Theft, a whole story

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After taking an interest in the gendarmes and the police, the historian Arnaud-Dominique Houte changes his perspective. He devotes his new book to the evolution of property and its corollary, the changing definition of theft. Faced with the “hardening of the proprietary order” that we witnessed in the 19th and 20th centuries, society’s view of theft will fundamentally change. In particular, this will be the end of all kinds of customary uses: gleaning, scavenging, picking up, pilfering, so many tolerated practices that will soon become a thing of the past.

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To approach the history of theft, you must first set the scene. This rich investigation – necessarily eclectic – delves into the last two centuries to understand theft as a social phenomenon, while the consumer society is modifying the way we live together. We are witnessing the birth of a “civilization of property”. To take the measure, the historian delves into the archives of justice, the police and the administration. Statistics, yes, but the picture would not be complete without newspapers, literature and, later, cinema. “Theft exists insofar as it is said and represented”: Arnaud-Dominique Houte is not the only historian to have adopted this bias to connect with social imaginaries. He repeatedly quotes the work of the late Dominique Kalifa, who had shown the way by studying representations of crime.

“Medalist” chest of drawers

In the middle of the 19th century, an estimated 10,000 ragpickers in Paris were busy every night in the streets. Before garbage collection, “they fill their hoods with glass, scrap metal, bones and rags”. The city then offers rich opportunities for gleaning, a practice that is encouraged: the ragpickers obviously facilitate the disposal of waste. But their situation is gradually becoming more complicated, the public is worried after a series of nocturnal attacks. The rag pickers must then register at the prefecture and wear a name tag. This suspicion is growing, explains the historian, because it is part of the then dominant representations: we imagine them to be part of the “lowlands of delinquency”.

But the one who will put an end to the practice of recovery and recycling is called the Prefect Poubelle: the decree of 1883 requires that waste be locked in closed containers. From then on, the rag pickers, indignant, will be deprived of their livelihood. What was tolerated becomes reprehensible, it is easy to understand how property is then redefined.

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Among the school books, moral textbooks will come at the beginning of the XXth century to condemn “this dreadful thing which one calls the theft” and to recall that “the thief is the most abject of all the criminals”. In the press, the narration of various facts comes to redouble the discourse of “proprietary morality”: the newspapers are full of anecdotes from the middle of the nineteenth century which are only valid for the moral lesson they emerge.

Fiction in the spotlight

But the press is also accused of trivializing, and even popularizing the criminal act. The same reproaches will be made to the soap operas, Arsène Lupine and his exploits will be evoked in court in 1914 by a young man of 16, detained for a series of thefts. From the old cliché of the bad influence of novels to the “cinema that goes to the head”, pleadings will now regularly incriminate “bad examples” as a mitigating circumstance.

The progress of forensic science will inaugurate a new hunt for thieves, from Vidocq to Commissioner Cornette who innovates in the search for evidence at the turn of the century thanks to photography. Who says thief now says gendarme, that is the end of infrajudicial arrangements.

It happened that after a theft the case was settled by the payment of a sum (sometimes to good works). Or that we simply do not denounce, for fear of reprisals, or simply because the value of the theft is negligible. But the perception will change: theft is no longer a private affair which concerns the offender and his victim, it is a social phenomenon which justifies public support. At the same time, the police presence is strengthening and we encourage denunciation.

The “auto borrowers”

A perfect illustration of the “recompositions of proprietary sensitivity”, the arrival of the automobile will see the emergence of a new type of delinquency. Auto owners will also need to learn how to protect themselves from thieves. As early as 1911, the General Association of Motorists warned in its review, “the thing is possible, and it is even more frequent than one thinks”. This thing, of course, is the theft of the car. And we wonder … the stolen car could be used to commit a crime (the Bonnot gang is rampant).

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More amusingly, the 1930s press mentions “auto borrowers,” young people who go on a hike until they run out of gas and abandon the vehicle. As a result, there are often no complaints. For this “customary theft”, some courts only consider the theft of gasoline.

The bicycle thief will also find something to do in the post-war years. The last part of the book ends in the 1970s, a period when prevention will be privileged. With slogans which have hardly changed, and which encourage one to close one’s door, to be careful… as a French police commissioner summed it up in 1962: “To the question What is the police doing, I answer and you, you done to avoid theft? “

Arnaud-Dominique Houte
Property forbidden. French society to the test of theft 19th-20th centuries
Gallimard, 400 pages