Reminisce: A ‘carnival of robbery:” Remembering the ‘yeggs’ crime wave

LIMA — G.E. Bluem was walking the floors of his department store on a busy Saturday in the spring of 1924 when he came across a man tampering with the lock on a rear door of the store on the northeast corner of Market and Elizabeth streets. The man fled but Bluem was cautious.

“Police were notified, and an officer detailed to guard the door,” the Lima Republican-Gazette wrote May 12, 1924. “The patrolman, and another watchman took positions just inside, and kept vigil during the night, but no suspicious persons appeared.”

Suspicious people, meanwhile, appeared at a half dozen other downtown businesses that night.

Nearby, at 115-117 West Market Street, Max Falk, manager of Eilerman’s Clothing store, entered his store Sunday morning to find “the heavy door of the safe was blown from its hinges and into the store a distance of twenty feet …,” according to the Gazette. Amazingly, no one reported hearing the explosion.

The Eilerman theft was part of what the Gazette called “a carnival of robbery” in downtown Lima in the early hours of that Sunday morning carried out by “yeggs,” bands of safecrackers with a penchant for explosives who were active in the first three decades of the 20th century.

“A ‘Yegg’ is a bank burglar of a new type,” the New York Times wrote Sept. 15, 1901, as “yeggs” began appearing in the eastern U.S. “He has few of the melodramatic ideas which made … the old-time safecrackers picturesque. In appearance he is just a hardworking man, traveling about the country looking for a job …”

The Times traced the “growth of bank burglars by the thousands” to a California tramp named John Yegg who, during his travels, came across a government report on experiments “with explosives upon so-called burglar-proof safes.” Yegg, the Times noted, “soon became expert in the use of nitroglycerine. Under his tutelage many of his ‘pals’ took lessons, and in this way, the use of dynamite and nitroglycerine by tramp burglars was spread.”

The Lima Times-Democrat wrote in December 1908 that the “tramp burglar is the ‘Yegg,’ with his headquarters in the centers of population, but never operating there. He robs only in small towns, though he habituates between times in the cities, where his brotherhood has its means of intercommunication, its meeting places and its diversions.”

In his 1994 history of the Lima Police Department, Joseph C. Bowsher wrote that “yeggs” found Lima an ideal base of operations because “the railroads and trunklines for the interurban cars from all the larger cities intersected here. In the early 1900s the yeggmen were frequently making themselves comfortable in Lima so they could create havoc elsewhere.”

Lima, in the early years of the 20th century, was also an ideal place to pilfer nitroglycerine, which was used in the oil industry. In mid-September 1912, after nitroglycerine and dynamite caps were stolen from the Dupont Explosives company west of McBeth Park, the Gazette wrote, “It is supposed that yeggmen are preparing to pursue their work during the winter months and are laying in a supply of persuaders for obstinate safes.”

They may not have waited until winter. On Oct. 14, 1912, the Republican-Gazette wrote, “Excitement swept the village of Columbus Grove yesterday morning when it was discovered that yeggmen had entered the grocery store of B.F. Seitz during the night, had blown the safe with nitroglycerine, had stolen $150, and made a successful escape.”

“Yeggs,” judging by newspaper reporting in the early decades of the 20th century, were everywhere.

In October 1919, the Gazette reported “yeggmen” had stolen $25,000 in Liberty Bonds from the Peoples Savings Bank in in New Knoxville. On Nov. 23, 1919, The Lima News reported, “Yeggs cracked the strong box of the Farmers Saving Bank” in Rockford and “secured $100,000 in Liberty Bonds and War Savings Stamps. Police have no clues.”

Five years earlier, In December 1914, the safe in the post office at Glandorf was blown up twice in a few weeks. In the second robbery, on Dec. 19, the thieves “escaped with about $20 in money and stamps … A rig, which the men had stolen, was found at Leipsic.” Among many robberies or attempted robberies, were incidents in Spencerville, Cridersville and Elida. Yeggmen seemingly visited any town with a safe.

One of the most notorious bands of yeggmen to find a home in Lima was the Slater Gang, which arrived in Lima in 1905. “These fellows always had plenty of money and spent it freely,” Bowsher wrote in his 1994 history. “They were known as good fellows, inasmuch as they were always friendly and agreeable and good money spenders with the saloon element or perhaps with everyone they chanced to meet.”

Although “there were no crimes of any kind committed in Lima or vicinity traced to this bunch …,” they were always suspected of being thieves, according to Bowsher. In November 1905, the suspicions proved true when authorities arrived in Lima with warrants for five of the gang in connection with blowing a safe in a Ridgeville, Indiana, bank. When Lima police arrived at their headquarters on North Central Avenue, the “whole bunch, with revolvers in hand, made a dash for the doors …,” Bowsher wrote, noting that, during the chase, the gang’s leader, Harry Slater, was shot three times. He died the following day.

Lima eventually went from being a reluctant host to a target. In February 1915, a heavy steel door leading into a vault that held a safe at Sealts Brothers Wholesale Grocery, North Street at Central Avenue, was damaged by an explosion but not breached, according to the Gazette, which noted that “sacks of sugar had been piled about the door to deaden the noise.” The Harman Furniture store on the southwest corner of Market and Elizabeth streets, catty-cornered from Bluem’s store, was visited in May 1919. The Gazette reported that “the safe blowers pulled the lock out of the vault door with a powerful shot of nitroglycerine and swept the safe clean.”

The “carnival of robbery” in May 1924, was followed that June by the attempted robbery in late June of the Boston Store, less than a block from Eilerman’s Clothing store. Authorities believed it was the same group of “yeggs” who’d visited the city in May. “What frightened the crooks and frustrated the second big job here in the last two months has not been determined …,” The Lima News reported June 3, 1924.

Perhaps the most spectacular robbery was carried out in mid-February 1926 when thieves looted more than 100 safety deposit boxes at the Metropolitan Bank, located at the time in the Metropolitan Block. They also carried away more than $1,300 in coins. The five robbers cut a five-and-half by four-and-half foot hole in the wall between the next-door hardware store and the bank and then tunneled underneath the bank vault and bored a circular hole through an eight-inch-thick floor into the vault, the Gazette wrote Feb. 15, 1926. When their getaway car was disabled near St. Johns, they kidnapped a local garageman and forced him to drive them to Columbus, the newspaper reported.

On Feb. 16, 1926, The Lima News vented the city’s frustration.

“Undesirables: This is to notify you that you do not have a standing invitation to visit my city. If we never have a call from you again, that will be too soon,” the paper read.

The undesirables didn’t listen. On Dec. 12, 1927, the Gazette reported that “Yeggmen cracked the safe of the Samuel G. Blattner store on South Main Street yesterday and escaped with more than $1,000 and $200 worth of merchandise.”

SOURCE

This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.

LEARN MORE

See past Reminisce stories at limaohio.com/tag/reminisce

Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected]