A respectable ‘kleptomaniac’ is caught out at the Soho Bazaar

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The Soho Bazaar, c.1815

Mary Allen was almost certainly a pseudonym. The woman using this device was quite respectable and claimed to be protecting her ‘respectable friends’ from the disgrace of being associated with her.

‘Mary’ (as I am going to continue to call her) was arrested in November 1835 at the Soho Bazaar and charged with theft. She was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street by a police constable from St Anne’s station house having been given into custody by Ann Castle. who operated a stall at the bazaar.

Mrs Castle set out the facts of the case before Mr Chambers.

‘At about four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, as she was attending some Ladies who were at her stand, the prisoner  passed by; and, no doubt considering that her attention was occupied with the other Ladies, she laid hold of a muslin collar, thrust it into her muff, and walked hastily away to another part of the bazaar’.

It was a classic shoplifting ploy; to pinch an item quickly and calmly and hide it in a pocket, coat or, in this case, the large muff that women used to keep their hands warm in the colder months of the year.

However, ‘Mary’ had been seen and Ann Castle confronted her. At this the thief pleaded with her to let her go, thrusting the collar back to her. Ann was not in the mood for leniency and summoned a nearby police constable, who took her back the station.

Once there ‘Mary’ refused to give her name or address. She told the police she would rather ‘suffer the greatest punishments the law could inflict rather than say who she was’.

This was an example of what was to become a much more common occurrence in the nineteenth century; middle-class women caught for shoplifting presented the police and courts with a dilemma. All the demands of class deference and chivalry suggested that these female thieves should be treated differently from the ‘usual suspects’ who were routinely arrested, prosecuted and gaoled. Indeed, in the later 1800s the courts began to treat these ‘criminals’ as mad rather than bad, and society applied the term ‘kleptomania’  to them suggesting that they, as members of the ‘weaker’ sex, were unable to help themselves.

‘Mary’ however, was clearing helping herself to the goods on display at the Soho Bazaar. When she was searched at the station along with the collar the police found, ‘a package of twenty-two silk laces, a gilt thimble, a Prayer Book, with silver clasps, a jet bracelet, a jet necklace, a caddy-spoon, and some fancy toilet articles’ in her muff.

The bazaar itself was an unusual venture. Opened in 1815 it offered ‘respectable’ women an opportunity to display and sell items they had made themselves. So it was an early example of the craft markets we are familiar with today. So ‘Mary’ was not only stealing, she was stealing from her own class.

There were several other stallholders in court and one identified the laces as her own. Since the rest of the items remained unclaimed however, Mr Chambers said it would be necessary for the police to make other enquiries. The police inspector said he would do so and, additionally, said the police were also investigating thefts from the Pantheon Bazaar committed by a woman who fitted ‘Mary’s description. The Pantheon bazaar had existed much earlier, being built in the 1770s, although it was destroyed by fire in 1792. Samuel Smirke rebuilt it in 1833-34 so it must have just opened in time for ‘Mary’ to thieve from it.

The magistrate asked ‘Mary’ why she had committed the crime but she was unable to explain. ‘She could not tell what had induced her to disgrace herself in such a manner, except that she must have been mad at the time’, reported the press. In the end she was released but asked to reappear if others came forward to prosecute her.

This is a good example of how class-ridden the criminal justice could be in the 1800s. This was a fairly open and shut case of theft. We might sympathise with ‘Mary’ as someone possible suffering with some form of mental illness but that wasn’t why the court was gentle with her. It was entirely down to the fact that she was a member of the respectable middle class. If she had been a poor working-class woman the magistrate would have committed her for jury trial (where she would faced the possibility of being imprisoned or even transported for the crime) or, had he chosen to be lenient, sent her to the house of correction for a month or more.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 13, 1835]

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