Massachusetts

The Northampton National Bank Heist, the Biggest in U.S. History

northampton-national-bank-robbery

On the morning of Jan. 26, 1876, a woman screamed from her bedroom window that burglars had robbed the Northampton National Bank and captured her husband.

The news sent the small industrial city into a frenzy. Several men walking to work at the hoe factory heard the woman and notified the police. What unfolded caused great excitement in the town and went down in U.S. history as the biggest bank robbery ever.

A short book published in 1876 tells the story of the Northampton National Bank Heist: The Greatest Burglary on Record: Robbery of the Northampton National Bank : the Cashier Overpowered at Midnight, Tortured, and Forced to Give the Combinations to the Vault and Safe : Eight Hundred Thousand Dollars in Money and Bonds Stolen : $25,000 Reward.

The robbers stole $1.6 million in cash, bonds and other securities from the Northampton National Bank. The haul in today’s dollars comes to more than $26,000,000. The Brinks Heist, in comparison, amounted to about $10 million in today’s money.

Unfortunately for the perpetrators, they couldn’t negotiate the securities – though they certainly tried.

Northampton National Bank

northampton-national-bank-robbery

The Northampton National Bank around 1876

Established in 1833, when banking began to take hold in country towns. With the opening of first a canal and then a railroad, Northampton grew into a thriving community of 25,000 people. Northampton National Bank grew with it into one of the leading country banks in the region with a good name and sterling character.

In 1974, Northampton National Bank officers decided to tighten security by installing a new cylinder pin-tumbler lock invented by Linus Yale. The lock required both a combination and key.

The bank hired Herring Safe Co., to install the new lock. Unfortunately, the Herring Safe employee who came from New York to install the lock had links to notorious bank robbers known as the Rufus Ring. William Edson, the employee, had already made copies of keys used in previous bank robberies from Louisville, Ky., to Elmira, N.Y.

Rufus Ring

Edson managed to copy the key to the vault of the Northampton National Bank. He then advised bank officials that only one man, the cashier, should know the combination to the vault. They agreed.

For weeks the gang members traveled between Brooklyn, N.Y., and Northampton to plan the Northampton National Bank Robbery. They watched the bank and employees, followed the bank cashier, the night watchman and the deputy sheriff.

They planned how they’d extract the combination from the cashier, how they’d escape and where they’d hide their loot.

The Heist

The masked men carried dark lanterns when they broke into the home of Mr. Whittelsey, where he lived with his wife, niece, an elderly woman, a married couple and an Irish servant. They bound and gagged them all in the same room, except for Mr. Whittelsey.

By 1:20 a.m. they had isolated the cashier in his home and interrogated him about the combination. He refused, but they choked and beat him until he gave it up. The thieves knew the night watchman left work at 4 a.m., leaving the bank unguarded for several hours.

So just after 4 a.m., they marched Mr. Whittelsley to the bank, where they opened the vault, cleaned it of all its contents and made their getaway. Some of the men left by horse and carriage, while the others took the train back to New York.

At about 6:30 a.m., Mrs. Whittelsey freed herself from her restraints and rushed to her window. "They've taken my husband and are robbing the bank,” she screamed. “They're all at the bank! Please help my husband!"

Caught

Four days after the heist, the Northampton National Bank hired Pinkerton detectives. One month later, they received a note with two stock certificates to prove their authenticity. Edson, still trusted by the bank, offered to act as a go-between.

northampton-national-bank-today

The Northampton National Bank today. Image courtesy Google Maps.

The bank manager offered a ransom of $60,000, but the robbers insisted on $150,000. Negotiations went back and forth, the bank stalling for time while the Pinkertons tracked the thieves.

Nearly a year after the robbery, three of the ringleaders were arrested. Edson turned state’s evidence, and the three went to prison. The Northampton National Bank never got its cash back, and an estimated 75 depositors lost their money.

The securities, however, were returned to the bank.

The Northampton National Bank building still stands at 135 Main St., the original vault intact. Owned for a time by Kevin Eastman, a creator of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” a new owner announced in 2017 the building would be restored.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Paul Harty

    February 1, 2018 at 10:17 am

    Sloppy editing. Edson was installing the security system (I presume) in 1874, not 1974, as wriiten. Also, why does the pop-up invitation to join the New England Historical Society (I am already a member) obscure each story before it can be read? It is redundant and annoying.

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