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THE TERM “YEGGMAN” arose in a recent cop show on SiriusXM “Radio Classics.” I knew it meant “safe cracker,” but not much else. This called for research; here are tidbits based on Internet sleuthing.
Etymology. My authority on such matters is Eric Partridge. His Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Day, 1961, describes “Yegg” as “A traveling burglar or safe-breaker: U.S., anglicised by 1932, as among cinema ‘fans.’ Possibly ex Scottish and English dial. yark or yek, to break.”
Getting more expansive in his Dictionary of the Underworld, British & American, Being the Vocabularies of Crooks, Criminals, Racketeers, Beggars and Tramps, Convicts, the Commercial Underworld, the Drug Traffic, the White Slave Traffic, and Spivs, 1961, Partridge devotes a column and a half to “yegg” and “yegg(-)man.” Among other subtleties, he cites a 1901 comment: “Hoboes that break safes in country post-offices come under the yegg-man classification.”
Cited from 1904 is the picturesque “The Yeg men blew the gopher.” That is, “The safe crackers forced open the doors of the safe with explosives.” Partridge noted that “gopher” for a safe, vault, or strong-room dates from 1893.
As a verb, “to gopher” meant to tunnel under a safe for access, a technique described in the Sherlock Holmes adventure “The Red-Headed League,” 1891.
The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary offers an interesting dialogue from 1906: “Now nitro-glycerine I object to. It’s so abominably crude.” “And so odiously criminal,” she interpolated. “Precisely. We’re not exactly yeggmen yet.”
Yeggman Tech. Not all yeggmen use such crass techniques as “nitro-glycerine” explosives or “gophering.” Craftsmen of the trade need nothing more than sensitive fingers and a knowledge of combination locks.
Combination Lock History. Wikipedia notes, “The earliest known combination lock was excavated in a Roman tomb on the Kerameikos, Athens. Attached to a small box, it featured several dials instead of keyholes. In 1206, the Muslim Al-Jazari documented a combination lock in his book al-Ilm Wal-Amal al-Nafi Fi Sina’at al-Hiyal (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices). Muhammad al-Astrulabi (ca. 1200) also made combination locks, two of which are kept in Copenhagen and Boston Museums. Gerolamo Cardano later described a combination lock in the 16th century.”
Combination Lock Anatomy. The traditional combination lock has a single dial actuating multiple parallel discs, one for each number of the entry code. When notches in the discs are aligned, a latch drops into place and opens the lock.
The yeggman senses these notches aligning, using either sensitive touch or a classic stethoscope. With another more invasive approach, the yeggman drills a small hole into which a micro optical fiber is inserted to assess disc rotation.
Wikipedia notes that more invasive drilling is countered by a relock trigger, a feature of safes manufactured since World War II. Punching a dial spindle or abusing the lock case activates a bolt engagement preventing further access.
True, there’s always nitro. But as recognized more than a century ago, “it’s so abominably crude.” I much prefer my yeggman with sensitive fingers and a stethoscope. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021