Safe Bash! Treasure In Old Safes

Safe Bash!
Ken Dunckel
Owner, Safecracker
Safe and Vault Opening, SF Bay Area and Northern California

Safe-opening party themes have caught on. I just helped out with another one, but the one I'll tell you about here happened a few years ago, in the days before reality shows caught on.
Barry, a lover of antiques, memorabilia, and good times, was hosting a Roaring Twenties Chicago gangland-style Saturday soiree for forty. Party theme: "Come See Barry's Antique Safe Get Opened."
Barry supplied speakeasy, hooch, and safe; I catered the safe-opening services.

Barry's Safe Bash was to be at his home in Marin County, just north of San Francisco over the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge. Marin County was once portrayed in a much-protested pseudo-factual TV documentary ("I Want It All Now") as a place populated mostly by New Age Airheads Who Frolic In Hot Tubs While Tickling Each Other With Peacock Feathers (that is, when they're not totally busy saving whales).

Media hype also used to portray Marin County as a place brimming over with disposable income. One myth was that there are so many German cars in Marin that the morning commute got to looking more like a dawn blitzkrieg by Yuppie Panzers. But it's true that at one time there were enough German autos in Marin to have distorted some people's outlooks. San Francisco columnist Herb Caen once told how some anti-nuke activist youngsters in Marin armed themselves with spray paint one night and went on a Peace symbol graffiti rampage. Trouble was, their image of a "Peace" symbol turned out to be a dead ringer for the Mercedes-Benz logo.

Marin was the original Mellow Place In The Sun for aging hippies, semi-retired drug dealers, and granola types who had traded Volkswagens for Volvos. Tarot dealers, astrologers, psychic investment counselors, channelers, acupuncturists, herbalists, and purveyors of astral-plane healing massage all make a show of strength in Marin.

To be fair, though, living in Marin County doesn't automatically fill your wallet and empty your head. The glue that holds the place together is the less-publicized infrastructure of regular people. Neither rich nor poor, they exist on Earthly planes, living, working, and raising families. A mixed bag for sure, and Dere I Wuz, a Stranger In A Strange Land; no peacock feather, German car, ponytail,  earring, or personal statement piercings.

Was I talking about a safe? As the high bidder at an estate auction, Barry had proudly taken a double door Hall's Safe home with him. The safe was vintage late 1800s. The previous owner, a dead Montanan, had acquired it locked, combination unknown, sixty years earlier and had never opened it. That appealed to Barry, as did the resulting price reduction. He was gleefully planning his party around opening it.

Barry's safe must have been a real beaut once. After 100-plus years it still commanded a second look. Two hand-painted pictures framed with gold line trim adorned its front and back. The lock was the kind that techies like me call an X-type; a well-known Hall's design that is still emulated by some safe makers today.
The dial was numbered 1-130. Three wheels in the lock, and 130 number possibilities per wheel meant there were 2,197,000 possible combinations for this lock. Luckily there are ways to narrow this down to numbers that will work. However, the procedure for that can take more time than a cocktail party.

When I learned what Barry was up to I told him I would quote a price, but first I needed to see and touch. This was out of character for me. I don't spend much time running around giving estimates, but I wanted to know exactly what kind of a jackpot I was getting into. While I looked, Barry elaborated on his party plan.
A year before he'd thrown Safe Opening Party #1, but a different safecracker failed to open it. Thus Safe Opening Party #2. As I said earlier, Barry thought a Roaring 20's theme would be appropriate, complete with applejack, gats, and bathtub gin. Spats and pearl gray fedoras optional. Most of the invitees had attended the first abortive opening attempt. I presumed it would be reasonable to expect a fun-loving but cynical crowd of swells and flappers.

Despite the fact that wringing number clues from a 130 number dial can bring on a major migraine, after checking it out I felt reasonably confident the safe would open by manipulation. But that process doesn't come with time guarantees, so when I quoted my price I stipulated that I was to be allowed to drill if working the dial proved too time-consuming.

Reasoning: This was Barry's party and good time, not mine. I wasn't investing a Saturday night without something to show for it besides a hangover. Barry agreed. We coordinated time and date, and the party plot was hatched.

I arrived before the party's scheduled start. Barry was out running last-minute errands. A swarm of worker bees was bustling about, icing champagne and laying out trays of hors d'ouevres. I accosted someone who seemed to know what was going on, introduced myself, then got busy setting up.

The first flight of partiers was filtering in as I was setting up. On old safes like this one, safe techs use a variety of mostly home-made tools to take readings and figure out combinations. I got started.

It was fun playing the role of a fly on the wall. One guest arrived in full Chicago 1920's gangland drag, right down to a shoulder holster that held a huge roscoe, which he brandished with increasing frequency throughout the evening as alcohol staged a bloodless coup in his brain. The gat was empty (I think); its owner was the one who ended up loaded. I didn’t know that for a fact, so I made an exception to my non-involvement policy and asked him to holster it before staggering around near me.

There were assorted other revelers but no more revolvers. One person did bring a violin case suitable for transporting the fabled Chicago Typewriter of old.

I'd been tuning out my audience out until then, sticking to coffee and politely refusing repeated offers of bubbly and hooch from a couple of unattached gun molls.

The real piece of work was Barry's youngest daughter. She was all of 15 years old if she was a day. Before she'd spoken twice I was desperately wishing I'd never met her.

Talk about a Harpy! She wisely avoided the champagne that finally hammered her older teenaged sister and girlfriend. Those two flappers finished their evening rather ignominiously. When I left, Elder Sister was splayed unceremoniously across the living room couch like a broken bird. Her friend was kneeling in the bathroom, Talking With Ralph on the Big White Phone. I hope someone remembered to tell them how much fun they'd had.

At least those two weren't bothering anyone. Not so Teenage Bride of Dracula. She was the embodiment of fingernails on a blackboard. Every ten minutes she materialized at my elbow and asked in an Arctic tone, "Isn't it open yet? I wish you'd hurry! I want to see my inheritance!" I didn't see any tooth marks on Barry's jugular, but I'll bet his bankbook sported a few fresh ones.

For two-plus hours I tried several dialing and reading variations without notable developments. The crowd was getting restless and I was getting impatient, too. I told Barry it was time to drill.

Impressive size notwithstanding, the safe drilled readily. Modern safe techs are much better equipped than 1880s safe burglars. In fifteen minutes the door was ready to swing, but I was wise: In anticipation of a trampling crush of besotted revelers, I kept my mouth and the safe door shut until I'd safely stowed my breakable tools.

I called Barry over so he could make the opening official. As he swung the door the crowd pressed in. I was right about the crush of people when the door opened. I stayed at the outer edges, stowing my gear and writing Barry's bill.

Barry removed each item one at time, announced it to collective Ooohs and aaahs, then trustingly passed it around. It was an interesting treasure trove. Here's what I remember:

1) Several decks of Faro cards. Faro was a card game played in saloons of the Old West--Bat Masterson was a saloon bouncer and Faro dealer when he wasn't "batting" people upside the head with the silver-knobbed cane from which he took his nickname.

2) Seven old key-wound pocket watches, each with its own teeny little winding key.

3) One well-used flat sap.

4) A pair of scuffed-up leg irons.

5) One fully functional come-along.
Come-alongs were jailers' tools for leading prisoners. This one looked and worked a lot like a set of heavy handcuffs, with a rigid connector bar instead of chain links, and a straight twistable handle coming from the center, like an auto drive shaft and rear end housing. The harder the jailer yanks and twists, the harder the bracelets bite, and the more willing the wearer is to "come along."

So far there had been nothing out of the ordinary, not when you consider that discerning San Franciscans can find a wide variety of similar implements in any one of a number of discreet little specialty stores around town.
6) One set of seven ivory-handled gilded straight razors.
They were in a felt-lined wooden presentation box. The blades were etched individually with the days of the week.

7) One set of three real ivory billiard balls (not pool, billiards, once considered the gentleman's table game, and the precursor to pool ).
This was a find. There's something special about the way real ivories sound and behave. In fact, if Barry had been willing to part with them, I'd have been happy to take them as sole payment.

Near the end I was about to leave when Little Lizzie Borden addressed the group: By her count two of the watches from her inheritance were missing. As I left, she was stridently insisting that whoever had pinched them should hand them over immediately so she could appraise them properly.
Cute kid, but a heart attack in the making for some unlucky probate lawyer.


Note to readers: Please feel free to comment and post your thoughts about this and any of my posts. Don't worry, I'm pretty thick-skinned. Thanks.


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