The eight men who showed up at 155 Prince St. wearing Halloween masks were carrying large burlap bags. But it wasn’t Halloween and they weren’t there for candy.
The $2.75 million Brinks robbery on Jan. 17, 1950 was the largest robbery in history. It would be 34 years before anything topped it.
And they almost got away with it. But 10 days before the statute of limitations would have left them immune to prosecution, one gang member, Joseph “Specs” O’Keefe flipped, naming the others. On Jan. 11, 1956, the FBI arrested six men. Two others were picked up later. The get-away driver, Joseph Banfield had died in 1954.
Nine months later, Arthur J. Ahern of Wilmington would testify in their trial, in late September 1956. Ahern had been a Boston detective who worked on the Brinks case. He moved to Wilmington after retiring.
The robbery took place in Boston’s North End at the Brinks operations center for armored cars. In an upstairs office section, behind several locked doors, was the counting room and vault room.
The job was very well-planned, enabling the men to complete the robbery in about half an hour. In preparation, they visited the Brinks building several times. One of the men had picked the locks on the doors. They then removed the locks one at a time and took them to a locksmith who made keys. The locks were quickly put back before anyone noticed they were gone.
One of the men rented an apartment across the street and watched the building carefully, noting the times when there were very few people.
For a getaway vehicle, they stole a brand-new green Ford stake truck, so there would be no identifying signs and little chance of a breakdown. On the evening of Jan. 17, 1950, eight men loaded into the back of the truck. Their lookout in the parking lot gave the all-clear and the men climbed out on Prince Street. They quietly entered the building, using the made-up keys, then went to the second floor, opening several locked doors. When they got to the counting room, they bound and gagged five employees. Moving quickly they proceeded to bag up the cash and securities. When they left with the half-ton of loot, they also took four revolvers.
They climbed back into the truck for a fast ride to Roxbury, where the haul was stashed with the relatives of one of the gang.
They split up and hurried to establish their alibis. The truck was later found, cut up, in a dump in Stoughton.
The robbery was called the crime of the century and played in the headlines of the Boston papers for years.
Ahern was among the many Boston police who worked on the case. When called to testify, he told how easy it had been to pick the locks with a simple nail file. He told of the doors he had opened, each one taking only about 15 seconds. His nail file was entered into evidence.
The Boston Globe ran a front-page story about him on Sept. 27, 1956, “Brinks Lock-Picking Title Claimed by Ex-Detective.”
Arthur J. Ahern, a little-known amateur, posted his win over Joseph J. O’Keefe, one of the top professionals in his class.
Ahern, retired Boston detective, opened doors at Brinks’ Prince Street bastion in 20 seconds and under, using only a pocket nail file.
“Specky” O’Keefe, the ex-burglar, struggled for a full minute or more with a specially-rigged ice pick and celluloid square to trip the same locks.
Ahern drew a plan of the building, along with the various approaches and adjacent streets.
The defendants were all convicted and given life sentences. Most served 10 to 14 years.
And what happened to the money? Only $57,000 was ever recovered. There are many stories, but no accounting. Some went for legal fees. One defendant said in 1977, it went for gambling and supporting a family. But it was the money that caused O'Keefe to turn in the rest of the gang.