John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Never put anything past a criminal with a desperate thirst for scrap.
Metal thieves don’t bother drawing many boundaries—plucking bronze stars from soldiers’ graves, harvesting flush valves from public bathrooms, somehow making off with more than 400 hand straps from Tokyo’s commuter trains.
The illicit harvesting of copper, aluminum, and other hardware isn’t a new phenomenon. One of the most brazen metal heists happened around this date back in 1935, when fearless thieves scaled the Washington Monument to capture a trove of high-priced lightning rods.
The caper is described in a contemporary Popular Science edition from March of that year, and more recently highlighted at the endlessly entertaining Modern Mechanix. The short Pop Sci piece explains:
One of the strangest thefts on record was revealed recently with the reported disappearance of 107 miniature lightning rods that were being substituted for older ones atop the Washington Monument. Apparently an audacious thief had taken advantage of the huge scaffold used in renovating the monument to commit one of the loftiest of burglaries. Plated with gold and tipped with platinum to avoid corrosion, the rods were valued at eight dollars apiece.
The haul amounted to $856, which one historic currency converter puts at $14,671. That’d buy quite a lot of beer during the Great Depression.
For anybody contemplating a similar burglary today, keep in mind the top of the monument is located a blustery 554 feet above ground. However, if you have an incredible throwing arm perhaps you could wing a rock and knock off its famous aluminum cap—scrap aluminum is now going for around 85 cents a pound.