In the early morning hours of February 27, 1897, two men quietly pried the locks off a window and crawled into the village post office on Genesee Street. While one set to work with a chisel on all the drawers and boxes, the other applied himself to drilling a hole in the top of the safe in postmaster J.Horatio Earll’s office. When done, he dropped in a stick of dynamite.
The explosion blew the door off the safe, shattered every window in the post office, and alerted the village’s night watchman, Oliver Edwards, who was on his rounds at the livery stable of Charles DeWitt behind the Packwood House (today’s Sherwood Inn). As Edwards came running across the bridge over the outlet, a man with a gun stepped out of the shadows and said, “Halt, and throw up your hands.”
Edwards, who had a gun of his own, chose to throw lead instead, and emptied his 7-shot revolver in the direction of the shadowy figure, who responded in kind. However, neither man managed to hit the other. At that point the gunman’s companions sprinted from the post office and all three ran off up Jordan Street with $259 in stamps and cash, $160 in money orders and $126.90 in checks. Apparently the robbers had a buggy waiting at a discreet distance, and vanished before anyone could apprehend them, leaving behind only two chisels, a drill bit and a real mess at the post office.
In the light of day, it was suggested they were the same three men who had robbed the Rose Hill post office two weeks before. In that case, the night watchman saw a man near the post office at 2 a.m., and when he asked him what his business might be, was told “to shut up or he would get a bullet through him.” The men escaped on horseback.
There was, in fact, nothing novel about the Skaneateles robbery. In 1897, the U.S. Post Office reported 1,573 post office robberies, and by 1909 the annual total was almost 2,000.
In nearby Cayuga, between 1904 and 1910, the post office safe was blown open seven times. The local chief of police noted, “It’s getting to be an annual affair.” In 1910, there was one change to the pattern: The thieves fled in an automobile.
In March of 1914, the postmaster of Mottville was robbed for a third time, but this time, his safe was not blown up. Although required by law to put his stamps in a safe, he left them out in the open. The postmaster had already paid for two destroyed safes out of his own pocket, and figured it was cheaper just to pay for the stamps.
Twelve villages along the route of the Long Island Railroad claimed to hold the state record; all of their post offices were hit in 1907. The post office safe in Mineola was blown up at the same time each year for four years running. Villagers in the “safe-blowing belt” became so accustomed to explosions that they would remark, “It’s only the post office being blown up again.”
Men like Edward Wilson, a.k.a. “Canton Eddie,” made post office safes a career. Between 1894 and 1917, Eddie blew up post office safes – 30 in one year alone – in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Quebec. In 1908, busted for a post office robbery in Port Byron, Eddie did four years in Auburn Prison. (It did not help his case when a witness identified the clothes Eddie wore for the court appearance as having been stolen from his store.) A thoroughly professional thief, Eddie had learned how to make his own nitroglycerin by boiling stolen dynamite, and would dampen the sound of his safe explosions with stolen blankets.
Today, collectors of postcards recognize post office robberies as a distinct category, just like train wrecks, fires and earthquakes. Alas, I have yet to find a postcard of the Skaneateles blast of 1897.
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My thanks to fultonhistory.com, the New York Times online and Google for numerous news accounts.