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Thread: King of Heists

  1. #1
    Join Date
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    Question King of Heists

    I am reading a book called King of Heists: The Sensational Bank Robbery of 1878 that Shocked America. The main character in the book is George Leslie, the 19th century bank robber.

    Probably a lot of what is written about George Leslie since his death is exaggerated or romanicised so it is difficult to tell at this point what is fact and what is fiction. I would like your opinion on a device that George Leslie is supposed to have invented called the "Little Joker." The Little Joker was described vaguely as consisting of a metal disk and some wires. In the book he carried it in his wallet which I believe were a little larger in the 19th century than they are now.

    Supposedly, George Leslie would sneak into a bank and slip the Little Joker behind the combination knob. After that, every time the safe was opened a little wire would wear a groove into the disk. Later they would examine the grooves and try the three numbers where the grooves were deepest in every sequence until the safe opened.

    Newspaper articles written about his robberies do not mention this device. I have found references to a brand of tobacco called Little Joker and "Keeler's Little Joker Pat. Nov. 12, 1876" which was a type of rubber stamp.


    So, can anyone tell me more about George Leslie's "Little Joker?"





  2. #2
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    Roberta, during the period of the mid 1800's when lots of different combination locks were being developed, many of them were originally operated by a key. By Leslie's time a fixed dial had replaced the key. By fixed dial I mean that it was not removed from the safe each time it was locked. But some of them could be as they were screwed on from the outside. This feature was what allowed a recorder to be installed. So yes I believe that story to be true. You should get in contact with Ken Dunckel, a safe tech who has read more fiction and non fiction accounts about safecracking than anyone I know. He has a blog on the internet. Doug

  3. #3
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    I thought this was a very interesting book, and I too would curious to know more about the "Little Joker".

    A very slight technicality, Leslie was a bank burglar (sneaking in after hours) rather than a bank robber (barging in during business hours and demanding money, such as Bonnie and Clyde). Though IIRC some of his jobs blurred the distinction, such as coercion of an employee and an unfortunate death.

  4. #4
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    I know I won't find where I read about him using the device but I am pretty sure one of his favorite targets was a popular Lillie safe. It would have been considerably easier to make and use on a safe lock where the dial is pushed in and out, leaving a lot of space for the little bugger to be hidden.

  5. #5
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    Default King of Heists

    Quote Originally Posted by wylk View Post
    Leslie was a bank burglar (sneaking in after hours) rather than a bank robber (barging in during business hours and demanding money, such as Bonnie and Clyde).
    You're right. The King of Heists said that Leslie admired Jesse James but made it clear that he did not copy his methods.

  6. #6
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    Sorry. It was in a book by the famous detective Allan Pinkerton "Criminal Remininscences and Detective Sketches" where I read about the "Little Joker" description, although it was not called that there. It was Max Shinburn not George Leslie who was described making and using it on Lillie safes. But I have heard that name used elsewhere as well. Doug

  7. #7
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    Thumbs up Max Shinburn

    Quote Originally Posted by Doug MacQueen View Post
    Sorry. It was in ... "Criminal Reminiscences and Detective Sketches" ... It was Max Shinburn not George Leslie ... Doug
    I don't have a copy of <i>Criminal Reminiscences</i> but I found the same information about Shinburn on page 34 of the book <i>The Napoleon of Crime</i> by Ben Macintyre who got his info from Pinkerton.

    But on pages 204-205 of the book <i>From Boniface to Bank Burglar, or, The price of Persecution</i> by George Miles White AKA George Bliss. In a chapter called "Sheriff Smith's Bribe ~ The Little Joker" George White claims total credit for inventing a device with a little wire that recorded combination numbers and naming it "The Little Joker." Pinkerton however claims that White's modus operendi consisted of breaking into a bankerís home and torturing him until he gave up the combination to the vault.

    Roberta
    Attached Thumbnails Attached Thumbnails Napoleon.jpg  

  8. #8
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    I think the Ocean Bank Robbery of 1869 is the main one where this device was supposed to have been used on the outer door. William F Ensign demonstrated a device like this. A polished steel disk with a spring loaded pin was put under the dial. I think the spring loaded pin (maybe 2 pins, one for each direction) was kept away from the disk (graduated with numbers) except when the direction of rotation was changed (like a flip flop device) when it dug in. All the articles I remember reading gave slightly different accounts of how it worked. Often thought about making something to demonstrate the hypothesis. I believe combo lock dials where easy to remove then and that is why you can't easily do it now without showing damage especially on Government locks because of this method.

  9. #9
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    If you ask me the King of Heists would be Julius Adolf Petersen. Also called "Der Lord von Barmbeck" sadly the book about his life is only available in German.

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