Articles

HOE THE TAYLORS THWART THE SAFECRACKERS

With 52-ton doors, steel walls, time locks and built-in “stink bombs" this safe company guards $26 billions of the nation’s valuables. And the best way to get at them is to call a Taylor safecracker

FRANK CROFT May 28 1955
Articles

HOE THE TAYLORS THWART THE SAFECRACKERS

With 52-ton doors, steel walls, time locks and built-in “stink bombs" this safe company guards $26 billions of the nation’s valuables. And the best way to get at them is to call a Taylor safecracker

FRANK CROFT May 28 1955

HOE THE TAYLORS THWART THE SAFECRACKERS

FRANK CROFT

With 52-ton doors, steel walls, time locks and built-in “stink bombs" this safe company guards $26 billions of the nation’s valuables. And the best way to get at them is to call a Taylor safecracker

A FEW YEARS ago Quebec City three safecrackers broke into a small branch bank by forcing the door. They bound and gagged two young clerks who lived upstairs. One of the thieves stayed to keep an eye on the prisoners while the other two went down to the vault to blow it open and rob it. It was just after midnight.

About half an hour after t he entry the two clerks and their guard heard a muffled explosion downstairs then silence. Almost an hour elapsed while they waited expectantly; then they heard a second explosion. Finally, after another half an hour, one ot f he safecrackers came up to check with his accomplice standing guard.

“It’s one of those Taylor jobs,” he said disgustedly. “We’ll probably be here all night.” They were there most of the night. They finally left at five o’clock in the morning, frustrated and furious. They were afraid of being caught if they stayed longer. They had worked steadily for five hours and they still hadn’t got the vault open.

To workers at J. & J. Taylor Limited, Toronto Safe Works, the largest manufacturers of safes and vault doors in Canada, such incidents illustrating the impregnability of their product are quite frankly almost as rare as they are pleasant to hear about. The Taylor people admit that almost anyone, with the proper tools and enough time to use them, can open any vault or safe, no matter how formidable. They have men on their staff who prove it every day.

H. M. West, the president of Taylor’s, says without pretense: ‘‘We’re fighting a delaying action

against the safe burglar. We used to say in our catalogues, ‘What man can make, man can break,’ and it’s still Irue.” And T. M. West, who is in charge of t he technical operations of t he company, including the designing and making of safes and vaults, adds: “We try to give t he safe burglar a nut so tough to crack that he will be defeated in the time and with the equipment that most safe burglars have.”

Probably because it’s so tough, safecracking is one of the least attractive branches of crime. There have been many notorious forgers, bandits and gunmen in Canada, but RCMP officials can’t recall any single safecracker who was much of a problem. That’s probably a feather in the cap of J. & J. Taylor, who have been making things more and more difficult for criminals for exactly a hundred years.

In 1855 Taylor’s started turning out iron boxes

with key locks which burglars of the day attacked with chisels and sledge hammers. Now they turn out safes made of steel, copper and zinc to thwart burglars using acetylene torches, portable power drills and nitroglycerine. Since 1855 the company has produced 112,000 safes and vault doors for banks and trust companies, chain stores, service stat ions, theatres, churches and business offices.

In Canada Taylor safes hold an estimated twenty-six billion dollars in cash and securities— almost eighty percent of the country’s cash and liquid assets. They not only protect money, documents and jewelry, but they’re used to safeguard such items as radium, liquor, X-ray films, stamps and priceless portraits. Canadian embassies and legations throughout the world keep our diplomatic secrets in Taylor safes and some Roman Catholic churches buy them to protect the Holy Eucharist from desecration by religious crackpots.

They come in all shapes and sizes, from small

wall safes that sell for a hundred and forty dollars to vault doors that cost a hundred and twenty-live thousand. Three of these doors, each weighing fifty-two tons, were recently installed in the general offices of the Bank of Nova Scotia in Toronto.

In addition to burglar-resistant combination safes, which are opened by dialing a combination of numbers to work the lock mechanism, and vault doors that also have combination locks, Taylor’s makes fireproof safes. These are actually not designed to keep your valuables safe from criminals; they’re intended to keep your documents safe from fire, and almost any burglar wielding a hammer and chisel could break them open.

There is no easy way to open any safe or vault if you don’t happen to know the combination. This will he a distinct shock to a whole generation of Jimmie Dale fans, but it has to he done by force, fire, explosive or drilling. It simply can’t be done the way Frank L. Packard’s fictional hero did it in

the Twenties in The Adventures of Jimmie Dale:

There was grim mockery on Jimmie Dale’s lips now as his sensitive fingers closed on the knob of the safe's dial. Only a low tense breathing, so faint that it could not be heard a foot away, a curious scratching as from time to time the supersensitive fingers fell away from the dial to rub upon the carpet—to increase even their sensitiveness by setting the nerves to throbbing at the tips. And then Jimmie Dale’s head, ear pressed close to the safe to catch the tumblers’ fall, was lifted. “Ah!” The heavy door swung outward ...

That kind of thing kept, oil lamps burning for generations of small boys but, really, it would never open a safe. For one thing, combination locks don’t have tumblers. They operate with an intricate mechanism of notched wheels. Only when the notches on these wheels are brought into perfect alignment by dialing do they release the holts that lock the safe.

In addition to combination locks, time locks are fitted to all bank, trust company, insurance and finance company and other safes used by large concerns. A time lock is an ordinary clock movement screwed to the inside of the door of a safe or vault and it works independently of the combination lock.

A person locking a safe at five o’clock in the afternoon, for example, and wishing to open it at nine in the morning will set the movement for a sixteen-hour run. At the end of that time the clock stops and a trip release unblocks a cavity in the door so that the time lock’s bolt can he withdrawn into the door with the other locking holts of the combination lock when the safe’s handle is turned. Even though the combination lock is opened the time lock will hold its bolt in place and keep the door closed until the pre-set time arrives to release it.

Time locks are a comparatively recent innovation, hut combination locks have been used on Taylor safes since about 1865. Nobody has improved on the principle of the combination lock since then. Safecrackers meanwhile have tried a great variety of methods to defeat the lock.

Chisels, hammers, crowbars and such tools have always been standard safecracking equipment, hut early-day burglars also used gunpowder. This was packed in the cracks around the safe door and sealed in place with soap. A long fuse was stuck in the crack and lighted. But gunpowder was pale stuff compared with nitroglycerine, which safecrackers brought into their repertoire about 1870. This was easy if highly dangerous to obtain—just mix nitric acid and glycerine with a dash of sulphuric acid—and a thimbleful was often enough to wreck a safe.

a A safe burglar using

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nitro seals the crack around the door with soap or adhesive tape, leaving an opening at the top into which he pours the explosive liquid. It flows down one side and along the bottom of the door. An electrically detonated cap such as prospectors use—also easy to obtain —is set at the opening. Several feet of wire is attached to the cap. A couple of flashlight batteries will serve to set off the charge.

To combat the nitro menace, Taylor’s at first lined their safe doors with felt. But this merely absorbed the explosive and made a bigger bang than ever. By 1877 Taylor’s caught on and began to line the doors with hard rubber. This has been used ever since.

Safecrackers quickly took up other refinements as they became available. They used acetylene torches, then electric drills, burning or drilling through the dial of a safe or through the side or back. When a hole was made, they used a pry—a crowbar or a railway-tie bar—to enlarge it. ’Phis is called peel| ing a safe.

As the torch-and-drill specialists went to work on their safes, Taylor’s ! designed other safes to thwart them.

! Today the best burglar-resistant safes have laminated metal walls. On the outside there is a layer of hard steel to withstand drilling; hut such high-carbon steel tends to crack under a heavy hammer, so next to it there is a layer of soft steel. This is easy to drill hut I hard to hammer or chisel through. Next to that there is a layer of copper, which greatly increases the work of ! torch users. Copper diffuses heat so quickly that the job of cutting through i it with an acetylene flame is usually long and laborious. Finally, there is a layer of zinc, which has all the characteristics of a “stink bomb” when exposed to heat. It gives off' fumes so strong that a safecracker trying to burn through it. couldn’t go on working I without a gas mask.

Although Taylor’s is called on to repair or replace many of the safes wrecked by safecrackers, the company has no exact check on how it’s making out in the unending battle with burglars. In most Canadian police reports safecracking is lumped with all other breaking-and-entering crimes, so there is no official record of how many safes and vaults are attacked and how many ; are opened. But Taylor’s is pretty sure that the burglars aren’t nearly as effective as they might he if they knew as much about safecracking as Taylor’s own experts.

For instance, there are oxygen mixtures known to a few experts in welding that could burn through a safe in a quarter the time required for ordinary mixtures. And there are carbon bits used by some machinists that could drill through a safe wall with ease. Hut such techniques are still believed to be in the hands of honest men.

: Taylor’s has a small staff of such ex-

perts, whose job is actually to crack their company’s own safes.

They work in a service department that is often called on to open safes for customers who have forgotten their combinations. All safes leave the factory with the same combination but with instructions to the customer on how to change it to one that, only he will know. Often a customer changes the combination and promptly forgets what he changed it to; so he calls Taylor’s.

The Taylor service experts do most

of their safecracking with electric drills —but only after dialing has failed. Often they can open a safe by figuring how a customer would go about changing his combination.

Gerry Bateman, a veteran service expert for Taylor’s, explains: “We ask what the previous combination was, and in most cases assume that the customer merely raised the numbers for each turn by five, or ten or twenty—or lowered them by the same amount. They often do that. So we try a few' series and it often works. Or perhaps the customer will remember the first number of the new combination, and we try to guess the others.”

In 1924 at Kingston Penitentiary the warden set. the safe in his office at a new combination, then forgot it. He figured the time it would take a Taylor expert to come from Toronto, then called for two or three safecrackers who w'ere spending time in the prison.

Each fiddled with the dial for more than an hour, then called for nitroglycerine. Instead, the warden sent for a Taylor man. When the expert arrived in Kingston he asked for the previous combination of the safe and had it open in twenty minutes.

It Takes a Whole Day to Dial

Hut there is a large element of chance in dialing the correct combination, and in emergencies the servicemen don’t even try it. They rely on drilling. Several years ago Taylor's got a phone call from the Toronto police who reported that a charwoman was locked in a vault in a downtown office. A threeman drilling crew was sent to the office where a hysterical stenographer said she had accidentally locked the door when the charwoman was sweeping inside the vault.

The crew started drilling right away and released the woman in less than an hour, before the air in the vault had given out.

“You can’t be smart and try dialing in a case like that,” one Taylor expert said. “Usually a safe is set on numbers ending in five or zero. That’s because the dial is graduated with bolder markings for those numbers and it’s human nature to use them. You can go through all the combinations of those numbers in seven hours on a threewheel lock and twenty-four hours on a four-wheeler. Hut that might be too long to wait.”

A similar incident occurred several years ago at Osgoode Hall, the Ontario law school in Toronto. A clerk was locked in the vault and calls wont out to the police, fire department, a welding company and a doctor. All these people milled around in confusion until someone thought of phoning Taylor’s. Gerry Bateman arrived, and all eyes turned on him as he approached the door of the safe. Shades of Jimmie Dale!

“Can you hear me in there?” Hateman called.

“Yes.”

“Do you know the combination?” “Yes.”

“Fine, let’s have it.”

Bateman had the door open in a few •seconds.

Hut it’s not always that easy. Three years ago Taylor’s sent service expert Hill Creighton to Sheflerville, Que., to open a safe at the? Imperial Hank of Canada. The locking bolt had stuck in the locked position. It was just before Christmas and the safe contained the cash to pay two hundred miners for their month’s work. With the permission of the bank manager, the impatient miners had already attacked the safe with acetylene torches when Creighton arrived by air from Quebec City.

He decided to drill the safe, but there wasn’t room to work in the bank. The miners promptly hauled the safe to the mine-company office. There, with two hundred enthusiastic rubbernecks cheering him on, Creighton got the safe open in an hour.

Many people have admired the handiwork of Taylor’s safecracking experts and not all of them with motives as pure as those of the Shefferville miners. Both Creighton and Bateman have been approached by shady characters looking for “a partner who knows his way around a combination lock.” The

stock answer to such suggestions, says Bateman, is to say, “It’s a good thing we’re both honest men,” and walk away. No Taylor employee has ever been accused of complicity in any safe burglary.

At one time in the Nineties at Taylor’s Toronto factory noonday prayer meetings were held each Wednesday for the workers. Hut this was not so much to ward off the devil and temptation in their work as it was to satisfy the naturally pious disposition of some of the workers.

Today Taylor sa fes are sold by

eighteen salesmen working from offices in Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver. They have all kinds of customers. During the war Taylor’s made a lead-lined safe for Toronto General Hospital, to store radium. The firm supplies tabernacle safes to scores of Roman Catholic churches for the safekeeping of the Holy Eucharist. Papal edict made each parish priest responsible for this act after several cases of theft by cranks.

Veteran Taylor employees recall the day in 1919 when Sir William Mulock, after loitering outside the factory for

some time, finally came in and ordered a heavy steel door, with a combination lock, to be fitted to his wine cellar. The Ontario Temperance Act had just come into force.

One Montreal man ordered a wall safe just big enough to hold his postagej stamp albums. Another customer wanted a miniature model to store a rolled-up painting of his grandfather. Still another in northern Ontario ordered a half-ton burglar-proof safe and asked that it be sent in parts so that his neighbors wouldn’t know what he was buying. He intended to put it together himself. When Taylor’s replied that such a safe wouldn’t be very burglar-proof, the man agreed to a compromise. The safe was shipped to another town eighty miles away and he picked it up there with a truck.

The first Taylor safes in Canada were made by brothers John and James ’Taylor, two Englishmen who had worked as safe makers in New York and then founded a business in Toronto. In 1875 they sold out to Thomas Saunders, a bookkeeper, and Robert Bain, a merchant, although James Taylor stayed on as plant superintendent. When he died the factory had no master me1 chanic, so Saunders persuaded a cousin in Buffalo, Thomas West, to come to Canada and take over.

Six months after West arrived Saunders died and Bain retired to Switzerland. West became boss and was largely responsible for building the firm to its present pre-eminent position among safe makers in Canada, although not without competition. At one point in the Eighties two employees, William McBride and W. T. Walker, set up a firm called J. Taylor Toronto Safe Works, and tried to steal the original firm’s business. They even got Taylor orders by bribing a postman.

At that time Taylor’s was manufacturing its first fireproof safeemdash;a light steel box inside another light steel box, with an air space and a lining of fire clay in between. Such safes are not intended to be burglar-proof, but McBride and Walker bought one, assembled several prominent businessmen and read from a Taylor catalogue extolling the virtues of the Taylor burglar-proof safe. Then, with a cold

chisel and hammer they rapped the outside of the fireproof safe and easily pierced the wall.

Taylor’s replied with an exhibition showing the value of a fireproof safe. ’They placed bank notes and a bag of gunpowder inside the safe and sat it on a bonfire. The outside walls turned red; after they cooled the bank notes and gunpowder were taken out and triumphantly displayed to the crowds watching the display.

In the fire that destroyed a large section of Toronto in 1904 forty fireproof Taylor safes were taken from the ruins, some with their doors fused by the heat. ’The contents of all forty were undamaged. In the Rimouski and Cabano fires in Quebec in 1952 thirty Taylor safes again survived the flames.

In northern Ontario a few years ago a hotel burned and the proprietor called for a Taylor serviceman to open a safe lying in the wreckage. When the Taylor expert arrived the hotelman asked him to wait until the next day before drilling. The next day he tried to postpone the work again.

‘‘He was afraid of what he’d find in the safe,” says J. M. West, son of Thomas West and vice-president of Taylor’s. The Taylor expert went ahead anyway. When the safe was opened the hotelman reached in and, with trembling fingers, withdrew thirty thousand dollars in bank notesemdash;-undamaged. He sat down on the ground and wept.

Fireproof safes are easy for safe burglars to open. ’1’aylor’s is always reminding its customers that they should have burglar-proof safes to protect valuables against theft, and fireproof safes to safeguard their documents in the event of fire. But burglars continue to make rich hauls occasionally from the fireproof safes.

Of course they have their disappointments too. Every burglar-proof safe isn’t necessarily loaded with valuables. In Saint John, N.B., a few years ago burglars hauled a half-ton safe from an office and trucked it ten miles out of the city into the woods. There they attacked it with sledge hammers and crowbars. After several hours they got it open. They netted exactly sixtyseven cents.