When three would-be bank bandits were arrested at a Duluth hotel room on May 5, 1921, here is some of what authorities found in their possession: a cake of soap, old leather gloves, a dark gray sweater coat, a new toothbrush and overalls — not to mention four ounces of nitroglycerin, three guns and cartridges, a bottle of fuses with detonator caps, a flashlight and electrical connections for cutting into a current.
The headline in the News Tribune: Duluth police trap trio as safecrackers. Duluth’s chief of police Warren Pugh led the raid on James Flynn, George Jordan and Robert M. Owens, guests in room 26 of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, who were tattled on by a chambermaid who found a loaded gun beneath a pillow in the room.
The small crew of officers busted the three men when they returned to their hotel room. Were they the bad guys behind the robbery of six recent theater robberies in Milwaukee? Pugh didn’t think so, based on the technique used to crack the safes and the equipment carried by the men. But, because of a recent bank robbery in Coleraine, one of its officials wanted to get a look at the men.
“I’m satisfied these men had a big job planned for Duluth,” Pugh told the News Tribune. “And furthermore, I am convinced that all of them are not amateur criminals.”
True enough: Owens admitted to serving time following a burglary in Oklahoma. He and Flynn were also wanted in Sioux City, Iowa, for jumping bail. There, too, they carried nitroglycerin.
Within the year, George Jordan and James Flynn were back in the news with their attempts to break out of a jail in Stillwater.
In January 1856, Scientific America featured an introduction to nitroglycerin as a safe-cracking tool. It was not to be taken lightly by the time's yeggmen, a slang term for burglars.
"The modern 'yeggman,' however, is often an inartistic, untidy workman, for it frequently happens that when the door suddenly parts company with the safe it takes the front of the building with it."
This story was told as part of Once Upon a Time in Duluth, a Wednesday feature on the News Tribune Minute podcast.