The Terrors of the Great Dry Goods Stores Everywhere.
Amateurs Steal From Impulse, but Professionals Go Fully Prepared to Carry Off the Store.
The governmental system in our large stores has been brought to a miniature perfection. Each big house has its executions, its police, its laws and people. There are penalties and punishments, rewards and promotions, while every penny is accounted for to the powers who mete out recompenses to the just and the unjust. By appeals to personal interest it becomes the object of every employe to make money for his governmental rulers and to aid them in withstanding those whom, like the office seekers, we have always with us.
But each year thousands of dollars are lost from the pockets of the firm despite the legislations, bribes and adroit detectives. For what avail all these things against the half crazed, half cunning or wholly professional trickeries of a class of women who are interesting to the doctors, moralists and lawyers? As a class these women are the products of feverish, unwholesome mental and physical life in our great hysteric trade centers and they are little understood by even those who have to deal with them. Shoplifting is a profession and a disease; less a profession than it used to be, perhaps, because of the detective systems, and more a disease, as we dash with high pressure down the fin de siècle slope. Or, so the detective said when this suggestion was offered, the professional shoplifter poses as a kleptomaniac, knowing that it is her one sure means of escape. And if her haul is not too big and if too elaborate preparations are not found upon her, her chances of escape are excellent. The kleptomaniac acts with wonderful cunning and without any precautions save those of insane cleverness in blinding the eyes of detectives, floor walkers and employes not three feet distant.
The businesslike shoplifter is thoroughly equipped with every trained sense upon the alert, and her eyes on the good only when their guardians are at a reasonable distance. The kleptomaniac seizes small articles, often valueless. The shoplifter is out for “big pulls,” and can make off with 200 worth of merchandise in a morning.
A few days ago the clerk in one of the best managed shop in New York laid three rolls of silk, valued at $180, upon the counter to ship out of town. He was called to the further end of the counter for a moment and returned to discover that the cardboard from three bulky rolls of silk was all that remained of his shipment. There was no disturbance in the room, which was not crowded. Floor walker, shoppers, and employe had suspected nothing as some woman stowed sixty yards of silk upon her person and walked silently out of the door.
Spurred by his wrath over this bold stroke the detective in charge was moved to disclose some of the bitterness of his lot.
“The wickedest male criminal on earth,” said he, “can’t hold a candle beside a mild, shrinking, respectable little bit of a woman. I’ve been here twenty years ,and I know every mother’s daughter of ‘em who has been up to tricks for a living. But when a new one comes in she is bound to swipe something unless one of the two girls who work with me have the luck to spot her as suspicious.
“Our method of capture is this. I see a woman, dressed neatly and quietly, walking slowly through the store. Probably she carries a shopping bag on her arm and wears a long, full cloak. Sometimes she carries a baby, but in such a store as this that dodge attracts too much attention. But there’s nothing like a baby to stow the stuff away in. Why, once in an east side store, where I began my career, the searcher took twelve bottles of cologne, six handkerchiefs, and a lot of jewelry from a baby’s toggery. I suppose that kid was what you people who don’t know anything about it would call a kleptomaniac, because she yelled and kicked and looked surprised when we took the things away. That’s just what you have to expect though, when you’re dealing with a woman. Well, we follow the woman until she stops at a counter. Then one of my girls or both if necessary, takes her position close by, and asks the salesman, who is trained to treat her as an unknown customer, to show her certain goods. The foxy shoplifter sometimes sees through this, and then the girl guys outright and pays on the spot. That is the only absolute safeguard known to detectives. For unless sharp eyes look down in her lap, the woman can slip a piece of silk into her sham pocket or over her arm while the salesman calls ‘Cash!’ These new capes you’re wearing are a great snap for the shoplifters, almost as good as the shawls. How do we get the goods back after we have tracked the thieves? We don’t try to unless we are dead sure that she has them on her person the moment we accost her. I follow her into the street and ask her to kindly accompany me to the room where the stolen property she has on her person may be removed. She threatens and blusters and calls for a policeman. I show my badge and tell her the game is up, and she comes back quietly enough. What happens next this young lady can tell you better than I.” And the detective glanced at a handsomely dressed girl who sat tapping her gold- edged lizard skin purse on the lace counter nearby.
The bored-looking aide rose, pulled her veil, dabbled at her eminently correct gown, and advanced to be questioned concerning the queer characters in her charge.
“It’s a hard life, a responsible position, and I don’t think it worth the big pay,” she said, leading the way to a tiny room under the stairs, where many hundred women have been searched. “They act like fiends when I undress them, and work themselves into dangerous frenzies, if I show the least sign of mercy. Last week a German—just over—came in with diamonds on her fingers and an 1830 gown under her black satin cape. She was fool enough to wear the shoplifter’s pocket in her skirt, which is a punishable offense, you know. The opening was at the edge of her round belt, and the bag fell straight to her knees. There were a lot of little trinkets in it, and when I discovered them she threw herself around so that I had to call the detective. He couldn’t do anything with her, and before she left the store three men almost literally sat upon her, while we tried to bring her to reason.
“The cutest pocket is a long piece of cloth fastened with pins at each side. Though the lower edge is a draw string which may be wound about the pins when in use. But the instant I discovered that pocket, the wearer pulls the string, and the good tumble to the floor under her skirts, and I have absolutely no evidence against her, since neither pocket nor goods are found on her person. A common trick is to sweep small articles into an umbrella. Another is to lay a jacket or any other wrap upon the counter and pick up with it cloth, ribbon, lace, or almost anything. Then, if worst comes to worst, the lifter can throw the whole apparatus away. Yes, it is hard to know whether a woman is a kleptomaniac or not, but there are a few pretty good proofs. The professional comes in here, cool and collected, very much annoyed at the indignity, and perfectly overcome with surprise when discovered. She sobs and shrieks and hurls herself against the wall, offers immense bribes, and wants to draw checks in her husband’s name. If we agree to that settlement she would bring a blackmail case against the house next week, you know. Yet, it’s a good policy to let the toughest cases go on the plea of kleptomania, because we know their faces so well that they never venture to return. But the poor women who come to me by the dozen, half crazed with fright! Ah, it is enough to make one wonder if the next generation won’t be safest behind asylum doors,” exclaimed the competent young cynic, who is herself a type of the time.
“The men in this house and the detectives at police headquarters don’t believe there are kleptomaniacs, but they know better. What reason has a woman who is one of our best customers for stealing sponges? And yet she was brought here one day with two squeezed in her handkerchief. The detective had aroused her to her condition, evidently, for when I took her she was cowering with shame. Her hand was clasped so tightly that I could hardly open it. “They weren’t worth buying,” she said, “but they are so soft I must have them for my bath.” We let her go, of course, but now she shops with a maid. Her check is good for any amount. Most of them can’t resist the jewelry counter. The glitter seems to mesmerize them. And it’s so easy to drop a handkerchief over a pin or bracelet! The kleptomaniac ever has any professional apparatus about her. Her muff, parasol or handkerchief is enough, because it’s the little things she can’t resist. Do you remember that case which got into the papers a while since? The woman was an old customer of a big firm and well-known kleptomaniac. For a long time nothing was said, only the items were put into her bill and were paid without question. Finally some friend or other told, and her rooms were searched. Under the carpets, in drawers, and on shelves were dozens and dozens of tiny toys, worth about 3 cents apiece. She was a perfect nutter on toys, and she couldn’t help; taking them—even from under the detective’s very nose. As a class they are hysteric omen with no aims in life. They are weak and nervous, well-to-do without much to long for. They aren’t bad or unprincipled, because their shame and anxiety for their friends’ sake is greater than for themselves.
“’My husband ‘ is almost the first thing they say when they come before me. It’s like the opium habit. We ought to have physicians as well as detectives in these shops. I’m a woman detective, you know.”
Dallas [TX] Morning News 1 January 1894: p. 4
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The lady kleptomanic of a certain age was a familiar figure in the popular press. Well-to-do, handsomely-dressed gentlewomen, relicts of clergymen, daughters of noble houses—all varieties of these “silk and satin thieves” were represented. One particularly notorious specimen was America’s own Miss Lizzie Borden, who, four years after she was acquitted of being unkind to her Papa and Step-mamma, was tempted by some porcelain pictures at an art gallery in Providence, Rhode Island. The matter was finally settled without going through the courts, but not until Miss Borden had loudly protested that she had not stolen the articles and the matter had been aired in the local newspaper. Victoria Lincoln in her admirable book, A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight, suggests that Miss Borden suffered from seizures and may have killed without knowing what she had done. One wonders if Miss Borden so vehemently denied pilfering the pictures because she truly had no memory of it.
For more valuable information on lady kleptomaniacs, including Jane Austen’s Aunt Leigh-Perrot, please see this link.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.