WHEN IT WAS revealed last week that Wal-Mart planned to stop prosecuting shoplifters caught stealing merchandise worth less than $25, many people were surprised. But perhaps Wal-Mart’s decision doesn’t reflect a softening of its character so much as a realization that it is unlikely to persuade Americans to give up their national pastime.
After all, according to statistics collected by the National Assn. for Shoplifting Prevention, about 550,000 shoplifting incidents occur each day in the United States, and as many as one in 11 Americans have engaged in the practice. The amount of merchandise lost to what used to be known as the “five finger discount” exceeded $10 billion last year. And even as most other theft-related crime is going down, the amount of shoplifting continues to rise.
Some, no doubt, will see Wal-Mart’s announcement as part of our contemporary moral laxness. But in fact, the history of shoplifting reveals that there’s nothing particularly new about easing off on shoplifters. Au contraire. In 1820, the British government eased its rules on shoplifting -- by declaring that the crime could no longer be punished by death. (Samuel Romilly, a member of Parliament, got the repeal passed by reminding the House of Lords that a 10-year-old boy was about to be beheaded for shoplifting.)
Yes, shoplifting goes way back. It first arose in Elizabethan England, when gangs slunk from the underworld to steal bolts of fabric, silverware and jewels from shops. In 1595, one of the first recorded incidents of shoplifting involved three thieves tag-teaming to fool a fabric merchant. One distracted him, one tossed a bolt of silk out the window and a third took the bolt to a fence down the street. Soon afterward, the word “shoplifting” made it into “The English Rogue,” one of many annals of crime of the era.
The shoplifting problem was serious enough that King William deemed it a capital offense punishable by beheading or banishment to the colonies. But even in those days, at least some writers admired the shoplifter. In 1722, Daniel Defoe created Moll Flanders, the feisty creature who began to steal when “the devil ... by the help of an irresistible poverty” revealed a lusty, larcenous spirit. Instead of being beheaded, Flanders got rich.
With the rise of the middle class, shoplifting spread. A sensational trial occurred in 1800 -- l’affaire Winona Ryder of its day -- when the police arrested Jane Austen’s aunt, Leigh Perrot, in Bath for stealing lace. After spending seven months in jail, Perrot was acquitted in a few minutes by a jury that felt she had already been too harshly punished. A few years later, Henry Mayhew, the chronicler of Victorian crime, noted, “We find ladies in respectable positions occasionally charged with shoplifting.”
In America, middle-class stealing accelerated with the rise of the modern department store in the second half of the 19th century; in 1870, for instance, Macy’s caught the suffragette Elizabeth B. Phelps stealing in the Herald Square store, according to historian Elaine Abelson.
Phelps, known for her “high character,” was arrested and released. (In those days, female shoplifters from the middle class could still be considered “ladies” if their acts could be blamed on the menstrual cycle or if in some other way their “physiology ... betrayed them,” according to Abelson.)
Since then, shoplifting has been part of the American zeitgeist. It fulfills narcissistic or criminal urges and reflects our love affair with commerce. It correlates closely with depression, according to a number of studies. It can also be a means for betterment in a declining economic climate.
In America, the crime has never been taken too seriously. When George “Machine Gun” Kelly and his wife were arrested in 1933, the New York Times asserted that although she did shoplift, Mrs. Kelly had “no criminal record of consequence.” And even though J. Edgar Hoover declared shoplifting to be one of the nation’s most severe crimes (and no doubt was apoplectic when Abbie Hoffman encouraged it in “Steal This Book”), it has generally been shrugged off by the public.
For instance, when the break in the Patty Hearst case came after Symbionese Liberation Army members Emily and Bill Harris shoplifted from Mel’s Sporting Goods in Inglewood, a police investigator quipped, “Would Chairman Mao swipe a 49-cent pair of socks?”
For most of American history, the police have only put “boosters” and “snitches” -- as amateur and professional shoplifters were called -- in jail under the direst of circumstances. When, in 1930, a Mrs. St. Clair received a life sentence, a public outcry ensued, even though she had been stealing since age 14. Today, there are still cases like that of Savanna Johnson, who was arrested this year for setting fire to an H & M Store on 125th Street in New York and then stealing lingerie. It was her 59th offense.
I don’t condone shoplifting. There is a cost to letting people get away with stealing. But I fear that the Wal-Mart approach -- laying off the less-than-$25 thieves to focus more on what the company says are organized gangs of shoplifters cutting into company profits -- may miss the point.
The reality is that professional shoplifters are only a small part of the problem. The real shoplifters come right from our midst.