Cannonball Safe Information

By Guy Zani Jr. (The Antique Safe Collector)


In the 1860’s to 1920’s “Cannonball Safes” were considered to be virtually “robbery Proof”. Back in the days of Jesse James, it was common practice to kidnap the bank president during the night, take him to the bank, and have him open the conventional old time bank safes.  But these new style  “Cannonball Safes” were built with extra thick walls, rounded corners, and time lock systems, which only allowed these safes to be opened during the daylight hours, at a specific time, thus making kidnapping the president no longer a solution to gain entry to the banks safe.  It was a cannonball safe with a triple time lock system that foiled the robbery by Jesse James and the Cole Younger gang on September 14, 1876 in the Great Northfield Minnesota Bank Heist. That day, so the story goes, Jesse argued heatedly with the Head Bank Teller, Joseph Haywood, who claimed he couldn’t open the safe because it was still on time lock.

Cannonball Safes get their name from its round shape and heavy weight. The rounded corners and 3500-5000 lb. weight kept them from being taken during a robbery. If a bank was wealthy enough to be able to afford one of these safes, they would proudly display it in their lobby for all their depositors to see. This was the method of the day to assure depositors that their money was safe, using the latest anti-theft technology of its day. To further impress the depositors, Cannonball Safes were elaborately decorated in real gold leaf with glistening hand jeweled doors. These safes usually came with 4 number combination locks, with a large crank handle used to rotate and disengage the 300 lb. door and a top handle to grasp and  swing open the massive door.  Built into the back of the main door is a banker access door which requires a key to gain entry. Behind the banker access door were the time lock mechanisms. The three clocks were used to provide a double back up system to ensure the safe can be opened at the desired time. Anyone of the three clocks will activate the mechanism, so if one, or even two clocks were to fail, the remaining third clock will still open the safe. Clocks could be set for up to 72 hours before opening. The time clock assemblies, many made by the Elgin National Watch Co., had 17 jewel movements and were built to be of the highest quality at that time. Although the inside looks small, over $200,000 in paper money would fit easily inside, with additional room for gold bullion and coins.



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