The Man Who Picked Victorian London's Unpickable Lock

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“Look on my works, ye burglars, and despair.” These were the words used to describe the locks of Jeremiah Chubb, an iron worker in 19th-century London who was renowned for his Detector, a security lock that was thought to be virtually impregnable. The prying tips of picking tools would trigger the bolt in such a way that even the conventional key would no longer be able to open it. Upon trying—and failing—to open the lock, the owner would realize it had been tampered with (the lock could then be opened, originally by using a "regulator key," and later by turning the "true key" counterclockwise to reset it).

The Detector was one of many famous British locks of the era, an example of design and ingenuity that lock companies would promote with pride. Frequently, the companies would challenge skilled lockpickers to test their merchandise, offering a cash reward if they could circumvent the levers, trips, and other internal mechanisms. It never happened. In one instance, Chubb even conspired with authorities to arrange for an inmate to try compromising his Detector. If the prisoner could, he would be awarded with five pounds (some versions of this story say his reward would be his freedom, but that is a myth). The felon failed.

Patented in 1818, the Detector spent decades as one of England’s greatest assurances. Whatever valuables lay beyond the lock were guaranteed to remain safe and secure, immune to even the most sophisticated or skilled attempts at a breach.

In 1851, an American locksmith named Alfred C. Hobbs crossed the Atlantic, stepped into the throngs of industrial suppliers and media at the Great Exhibition in London, and announced that the Chubb lock was merely a plaything. In front of astonished onlookers, Hobbs picked the lock in 25 minutes. Asked to do it a second time, he succeeded—this time in just seven minutes. In moments, the American had become the Houdini of the lock industry, shattering the trust of citizens who believed the Detector was beyond tampering.

Like Houdini, Hobbs knew how to monetize such amazing publicity. And like Houdini, he was determined to raise the stakes of his performances. As soon as he picked the Chubb lock, Hobbs declared his next target was the Bramah—a lock that had resisted all attempts at picking for the previous 61 years, and one so revered that women had taken to wearing its key around their necks as a status symbol.

Thanks to Hobbs, that adoration would shortly turn to paranoia.

In an era where nothing—credit card numbers, data, or personal belongings—can truly be considered safe, it’s hard to imagine a time when people invested complete confidence in security. But that was the case in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when the concept of “perfect security” didn’t allow for any concern over valuables being compromised. Safes and lock boxes could, of course, be stolen wholesale, and perhaps smashed into submission, but the locks themselves were perceived as impenetrable. A growing middle-class populating England's cities had started to embrace the idea that spending money on a quality lock was almost as good as posting an armed guard.

It was a good time for Joseph Bramah to get into the business. Born in Yorkshire in April 1749, Bramah initially seemed destined to carry on his father’s farming labors, but a leg injury at the age of 16 had him backing away from hard manual labor to take up an apprenticeship in cabinet making. Soon he moved to London, where he began installing water closets—essentially indoor toilets—for upper-class clientele while attending lectures on locksmithing. In 1784, he introduced the Bramah Safety Lock while setting up his own Bramah Lock Company.

At the time, English locksmiths were partial to boastful displays and “rivalries,” which were perpetuated to stir interest on the part of the press. While most high-quality locks were considered virtually pick-proof, companies tried to stand out by demonstrating the struggles burglars might have in trying to compromise their product. Grandstand challenges were common, and companies tried to introduce new components that would further resist tampering. All high-end locks did mainly the same thing, but bells and whistles could perhaps persuade consumers to choose one brand over another.

In 1790, Bramah placed the 4-inch wide, 1.5-inch thick Bramah Safety Lock in the window of his workshop in the Piccadilly area of London’s West End. Stamped below the sturdy, cast-iron construct was a message:

"The artist who can make an instrument that will pick or open this lock shall receive 200 guineas the moment it is produced. Applications in writing only."

Despite many challengers, Bramah was never called upon to produce those funds, which would be about $28,000 in today’s dollars. He died in 1814 in the knowledge that his lock would remain in the shop window as testament to his engineering prowess. What he couldn’t have known was that the man who would eventually overcome his challenge was then a 2-year-old living in Boston.

The famous Bramah lock sits on display
Ben Dalton, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

A.C. Hobbs was born in 1812, and arrived to the lock industry after stints in glass-cutting and doorknob design. At the age of 28, he obtained a position as a lock salesman for the Day & Newell company, which borrowed the London tradition of selling locks by making a show out of compromising the competition. Hobbs would visit bank managers and, armed with his lock-picking instruments, produce an alarming click, proving their security was under par. His Day & Newell locks, he promised, would never bend so easily, having a hood over the keyhole that made visibility for pickers difficult.

In 1851, Day & Newell sent their marquee salesman to London’s Great Exhibition. The goal was to make quick work of England’s most respected locks—the Chubb and the Bramah—and then offer a more secure alternative. Hobbs crossed the Atlantic on a boat with a suitcase full of criminal implements and a letter from New York’s chief of police endorsing his good citizenship.

Arriving in England, Hobbs immediately caused a stir by declaring that his locks were unpickable. Having captured people's attention, he produced the open Chubb lock, once for press and a second time for a panel of arbitrators who independently confirmed his feat.

That panel would oversee his attempt at the Bramah, which Hobbs had submitted a request to handle in June 1851. The Bramah Lock Company, now operated by Bramah’s relatives, agreed, and a playing field was decided: Hobbs would be given room and board in an apartment above the shop for a period of one month, where he would have access to the lock. To make sure the Bramah Company didn’t complicate matters while he was taking a break, Hobbs shielded the lock with an iron cover.

After nearly 30 days, Hobbs emerged from the dwelling with ample pride and one picked Bramah lock. It had taken him 51 hours of work spread over 16 days, but he had succeeded in trumping 67 years of boasting.

The arbitration panel examined the lock and used the original key to open it, confirming Hobbs hadn’t damaged the keyhole in the process. The Bramah staff was less enthused, claiming Hobbs had used excessive force, bending pins and levers inside in a violent breach of security. But there were no rules about gracefulness. Hobbs had topped the Bramah/Chubbs hierarchy. And in doing so, he ushered in a new era of paranoia. Now absent an unpickable lock, England was suddenly feeling very insecure.

In their scramble to soothe the fears of everyone who owned a Bramah, both the locksmith and the press pointed out that the lock had been compromised only after weeks of diligent tinkering by a highly-skilled challenger. The conditions were highly favorable, they argued, but in the real world, anyone with actual malice or theft in mind would not be granted such lenience.

As predicted, Hobbs benefited greatly from his feats. Caught up in the hysteria, the Bank of England swapped their Bramahs and Chubbs for American locks. Breaking from Day & Newell, Hobbs’s folk hero celebrity allowed him to open his own lock business in the UK, joining the lock arms race that has continued more or less unabated to this day.

The Bramah Lock Company is still in operation, having survived what observers at the time feared would become a lockless society. Writing of the Bramah breach in 1851, Living Age magazine wondered what would become of a population that could no longer rely upon locks to protect their material goods: “The best substitute for the lock on the safe," the author wrote, "is honesty in the heart.”

11 Facts About John James Audubon

John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

You might be familiar with the name John James Audubon from the bird conservation-focused Audubon Society—which he had nothing to do with founding—or the famous illustrations in his groundbreaking natural history collection, The Birds of America. But there are a few surprising bits of history about this quintessential American naturalist ... like the fact that, originally, he was neither American nor named Audubon.

1. John James Audubon immigrated to America to avoid serving in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army.

John James Audubon was born Jean Rabin in April 1785 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). He was an illegitimate son of a French naval officer/plantation owner, Jean Audubon, and a chambermaid named Jeanne Rabin, who died soon after he was born. In 1791, after Jean Audubon had returned to live in France, he arranged for his son and another illegitimate child to be sent there so he could formally adopt them. Jean Rabin was renamed Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon.

In 1803, his father sent 18-year-old Jean-Jacques Audubon to Pennsylvania to avoid his conscription into Napoleon’s armies. There, he anglicized his name to John James Audubon.

2. America’s leading ornithologist had a beef with John James Audubon.

Eastern screech-owls from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

In 1810, before he became a full-time artist, Audubon and his business partner Ferdinand Rozier owned a shop in Louisville, Kentucky. One day, in strolled Alexander Wilson, an eminent ornithologist who was seeking subscriptions for his magnum opus in progress, American Ornithology. (At the time it was common for authors to seek subscriptions from members of the public that would pay for the completion of the work.) As Audubon looked at the engravings, Rozier said in French, “My dear Audubon, what induces you to subscribe to this work? Your drawings are certainly far better.” Audubon ended up taking Wilson on a few hunting trips, but did not subscribe. Wilson would later write about Louisville, “Science or literature has not one friend in this place.”

While Wilson died in 1813—leaving his book unfinished—Audubon was just getting started traveling the country and illustrating birds. When he arrived in Philadelphia, the country’s intellectual capital, he got a chilly reception from Wilson’s colleagues. “[Naturalist] George Ord was so afraid that Audubon would totally bury the great, respected Alexander Wilson,” Roberta Olson, curator of drawings at the New-York Historical Society, told Mental Floss in 2017, that he “arranged for Philadelphia to basically close down [to Audubon], so he could not publish there.” The snub forced Audubon to seek his own subscribers in the UK when he decided to publish The Birds of America.

3. Another Bonaparte tried to help John James Audubon’s artistic career.

In 1824, Audubon met Napoleon’s nephew Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a respected ornithologist. Bonaparte was, ironically, working to complete Wilson’s American Ornithology and was interested in Audubon’s art. Bonaparte even bought his drawing of a great crow-blackbird (now called the boat-tailed grackle) for use in his book. But according to legend, when Bonaparte took Audubon’s drawing to be engraved, the engraver sniffed, “I think your work extraordinary for one self-taught, but we in Philadelphia are used to seeing very correct drawing.” The engraving was made nonetheless, and Bonaparte proclaimed it “a faithful representation of both sexes … drawn by that zealous observer of nature and skilful artist Mr. John J. Audubon.”

4. At first, nobody thought The Birds of America would succeed.

Green herons from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

After Audubon’s lack of success in Philadelphia, he traveled to Europe to attempt to find subscribers and printers for the hundreds of bird paintings that would become the Birds of America in book form. Audubon had the idea to print his artwork life-size on double elephant paper, measuring around 39.5 inches by 26.5 inches. Initially, the reaction to Audubon’s plan was muted. A bookseller named Mr. Bohn explained that such a giant book would never sell, since it would take up so much space on a table that it would either shame all the other books or render the table useless.

But that was before he saw the drawings. Several days later Audubon met the bookseller again and showed him his work. “Mr. Bohn was at first simply surprised, then became enthusiastic, and finally said they must be published the full size of life,” Audubon wrote. The resulting book, featuring 435 engraved and hand-colored plates, is now one of the most expensive in the world. Rare copies sell at auction for around $10 million.

5. John James Audubon sparked a controversy about vultures …

Before Audubon, vultures had been lauded for their sense of smell. The 1579 text Euphues asks, “Doth not the eagle see clearer, the vulture smell better, the mole hear lightlier?” In the 1770s, Irish novelist Oliver Goldsmith called vultures “cruel, unclean, and indolent” but admitted that “their sense of smelling, however, is amazingly great.”

But in 1826, Audubon presented an “Account of the Habits of the Turkey Buzzard … with the view of exploding the opinion generally entertained of its extraordinary power of Smelling” at the Wernerian Natural History Society in Edinburgh. Audubon described how he could sneak up very close behind a vulture and it wouldn’t fly away until he showed himself. He then ran experiments. In the first, he filled a deer skin with grass to approximate a recently deceased animal and observed a vulture attack the odorless prey. In the second, he hid a putrefying hog carcass in some grass, and no vulture found it, even though the stench prevented Audubon from getting within 30 yards of it.

Most of the Edinburgh crowd agreed with Audubon, but eccentric explorer and naturalist Charles Waterton demurred. Waterton had written of his own experiments in which turkey vultures would take away lizards and frogs “as soon as they began to stink.” But, according to zoologist Lucy Cooke, Waterton “was said to have a habit of hiding under the table at dinner parties to bite his guests’ legs like a dog, and delighted in elaborate, taxidermy-based practical jokes. A particularly inspired prank involved his fashioning an effigy of one of his (many) enemies out of a howler monkey’s buttocks.” So there’s that.

6. … and even Charles Darwin got involved.

Baltimore orioles from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

Scientists took sides in what the London Quarterly Review called “the vulture controversy.” Nosarians believed vultures used their sense of smell, and anti-nosarians believed they used sight. In South Carolina, some of Audubon’s supporters commissioned a painting of a dead sheep and placed offal 10 feet away from it outdoors. Vultures attacked the painting. Even Charles Darwin conducted experiments on whether vultures could smell.

Later research [PDF] suggested that Audubon likely mistook black vultures (Coragyps atratus), which primarily use sight, for turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), which actually use smell to locate carrion. Cooke notes that Audubon described animals that seem to occasionally hunt live animals, which indicates black vultures, not turkey vultures. Most New World vultures use sight, and only a few use smell. Back in the 19th century, Waterton had been increasingly shunned for his anti-nosarian views. “Which is a shame” Cooke writes, “because he was right.”

7. John James Audubon discovered birds that don’t exist.

Audubon is credited with discovering around 25 species and 12 subspecies, but some of his other birds were later identified as being either immature birds or sexually dimorphic specimens. Beyond these, there are five “mystery birds” that appear nowhere but in Audubon’s watercolors: the carbonated swamp warbler, Cuvier’s kinglet, Townsend’s finch (or Townsend’s bunting), small-headed flycatcher, and blue mountain warbler. The Audubon Society also includes the Bartram's vireo in the list. These unidentifiable birds were probably hybrids or known birds with aberrant colorations.

8. John James Audubon might have been the first bird bander.

Great egret from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

Soon after arriving in the U.S., Audubon attached tied some silver thread around the legs of Eastern phoebes (he called them pewee flycatchers). The birds left the area in October. When they returned the following spring, Audubon found two still sporting silver threads. His experiment is often called the first bird banding experiment in the western hemisphere.

A recent article in Archives of Natural History casts doubt on the story, though. Audubon claimed 40 percent of his tagged eastern phoebes returned home, but a larger scale study found only around 1.5 percent of banded birds returned. Audubon may have been in France at the time of the phoebes’ return, too.

9. John James Audubon illustrated a long-lost New Jersey bank note.

Generations of Audubon scholars have hunted for a mysterious bank note that Audubon allegedly illustrated in 1824. In his journals, Audubon wrote, “I drew … a small grouse to be put on a bank-note belonging to the state of New Jersey.” It’s believed that this was his first engraved bird illustration, but no one was able to find any evidence of its existence—until 2010, when historians Robert M. Peck and Eric P. Newman found the sample sheets the engraver had produced with stock images for the currency. Among the George Washingtons and bald eagles was a little heath hen. Peck told NPR, "A little scurrying grouse rushing into a bed of grass is not the kind of confident image that a bank president wants to convey,” so a bald eagle probably replaced it on the currency.

Similarly, heath hens went extinct in 1932, but some researchers have proposed bringing them back.

10. John James Audubon had nothing to do with the Audubon Society.

Jays from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

After Audubon published The Birds of America and established himself as America’s premier naturalist, he bought land and a mansion in rural upper Manhattan in New York City. Audubon died there in 1851, but his wife, Lucy, continued to live in the estate later known as Audubon Park. In 1857, businessman George Blake Grinnell and his family moved to Audubon Park, and Lucy became a teacher for his son, 7-year-old George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell later became a respected naturalist, editor-in-chief of outdoors magazine Forest and Stream, and an advocate for conservation.

In 1886, he founded the Audubon Society and the next year The Audubon Magazine, inspired by his childhood classes with Lucy, whom he remembered as a “beautiful, white-haired old lady with extraordinary poise and dignity; most kindly and patient and affectionate, but a strict disciplinarian of whom all the children stood in awe.” He also cofounded the conservation-minded Boone and Crockett Club with Theodore Roosevelt. But by 1889, the pressures of running multiple journals and societies proved too much, and the Audubon Society folded.

11. Two women, inspired by fashionable hats, revived the Audubon Society.

In 1896, Boston socialites Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and her cousin Minna B. Hall were horrified after reading an account of the plume-hunting industry—a trade that killed millions of wild birds to supply feathers for millinery. They resolved to stop their fellow fashionistas from wearing wild feathers. The two founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society and sent a letter to Forest and Stream to ask people to take a pledge “not to purchase or encourage the use of feathers of wild birds for ornamentation.” More regional Audubon Societies sprang up around the country, and in 1940 they combined to form the National Audubon Society. Today the organization focuses on science-based conservation and education to protect birds, continuing John James Audubon’s legacy into the 21st century.

The Mystery of the Missing Keepers at the Flannan Isles Lighthouse

iStock.com/Westbury
iStock.com/Westbury

In December 1900, a boat called Hesperus set sail for the island of Eilean Mor, one of the seven islets (also known as the “Seven Hunters”) of the Flannan Isles off the coast of northwestern Scotland. Captain James Harvey was tasked with delivering a relief lighthouse keeper as part of a regular rotation. The journey was delayed a few days by bad weather, and when Harvey and his crew finally arrived, it was clear that something was awry. None of the normal preparations at the landing dock had been made, the flagstaff was bare, and none of the keepers came to greet the Hesperus. The keepers, as it turned out, weren’t on the island at all. All three of them had vanished.

Eilean Mor had its peculiarities. The island’s only permanent residents were sheep, and herders referred to it as “the other country,” believing it to be a place touched by something paranormal. Eilean Mor had long elicited a sort of fearful reverence in its visitors; the main draw to the remote location was a chapel built in the 7th century by St. Flannan. Even those who never prayed were moved to worship while on Eilean Mor. Superstitions and rituals—like circling the church’s ruins on your knees—were adopted by those passing through, and many considered Eilean Mor to have an indefinable aura that could not be ignored.

What the Hesperus crew did find at the lighthouse was a set of perplexing clues. The replacement keeper, Joseph Moore, was the first to investigate, and reported an all-encompassing sense of dread as he ascended the cliff toward the newly constructed lighthouse. Inside, the kitchen table contained plates of meat, potatoes, and pickles. The clock was stopped, and there was an overturned chair nearby. The lamp was ready for lighting, and two of the three oilskin coats belonging to Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur were gone. The gate and door were firmly shut.

These clues only led to more questions. Why would one of the keepers have gone out without his coat—and for that matter, why would all three have left together at all when the rules forbade it? Someone needed to man the post at all times, so something unusual must have drawn them out. When Moore returned with his report, Harvey had the island searched. The hunt came up empty. The captain then sent a telegram to the mainland:

A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island. On our arrival there this afternoon no sign of life was to be seen on the Island.

Fired a rocket but, as no response was made, managed to land Moore, who went up to the Station but found no Keepers there. The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows they must been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.

Night coming on, we could not wait to make something as to their fate.

I have left Moore, MacDonald, Buoymaster and two Seamen on the island to keep the light burning until you make other arrangements. Will not return to Oban until I hear from you. I have repeated this wire to Muirhead in case you are not at home. I will remain at the telegraph office tonight until it closes, if you wish to wire me.

Further investigations also led nowhere, though the lighthouse log book provided a new set of confounding details. On December 12, an entry from Marshall described “severe winds the likes of which I have never seen before in twenty years.” He wrote that Ducat had been quiet and McArthur had been crying, which would have been odd behavior for a man with a reputation as a tough and experienced seafarer. The next day, Marshall reported more storm details and wrote that all three of them had been praying—another odd bit of behavior from well-seasoned keepers in a brand-new, supposedly safe lighthouse. Strangest of all, there were no reported storms in the area on December 12th, 13, or 14—all should have been calm up until December 17. The last report in the book, from December 15, read: “Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all.”

Speculation ran wild. Was it something supernatural? Sea creatures? A case of madness and murder? A government operation? Foreign spies? Aliens? Ultimately, it was evidence outside the lighthouse that provided the most promising lead in explaining what had become of the three keepers. Over at the western landing platform, damage from the recent storms reached as high as 200 feet above sea level. Ropes that were usually affixed to a crate on a supply crane were littered about.

Robert Muirhead, superintendent of the Commissioners of Northern Lights, wrote in his official report:

I am of the opinion that the most likely explanation of this disappearance of the men is that they had all gone down on the afternoon of Saturday, 15 December to the proximity of the West landing, to secure the box with the mooring ropes, etc and that an unexpectedly large roller had come up on the island, and a large body of water going up higher than where they were and coming down upon them had swept them away with resistless force.

While this (or a similar approximation) seems possible, the explanation left considerable room for doubt. The lack of bodies, supposedly calm conditions, and sheer experience and know-how of the lighthouse keepers still hadn’t been accounted for, and never would be. In the years following, other keepers claimed to hear voices in the salty air screaming out the names of Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur.

In Mysterious Celtic Mythology in American Folklore, author Bob Curran writes: “For many local people, there was little doubt that they had been spirited into the otherworld.”

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