Shoplifting — Bits of Global, National and Local History

By Robert L. Harrison

Illustration from the San Francisco Call, April 8, 1902.

The recent rash of violent stealing from Bay Area stores known as “Smash and Grab” has stirred considerable interest in the topic of shoplifting. The shoplifting history described here differs as it is typically non-violent stealing from open stores during business hours. Shoplifting, as it turns out, is as old as the existence of shops on city streets. Here in the Bay Area, the November 28, 2021 Mercury News reminded readers that San Francisco has historically been among the top 10 American cities reporting the greatest loss from theft nationwide.

The first documented shoplifting took place in 16th century London. By the 17th century when shopkeepers first used glass windows and display cases, goods became easier to take. Shoplifters were most often identified as female. Well-known London serial shoplifters included Mary Frith, Moll Cutpurse and Maria Carlston. Carlston, aka Mary Blacke, was executed for theft after many years at her chosen profession. In 1699 Parliament made shoplifting and other petty crimes punishable by hanging. While it had a dampening effect it did not eradicate the crime. The last British execution for shoplifting was carried out in 1822.

Shortly after 1850 statehood, shoplifting was reported in California. The February 23, 1852 issue of the Daily Alta California described what was referred to as shoplifting: “Stole a House…. This is the loftiest case of shoplifting we ever heard of.” It seems a twenty by forty-foot house was carried off bodily from Sport Hill in Calaveras County.

Three years later the newspaper portrayed a novel defense for shoplifting. In an article titled: “Magnetic Attraction”

“Master Owen Morgan…after looking at a coat hanging at the store door….was tempted to touch it; had no idea of stealing it, but from the adhesive nature of the garment, found it impossible to let go. Sent to the City Prison till further notice.”

The Daily Alta California in an 1863 article lamented the proliferation of these crimes: “Hardly a day passes in which some one [sic] is not before Police Court on the charge of shoplifting.” Punishment for the usually petty crime varied from a suspended sentence to one or more years in prison.

The Sausalito News in its February 12, 1885 issue ran a shoplifting story as the top news of the day. The editor of the News decided shoplifting was of such great interest to readers in southern Marin that it warranted placement on page one of his first edition. The story described “Mag” Lillie, a well-known professional New York City shoplifter, who accompanied a noted burglar to England where she was caught plying her trade and sentenced to two years prison.

The article on Lillie noted:

“Shop-lifting is a crime to which women are particularly addicted…. With some women shoplifting is a mania. Although comfortably off they will steal as often as they get an opportunity.”

Sausalito News, February 12, 1885.

In the 19th century doctors began to define shoplifting as a form of the disease Kleptomania, derived from the Greek words klepto — to steal, and mania for insanity.

The News published a story on February 3, 1887 involving a wealthy woman shoplifting: “Mrs. K. Monsarrat, wife of the President of the Cleveland, Akron and Columbus Railway, was recently arrested in a dry goods store at Cleveland, Ohio, on a charge of shop-lifting. It is believed that she is a kleptomaniac.”

A discussion of the schools for female shoplifters appeared in the September 10, 1898 San Mateo Times Gazette: “Schools for shoplifters are not advertised, but they thrive. Female Fagins are no longer regarded as phenomenal criminals — they are considered well established enemies to the police.” The story includes a sub-headline: “Women Who Use Clever Children Trained to the Business as Aide in Their Nefarious Calling”

Illustration captioned “The Baby Trick,” Los Angeles Herald, December 22, 1895

An example of an early 20th century punishment for shoplifting ran in the Sausalito News on November 29, 1913: “San Francisco — A year in San Quentin prison on charges of burglary was the sentence that Superior Judge William P. Lawlor gave Maud Howard, also known as ‘Happy’ Howard, and George Riley. The pair were arrested…for shoplifting.”

The March 1, 1935 edition of the News reported a 90-day sentence was handed down to Peter Paupas for helping himself to ladies lingerie in San Rafael’s JC Penney store. Paupas explained he was drunk and didn’t know what he was doing.

During World War II a national survey found shoplifting had become common in the food stores. Rationed items were a particular target in those years and because of the war, stealing them was a violation of federal law in addition to common theft.

The January 2, 1948 Mill Valley Record ran an article on a woman arrested for shoplifting from the Mill Valley Market. She was also accused of theft of a coat from Albert’s Department Store and taking three dresses and a suit from the R&M Style Shop. Her name was withheld by the police because, as the Chief explained, she was “the wife of a prominent Mill Valley citizen.”

A few years later a dispute later ensued in Mill Valley between the police chief and some merchants on the existence of shoplifting. According to the January 29, 1953 Record: “[T]wo merchants said shoplifting had reached ‘alarming proportions’.” The chief was reported to have said that “he has never had a complaint from any store or merchant about shoplifting.”

In the Record article published on April 25, 1962 the owner of the Shoreline Market in Tam Valley claimed he lost almost $10,000 (about $86,000 in 2021 dollars) a year in pilfering. During a four week period he caught 12 women and two men shoplifting. He said in order to keep his prices down he had no choice but to prosecute those he caught.

In 1956 news about shoplifting in Mill Valley centered on the Safeway across from Tamalpais High School. In a June 28, 1956 article the Record gave special recognition to the editor of the Tamalpais News, the school newspaper, for her work in shaming her fellow students for vandalizing and stealing from the local Safeway. Store personnel had silently tolerated lunch wrappers and soft drink bottles strewn across the property as well as the occasional petty theft. As a result of the attention brought to the problem students appointed a committee to police the premises.

Los Angeles Herald Examiner photograph from 1947 showing Bennett M. Hartman, holding sign advocating on behalf of the Southern California Retail Grocers Association, who were managing a growing problem of shoplifting in grocery stores. Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The problem of students shoplifting at the Safeway did not vanish after 1956. An article titled “Shoplifting . . . Habit or Hobby?” appeared in the November 5, 1982 Tamalpais News noting efforts by Safeway to curtail the offense: 1 — Asking students entering the store to remove their book bags and hang them on the hooks at the entrance; 2 — Establishing a private security force of retired policemen to patrol the property; and 3 — Checking the receipts of students on their way out. The article offered this universally appropriate conclusion: “The solutions, it seems, only create more problems. It’s also possible that shoplifting will always be a problem, no matter what we do about it.”

Tamalpais News (staged) photo, March 5, 1982.

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