In the early morning hours of Dec. 8, 1938, a 71-car westbound Pennsylvania Railroad freight train ground to a halt at the Grove Avenue crossing in Metuchen, N.J.
A member of a robbery crew boarded the train and severed an air hose, prompting the train to stop. A group of thieves — initially thought to include between five and eight men — then jumped into action, pulling cases of cigarettes from a car toward the back of the train and throwing them into a waiting getaway truck, according to a newspaper report from the time.
“Theory advanced by police is that the crime had been carefully planned by persons familiar with the train schedule and this vicinity,” the Plainfield (N.J.) Courier-News reported.
At least one report indicated investigators thought the theft was possibly an inside job. The train crew came upon the thieves as they searched for what caused the train to stop, and the robbers ordered the crew to the caboose, according to a United Press report about the theft.
“Varied reports have been heard concerning the robbery with respect to the actions of the train crew,” The Daily Home News reported. “One report is to the effect that the crew was cowered by guns brandished by the bandits.”
In all, the thieves made off with 50 cases of cigarettes, each containing 50 cartons of smokes. Authorities valued the haul at $2,000, well below the original estimates of $60,000.
After the theft, the train crew repaired the air hose and continued their journey.
A railroad tower employee alerted authorities about the theft. FBI agents in Newark joined the investigation since the theft involved interstate commerce.
Agents descended on the scene to investigate alongside borough police and county detectives. They took plaster casts of the getaway truck’s tire marks.
In March 1939, authorities announced they charged two men in connection with the theft.