Theft in all its forms was common in the nineteenth century but it was often gendered. Most of those appearing in court were men (and most often young men in their late teens or early twenties). When women were charged with property crimes it tended to be less serious offences and those that avoided direct confrontation with their victims. So women were more likely to be accused of being pickpockets or shoplifters than they were of being robbers or burglars.
As a result female crime was more likely to come before the summary courts than reach the Old Bailey and a jury trial. Moreover as the nineteenth century unfolded there was a growing belief that female theft (particularly theft from shops) was a reflection of the weakness of the female character and mind. It wa sin the 1800s that the term ‘kleptomonaia’ came to be applied to the (often middle-class) women who stole.
This case from the Mansion House Police Court in 1873 illustrates this nicely.
Eliza Green (who had been reluctant to give her name in case her friends discovered her shame) was a 42 year-old woman charged with stealing from a cheese-monger’s shop.
Two City detectives (named Gilbert and Keniston) saw Eliza enter the cheese shop on St Swithin’s Lane in the heart of the old city of London. She was respectably dressed and made ‘a small purchase’ which she paid for with a sovereign coin.
As the assistant turned away to get change the policemen saw her take two tins from the counter and secrete them about her person. They arrested her and took her back to the police station.
She was searched and tin of sardines and a ‘canister of cocatine*’ were found on her. Eliza said she had paid for them with the sovereign but the detectives challenged this saying that she could not have since the shopman didn’t even know she had taken the items.
It was a fairly classic shoplifting case, not that serious but highly embarrassing for someone who claimed to be ‘very well comnnected’. The magistrate remanded her for two days, so that further inquiries could be made. Perhaps she was a ‘lady’ or perhaps she was a professional thief who dressed the part – time would tell.
*what was cocatine? The closest I can get on a search is to cocaine or a derivative, but if anyone knows let let on.
[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 03, 1873]