‘Tis the season: 19thc shoplifting


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.

Such was the case in the 19th century, too. 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.

from 1886 Professional Criminals of America, by Thomas Byrnes. Don't you love the nicknames some of these gals have?
from 1886 Professional Criminals of America, by Thomas Byrnes. Don’t you love the nicknames of some of these gals?


For now, let’s set aside discussion of the amateur shoplifters of the 19th century – 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”). Our focus today is on the professionals, also 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.”

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.

Artist: James D. McCabe, Jr, 1872, via www.librarycompany.org
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) 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.

Surprisingly, some of the private detectives were women. 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):


“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.



Audiobook Announcement:

Dangerous and Unseemly (book 1 of the Concordia Wells Mysteries) is now available in audiobook form!



Produced and Narrated by Becket Royce

Click here to listen to the sample:

Start listening at the click of a button:

itunes buy buttonaudible buy button

 To celebrate the event (and in the Christmas spirit of giving), I’m giving away audiobook copies of Dangerous and Unseemly to the first TEN people to tell me in the comments that they want one! Be sure to include your email address so I can send you the code.

Thanks, and Merry Christmas!

6 people like this post.

22 thoughts on “‘Tis the season: 19thc shoplifting”

  1. LairdLaird

    FASCINATING. I love the nickname “kid glove Rosey”. If I ever turn to a life of crime, I’m going to steal that. 🙂

    Oh, and I would LOVE an audiobook of Dangerous & Unseemly!

  2. CC MacKenzieCC MacKenzie

    Yes! I was shopping in a large department store many years ago and saw a guy slip three shirts inside his raincoat. I alerted a member of staff and they caught him!

    And yes, I’d love a copy of Dangerous and Unseemly!

  3. Amy Shojai, CABCAmy Shojai, CABC

    How neat! That does give one ideas for mayhem…in a book, of course! *s* I’d love an audio copy.

  4. Jess WitkinsJess Witkins

    Ohmygooooooood YES! Shoplifting is the worst during the holidays. It’s easier to steal then because stores have a lot of new, seasonal staff and the shops are crowded so it’s easier to slip in and out unnoticed. I’ve seen quite a bit from my years in retail. I mean people will dump entire stacks of shirts into a bag and walk out! It’s disheartening and difficult to prevent during this time. There was one shoplifter who I only ever saw during the holidays and I found out via the mall security that she and her partner made the rounds between Eau Claire and La Crosse – just visiting various stores in the malls, coming in and out very quickly so even if they were spotted they were out before the security manager could get them. If I ever see her while I’m just out and about, I may not be able to stop myself from tackling her. LOL I started taking it personally because I saw her every year, and our security person was always at another store when she would come. Every time. So frustrating!

    On a happier note, I would LOVE an audiobook of your work!! I listen to audio books every morning while I get ready for the day, when I’m in the car, and when I get ready for bed. They are the prime reason I’m able to read so much. Very cool Concordia is now on audio! Congrats Kathy!

  5. Jennifer Jensen (@jenjensen2)Jennifer Jensen (@jenjensen2)

    I”ve never *seen* someone shoplift, but years ago in high school, a friend and I were in the grocery story. We got hauled up to the manager’s office and accused. My stomach roiled, my mind whirled – I was innocent! I didn’t DO things like that! But when they had us empty our purses, my friend’s showed that she obviously did – four or five candy bars worth. They sent me on my way, shaking, and she stayed for the cops.

    I don’t do audio books, but my mother loves them. So if I win, I’ll send it to her! Merry Christmas, Kathy!

  6. Jennifer Jensen (@jenjensen2)Jennifer Jensen (@jenjensen2)

    PS–I loved the stories about how women shoplifted back then. You could pack a lot under those skirts!

  7. Piper BayardPiper Bayard

    What a fascinating article! I love this info. Now I understand where the jewelry store “Pennyweights” got its name, and I want to go re-check my jewelry that I bought there. 🙂

  8. Deborah MakariosDeborah Makarios

    Store managers must have been so relieved when the hobble skirt came in 😀
    And of course, I would love an audio copy of “Dangerous and Unseemly” – listening to books while doing handwork is one of my favourite pastimes.

  9. Julie GloverJulie Glover

    Oh, I would LOVE the audiobook. Concordia is such a delight!

    That news clip is priceless. Like he was terribly shocked that a delicate lady would be intently interested in catching criminals. I daresay plenty of us women can perform our jobs well and catch beaux at the same time. 😉 LOL.

  10. Elizabeth Anne MitchellElizabeth Anne Mitchell

    Fascinating, Kathy. So many people romanticize the past, when human nature has been the same for so long.

    How could someone physically shoplift a sealskin coat? I’m, well, almost impressed.

    If I’m still in time, I’d love an audio copy of Dangerous and Unseemly. Audio books are so wonderful for long drives. Also, I went to a small women’s college, so I love the setting (and Concordia, of course).

  11. Susie LindauSusie Lindau

    What an interesting crowd. Love the nicknames!
    Happy Holidays!


Comments are closed