive rounds or draws with small amounts at risk until, told he must put up several hundred dollars more to save what he has already won, he draws the “blank” and loses all.

Hotel and boardinghouse thieves were respectable‑looking types who scanned the newspapers for the comings and goings of wealthy travelers. They would chat up the hotel desk clerk or landlady to gather as much information about the lodgers as possible. Then, while the fashionably attired guests were at breakfast or dinner, the thief would sneak into their room, having effortlessly picked the door’s lock.

Bank sneak thieves were likewise well‑dressed gentlemen and smooth and entertaining talkers. Working in pairs or threes, they diverted bank tellers and cashiers with interesting conversations while one of their number slipped behind the counter to capture the cash box or a bundle of bonds.

Store and safe burglars, near the top grade of criminals, were expert at cracking the safes of business establishments at night and making off with cash and coin, or diamonds, jewelry, silks, and other valuables. They would drill, break, or blow their way into the safe or the room in which money was stored.

The cream of the crime world, though—the aristocrats of thievery— were the bank burglars. “The professional bank burglar,” Byrnes once wrote, “must have patience, intelligence, mechanical knowledge, industry, determination, fertility of resources, and courage—all in high degree.”

They formed a small fraternity, beginning around the end of the Civil War, often working alone or with a single accomplice if necessary. Out west, Jesse James and other outlaws and vigilantes, many of them ex‑Confederates, were robbing small, local banks and, later, payroll and express trains. But with the dawn of the Gilded Age in the 1870s, professional bank burglars—a more apolitical lot—turned their attention increasingly to big‑city banks back east. A surfeit of stocks, bonds, and commercial paper, issued to support industrialization, were being stashed away in urban bank vaults. And with the huge amounts of money to be made, the best of the bank robbers joined with one another to tackle the most challenging jobs.

Many professional bank burglars were from educated, middle‑class backgrounds or, if humbly born, had transformed themselves into men of refinement and culture. On the surface, they could pass for a broker or prosperous businessman. Often they lived double lives and were model husbands and fathers at home.

They shied from using violence in their bank jobs, not so much for ethical reasons but because it drew more attention to the crime and led to longer prison sentences if they were caught and convicted. “Instead of the clumsy, awkward, ill‑looking rogue of former days,” wrote famed private detective Allan Pinkerton in 1873, “we now have the intelligent, scientific and calculating burglar, who is expert in the uses of tools, and a gentleman in appearance, who prides himself upon always leaving a ‘neat job’ behind him.”

An early prototype was Maximilian Schoenbein, better known as Max (or Mark) Shinburn, a German‑born mechanic who came to New York around 1860 in his early twenties and became, according to Byrnes, “probably the most expert bank safe burglar in the country.”

A debonair, even dandified figure, Shinburn associated with sporting men and gamblers and always stayed in the best hotels. He thought violent methods were for brainless brutes, and he looked down on the common thieves he sometimes was forced to associate with. Haughty and arrogant, he fancied himself an aristocrat to the point that in 1870 he took his ill‑gotten riches to settle in Europe, where he purchased a title of nobility as Baron Schindle of Monaco and, later, a castle.

Shinburn was a talented jailbreaker and getaway artist who could slip out of handcuffs without the key. He once crawled across a slippery, half‑built, wooden‑planked bridge high above the Niagara River during a nighttime blizzard, while carrying on his back bags of cash stolen from a Canadian bank.

But his greatest renown was as a safecracker. His specialty was making wax impressions of bank and safe keys that he stole from bank officials’ pants pockets as they slept in their homes. He’d take the keys to a more convenient location for copying and return them the same evening so that the victim awoke with no knowledge that they’d ever been missing.

Once inside the bank vault—either that night if circumstances dictated or, preferably, at a later date—he’d break open the safe with his set of tools. If that proved too difficult, he’d resort to gunpowder, the weapon of choice for most safe burglars in the 1860s and the most effective for quick work. (Dynamite, first used in 1875, did not reach perfection until the early 1890s and was soon replaced almost exclusively by nitroglycerin.)

After the Civil War, a spirited competition began between burglars and safe makers in the nature of an arms race. Manufacturers came up with stronger, thicker safes, and yeggs developed new ways and tools to overcome them. It seemed that as soon as a bank pronounced its safe “burglarproof,” the burglars would prove it wrong.

Increasingly throughout the 1860s and into the 1870s, banks protected their vaults and safes with a combination lock on the outer doors. The thieves could always try to extort the combination from a bank employee, but short of that, they developed a variety of ways to unlock the doors.

The early, simple locks introduced in 1860 by the Lillie Safe Co. had just three numbers on the dial knob. Expert thieves could determine the combination by listening to the clicks of the tumblers underneath (at least according to legend). Shinburn, who obtained a job with Lillie under an assumed name, was credited with this hearing ability. So was noted bank burglar Langdon Moore, who visited safe manufacturers to receive tours and explanations about how their safes were constructed. He then purchased safes on which he could experiment.

When Lillie went to a dial with the numbers 0 to 100, beating the lock got trickier. Around 1868, Shinburn took on a partner: a formerly respectable Massachusetts hotel owner named George White (alias Bliss, alias Miles), who came up with an ingenious device to ascertain the combination. He called it the “little joker.” (Whether it was White’s invention, as he claimed, or Shinburn’s, as suggested by Byrnes and Allan Pinkerton, is unclear.)

The instrument consisted of a small piece of wire attached to a disc of paper or tinfoil. The burglar would remove the dial knob to the lock, insert the paper or tin wheel underneath it, then replace the knob. When bank officials turned the knob the next day to open the vault or safe, the wire would make a puncture mark in the disc at each tumbler number point where the dial stopped. On returning to the bank, the burglar could discover the combination by examining the marks made by the wire; all that remained was to figure out the sequence of the numbers, which was easily done through trial and error.

This did require entering the bank at least twice while no one was there—once to insert the little joker and replace the knob, and a second time to check the markings. But there was usually some way to get into the bank after hours, whether with a key duplicated from a wax impression or with the aid of a bribed bank employee.

Shinburn and White scored several coups with the little joker, using it to carry out bank robberies in Vermont, Connecticut, and Maryland. But its utility was short‑lived. In 1869 they were preparing to rob New York’s Ocean National Bank, at Greenwich and Fulton Streets, where they anticipated employing the joker device. While planning that operation, they used the joker to set up a robbery of a New Jersey bank, only to have bank officials stumble upon their handiwork. After that, Lillie altered its locks to make them joker‑proof, which White recalled ruefully had greatly interfered with his previous easy access to bank vaults. The Ocean National vault would have to be won by other means.

White bought a facsimile of the Ocean National’s new Lillie lock, enlisted a corruptible clerk inside the bank, then trained him how to estimate the numbers on the dial while watching from a few feet away as someone else was turning the knob to unlock the vault. The clerk figured out the first two numbers and was close enough on the third that when he let White in one night, the future jailbird was able to nail down the last one. How White obtained Ocean National’s vault combination remained a mystery until he revealed it in his memoirs in 1905.

To get into the bank on the night of the burglary, the thieves adopted another common tactic, renting a room below, where they established a fake business as a base of operations. From there, they cut through the ceiling to gain entrance to the bank floor.

White and Shinburn made off with an estimated $800,000 to $1.2 million in the Ocean National heist. Neither was caught, and the case was never solved officially, though both were widely named as suspects, and White admitted to the robbery in his memoirs. He claimed that $100,000 of the haul went to pay off a ring of crooked New York cops.

By the early 1870s, the preferred method for breaching combination locks became to drill a hole in the lock using new diamond‑tipped drills capable of cutting through steel. From there the burglar could place an explosive in the lock. Or, if he was mechanically adept, he could insert a stiff steel wire in the hole, pick up the tumblers, and throw them into the unlocked position. It required the dexterity of a concert maestro’s fingers on the keys of a piano. If he needed to come back to finish the job, he’d return the tumblers to their original positions and fill the drilled hole with putty to prevent the bank from discovering the breach. Lillie locks became so easy to pick that the company was brought into disrepute and forced into bankruptcy.

***

As Thomas Byrnes was turning over the tumblers in his own mind, the New York newspapers were mocking the police for being clueless as to the perpetrators of the Manhattan Savings robbery. “All at sea” and “completely outwitted,” said the Times, which thought the impunity with which the burglary was committed a disgrace to the city and a severe blow to public confidence in the safety of money in banks.

Bank officials were bracing for the usual: a ransom offer of compromise by the perpetrators. The haul from big bank heists was generally in the form of bonds and other securities, which were risky for the thieves to try to trade or cash. It became customary for the thieves to return the stolen bonds in exchange for some amount of cash less than their face value. The robbers would give the police 10 percent of the value of the loot in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

In 1872 crusading journalist Edward Crapsey wrote that this “brokerage in crime” needed to be stopped and that “the attention of the police officer must be diverted from the property stolen to the person stealing it.” Thomas Byrnes agreed. He found the practice distasteful and hoped to end it if he ever got the chance. He wanted to catch and convict the culprits.

* According to the website WorldAtlas, only 1972’s $27 million robbery of New York’s Pierre Hotel, equivalent to $160 million in 2021, and that same year’s $30 million robbery of the United California Bank in Laguna Niguel, worth $180 million in equivalent dollars, rank higher in American history.

_____________________________________

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From ROGUES’ GALLERY: THE BIRTH OF MODERN POLICING AND ORGANIZED CRIME IN GILDED AGE NEW YORK, by John Oller. Copyright ©2021 by John Oller. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Dutton. All Rights Reserved. 

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