Saturday, December 13, 2014

Stealing Cars: Mass Production and the Post-WWI Rise in Auto Theft

Mass Production and the Post-WWI Rise in Auto Theft
            With Ford’s “democratization” of the automobile and an explosion in the number of vehicles came an epidemic of automobile theft. Machines produced in mass quantities made easy prey for joy riders, common thieves, and skilled, organized professional criminals. Moreover, the automobile was valuable, mobile, and its parts were often interchangeable. Lucrative domestic and international markets for stolen automobiles and parts yielded high profits and relatively low risk. Interchangeable parts also enabled thieves to quickly reconstruct and disguise stolen automobiles. As evinced by thieves’ ability to alter serial numbers, duplicate registration papers, switch radiators, and replace entire engine blocks, Fordism’s inherent uniformity welcomed theft. Moreover, thieves, with few exceptions, sought out and stole the most ubiquitous automobiles; popular, middle-priced models were most likely to be stolen, along with the easy to steal Model T.
Until the introduction of the electric self-starter in 1912, automobiles employed a battery/magneto switch along with a crank.[1]  The automobilist turned the switch to B (battery), got outside the car, cranked the engine, and then once it started, moved the lever to M (magneto) and adjusted the carburetor.  On early Ford Model T’s the battery/magneto switch had a brass lever key, but there were only two types, with either a round or square shank.  Later, in 1919, Ford offered an optional lockable electric starter, but only used twenty-four key patterns. To make things easy for the thief, each code was stamped on both the key and the starter plate. 
Most significantly, however, the very nature and scale of criminality was transformed by automobility.  Unlike other stolen goods, the automobile enabled its own escape.  One such real life episode happened in 1925, when five men held up a cashier and timekeeper at a construction site in the Bronx, took $2000, and then fled in the victim’s car.  The New York Times reported that the thugs, “as they fled … fired a shot from the automobile at a number of workmen who had dropped their tools and were giving chase. The robbers’ car was out of sight when they reached 165th Street and Jerome Avenue."[2]
It was obvious, then, when in 1916 a New York Police official commented that: “the automobile is a very easy thing to steal and a hard thing to find.”[3] As early as 1915, 401 automobiles were stolen in New York and only 338 were recovered.[4]  By 1920, it was estimated that one-tenth of cars manufactured annually were stolen.[5] Astonishingly, in 1925 it was estimated that 200,000 to 250,000 cars were stolen annually.  The automobile age had ushered in a new era of crime, and a new type of criminal, the “joy rider.” [6]
This crime wave, however, could not be attributed to just one kind of criminal, particularly one who took his or her act as a casual "borrowing" of a vehicle. Automobile theft added new categories of crimes, and the motor vehicle became a central part of burglary and housebreaking. In response, police began to patrol with the automobile. In 1922, Chicago police complained that their worn-out “tin lizzies” should be scrapped; they could not catch the high powered hold-up car that traveled at sixty miles an hour.[7] Even with the growth of government and the advent of patrolling, police forces were outmaneuvered by mobile criminals. Contrary to the iconic prohibition image of police forces that smashed barrels of alcohol, municipal police forces may have dealt with stolen automobiles on a more regular basis.  Automobile theft developed as a complex phenomenon, one that was not easily characterized in terms of motives or methods.  Indeed it became as complex as American life in the machine age.  In Philadelphia in 1926, 8,896 people were arrested for assault and battery by the automobile, as it was also used as a weapon.[8]
George C. Henderson, an expert on crime who had just authored his popular Keys to Crookdom (1924), placed car thieves into five categories: commercial thieves and hardened criminals; strippers; traveling crooks; robbers or bandits; and finally "Joy riders, kids, imbeciles, dope fiends, incorrigibles, rough-necks and members of youthful gangs [who]steal cars just to ride around town." [9] As to the "why" of youthful offenders, W.S. Jennings, commenting on those incarcerated in Indiana's Jeffersonville Reformatory, asserted that the reason for adolescents breaking the law was due to "Divorces, broken homes, children spoiled in raising by neglected parents, or by equally neglected over-indulgent ones; the absence of rational home life to counteract city temptations; failure to learn self control in early life."[10]       
In reality, there were almost as many reasons for becoming an auto thief as there were thieves. One purported auto thief, writing a confession in a 1925 issue of Your Car: A Magazine of Romance, Fact and Fiction explained that he "drifted into stealing automobiles, because it seemed the easiest way to get what was to me a lot of money, quickly. I had a champagne appetite and a dishwasher income."[11] Beginning with the theft of automobile jacks, tire irons, and tires, this repentant criminal organized a gang of three, including one skilled mechanic who had "graduated from one of "Detroit's finest factories.'" The trio, careful to study the daily habits of the owners of the cars under consideration, concentrated on stealing Buicks in New York City and then moving them to a shop in Westchester. In the end, and after a chance apprehension, the writer was determined to go straight after a two year prison sentence.  He cautioned owners with a strategy that remains viable to this day:
The stories I read about automobile thieves and how slick they are, opening any lock in fifteen minutes, installing wiring systems of their own and all that sort of stuff, make me laugh.  Why should a thief go to all that trouble when right around the corner he can find another car without any locks on it, except the  ignition lock, which his master key will open as quickly as the owners?[12]

In sum, auto theft was often one of a number of interrelated crimes perpetrated by law breakers. The automobile created new opportunities for criminals of all persuasions, and consequently confronted legal authorities with a myriad of problems. One author noted that, “asautomobile thefts increase burglaries and robberies increase.”[13]  The automobile itself was stolen, but the automobile also played a central role in kidnapping, rum running, larceny, burglary, traffic crimes, robberies, and deadly accidents of the “lawless years.”[14]                                                   

[1] 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.
[2] “Get $2,000 Payroll, Flee in Victim’s Car,” New York Times, September 27, 1925, 9.
[3] Roy Lewis, “Watch Your Car,” Outing, 70(May 1917), 170.
[4] 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."
[5] 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[?].
[6] 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.
[7]Henry Barrett Chamberlain, “The Proposed Illinois Bureau of Criminal Records and Statistics.” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, 13(Feb., 1922), 522.  Allegedly the police moved one-third as fast as the criminals they chased.
[8]Ellen C. Potter, “Spectacular Aspects of Crime in Relation to the Crime Wave,”Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 125(May, 1926), 12. Potter noted, “…the automobile has added its spectacular element to causes for arrest in Philadelphia by approximately 10 percent. Assault and battery by the good old-fashioned human fist lacks some of the elements which make the same offense by automobile a new story and more than 8,800 arrests were made in 1925 out of a total of 137,263.”
[9] George C. Henderson, Keys to Crookdom (New York:. D. Appleton, 1924), pp. 28-9.
[10] W.S. Jennings, Jeffersonville Reformatory, City of Renewed Hope," where Indiana Keeps Some of her Misfits," Indiana Farmers' Guide, 33 (April 30, 1921), 4.
[11] "Confessions of An Auto Thief," Your Car: A Magazine of Romance, Fact and Fiction (June 1925), 34.
[12] Ibid., p. 36.
[13] William J. Davis, “Stolen Automobile Investigations.” Journal of Automobile Investigations, 28 (Jan.-Feb. 1938), 721.
[14] Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Lawless Years: 1921-1933,” http://www.fbi.gvov/libref/historic/history/lawless.htm, accessed 17 May 2008.
[15]  Johnson, “Stop Thief!,” 72.
[16] Bennet Mead, “Police Statistics.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 146 (Nov. 1929), 94. Arthur Evans Wood, "A Study of Arrests in Detroit, 1913 to 1919," Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, 21 (August, 1930), 99.         
[17]Wood, p.94.
[18] Scott Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of a Modern City (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1987), p. 92.
[19] J.B. Thomas, Conspicuous Depredation: Automobile Theft in Los Angeles, 1904-1987 (N.P.: Office of the Attorney General, California Department of Justice, Division of Law Enforcement, Criminal Identification and Information Branch, Bureau of Criminal Statistics and Special Services, March 1990).
[20] US House of Representatives, 66th Congress, 1st session, Report 312:  Theft of Automobiles. (Washington: G.P.O, 1919),   p. 1.  
[21] Johnson, “Stop Thief!” 72.
[22] "Car Insurance is Withheld from Chicago Negroes. Appaling [sic]  Auto Theft Rate Makes Negro Districts Bigger Risks than more Refined Districts," Plaindealer (Kansas City, Kansas), July 7, 1933, pp. 1, 4.

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