February 28, 1876

Northampton Bank Receives Ransom Note

On this day in 1876, a ransom note was sent to the Northampton National Bank. Just a month earlier, a notorious gang of New York thieves had managed to break through the bank's new security system. Within a matter of hours, they made off with the largest heist of cash and bonds in U.S. history. The $1,600,000 stolen would be worth over $26,000,000 today. The crime was carefully planned and brilliantly executed, but the thieves were less successful in getting the bank to ransom the bonds. They negotiated for nearly a year before Pinkerton detectives finally tracked them down. The ringleaders were arrested, tried, and convicted. The cash was never recovered.

Banks did not become common in Massachusetts farming towns until the mid-nineteenth century.

Just when bankers had succeeded in convincing Massachusetts farmers and small-town businessmen that their money would be secure in a vault, a small group of wily crooks proved that with enough cunning, planning, and patience, even the newest safe could be emptied. In 1876, a New York gang operating under the code name of Rufus stole $1,600,000 in cash and bonds from the Northampton National Bank. With a value in today's dollars of over $26,000,000, the take from the Northampton heist remains the biggest in U.S. history.

Banks did not become common in Massachusetts farming towns until the mid-nineteenth century. Before that, most farmers who needed to borrow money turned to neighbors or extended family, while savings were kept at home or lent to someone in the community in exchange for a personal "note." Farmers were slow to trust banks, which did not become popular until the 1820s and 1830s. Even then there were doubts. With only a set of keys between the cash and the con man, people worried about the safety of vaults. When Linus Yale, Jr. invented the modern combination lock in 1861, people were finally persuaded that bank vaults had been made burglarproof.

Northampton National Bank had been established in 1833 as New England was converting from a barter economy to a modern monetary system. Two years later, when a canal connected the town to the Connecticut River and trade routes to New Haven, Northampton began to grow. The arrival of the railroad in 1845 helped the town establish itself as a small industrial center. As population and prosperity grew, so did the Northampton National Bank; by the 1870s it was one of the leading financial institutions in a community of 25,000 people.

Northampton National bank officers decided to improve security by installing one of Linus Yale's new cylinder pin-tumbler locks, which could be opened only with a key and a combination. 

In 1874, Northampton National bank officers decided to improve security by installing one of Linus Yale's new cylinder pin-tumbler locks, which could be opened only with a key and a combination. They hired the Herring Safe Company, and the man who came to town to install the new high tech security system was a Herring employee named William Edson.

What the Northampton bank officers did not know was that Edson was also linked to the Rufus Ring, a notorious band of bank-robbing criminals who specialized in breaking into the new combination vaults. In a string of robberies that stretched from Louisville, Kentucky, to Elmira, New York, three of the gang leaders, Robert Scott, James Dunlap, and Billy Connors, had led an ingenious and determined group of thieves. Edson, who had arranged to make copies of bank keys for the gang in previous robberies, probably tipped them off to the rich cash reserves stored in the Northampton vault. In November of 1875, three of the gang's leaders began visiting the town to scout out the bank and the layout of the town.

The modus operandi of the Rufus Ring always involved meticulous planning. Most of their jobs took weeks of setup; this job would be no different. The men tracked bank operations and employees, observed the routine of the bank cashier, the night watchman, and the deputy sheriff, found places to hide loot, and planned their entry to the vault and an escape route. Then, on November 22nd, Edson arrived in town and met with bank officials, purportedly on Herring Co. business. He examined the vault with the permission of the bank manager, and under the guise of adjusting the vault key for a better fit, he made a wax copy. Before he left, he and the manager agreed the cashier should be the only person to know the combination of the lock.

Quickly and quietly they woke the seven occupants of the house, handcuffed them, and bound all but Mr. Whittelsey in the same room.

After Edson had copied the key, the Rufus gang traveled twice to Northampton to carry out the heist; both times, they ran into complications. Finally, on Monday, Jan. 25th, all systems were go. At 4:00 pm the Northampton National Bank closed, and the cashier Whittelsey walked the several blocks to his home. Shortly after midnight, the Rufus Ring broke into Whittelsey's house. They wore masks made by cutting the legs off men's drawers and pulling them over the head with holes cut for eyes; they spoke to each other by number instead of name. Quickly and quietly they woke the seven occupants of the house, handcuffed them, and bound all but Mr. Whittelsey in the same room.

By 1:20 am, they had isolated Whittelsey and begun a tortuous interrogation. At first, the cashier refused to give the lock combination, then gave a false one. But the thieves made him repeat the number, and when he could not, they knew he was lying. Under considerable pressure, the cashier eventually gave in, believing that the gang would never be able to open the safe without the key to accompany the combination. What he did not know was that they had a copy of the key.

Just before 4:00 am, the thieves left for the bank. From their observation, they knew that the night watchman left at 4:00 and that the bank would be unguarded until it opened for the day a few hours later.

At 6:30 on the morning of the 26th, a man walking to work heard Mrs. Whittelsey screaming from her house. "They've taken my husband and are robbing the bank. They're all at the bank! Please help my husband!" But of course, by then it was too late. The thieves had made off with the cash, stocks, and bonds.

"They've taken my husband and are robbing the bank. They're all at the bank! Please help my husband!"

One month later, on February 28th, the first good lead in the case arrived in the form of a letter to the bank. It was a ransom note that included two of the stock certificates to prove authenticity. The bank stalled for months, sending partial replies. At one point, the crooked locksmith Edson met with the bank manager, claiming to be an innocent go-between. The manager offered a $60,000 ransom, but the Ring turned it down, demanding $150,000.

Nine months later, Connors met with the president of the bank, who again offered only $60,000. All the while, detectives from the Pinkerton Agency, hired by the bank just four days after the robbery, were tracking the thieves. Nearly one year after the robbery, ringleaders Dunlap, Scott, and Connors were arrested. Edson turned state's evidence. The rest of the men were never charged. The securities were returned, but the cash was never recovered.

Dunlop and Scott were convicted and sentenced to 20 years in jail. After years of campaigning for a pardon, James Dunlap was released in 1892. In March 1900, he was arrested again. . . for bank robbery.

If You Go

Historic Northampton's virtual architecture tour includes the building that served as the Northampton National Bank.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Western region of Massachusetts.

Sources

"City Bank Robbery: One of the Biggest Hauls Ever. The Robbing of the Northampton National Bank, January 26, 1876." Right Angle, Inc. 2001.

The Greatest Burglary on Record: Robbery of the Northampton National Bank. Northampton, Mass.: Steam Press of the Gazette Printing Co., 1876.

Cleveland Moffatt. True Detective Stories: From the Archives of the Pinkertons. New York: G.W. Gillingham Co., 1893.

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