From about the middle of the nineteenth century mental weakness was used to explain some forms of petty offending, usually by women. The idea that female shoplifters were impelled to steal as a result of their ‘inferior’ or ‘weak’ minds helped explain, if not entirely excuse, those ‘respectable’ women caught stealing small items from London’s new department stores.
I’ve nearly always heard kleptomania associated with women but in this case the suggestion was that an elderly man could also be susceptible to this form of ‘brain fever’. This fits the underlying narrative however: women, children and the elderly were all ‘weak’ in the eyes of Victorian society. All required some level of protection, and sometimes from themselves.
Robert Lacey was working in his yard on Hertford Road in Kingsland one evening in July 1892 when an old man entered. The visitor offered Lacey a whip socket for sale but he wasn’t interested and the man went away. As he was leaving however Lacey saw him take a waterproof knee-length apron from the ‘rail of a pleasure van’. The old man calmly folded the apron up, ticked it under his jacket, and walked away.
Lacey followed after and caught him, waiting until a policeman came into view before handing him over. When he was searched at the station the police found the apron (worth just 6s) and the whip socket plus ‘four carriage-handles, three knives, a billiard-ball case, eight pawn-tickets, and two bottles of oil’. Quite how he carried all these is a mystery!
In court before the North London Police Magistrates the man gave his name as John Clark, 60 years of age and said he was very sorry. He’d only recently been released from Banstead Lunatic Asylum ‘where he had been detained as a kleptomaniac’. The magistrate – Mr Bros – called for enquiries to be made by the surgeon at the gaol to determine ‘the state of his mind’. He remanded him in custody in the meantime.
Judging by the eclectic list of things that Clark had in his possession he certainly seems to have been someone ‘collecting’ things by impulse rather than a determined thief but one wonders if the unforgiving justice system of the time was able to appreciate that.
[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, July 9, 1892]