Night of the Salamander Safes

During the night of October 28-29, 1851, several stores along the Buffalo lakefront were burglarized. The exact number of break-ins is unclear–at least three, but perhaps as many as 5-10. Several of the stores had valuables stored in safes that were all the same make: Gayler Patent Safes, often described as “salamander” or “hobnail” safes.


[Gayler safe, collection of Historical Society of Windham County, Newfane, VT.]

Gayler safes were made of cast-iron, with a layer of air separating two containers, one inside the other. Both doors, outer and inner, were opened by separate keys. The safes were designed in the 1830s primarily to withstand fires, hence the nickname “salamander” safe after the mythical attribute of the amphibians. They withstood some fires but not intense heat, and were supplanted in future decades by safes lined with liquid plaster of paris and, eventually, asbestos.

They were also advertised as being burglar-proof, though that claim certainly proved bogus on a late October night in Buffalo. Local authorities had never seen such brazen thievery before–multiple break-ins all in the space of a few hours, and all showing evidence of skillfully picked-locks.

A couple of the store-owners recalled suspicious characters in the area the previous few days, and one recalled a man leaving a watch for repair. This tip led authorities to a boarding house where they found a stash of burglar’s tools and some of the stolen bills. A man who gave his name as “Aaron B. Sanford”, his wife, and another man were arrested for the robberies.

Though his real name would not be known for several years, “Sanford” was in reality the master thief of the nineteenth century, James Buchanan Crosse. Crosse would later be exposed as a brilliant handwriting forger and prison-escape artist, but many of his crimes were disguised by aliases and went undetected and unconnected to his known background. I’ve been piecing together his career for the past three years and am preparing a manuscript on his exploits–which I guarantee will amaze.

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