Saturday, November 21, 2015

On the Road to Bathgate: Great-Great-Uncle George Pringle Sanderson -- Blacksmith, Locksmith and Safecracker, Part 3.

George Pringle Sanderson,
Councillor refers to his service
as an Edmonton alderman.
Welcome to Part 3 of our three part series on George Pringle Sanderson, 1850-1940. Part 1 focused on George's early years. Part 2 reviewed his blacksmith years. Here we recount reports of his locksmith career and the extraordinary tales that accompany it.

George was born in Eastern Canada and moved west across the Canadian prairies, ultimately to Edmonton, Alberta, nee North West territory. From 1878 into the early 1900's George's principal occupation was blacksmith. But with the proliferation of steam powered locomotion and massive growth in the use of internal combustion engines, demands for shod workhorses and oxen were waning. George turned to the locksmith profession to maintain body and soul.

Metalworking and fabrication skills learned at the forge facilitated George's transition into the locksmith trade. In the beginning George was more or less a traditional locksmith. He copied keys, serviced locking mechanisms, fabricated locks and hasps, reset tumblers and adjusted combinations. But his locksmithing skills evolved further with the proliferation of safes that ensued after the establishment of the province of Alberta in 1905.

George P. Sanderson was long-living proof of the adage about the man who builds a better mousetrap. Right up to his departure from this life in 1939, at any hour of night or day, Edmonton's finest would beat a path to George's door, seeking help opening a blaky safe -- or a safe whose owner was balky about opening. 
George said his talent was no secret; it was a gift, a special present from Santa Claus for being born on Christmas Day -- which occurred in 1850 at Carleton Place, Ontario.
We know, of course, that George Pringle Sanderson was actually born on Christmas Eve. But he wasn't the sort of a fellow to let a day or two get in the way of a good story -- and there are good stories aplenty about George and his safecracking escapades.

In the book "Edmonton: Stories From the River City," George is featured as a leading frontiersmen among the men who planted the seeds for the modern metropolis that Edmonton has become today.  As will be developed, George enjoyed a nip or two along the way.
About the turn of the century he got out of guns and into safes -- hundreds of safes, earning himself the title of Honest Safecracker. On occasion, he was approached by gentlemen who'd made a study of a certain safe and were willing to share the contents fifty-fifty with someone who could open it after hours in the dark. With characteristic politeness, he declined, explaining that he was doing sufficiently well on legitimate business. 
The formation of the province in 1905 gave his business a wider dimension. The country around Edmonton was opening up, forming itself into municipal districts. About the first thing a new M. D. did was order a safe in which to house municipal records -- a huge safe, a gigantic safe, an iron monster which might keep the municipal council safe through an artillery barrage. 
As one of the monsters was being wheeled into the M. D. office at Lougheed, it crashed through he floor and into the nether regions. George spent several days raising the sunken giant and repairing the mechanism.  
January 1925, Waghorn's Guide
On another M. D. occasion, he was called out at two a.m. to release a damsel in distress. The girl had locked herself in a brick-and-steel vault and the combination had jammed. The town police tried to come to the rescue with acetylene torches but the steel door defeated them. So George made a thirty-mile dash into the night and in seven minutes had the lady out of her cage.
From many trips into the country George came to know the map of Alberta as well as he knew the combination of the simplest safe. Among the tools he carried at all times was a Waghorn Railway Guide, invaluable for the man who must go to work since his work could not come to him. By mental calculation he could give the railroad mileage from any town in Alberta to any other.
He was happy with his work, with some exceptions, such as when the police called him on a case involving his friend Bill Buffy, who happened to be a renowned bootlegger of our 1916-23 prohibition era. The police surmised that Bill had a large stock of evidence in a big safe. But they couldn't convict Bill on that surmise, and he refused to be a sport and open up. With reluctance George did his duty, and in a couple of minutes looked in upon rows of gleaming bottles. 
He was not happy to be called away from a family wedding party but couldn't refuse a messenger pleading for a patron of the Richelieu Hotel (later the Grand). A guest with a train to catch in ten minutes had some valuable papers in the hotel safe, and it was jammed. George trotted over and rejoined the family gathering as the relieved traveller board the train.  
George's reluctance in exposing Billy Buffy's stash to the authorities becomes clearer in the following tale.
George rarely showed artistic temperament, but there was such an occasion at Brule, the railroad town at the entrance to Jasper Park. He had been called to open a jammed government safe. It was a long job. A crowd watched -- but from a distance. He insisted he had no secret, just a gift, but even the police weren't allowed to stand too close.When the tumblers fell at last and the door of the safe swung ponderously open, he reached into a vest pocket and extracted a bottle. He was a temperate chap and a staunch member of a congregation which frowned totally on the distiller's art. But he believed that a man was entitled to drink to his success at the climax of a tough job.
But when the bottle hove in sight, the secretary-sheriff of the district began a furious tut-tutting. "Oh I'm sorry, Mr. Sanderson, we can't have liquor up here. This is railroad territory."
George Sanderson drew himself up to his full height of six-foot-two, which remained undiminished through all eighty-nine years of his life. Without a word he locked the safe again, spun the dial, and stalked out. Ignoring all pleas, he mounted a railroad speeder and headed off down the track to Edmonton. A week later he consented to go back -- and charged double. 
Fred Horn, a nephew of George Pringle Sanderson, recounted the story of a particularly challenging safe cracking assignment -- and the bar that diverted George's attention from the task. Prices have increased by a factor of about ten since the time of this assignment, meaning that $300 would be the equivalent of about $3,000 today.
This story takes place shortly after the turn of the century. It concerns a Mr. George P. Sanderson, who was my mother's uncle. He was the first locksmith and blacksmith in Edmonton, and also, in later years, a gunsmith. When he first arrived there as a blacksmith with the ability to fix locks, safes and vaults, it soon became known in the west that he was a locksmith, because he was only person west of Winnipeg who could look after combination-type locks. 
Nephew Horn's note, page 1.
He was on retainer to a number of banks to come at their beck and call when anything went wrong with their safes. It so happened that in Red Deer, a new bank had come into operation, which was called the Merchants Bank of Canada. It was located in the Mitchener Block, where Kresges Store is now, at 50th Avenue and 49th Street. It was quaint, an imposing-looking building, and supposed to be one of the better banks in town. 
A Mr. Manning came to operate this bank, and he was the manager. After he'd been there for several years, one morning he came to work and his vault wouldn't open. Well -- he'd never had this happen before and wasn't quite sure what to do. They wired back for him to engage this Mr. George P. Sanderson from Edmonton, who was on a retainer with them and would come right down. 
So the next morning, Mr. Sanderson arrived on the eleven o'clock train and went over to the Merchants Bank, where he introduced himself and was taken to the vault. He placed himself in front of the vault and disappeared from the bank and they never saw him again that day. They found out by the grapevine that he was over in the Alexander Hotel, which is now the Park Hotel, across from the Post Office. There was a bar in there in those days and he was over there enjoying it. 
Well, the next morning he arrived back at the bank around nine o'clock and stayed there for (I think the bars opened about ten o'clock in those days) about an hour, and wasn't successful in getting the vault open. Well, anyway, sometime in the morning, he disappeared and he didn't come back again that day. Of course, in the meantime, these people weren't able to do business. Their ledgers and cash were all behind these vault doors, and they had to borrow cash from another bank to make change for people. They were able to take deposits, but that was about the limitation of their business . . . and it was a great concern to Mr. Manning. 
Well, the third morning arrived and Mr. Sanderson presented himself at the bank again. Of course, by this time, Mr Manning went into quite a tirade as to when he was going to get this thing opened, and Mr. Sanderson said, "Well," he didn't necessarily have to be in front of the vault door to work on it, and that it was in his mind all the time that he was working whether he was there or not.
Of course, Mr. Manning didn't believe this. However, Mr. Sanderson played with the vault until about noon, and then he disappeared again and they thought he was gone to the bar and that would be the last they would see him that day. But, about two o'clock, he came back and he did work on the thing for quite a long time and shortly after three o'clock, he got it open.
Nephew Horn's note, page 2.
Well, of course, he made some necessary repairs to it and then he went to Mr. Manning's office to present his bill. Mr. Manning had gone out to have a cup of tea with his friend Judge Green, so he wasn't in the bank, and the accountant said, "Well, have a seat. He'll be back in a minute or two." Mr. Sanderson said, "No." He said, "Here's my bill. It's for $300." He said, "He'll know where I am so you'd better send him over there."
Well, anyway . . . Sanderson left the bank, and of course, he headed for the bar. When Mr. Manning came back, the accountant told him where Mr. Sanderson was, and that the bill was $300. Mr. Manning just hit the ceiling, and he said, "I won't pay $300 for that kind of service," and immediately he left the bank and went over to the Alexander Hotel to see Mr. Sanderson. 
Well, of course, he got into the bar and Mr. Sanderson very graciously offered to buy him a drink, and Mr. Manning declined, and so Mr. Sanderson said, "Well. Didn't you bring some money?" And Mr. Manning said, "No," that he hadn't; that he wasn't going to pay $300 for that kind of work, it wasn't worth that much money. 
Of course, you must realize that $300 was a great deal of money in those days and would probably be equal to $2,000 in today's currency. So, Mr. Sanderson said, "well," it didn't make much difference to him; and with that, he turned and sat down at the bar again. 
So. Mr Manning went out, and went back to the bank, and on his way over he thought, "well," his accountant would have the vault open and the books out and be catching up on the work they had lost while the vault was closed. But, when he got back to the bank, he found out from his accountant that the vault wouldn't open.
Well, of course, immediately, it went through his head that Mr. Sanderson had changed the combination and that he was over a barrel. So, he had to go back to the bar again. He went back and argued with Mr. Sanderson and asked him to reduce the price, and Mr. Sanderson wouldn't. 
By this time, Mr. Sanderson had had a few drinks, so Mr. Manning went to the hotel manager to borrow a blank cheque to pay Mr. Sanderson with. He borrowed this cheque from Mr. Krause, who was the manager at that time, and came back to the bar with the cheque, and Mr Sanderson said, "well," he said, "I don't take cheques." So, this put Mr. Manning in a kind of bad way, because his vault was still locked, and he had to have $300 to pay this man with. So, finally, of course, this transaction was completed. He went over and paid Mr Sanderson, and again was offered a drink, which he declined in no uncertain way. 
Nephew Horn's note, page 3.
But I think the story points out that if you've got a monopoly, you can charge what you like. 
I might say that this Mr. Sanderson was quite a notorious man around Edmonton. His abilities were well-known, and he ran a gunshop there for years and years, up until the late thirties, when he was an old, old man, over ninety. He probably appears more in the famous Brown collection of photographs in the Provincial Archives in Edmonton than anywhere else.
Mr. Mann, after a year or two at the bank, after this little story took place, moved to Delbourne. He lived out his life there, and his sons still have quite a large feed operation in Delbourne.
The Edmonton Bulletin interviewed George when he was an octogenarian. The interview added to the litany of safecracking stories, carrying on until it was time for his Mr. Sanderson's afternoon libation.
G. P. Sanderson, Pioneer Edmonton Locksmith, Has Cracked Strongest Safes
George Pringle Sanderson, Age 84.
The great Jimmy Valentine, he of the nimble touch, whose uncanny fingertips proved the undoing of many a strong box, has nothing on George P. Sanderson, pioneer Edmonton locksmith, and safe cracker par excellence. 
Sanderson, who is nearing his 85th birthday, boasts that he has never been baffled by a tumbler combination since he took up the vocation of locksmith more than 60 years ago.
Furthermore, he has successfully opened vaults where burglars have feared to try. Local police authorities back up this statement.
Of course, he admits, crooks have accosted him seeking to solicit his service with promises of a fair split, but being an honest man, he laughed at their offers informing them that he was doing alright in his legitimate business. He has not received an offer of this nature for many years and says that most of this type of offers were received in his early youth. 
He told a reporter that as far as can remember there are only two occasions when Edmonton crooks have made him such offers.
"Once about 15 years ago, I received a message to come to a room in a local hotel after I had finished my day's work. Thinking it was a job I proceeded to the hotel. There I was met by three men who I would judge to be about 30 years of age. They asked me whether or not I could still open safes. I informed them that I could although I immediately became suspicious. Right there and then I decided that the easiest way to get out of this mess I had walked into was to side in with them until I had learned their plan.
"After several minutes they disclosed their plan to me and told me to meet them at the hotel shortly before midnight. I never returned and suppose that they were too afraid to show their faces around again for fear I might spill the beans. 
Edmonton Bulletin, October 22, 1936
"The other incident would be about 10 or 12 years ago. Two young men accosted me one night on the street as I was going home after working late, and informed me that they had a job for me to do.
"They openly admitted that they were all set to crack a safe of a local business concern and would give me half of the swag if I would assist them.  I told them I had not opened a safe in years and refused to accept their offer. They said "okay pop" and walked away.
But despite his age, Sanderson has not lost the gifted touch of his finger tips and only recently was employed to open a safe for a local business concern. In the vault were important papers that had to make a train. Sanderson was asked to open the safe in 10 minutes in order that the documents could be conveyed to the train in time. Within six minutes after he commenced work on the tumblers he had the vault opened. 
For this piece of work he received $50. It must be stated, however, that he employs crutches to get around. He walks freely after getting started.
In the north west corner of the Saskatoon welding building, where Sanderson keeps his shop, the sign over the door merely says "Locksmith." People come here to get keys duplicated, or spring latches on their door repaired. The pioneer locksmith makes pretty fair wages in this small fry business.
But his forte is safe cracking and vault opening of a more spectacular sort, and he can tell of many a thrilling tale of his experiences during the course of his life's business.
For example, just recently an elderly lady came up to his shop and asked him to open the lock of a tiny safe which had been given to her by relatives many years ago. She had lost the combination and the company which manufactured it wired back that they were unable to open it unless they drilled a hole in it. They sent it back to her unopened. Sanderson opened the sentimental strongbox in three minutes.
He tells of other incidents in his early youth. How he was taken out of bed at 2 a.m., rushed away in a car for 30 miles to open the vault where an office employee had carelessly allowed herself to be locked in. Police of the town had worked with oxyacetylene torches for hours to free her, but were compelled to cease operations when gas entered the vault. Sanderson had her out in seven minutes and has newspaper clippings which prove his claim. 
Space does not permit to tell of any more of his thrilling experiences and Sanderson refuses to tell how he does it. "If I told you I would be tossing away the sinecure of a lifetime," he said. "I guess I  just got the feeling of combination locks in my fingers or perhaps it was Santa Claus's present to me for being born on Christmas Day."
"Well, I guess I have given you enough of my time today and must go have my daily glass of hops. Good-bye and thank you," said Sanderson, as he walked toward the door of his shop.
George had continued in the safecracking trade late in life with the help of a grandson.
As George Sanderson worked on into his eighties, a member of the family party joined him in the work. Although his sight and touched were acute as ever, his hearing had dimmed and he couldn't be sure of hearing the tumblers fall. So his young grandson, Jack Gordon, went along to be the ears of honest safecracking.
We salute and give tribute to George Pringle Sanderson for a life long and well lived.


Edmonton Bulletin, August 13, 1900



George P. Sanderson, blacksmith, charter shareholder Edmonton Cemetery Company

George P. Sanderson, blacksmith, charter shareholder Edmonton Cemetery Company.

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