Sunday, May 1, 2011

the mayhew files: burglars

 This week I am adding Scott's research on Victorian burglars from Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor.  While the tools of a burglar's trade don't seem to have changed much, the intricate planning to get into a building or home is quite fascinating to read, and was sometimes employed by characters in Sherlock Holmes stories (such as "The Red-Headed League.")

Also, we have a commercial endorsement and some slanderous Victorian prejudices dropped on a few national/racial groups.  Read on to learn more.

Bill Sykes, Dickens' villainous burglar from Oliver Twist.  image source: Portland Center Stage

Mayhew seemed to have a lot of respect for this criminal class.  He admired their audacity and ingenuity.  He said burglary combined the skill of the pickpocket with the daring of the highwayman.

Most of the burglars in Victorian London were lifetime criminals, some training to be proper burglars since a very young age.

Burglaries at this time were accomplished in any of the following ways:

  • picking locks
  • prying open windows
  • breaking down doors or windows
  • cutting the glass of the window and opening it
  • lifting up the cellar flap
  • going over the roof tops to the target house
  • climbing waterspouts to upper windows
  • digging through brick walls!

The ones that got in through the roof often looked for a grate or a window.  If neither were available they would pull up the roof tiles and gain entrance into the building that way.

Burglars usually broke into unoccupied buildings, either after business hours or when the occupants were gone.  If a bulgarly was discovered it was usually done by the police.  The burglar did many things to prevent suspicion from a passing bobby, even going so far as to get a lock similar to the one on the door they are breaking into so that when they cut the padlock off they could replace it with a similar one to avoid detection.

Sometimes they did rob houses where the family was at home.  This is usually accomplished by having an inside man.  This inside man usually seduced one of the hired help, who then trusted him enough to allow him into the house.  On the date of the planned crime he would leave of her.  Instead of leaving the house, however, he would remain concealed somewhere until night. who hid until the family went to sleep.  Then he would just let the other burglars in.  

Another feature of these burglaries was the lookout.  Called a “crow” if male and a “canary” if female, they usually were the first on the scene and kept watch for the police. 

As speed was of the essence, rifling through the goods in a warehouse or the clothing in a home was not generally the best way to make the burglary worth the burglars' while.  They went for jewelry first and then cash second.  If neither of these easily removable commodities were to be found, silks and plate were next on the list.  After that they took whatever looked like it would be worth it.

Jewelry was a great motivator for burglars, and they would often go to great lengths to effect the theft.  Sometimes they would rent an apartment above a jewelry store and then burrow through the floor to get into the shop at night.  Some burglars would even spend the time prying bricks out of a brick wall in the back of the store to get in.  This generally took about an hour, but could take up to three hours if there were people about and it needed to be done quietly.

One of the most sensational burglaries committed at this time involved some burglars getting into a carpet warehouse next to a silk warehouse on a Saturday night.  They then broke through a nine-inch-thick brick wall.  The burglary was discovered on Monday morning when between 1500-2000 quid in silks were missing, as well as a 100 pound note that someone left on the desk.

The foreman of the carpet warehouse left soon after.  It was suspected that he was the one that let the criminals into the building.

The burglars who work the working class neighborhoods needed to be more industrious in their thefts as the amounts that they stole were so small each time that, when divided among the crew of (typically) three, they needed to constantly commit burglaries in order to make money.  In the wealthier neighborhoods the burglars were more likely to carry off a decent chunk of change in one burglaries so they could relax more betwix capers.  But these crimes required more prep time as the cops were more alert in these neighborhoods and the houses generally better protected.  Often the burglar would take up lodging in the neighborhood and observe the house for weeks prior to the attempted break-in.

“Put-up” men would often organize teams of burglars to do this.  They would hire out apartments for burglars, send some of their other minions to question the servants of the house and so forth, and gain information about the household that way.  

Burglars generally left around midnight to carry out their crimes.  They usually took some spirits with them to stiffen theirs.

Mayhew recommended that people sleeping in rooms with valuables lock their inner door with a chain. 

Common door locks were worthless he claimed, as they were easy pickings.

In some cases residences had iron bars across the windows in the rear of the buildings.  Burglars would get a winch and pry these apart if need be.

Woodwork that bars windows would often just be cut away to gain access to the inside of the building.
Here Mayhew mentions his first commercial endorsement: Chubb’s patent locks. These are unpickable by burglars. If they break the lock off the police officers will notice on their beat.  If they break in from the roof they will not be able to get out the door and will have to escape by a window, thus preventing them from getting large objects out.  He recommends these locks if you are going to have any premises that are not occupied at night, unless you have a night watchman.
Burglars were equipped with different qualities of tools.  The better burglars would have excellent tools, while not so experienced burglars would get along with whatever they have.   

Crowbars were a favored tool of the trade, of course.

Another favorite was the cutter.  This device was attached to a window and cut a circular hole in the glass.  The arm was inserted into the hole and opened the lock from the inside.  They apparently had these to cut through doors as well.

Sometimes cracksmen used a device called a petter-cutter, which was designed to cut through iron safes.  This device was attached to the lock by a screw and used to cut a piece out around the key hole, exposing the wards.  After it is removed you simply slide the bolt back and voila! the door opened (Note: Mayhew also mentions that Chubb’s locks exist for iron safes, making them drill proof.)

They also carried a number of small weapons.  While most burglars would flee rather than try to fight if discovered they sometimes turned on their pursuers if pressed hotly enough.

One  of these weapons was a “life-preserver of a peculiar style.”  It was, in essence, a small metal ball with a string attached to it.  The ball was held in the hand with the string around the wrist.  When attacked the burglar would hold the string and batter the opponent with the ball.  Of course crowbars and other blunt prying instruments could be used as weapons in a pinch as well.

Often burglars would team up with cab drivers to help in their getaway.  Even cab dispatchers were not so lofty that they would not accept a share of the plunder to assist in the crime. 

He then goes on to give examples of several burglaries that were carried out in London at the time

One involved three men.  Two seduced members of the household staff and eventually managed to get themselves invited over while the family was out.  The third waited until they opened the front door for him.  While the other two were entertaining the women, the other entered, went upstairs and stole the valuables.

After a short time the two inside men excused themselves and shortly after the theft was discovered.  All three were caught and sent to prison.

On another occasion two criminals broke into a house with a bobby outside.  He heard them eventually and saw one of them when he went to investigate.   A struggle ensued, but both men were caught despite one of them hitting the copper with a crowbar. The policeman blew his whistle summoning help, which arrived in time to cart the two men off to jail. They were sentenced to hard labor.

In yet another instance an older burglar and his two younger accomplices managed to enter a home while the family therein was sleeping.  They stole about 15 quid worth of goods and made their escape.  This older man had been in trouble with the law a number of times before.  It just so happened that the detective sent to look into the case recognized a hat that had been left at the scene as belonging to the burglar.  The detective went over to where he knew the man lived, searched his premises and, upon finding the loot, arrested him and his two accomplices.  The older burglar was transported for life due to his previous record.

Yet another instance of burglary led to more serious consequences for the burglars.

Two men hid themselves in a back yard of a public house and then, when all was closed they made their way up the drain pipe of a nearby house to rob it.  As they were attempting to get in the window of one of the bedrooms they were observed.  This was not difficult as the person observing was inside the bedroom and getting undressed for bed in the darkness. Instead of raising a ruckus, this serving girl went down stairs and told her master what was going on.  He fetched his two barkers and went upstairs to have a word with his uninvited guests.

Upon throwing open the window he told the two men to halt and indicated if they did not follow his wishes they would find themselves the recipients of a very small piece of his property, given to them at high velocity.

This frightened one of the burglars so much that he dropped from the sill into the yard below.  As this was a three story drop, his actions had the same effect that the owner of the home had intended with his offered gift.   

The other burglar used the distraction of his pal to make a leap onto the roof and contrived to get away that way.  But he did not get far. He was eventually, after a roof top chase, caught by the police.

A butler foiled another robbery attempt when he heard two men break into his employer's home.  He went out and wrestled them but was knocked out.  They tried to flee, as the struggle had awoken the rest of the house.  But the butler, recovering his wits, grabbed his fowling piece and shot one of them as they tried to make it over the back wall.  There were actually three men involved and he had shot the one he had not fought with.  The other two were caught trying to escape when the police heard the gun shot.  The one shot got away, until an anonymous note revealed the location of his convalesce to the police.

Mayhew also described an ingenious burglary where the criminals made a series of keys to open six locks to get into a vault.  They stole about 1300 quid of various goods from this vault. The items were recovered while some “unprincipled Jews” (as a prejudiced Mayhew says) tried to sell them, but the thieves themselves were never caught.

After these capers Mayhew talked about the life of the burglar- how some retired from the life after amassing enough money to go legit or semi-legit with a business.  Generally, though, they wasted their money on women and booze in between robberies and needed to go out and commit another one when their money was gone.  Sometimes, when caught, the prostitutes they cohabited with would spend all the money they had stolen and they came out of jail both pennyless and loveless.

Apparently some of the burglars came from foreign lands.  The French burglars were thought to be as competent and clever as their English counterparts.  The Germans and Italian burglars lagged a little behind, though.  

Burglars rarely married, and even more rarely had children.  Some of the burglars who did procreate often trained in their craft at an early age.  These children, being small, could help the burglar immensely in their work, getting into all kinds of places the burglar could not go.

1 comment:

  1. Woah, that's a lot of great, detailed information! It makes me want to write a story that will use it. :)