Rewind: May 15, 2021
When Yeggs Hit Warren County
by David Waite
At 2:30 in the morning on August 10th, 1912, burglars jimmied the front door of the Luzerne Post Office in southern Warren County and once inside, went to work to open the safe. A muffled explosion barely disturbed nearby residents, nor did an automobile leaving the village a few minutes later. When the theft was discovered, the postmaster found a broken safe and the remains of the blankets and coats that were used to muffle the blast. The only clues were that a chisel and iron bar used on the front door were identified as tools stolen from a business in Washington County. The loot, never recovered, consisted of only $100 worth of postage stamps.
The thieves were thought to be Yeggs, safe cracking hobos, a new class of criminals who had been causing mayhem throughout the whole country for nearly twenty years.
It was five years later that Yeggs again hit Warren County, this time the post office in the small village of Bolton Landing along the western shore of Lake George. Breaking in through a window, the thieves took three blasts to tear the door off the four-foot-tall safe, securing at least $100 in cash.
When the five men headed towards their automobile to make their escape, they were approached by two occupants from nearby homes responding to the explosions. The Yeggs made it clear that they were armed and would not hesitate to shoot if the men did not back away. The escaping Yeggs, last seen heading in the direction of Lake George, were never captured.
The perpetrators of this unorthodox style of burglary were Yeggs, or Yeggman, a name whose origin was as mysterious as the tramp bandits to which it referred. The best explanation is revealed in the story of one John Yegg, though even that leans more towards urban legend than historical accuracy.
The Story of John Yegg
With the colorful title of “Swedish Desperado,” John Yegg first surfaced somewhere in the Pacific Coast States in the late 1870’s. Yet the story truly begins thousands of miles and some 20 years before this time at the laboratory of a world-renowned scientist.
In 1847 the Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero synthesized the powerful chemical nitroglycerin. Due to its unstable elements, he strongly urged against its use as an explosive. Soon the scientist Alfred Nobel began developing the substance as a commercial explosive. After Nobel’s brother Emil and several others were killed while manufacturing this highly unstable chemical in 1864, Nobel moved the operation to an isolated factory near Hamburg, Germany.
It took another three years, and several more deadly accidents before a more stable form of this explosive, dynamite, was developed by mixing nitroglycerin with diatomaceous earth.
Soon after the civil war the United States government began investigating the use of nitroglycerin for both commercial and military use. Unfortunately, the results of these experiments, published and widely distributed, included successful tests on burglar-proof safes. It is here that the urban legend of John Yegg and the history of those named for him begins.
John Yegg came from one of the western states and was said in his time to have been one of the most experienced and expert electrical mechanics in that part of the country. The story goes that due to excessive drink he fell into a life of crime that let from simple robbery to blowing open safes using the slow and tedious process of drilling and dynamite.
Learning of nitroglycerine’s power, and with rough instruction provided by the government, he soon perfected both the method of extracting nitroglycerine from dynamite and an effective procedure for breaking open a safe. Of course, he was more than willing to share his secrets, in fact so much so that soon safe crackers across the country were finding a new level of success in their illegal endeavors.
Before we get into the secrets that John Yegg is said to have so freely passed along, there is another equally important factor that greatly contributed to a Yegg’s success. He lived the life in many ways similar a freight-train-freight train, inside and outside man, hopping tramp. By using the railroad for transportation these bandits could travel unseen into nearly every area of the state, and then quickly leave again, heading wherever a passing freight car would carry them. Unlike the worn clothing of an average hobo, a Yegg often wore clothes similar to an average mechanic of day laborer of the time.
To successfully pull off their robberies the Yeggs would form gangs, sometimes coming together only for a specific job, or more often as groups that gathered around a known and successful mastermind. A gang usually consisted of two “inside men” who broke into the post office or other business that was being robbed, one or more “outside men,” who watched out for police or village watchmen. Additionally, the gang often had someone whose job it was to obtain details of the place that they were planning on hitting.
This was either a child, called by the Yeggs a “kitten, or a “gay cat” if it was an adult member of the gang. They were sometimes disguised as an invalid selling pencils or other small items door to door, where he tried to get unnoticed access to the inside of the building to be robbed.
As nitroglycerine was rarely available in a quantity that a Yegg needed to open a safe, the most skilled operator in a gang would extract the nitroglycerine from the inert material in dynamite that made the explosive relatively safe and stable.
At a hobo camp along a railroad a fire was built, and dynamite stolen from a construction project was heated in a can of hot water until the nitroglycerine rose to the top. Given the name “soup” by the Yeggs, it was normally put into a pint or smaller sized rubber container, though when nothing else was available a household quart jar was used.
In glass the extremely unstable nitroglycerine was prone to explode if shaken or jarred, and death of one or more of a gang from an unexpected explosion was not uncommon. The chemical nitroglycerine also had another property that added to its danger: the freezing point was around 55 degrees, requiring it to be kept close to the body in cool weather.
With the safe opened and emptied, the gang would beat a very hasty retreat, often in a stolen wagon or automobile to the closest passing freight train. If during their flight from the scene of the crime any citizen or police intervened, the gang would not hesitate to shoot their way to freedom.
Once the inside men broke into a business, commonly a village post office not far from the railroad, the work of preparing the safe commenced.
A bar of soap was softened and spread around the edge of the door on the safe, making a channel for the nitroglycerine. At the top, a cup was formed, and the explosive slowly poured in. When the channel was full a fuse was attached, sometimes rugs or heavy blankets spread across the safe to muffle to sound and the fuse was lit. If all went well the blast opened the safe and any money, stamps or change was removed.
As the safe manufacturers responded to these attacks, new safes were built that sometimes took two or three explosions to open. There was also the chance that too much nitroglycerine was used and the safe, its contents, and the building itself was destroyed.
One important part of the Yeggs lifestyle was their disinterest in accumulating wealth and living “high on the hog” from the proceeds of their burglary. After a successful robbery it was normal for a gang to head to a tavern, miles from the scene of the crime and spend all their loot getting drunk. When a gang had been exceptionally successful, they were known to simply throw all their money on the bar and invite anyone present to help drink up the proceeds.
As federal detectives became better equipped to pursue and capture of these criminals and safe manufacturers improved their products to thwart their schemes, the attacks on post offices in the rural communities greatly diminished. By the 1920’s it was rare when the local paper reported news of a band of these bandits bringing their acts of mayhem to a local community, and the term Yegg quickly fell out of use.
David Waite prepared this article for the Warren County Historical Society. He wrote the lead article in the the Spring 2021 issue of ‘Pasttimes.’
Outlook Magazine, volume 98, May-August 1911, John the Yeggman
Scientific American, January 27, 1906, The Ungentle Art of Burglary