‘Tis the Season for Shoplifters ~ 19th Century Style (Plus a New Release)

background photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

(This seemed like an appropriate time to re-run this post, during the season of shoplifters.)

by K.B. Owen ~

As “Black Friday” rapidly approaches, the official opening of the holiday shopping season in the U.S., we thought it would be fun/interesting to look at a related activity, past and present.

‘Tis the Season for Shoplifters

According to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, retailers lose $13 billion (that’s a 13 with nine zeroes after it!) in merchandise each year.  The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is prime-time for such thefts, when professional and amateur alike hit the crowded stores.

This was the season for shoplifters as well in the 19th century. According to a December 12, 1897 article in The Sun: 

As soon as the shops become crowded with throngs who go to investigate, admire, and buy their Christmas offerings, shoplifters also turn out en masse. Experience soon teaches them that they can do their most profitable work this season.

the season for shoplifters
Don’t you love the nicknames of some of these gals? (from 1886 Professional Criminals of America, by Thomas Byrnes)

The season of shoplifters brought out the amateurs as well.

These were wealthy and middle class women, mostly, who often had their charges dropped by the store because they came from a prominent family and/or they were diagnosed with kleptomania (by some accounts brought on by something “menstrual”).

The professionals were known as “hoisters,” or “h’isters.” There were two kinds of hoisters: the clouters and the pennyweighters. To quote one of the policemen in the article: “These people have more ways of stealing than they have fingers and toes.”

Clouters

Shoplifters such as Flossie Maitland and May Murray (couldn’t find their pics, sorry), worked together as clouters, with one to distract the clerk and the other to wear the apparatus under her skirt. The clouting apparatus consisted of a hidden band around the waist, to which strong elastic bands are attached. The item to be stolen would be dropped on the floor, and the clouter would stand over it (covering it with her skirt), then stoop down as if she was picking up a hairpin, reaching under her skirts to secure the item beneath the criss-crossed elastic.

The season for shoplifters
Artist: James D. McCabe, Jr, 1872, via www.librarycompany.org

The Sun article describes May Murray as “‘Big May,’ the most notorious shoplifter in the country.” Policemen in every city had heard of her. When she was caught in New York (after being followed in and out of several stores by police in a nearby cab), they found a 42-inch sealskin coat hidden under her skirt, and two other fur coats beneath the cab seat from the stop at the previous store.

Pennyweighters (both male and female)

These were thieves who would steal an item and replace it with a cheap copy so its disappearance wasn’t quickly noticed. Jewelry was a typical target. The thieves would scope out the jewelry on display ahead of time and create something close in appearance that could be quickly swapped out.

So, without security cameras or metal detectors, what was a Victorian department store owner to do? The common solution was to hire a detective to keep watch, although some stores, such as Lord & Taylor, denied that they even had a problem with shoplifters.

The Private Detectives Who Caught Them

During the prime season for shoplifters, the private detectives who caught them were sometimes women, surprisingly.

Why? According to a female detective interviewed for The Sun article, “they (store managers) found that men were clumsy at following and arresting women shoplifters.” Here’s a bit more about this particular lady detective, from the reporter’s point of view (he’s referring to himself in the third person):

The season for shoplifters

“Things not being what they seem” certainly makes writing mysteries fun!

Have you ever seen someone shoplift an item? Should we bring back store detectives, as opposed to those metal detectors that go off for no good reason when you’re trying to leave the store? I’d love to hear from you.

And our new release (Note: This series is a spinoff from the Kate Huntington Mysteries. Judith Anderson was the police lieutenant in that series. Kass has the collection of Books 1-5 of the Kate books on sale right now, for 99 cents!)

LETHAL ASSUMPTIONS, A C.o.P. on the Scene Mystery

Judith Anderson’s no-nonsense attitude and confidence served her well in her climb to homicide lieutenant in the Baltimore County PD, but that confidence is shaken when she finds herself one step behind a serial killer—just eight days into her new job as Chief of Police in a small Florida city.

The first victim, a female college student, may be a case of wrong place, wrong time. But the bodies keep coming, with a mishmash of MOs, and the murders may be linked to various cases in nearby Jacksonville.

While Judith assumed the CoP job would be challenging, she’s finding it harder than she imagined to establish her authority without alienating and be more hands-on without micro-managing. Plus, evidence is staking up that there’s a leak in her department.

Who can she trust? If she makes the wrong assumption, the wrong decision, it may be her last. In a race to save lives, she’ll draw on every talent and instinct that made her a star in Baltimore. But will that be enough this time?

Fans of JA Jance’s Sheriff Joanna Brady and JD Robb’s Eve Dallas will love this new female cop on the scene!

AVAILABLE for PREORDER NOW on:

AMAZON ~ NOOK ~ APPLE ~ KOBO ~ GOOGLE PLAY


K.B. Owen signing books at Prospero’s Books (Manassas, VA)

Posted by Kathy Owen (aka K.B. Owen).

Kathy taught college English for nearly two decades at universities in Connecticut and Washington, DC, and holds a doctorate in 19th century British literature.

A mystery lover ever since she can remember, she drew upon her teaching experiences in creating her amateur sleuth, Professor Concordia Wells.

Unlike the fictional Miss Wells, K.B. did not have to conduct lectures in a bustle and full skirts. Thankfully. No doubt, many folks are grateful for that little fact.

In addition to her Concordia Wells mystery series, Kathy writes the Chronicles of a Lady Detective about a lady Pinkerton agent (similar to the detective described above).

Misterio press produces an array of quality crime fiction. We post here twice a month, usually on Tuesdays, to alert you to new releases, to entertain, and to inform.

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