Crime and Scandal

The Great Brinks Robbery of 1950: Not Quite the Perfect Crime

The Great Brinks Robbery was the biggest armed robbery in U.S. history at the time. Thieves vanished after stealing $2.7 million, leaving few clues. It was almost the perfect crime. Almost.

A detective examines the Brinks vault after the theft. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

A detective examines the Brinks vault after the theft. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

It happened in 1950 at the Brinks Armored Car depot in Boston’s North End. The gang of 11 that stole the money after two years of meticulous planning almost got away with it. They failed because they fell out over the division of the spoils. Police arrested all of them five days before the statute of limitations ended.

The Brinks Robbery

The idea for the heist came from Joseph ‘Big Joe’ McGinniss, but career criminal Anthony ‘Fats’ Pino. McGinness masterminded the crime. Pino also recruited a gang to watch the depot for 18 months to figure out when it held the most money.

The gang stole plans for the depot’s alarm system, and then returned them undetected. They also removed the cylinders from locks, one by one, and had a locksmith duplicate the keys. Planning for the Brinks robbery took two years and included six failed attempts.

The gang wore outfits similar to Brinks uniforms – Navy pea coats and chauffeur’s caps – and rubber Halloween masks. At 6:55 p.m. on Jan. 17, 1950, seven of the gang members entered the counting room. They surprised the five employees and bound and gagged them face down on the floor.

The thieves cleaned out everything except the General Electric payroll. It took them only 35 minutes to load 14 canvas bags with a half ton of cash, coins, checks, securities and money orders. Two of the gang members waited outside in the getaway truck.

3 Clues

They left but three clues: a chauffeur’s cap, the adhesive tape used to gag the Brinks employees and the rope used to tie them up. No one was hurt. The thieves divided up some of the loot and promised each other they wouldn’t touch the money for six years so the statute of limitations would run out. Then they split up to establish alibis.

The tampered lock at the Brink's building. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

The tampered lock at the Brink’s building. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

They almost made it. Investigators had few leads and little solid evidence. Law enforcement officers interviewed hundreds of people who lived and worked near the Brinks depot and questioned known criminals. According to the FBI, “in the hours immediately following the robbery, the underworld began to feel the heat of the investigation.”

Police picked up and questioned well-known Boston hoodlums. From Boston, the FBI quickly spread the pressure to other cities.

“Veteran criminals throughout the United States found their activities during mid-January the subject of official inquiry,” the FBI reported.

The robbers’ truck was found cut to pieces in Stoughton, Mass., but it didn’t offer many clues. The FBI was flooded with unhelpful tips.

The Rat

One gang member blew it for all of them. Joseph ‘Specs’ O’Keefe left his loot with another member when he served a prison sentence for a different crime. While behind bars, he wrote angry letters to his cohorts demanding money and suggesting he might talk.

When O’Keefe got out of prison, Fats Pino sent a hit man to kill him. The hit man shot at O’Keefe with a machine gun in the Dorchester section of Boston. O’Keefe escaped with minor wounds and made a deal with the FBI to testify against the gang. All eight were caught and convicted. Two died before they were tried.

Police recovered only $58,000 of the $2.7 million stolen. The crime inspired at least four movies and two books, including The men Who Robbed Brinks, an ‘as-told-to’ with Joseph J. O”Keefe.

This story was updated in 2020.

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