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Eternal Jest: Why a ‘Safecracker’ Rests Near Benjamin Franklin

PHILADELPHIA — It's hard to stand out when your final resting place is a cemetery that includes Benjamin Franklin, four other signers of the Declaration of Independence, several mayors and congressmen and a few war heroes to boot.

But, in death, Gerald J. Connelly Jr. has managed to one-up many of the more famous occupants of the historic Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia, thanks to an epitaph that is, according to his family, partly accurate and partly an eternal one-liner. It reads: "Seaman ... Soldier ... Safecracker."

"After Benjamin Franklin, he's the person people ask about most because of his headstone," said the cemetery's burial ground coordinator, John Hopkins.

Which means Connelly, who died in 1991, is likely to steal some of ol' Ben's thunder on Sunday — which happens to be the 226th anniversary of his death.

Connelly's widow, Carolyn, 73, told NBC News that her late husband was no crook. But neither is the inscription on his headstone entirely off base.

Connelly was a world-class locksmith whom the FBI and cops called on when they needed to bust into a safe believed to hold some sort of ill-gotten gains. He was also blessed with a wicked sense of humor and knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote his parting words.

"Safecracker sounds illegal," she said, chuckling. "He knew safecracker would get people talking. I bet he's up there giggling and laughing about it."

Connelly's 51-year-old son, William, agreed.

"He was a very funny guy," he said. "At any event, he was that guy."

Born Dec. 5, 1927, Connelly served in the U.S. Army during World War II and the Korean War (earning the "Soldier" on the tombstone) and also served in the Merchant Marine (hence the "Seaman.")

But it was as a master locksmith that Connelly made his biggest mark.

Image: Jerry Connelly, Jr. and wife Carolyn
Gerald J. Connelly, Jr. and his wife, Carolyn. Family Photo

"He did all the work on the safes at the Pentagon," Carolyn Connelly said. "He also taught advanced classes on how to get into safes. It was called surreptitious entry, which is just a fancy name for breaking in."

Connelly's work even caught the attention of legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

"Hoover gave my husband a copy of his book 'Masters of Deceit,'" Carolyn Connelly said. "In the inscription he wrote, 'The only man with sweaty palms that I trust.'"

Connelly was also a devoted member of the historic Christ Church, which was founded in 1695 and in whose pews George Washington and Betsy Ross once worshiped. His longtime friend Bruce Gill said he first got a taste of Connelly's humor when they served together on the church's board of directors.

"He always wore a jacket and tie and when he would show up for meetings I noticed he wore a pin in his lapel," Gill said. "I took a closer look and I noticed it was Mickey Mouse. A Mickey Mouse pin for what he considered Mickey Mouse stuff."

When Connelly was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he set about preparing his exit with the same fastidiousness that he took to his safecracking, Gill said.

Everybody had assumed there were no plots left in the historic cemetery, but Connelly dug through the dusty church files, found the last remaining one and claimed it for himself and his wife. He then informed Gill how he wanted to be buried — in a tuxedo, with his Cowboy hat, a packet of Kent cigarettes and a Bible in his right hand.

"If he was going out, he was going out with some fun," Gill said.

Connelly raised some eyebrows by choosing a marker made of granite, which stood out among the Colonial-era markers. "All the others are marble, so it sticks out," Gill said.

Then he told Gill what he wanted engraved on it.

"It's a little provocative," Gill remembers thinking. "His specialty was working with banks and opening safes. But he knew this would get people talking."

And it did.

Connelly, a father of three and grandfather of three, died at age 63 on Aug. 21, 1991. And today, his grave gets seen by many of the 100,000 tourists who visit the cemetery at North 5th and Arch Streets, most of whom likely leave scratching their heads.