This topic came up again recently. Where does the word “Peterman”, to mean a safe blower-up-er, come from?
It would be down to a scholar to do some digging and find the actual answer. Or I could just look on Google and find out…
The 2 competing theories:
Personally I’ve always thought of Saltpetre as in the more common name for Potassium Nitrate. This was corrupted to “Peterman”.
The other theory is to do with the notorious HMP Peterhead (Peterhead Convict Prison) which was built around 1888, and was located in the town of Peterhead in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Peterhead sits at the easternmost point in mainland Scotland – so a bloody long way away, and mostly for lifers – the sort of people who blew up bank vaults.
So if we look at the term “Peterman” on google books, it is a very rare word, mostly people’s names. Here’s how it has changed over time. It doesn’t tell us much of use, aside from the spike in use between the World Wars, when men experienced with explosives were looking for income…
However, a snappily titled book called “Sporting Anecdotes, Original and Selected: Including Numerous Characteristic Portraits of Persons in Every Walk of Life, who Have Acquired Notoriety from Their Achievements on the Turf, at the Table, and in the Diversions of the Field, with Sketches of the Various Animals of the Chase, to which is Added an Account of Noted Pedestrians, Trotting Machines, Cricketeers, &c … (Google eBook)” from 1822 states, in an undated but somewhat older character sketch of a well-regarded general criminal called “Slender Billy”:[Slender Billy was] considered as the safest fence about town as his dwelling was suitable to concealment and garrisoned by buffers so as to render it impregnable to a sudden attack. Billy was himself a workman too and accounted as good a cracksman or peterman (f) as any in the ring and as close as midnight.
So despite there only being one specific mention I could find, it is from at latest 1822, and that’s enough to prove the case – “Peterman” for a criminal specialism was around long before Peterhead prison.
“Peterman” and “Cracksman” also appear to be pretty much synonymous with each other, and a cracksman is also a term used for a safe cracker. Perhaps, 200 years ago, the “cracksman” cracked the combination, and the “Peterman” blew the safe?
The etymology of “Peterman” almost certainly comes from the principle ingredient of gunpowder, saltpetre, a.k.a. Potassium Nitrate.
A note about the footnote, which reads:f) Cutter away of luggage from carriages &c
We don’t know that the footnote is correct, being added in 1822, presumably some years after the account was written, and by a different author. So it is quite likely that the collector of the stories didn’t really know what a “Peterman” specifically referenced. Seeing as it is next to the reference to him being a cracksman, saying he was expert at cutting away of luggage on a coach (which would specifically have been the strongboxes used to secure valuables) is pretty close.
Of course, it is also possible, though I think unlikely, that the real derivation of “Peterman” comes from somewhere else entirely.