Tuesday, August 23, 2011

the mayhew files: thieves

This post is the last in Scott's series of guest posts on Mayhew's London, a nineteenth century account of life in London that focuses mostly on the lower classes of London.  We will conclude with the Victorian thief.

John Jarret, age 14
occupation: labouror
for maming a steer
sentenced 4 months hard labour
image source: habitat

Eliza Humphries, age 10
occupation: lacemaker
for stealing a book
sentenced 2 weeks hard labour, 3 years reformatory
image source: habitat
This section is great from a description point of view.  Some of the streets are described rather well, depicting what the street stalls would have sold as well as the dress of the young thieves that preyed on them.

Mayhew once again sets out to limit our inquiry to a certain number of set types of thieves.  The groups he gives are the sneaks, or common thieves, the burglars and the pickpockets.  He also describes, but does not name a fourth type.  These are the blackguards of the thieving world-- the murderers, the muggers and other types of generally hardened criminal.

He starts his description with the sneaks.  These were the lowest class of thieves neither possessing the dexterity and nimbleness of the pickpocket nor the dare and ingenuity of the burglar.  They did often posses a low cunning, we are told.

Most of the dodges these thieves performed are broken down into several categories as well.  Mayhew is so organized in this respect.

The first involved stealing from street stalls.  The minders of these stalls often flogged their wares for long hours.  At a certain point they would let their guard down.  The thieves would often either just run up to the stall and snatch what they can or they would push the minder off of his or her seat and then their buddies (sometimes as many as seven others, but more often two or three others) would swipe what loot they can.  These types of theft usually only applied to the cheaper fruit stands and such. 

For the upper market stalls the ruffians would have one of their number go up to examine the goods.  When the stall manager would tell them to buzz off they would refused.  The minder would then try to physically remove the boy at which point, while distracted, the other boys would zoom in and steal what they could.

Stealing from tills is the next section.  Usually this type of theft involved one boy throwing his cap into a store.  He then went in on hands and knees, allegedly to get his cap.  If the owner was not minding his business, the boy would dive into the till and plunder the contents.  If caught he could usually say he was just looking for his cap and get away, the lost money not being discovered until later.  This dodge could be accomplished solo but is often done in pairs.

Mayhew also covers stealing from the windows and doors of shops.  This seemed to be one of the most frequently occurring crimes of this type of thief.  Many people who were not full time thieves also engaged in this type of job.

What follows are descriptions of how to plunder shops in various ways.  One of the things that allowed these thieves to get away with this in broad daylight was the indifference of passers-by. They could not be bothered to stop the boys or even report it as they would end up having to become witnesses, for which they couldn't be bothered.

Generally the thieves work in the following way:

One of them would go up and finger the merchandise.  When the owner was not looking they would pocket it and move away.  If seen they would run, their compatriots either running interference or running in to steal additional items.  Depending on the plan, the original thief would either make off with the goods or drop them after a certain amount of time and flee, letting the owner pursuing them to pick up his wares.  When he came back the owner would then discover more items had been stolen while he was away.

One method of stealing from shop windows involved a boy taking a knife and placing it along the corner of a pane of glass in a shop window.  They he would hit the knife with a wrench, creating a semi-circular break in the glass.  To remove the glass the boy placed a piece of sticky plaster to the broken piece and pulled it out.  Reaching into the window, he grabbed all of the loot they could and run off.  (Here Scott says that he had thought this was done at night when no one was there but Mayhew alleges the boys were then chased by the store owner, so who knows?  You’d think he might notice someone doing all that stuff to his window before that person ran off with goods.)

Mayhew claims that it was often women who stole pieces of bacon or meat from shops.  They would then go and sell this meat elsewhere for as little as a quarter of the market price.  Mayhew says that this is often done by women who were fond of drink.  They were usually labourer’s wives who, when their husband was at work, went out all day drinking away the money they had for dinner.

When the time came for them to make the dinner they sobered up rapidly, realizing they have no money to buy meat.  So they stole a piece, sold a portion of it and took the smaller part home to cook for their husbands.  They then had more money to booze away the next day.

All of these thieves would have had a tough time of getting away with any of this if it were not for unlicenced pawnbrokers.  These people would either take goods that, by their high quality, were obviously stolen, or from people who were obviously thieves, as they were usually willing to dispose of goods at such a low price.  The broker more often than not quite happy to deal with such people as the return on such goods was quite high.

A lot of these thieves obtained their loot by stealing from children.  Children were often sent out by their mothers with loads of laundry to take to the laundress.  The thieves distracted these kids by various means, usually offering them sweets.  They then stole the laundry from the duped child (Note: Probably like Fight Club's Marla Singer stealing laundry from laundromats for extra cash).  In other cases they would ask the child where he was taking the load.  When the child responds the thief response that they were just coming from that exact location to pick up the laundry and they will take it back for them, or some version of this particular graft.

Children in the Victorian period were apparently robbed blind all the time.  Some old crones would lead them down alley ways and even steal their clothing.

Then of course there is the traditional crime of rolling drunks, or stealing from drunken persons.

Sometimes this involved just knocking over the drunk as he was staggering home and rifling through his pockets if he too drunk to even notice.  Or the thief would simply distract him while they picked his pockets.  At other times, however, two women would be employed in the plot.  They would run into a man who might only be slightly inebriated or perhaps not even drunk at all.  They asked if he would accompany them for a drink.  When he consented they took him to a public house they were familiar with, where generally a “stickman” familiar to them was hanging out.

They then got the man drunk and robbed him of his valuables while hanging on him.  They passed these goods off to the stickman in various ways so that if it was discovered that the man was missing his watch nothing would be discovered when he calls for the police and they search the women.  The women could then end the evening by feigning offence and storming off.

Robbing drunken females was usually the lot of other females who, in some cases, would offer to take them to somewhere safe or even back home.  They took these women by the hand and led them wherever, all the while slipping their rings off of their fingers so that when the drunk women got home she was quite denuded of jewelry.  Sometimes these women would take them to abandoned buildings or lodging houses of various (low) types, where the thieves would then steal the woman’s valuables and, in some cases, strip the women naked and leave her there.

The one that Scott understood least was the stealing of laundry left out to dry.  Apparently gangs of boys would case back yards by pretending to be playing in the street.  One boy would steal another’s cap and put it on top of a fence.  Another boy would then lift the boy up to get his cap and while up there they would check out if there was any laundry in the back yard drying.  They would then come back at night to steal it.  This could be sold at any of the disreputable pawn brokers mentioned above. Sometimes this laundry is monogrammed and the mark has to be removed before it is sold.

The thing that does not make sense to Scott is that it rains so freaking much in England that he cannot imagine anyone leaving stuff out to dry overnight.  
The next two categories are also similar.  Those who steal from carts and carriages and those that steal copper and lead from houses both usually work with an inside man.  The inside man in the former case was usually the carriage driver himself.  He would occasionally leave the carriage open or even steal the items himself.  He needed the men he was working with to fence the items for him. 

When thieves plunder a house for metals they were either steeling the lead from the roof, the down spouts, or copper from the boiler.  Often this was done in connivance with one of the workmen involved with building a new house or refurbishing an old one.  Often, at this time period, roofs were lead.  Sometimes the thieves would actually be workmen who were dismissed from the job for one reason or another.  They would not only steal the lead or copper but also any tools that they found lying around. 

It was not always easy to get away with this crime, as hauling the heavy objects away, and usually from homes in good neighborhoods, was not automatic.  And if caught by a bobbie one could easily be nicked if one did not have a good enough reason for having the metal objects.

Usually when someone was caught stealing like this similar crimes ceased in the neighborhood for the next few weeks.

Some of the rest of the classes of thefts Scott does not really understand the need for as much attention as Mayhew grants them.  He seems to explain some pretty rudimentary things.

For example in the chapter on robberies by false keys Mayhew goes on to explain how the thieves talk to police to put them off their game.  Apparently these thieves will go up to a house during the day and ask the servants some odd questions and while they were there they will look at the type of lock on the door.  They then came back between 7:00 p.m. and 9:00  p.m. with a set of skeleton keys and opeedn the door, let themselves in and stole whatever they could.  Usually they carried a carpet bag to put the loot in or dress in an overcoat and put the loot in their pockets.

Also, strangely enough, if committed after 9 p.m. these sort of crimes would be considered burglaries for some reason.  Not sure why.                   

Robberies by lodgers covers pretty much what you would imagine.  The thief was in a lodging house and stole whatever they could from the house before running off early in the morning before everyone was up.  Sometimes this could be quite profitable, one man stealing between 700-800 quid at a nice hotel.  Other times the crimes were carried out in low lodging houses, occasionally by the prostitutes who frequented them.

This category bleeds over into robberies by servants.  In this case, as you would expect, the servants often stole items from their employers.  In some cases, however, the servants were on the in with another criminal and merely left windows and doors open so that the criminal could rob the house.  The servant would then stay on in the house for another couple of months, at times before leaving employment there, to allay suspicion.

One example Mayhew gives is of a locksmith’s apprentice who not only unlocked the locks he was being paid for but also other locks in the room and acquired the property contained therein.

He was caught because the cops got wind of what he was doing and tricked him with some marked money.

Area and lobby sneaks were those criminals who would go up and knock on a door of a house and ask for the master of the house.  While the servant was going to fetch the master the criminals run inside the lobby and stole everything they could.

Others snuck in through the back door of a house or a cellar and raided the pantry.

Sometimes women carried out this type of thievery by going to the back doors of these houses under the cover of selling things.  When they reached a house where no one was attending the door they went in and stole items.  Other women would notice a child in a door and would go up and ask if the mother is home.  If not they would give the child a small bit of money to go to the sweet shop and then plundered the house in the kid's absence.

Mayhew does note that these thieves seldom take hats!

Sometimes these thieves would open windows or break glass to get at the objects they wanted.  Sometimes iron bars hinder their progress so they use sticks with hooks attached to reach inside.  Others employed a small child in the graft and send the child into the buildings while they waited outside on lookout.  No doubt if someone did show up the child inside was abandoned to his fate.

Sometimes when a window was already open a boy would throw his cap in and then come in after it in a similar manner to the boy stealing from the till.  If caught he would of course profess his innocence.

Attic or Garret thieves were those who broke in through the upper story of a house by climbing onto the roof.  They generally gained access to a nearby roof and then moved along the roof tops of the buildings until they reached their target house.  They then entered an attic window and plundered the house. 

These men seem to excite the most admiration Mayhew displays for any of the thieves in this section. He says they were often of a gentlemanly appearance and were very difficult to catch.  When one was caught constables were brought in from distant districts to observe him so that they would recognize him if he operated in their districts.

This annoyed the thief no end.

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