For as long as there have been haves and have-nots, the haves have sought ways to secure their valuables. History no longer remembers the inventor of the first lock, but invention of the first key is attributed to Theodore of Samos in the 6th century B.C., which leads to the suspicion locks have been around at least that long. In fact, crude locking mechanisms dating to about 2,000 B.C. have been found in Egyptian ruins.
The first devices resembling what we know today as door locks were discovered in the palace of Persian king Sargon II, who reigned from 722 to 705 B.C. They were large, clumsy devices made of wood. Nevertheless, they served as prototypes for contemporary security devices.
The first all-metal locks, probably made by English craftsmen, appeared between 870 and 900 A.D. in Rome. A row of bars of varying length, called tumblers, dropped into holes drilled through the horizontal bolt securing a door or gate. Only the person who possessed a metal bar fitted with pins corresponding to the tumblers could shove the bars upward through the holes, thus freeing the bolt.
Bodie [California] Bank’s vault, mid-1870s (photo by Dick Rowan, National Archives and Records Administration)
No great advancements in lock technology occurred until about the 14th century A.D., when locks small enough to carry appeared. Traveling tradesmen used the so-called “convenient locks” to secure their money and other valuables.
Although padlocks were known to the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, the first combination lock didn’t appear until the 18th century. Until 1857, most banks used combination locks of some kind to secure their vaults. The secret to combination locks was to create complex series of letters and numbers that would frustrate anyone who tried to disarm the mechanism. The code for the combination lock securing the safe in the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington D.C., for example, required a lengthy series of letters and numbers that provided 1,073,741,824 possible combinations. Because cracking the code by systematically running through all the possible combinations would require 2,042 years, 324 days, and 1 hour (barring a lucky guess), the lock was considered burglar-proof.
Vault among the ruins of the 1906 Nye & Ormsby County Bank in Manhattan, Nevada. The bank crumbled (literally and figuratively), but the vault survived.
Soon enough, enterprising criminals figured out combination locks had an Achilles heel: Robbers could hold a bank employee at gunpoint and demand he or she dial in the correct code.
In 1873, James Sargent invented what he called a theft-proof lock. The device combined a combination lock with a timer that would not allow the safe to be opened until a certain number of hours had passed, even if one knew the combination.
By the late 1870s, theft-proof locks were de rigueur in banks all over the U.S. Though they weren’t quite unbreakable — dynamite trumps almost any security measure — theft-proof locks thwarted more thieves than any previous mechanism.
Once upon a time in a farmhouse in Hydesville, New York, there lived two sisters who loved to scare family and friends with their vivid imaginations. One day in late March 1848, the girls told a neighbor about spooky happenings in their bedroom. Eager to disprove the girls’ claims that the ghost of a murdered traveling salesman inhabited their home — a tale with which they’d already terrified their mother — the neighbor accompanied fourteen-year-old Maggie Fox and her eleven-year-old sister Kate into their bedroom … where the neighbor, too, was dutifully terrified by the apparently sentient wall-rapping in response to the girls’ questions.
Thus began a religion known as Modern Spiritualism, which is still practiced today.
After having their worst fears seemingly confirmed, the Fox family abandoned the farmhouse, sending Maggie and Kate to live with their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, in Rochester, New York. That may not have been the wisest decision. Rochester was a hotbed of religious activity. Mormonism and the movement that later became Seventh Day Adventism both saw their genesis in the Rochester area.
Upon hearing the tale of the murdered salesman and the unearthly sounds, a group of Rochester residents examined the Fox homestead and found strands of hair and bits of bone in the basement. At a subsequent community meeting, the girls were put to the test: Could they communicate with the dead in Rochester, too?
The Fox sisters: Left to right: Leah (1814–90), Kate (1838–92), and Maggie (1836–93)
The girls proved they could by summoning raps on the floor. In addition, Leah seemed to communicate with one community leader’s deceased daughter. All three Foxes were escorted into a private room after the demonstration, where they disrobed and were examined for any hints of duplicity. None were found.
Word of the sisters’ uncommon abilities reached Andrew Jackson Davis, later to become known as “John the Baptist of Modern Spiritualism.” Davis claimed to have received a Divine message on the very day the Fox sisters first channeled spirits on the family farm. In response to the dreary Calvinist teachings of the day, people could not wait to adopt a new spiritualism that taught each individual was the master of his own salvation. The spirits of those who had passed on were there to guide them to their ultimate fate, as they, in turn, would guide those who came after them.
The Fox Sisters embarked on a tour of New England and the Midwest, demonstrating their abilities to notables including newspaperman Horace Greeley, author James Fennimore Cooper, and abolitionist William Cullen Bryant. Many accused the girls of perpetrating a hoax, but a growing number of people, convinced by the knocking and apparent communication with dead relatives, embraced the Spiritualist movement.
In 1857, Maggie married explorer Elisha Kent Kane, a man thirteen years her senior who, though he reportedly loved her to distraction, insisted she was a fraud. He died an untimely death shortly after the wedding. Maggie began drinking heavily and abandoned Spiritualism to honor his memory. Kate married a devout Spiritualist leader and continued to develop her skills as a medium, including the use of blank cards upon which messages from the Beyond seemed to appear magically. Among the hazy apparitions she allegedly summoned was Benjamin Franklin’s.
The Fox sisters demonstrate their ability to levitate a table (1850).
By the end of the Civil War, more than two million believers had converted to Spiritualism; by 1880, adherents grew to more than eight million.
In 1888, Maggie received $1,500 to tell her story in front of a large audience at the New York Academy of Music. By then doing her best to live a life of sobriety, Maggie confessed to the hoax that started the mass hysteria.
“My sister Katie and myself were very young children when this horrible deception began,” the New York World reported. “At night when we went to bed, we used to tie an apple on a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound.”
The sisters soon discovered they could manipulate their knuckles, toes, and other joints to make a variety of unusual sounds. Maggie demonstrated by removing her shoe, placing her foot on a small stool, and producing “rapping” noises
“A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them,” Maggie said. “It is a very common delusion. Some very wealthy people came to see me some years ago when I lived in Forty-second Street, and I did some rappings for them. I made the spirit rap on the chair and one of the ladies cried out: ‘I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder.’ Of course that was pure imagination.”
Spiritualists quickly split on the matter, one camp saying Maggie was a true medium who had been consumed by spirits intent on deceiving humanity, and the other claiming she had sold out her religion because, as a poor widow, she needed the money.
The Fox sisters conduct a seance in New York (ca. 1855)
Leah, a popular medium in New York City, disowned her younger sister. Kate hit the bottle with increasing frequency and enthusiasm. The sisters never reconciled, even after Maggie recanted her confession a scant year after she embarrassed the family.
Leah, embittered by her sister’s betrayal, died in 1890. Kate died two years later while on a drinking binge. Maggie followed eight months later, in March 1893. Later that year, the diverse Spiritualist groups came together to found the National Spiritualist Association, the forerunner of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, which exists today.
Postscript: In 1904, a group of children discovered what appeared to be a skeleton among the ruins of the abandoned and crumbling Fox homestead. A doctor who examined the bones estimated they had been in the basement for about fifty years. Although the find lent some credence to the Fox sisters’ tale about the murdered salesman, the media and society at large continued to scoff at Spiritualists.
Five years later, another doctor examined the bones and pronounced them a clear attempt to defraud. The alleged skeleton was composed of bits and pieces from several bodies, including those belonging to chickens and other animals.
The Fox homestead burned to the ground in September 1955. A marker now stands on the spot where Modern Spiritualism was born:
Upon this site stood the Hydesville Cottage
The home of the Fox Sisters
Through whose mediumship communication
with the Spirit World was established
March 31, 1848
THERE IS NO DEATH
THERE ARE NO DEAD
Everyone should have career at which they excel. At failing to commit crimes, nobody is better than Laredo and Tombstone Hawkins. Maybe they can bumble their way into love.
The Worst Outlaw in the West
Laredo Hawkins has one ambition: to redeem his family’s honor by pulling the first successful bank robbery in the Hawkins clan’s long, disappointing history. Spinster Prudence Barrett is desperate to save her family’s bank from her brother’s reckless investments. A chance encounter between the dime-novel bandit and the old maid may set the pair on a path to infamy…if either can find a map.
Haunted by his kin’s tradition of spectacular failure, bank robber Tombstone Hawkins is honor-bound to prove his family tree produced at least one bad apple. When carnival fortuneteller Pansy Gilchrist tries to help, she accidentally summons a pair of dishonest-to-goodness ghosts. Getting into the spirit of a crime is one thing…but how do you get the spirits out?
Have you ever encountered a ghost? Tell us about it in the comments! I’ll give an E-BOOK of Robbing Banks, Stealing Hearts to one of today’s commenters.
In my current work in progress, I have a heroine who established a women’s colony in 19th century Texas. Harper’s Station – a place where women can make a fresh start because women–not men–make the rules. Some have come to escape abuse, some have come because they had nowhere else to turn for financial support, some simply came to ply a trade not normally accepted for females. At the center is my heroine, Emma Chandler. Raised by suffragette aunts, she believes women fully capable of managing their own affairs. In fact, she banks on that belief–literally. You see, Emma runs the town bank, and it is her loans and savvy business sense that allow so many women the fresh starts they dearly need.
As I was researching 19th century banking, I ran across some fascinating information about how they keep their money safe. Harper’s Station is eventually threatened by outlaws, and I needed to ensure that Emma and her female clientele would be protected.
Until the mid-1800s, most United States banks utilized small iron safes fitted with a key lock. After the Gold Rush of 1849, however, many frustrated prospectors decided there was an easier way to get the gold they craved–rob a bank! Using tools they were accustomed to, they broke into the buildings with pickaxe and hammer. The safes they encountered were small enough that they could simply take them and break them open in a more secluded location.
To make it harder on thieves to carry off the safes, companies started making them larger and heavier. However, the safe itself was still vulnerable through the keyhole. All a bank robber had to do was poor gunpowder in the hole and set it off in order to blast off the door.
In 1861, Linus Yale, Jr. invented the combination lock. Bankers rejoiced. Surely this would be theft-proof. Yet, as well all know, criminals can be a decisively creative lot. Eventually, they learned ways to manipulate the lock. For example, they could drill a hole in the door then use a mirror to view the slots in the mechanism. Or – they could simply hold the bank manager at gunpoint and force him to reveal the combination.
In the 1870’s banks moved to safes that incorporated a new design that not only featured a combination lock, but a timer mechanism as well. The safe could only be opened after a set number of hours had passed. So even if the bank manager gave up the combination, the code wouldn’t work unless the timer had expired. (Wonder how many bank employees got shot by disgruntled bank robbers over that new feature?) This meant the thieves had to find new ways to get inside the safe itself. Some figured out how to use a chisel or other sharp tool to pry open the crack between the door and the safe. If they got it open just enough, they could use the gunpowder method to blow off the door.
Vault makers responded by making grooved doors that could not be pried open. But the grooves provided an ideal catch for liquid nitroglycerin. Professional bank robbers learned to boil dynamite in a kettle of water and skim the nitroglycerin off the top. They could drip this volatile liquid into the door grooves and destroy the door. Vault makers subsequently redesigned their doors so they closed with a thick, smooth, tapered plug. The plug fit so tightly that there was no room for the nitroglycerin. This was the design Emma Chandler employed.
Of course, thieves kept pushing the envelope and security companies had to keep stepping up their game. This back and forth still drives the business today.
If you lived back in the 19th century – before the federal government insured funds held by banks – would you have felt safe depositing your money there? Or would you have been more likely to stash it in the cookie jar or under your mattress?