Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Automobille Theft before WWI

Hi folks, to learn more about the history and social complexity of automobile theft, see my and Rebecca Morales book, Stealing Cars: Technology and Society from the Model T to Gran Torino (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).

Miller-Chapman Wheel chock, ca. 1916. The device came in either 32 or 36 sizes to fit the diameter of almost any vehicle of that day. The spike would stop any wheel from turning. But what if you just cut the wooden wheel?

The Pioneer Era
             The automobile was a primary object for thieves and perfect accessory to crime during the 20th century. However, not knowing what the future held, one early turn-of-the-century contemporary asserted that the coming of the automobile would decrease personal transportation thievery substantially. An early steamer owner and physician asserted in 1901: "When I leave my machine at the door of a patient's house I am sure to find it there on my return.  Not always so with the horse: he may have skipped off as the result of a flying paper or the uncouth yell of a street gamin, and the expense of broken harness, wagon, and probably worse has to be met."[1]  That solitary impression, however, soon proved to be wrong. The first reported  auto theft  in The Horseless Age occurred during the fall of 1902, although there seemed to exist some contention as to when the first took place: "H. Clark Saunders, New Brunswick, N.J. writes us that the theft of an automobile mentioned in our last issue[1903] was not the first on record, as Mr. Laurenz  Schmalholz, New Brunswick, N.J., while in Trenton, N.J. on the day before  the election last November [1902], had his Pierce Motorette stolen from the stables of the United States Hotel, and it was not until late the following day that the machine was found."[2]
            The security of the steamer in particular was noted by early automotive pioneers, who clearly recognized that their vehicles were far from secure.  A 1901 article on locking devices for cars stated that: "It is not a safe proceeding to let an automobile stand in the street so that the operation of a conspicuous hand lever will start the vehicle; and it may be said that we are approaching a period where it will not be safe to let a vehicle stand in the street which can be started by any person thoroughly familiar with that particular machine, but without the necessary key or keys.  Most manufacturers are recognizing these conditions and are providing means either against accidental starting or both against this and malicious designs."[3]
Apparently steam and electric vehicles were better equipped with locks than their internal combustion powered rivals from that era. Steam-powered vehicles typically had locks that immobilized the throttle, "thereby preventing any possible interference by the over curious meddler”.[4] For example, the Victor Steam Carriage used a particularly complex device that nevertheless did not ensure security:
…a spring actuated catch is employed, which locks the throttle lever, inside the seat, is fastened to a double-armed lever, which occupies a near horizontal position when the throttle lever is in the off position. Inside the seat there is a single-armed lever, the lower part of which stands nearly vertical normally and the upper part which is inclined forwardly. A catch on this lever engages with the one arm of the double-armed lever fastened to the throttle lever shaft and prevents the motion of the latter. The single-armed lever is held in position by a coiled spring. The upper end of the lever bears against the seatboard, and the spring is sufficiently powerful to lift the board when nobody is sitting on it. When anybody sits down when the seatboard is depressed, the spring is extended and the catch released.[5]
Typically electric vehicles came with a key that manipulated a switch, and with one turn, the current to the motor was cut off.  Yet the designers of many of the earliest Internal Combustion Engine (ICE)-powered vehicles were cavalier about security.  As one illustration, the Winton used a common snap switch mounted to a porcelain base.  One could remove the hard rubber handle and carry it along, but it was not usually done, since the switch could be operated without it.  Packards featured two push button switches that interrupted the igniter circuit.  Ordinarily one of these switches was placed on the kneeboard, and the other in the battery box, which could be locked. The 1901 Hayes-Apperson  used: "a switch of their own construction.  The contact pieces form arcs of a circle, and over these moves a double-armed flat contact lever swiveling in the center of the circle and held down to contact pieces by a shoulder butterfly screw.  This screw can easily be removed and the lever carried along."[6]  But if a would-be-thief possessed a lever from one Hayes-Apperson, others could be taken.  French vehicles were hardly better in terms of being designed to thwart the unauthorized driver.  In a De Dion-Bouton, a slightly tapered plug was used for opening the igniter circuit when turning off the car; this plug could be carried along in the pocket of a dismounted driver.  Nevertheless, any button from any De Dion-Bouton would work.  But who would suspect anyone from the car-owning aristocracy of the day to possibly covet his neighbor's horseless carriage?  The motives of the often suspect chauffeur, or garage owner, were different matters, however.[7]
            Aftermarket manufacturers and independent inventors soon got busy developing devices to satisfy the insecurities of a growing number of automobile owners. By 1905 the Auto Lock Company of Chicago began advertising its Oldsmobile Lock, claiming that "it locks everything (even while the motor is running), prevents theft and meddling. Once used, always used."[8]  In July of 1909, Orville M. Tustison of Bainbridge, Indiana, patented his "Circuit-Closer," employing a Yale-type lock with mechanical and electrical mechanisms that ultimately served as a spark coil kill switch.  Located prominently on the dash board, Tustison's device was only as good as the Yale lock and box that housed the device.[9]
            These and other technological devices were also limited by the effectiveness of the local law enforcement of the day.  Beginning around 1910, police procedure evolved only gradually, and one might surmise haphazardly, as the car theft problem became increasingly acute.  In the best-organized police departments, the report of a stolen car first resulted in an entry into the department's log book. [10]  Since there was little, if any, communication among police departments in those early days, standard procedures for exchanging information did not exist, and only rarely were theft reports transmitted to other regions. Therefore, it was normally left up to insurers or vehicle owners to publish and disseminate a reward offer, and get the word out that a particular vehicle had been stolen.
             It was the insurance companies who took the early lead on the matter of auto theft. During the summer of 1912 eleven insurance companies formed the Automobile Protective & Information Bureau with the purpose of disseminating material on specific stolen vehicles.[11] Depending on a number of factors, rewards ranged from $25 to $500, and notices were often printed on an 8” x 10” manila card and then mailed to nearby police departments.   A woodcut, obtained from a car dealer who had used the image for advertising purposes, was stamped on the "wanted poster" along with such details as the vehicle's color, size of tires, type of headlamps, and whether the vehicle had a windshield.  Given the poor roads and durability of early cars, stolen vehicles were initially rarely taken beyond the radius of 150 miles, and thus mailings were confined to the near hinterlands from where the theft had occurred.  And while there was the assumption that police would do their honest best to recover the vehicle, such was not always the case.      
            One can only imagine, then, the consternation of automobilists when they learned that New York City police were neglecting auto theft cases.[12]  Indeed, in 1914, according to the District Attorney's office, assigned detectives made no effort to pursue the criminals until insurance companies offered rewards.  With that incentive, however, New York police garnered an extra $10,000 to $15,000 when they arrested twelve thieves and recovered twenty stolen cars.  The reward system, also led to breaking the first auto theft ring on record.  John Gargare, owner of a Lakewood, New Jersey, garage, was indicted on six counts of auto theft in 1914 by the same New York City District Attorney. Gargare and his accomplices specialized in Packards and Pierce-Arrows, demonstrating a preference for high-end vehicles that future professional auto thieves would often imitate. 


[1] The Horseless Age, (February, 6, 1901), 37.
[2] The Horseless Age, 7(May 1903), 42
[3]Locking Devices,” The Horseless Age, (January 9, 1901), 19.
[4] The Horseless Age, (February 6, 1901), 37.
[5] Ibid, p.19
[6] Ibid, p.19
[7] On the “chauffeur problem,” see Borg, Auto Mechanics, pp. 13-30. Edwin G. Klein's The Stolen Automobile (NewYork: Lenz & Reicker, 1919) featured a thief dressed as a chauffeur in an unlikely plot that ends in the recovery of the car and a chance romance.
[8] The Horseless Age, volume 12, no. 3  xviii.
[9] U.S. Patent 928,824, July 20, 1909.
[10] National Automobile Theft Bureau, 75th Anniversary 1912-1987 (N.P.: n.p., 1987),  p.6.
[11] Fred J. Sauter, The Origin of the National Automobile Theft Bureau (N.P., 1949), p.3. On the history of the NATB, see Articles of Association of the Automobile Underwriters Detective Bureau (N.P.: n.p., n.d.[1917?].
[12] "Allege that Police Work with Automobile Thieves," The Horseless Age, (April 22, 1914), 619.
[13] “Auto Insurance Growing in Favor,” New York Times, April 24, 1910, p. XX5. On the topic of auto insurance, see Robert Riegel, "Automobile Insurance Rates," Journal of Political Economy, 25 (June, 1917), 561-579; H.P Stellwagen, "Automobile Insurance," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 130 (March, 1927), 154-62.
[14] On the early history of the NATB, see National Automobile Theft Bureau:  75th Anniversary, 1912-1987 (N.P., NATB, 1987).
[15] Sauter, p.6. See Constitution and Contract Membership of the National Automobile Theft Bureau (N.P.: n.p., 1928).
[16] NATB, p.22.
[17] “Two Under Arrest Name Auto Thieves,” New York Times, January 24, 1914, p. 2.
[18] For an excellent discussion on the history of car keys, see Michael Lamm, “Are Car Keys Obsolete,” American Heritage Invention & Technology, 23 (Summer 2008), 7.
[19] “Get $2,000 Payroll, Flee in Victim’s Car,” New York Times, September 27, 1925, 9.
[20] Roy Lewis, “Watch Your Car,” Outing, 70(May 1917), 170.
[21] Ibid., p. 168. “The All-Conquering Auto Thief and a Proposed Quietus for Him,” Literary Digest, 64(February 7, 1920), 111-115, with reference to Alexander C. Johnston’s article in Munsey’s Magazine, New York, 1920. “More Than a Quarter of a Million Cars Stolen Each Year,” Travel, (October 1929),46. See also, William G. Shepard ,"I wonder who’s driving her now?,” Colliers, 80(July 23, 1927), 14. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "joy ride" was first used in a 1909 article in the N.Y. Evening Post reporting on a city ordinance that was passed to stop city officers from taking "joy rides."
[22] For a comprehensive description of the auto theft problem in the years immediately after WWI, see Automobile Protective and Information Bureau, Annual Report (N.P.: n.p., 1921). Additionally, see the pamphlet “A Growing Crime!,” (N.P.: n.p., 1923[?].
[23] Joy rider as a term evoking irresponsibility and reckless disregard for others is briefly discussed in Peter D. Norton, “Street Rivals: Jaywalking and the invention of the Motor Age Street,” Technology and Culture, 48 (2007), 342. On juvenile delinquency in the period, see Christopher Thale, "Cops and Kids: Policing Juvenile Delinquency in Urban America, 1890-1940, Journal of Social History, 40(Summer, 2007), 1024-6; D.J.S. Morris, "American Juvenile Delinquency," Journal of American Studies, 6 (December, 1972), 337-40; Bill Bush, "The Rediscovery of Juvenile Delinquency," Journal of the Gilded and Progressive Era, 5( October, 2006), 393-402.

1 comment:

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