|A Stolen Hudson, Abandoned, 1920|
Sunday, December 14, 2014
Stealing Cars: Automobile Theft and the 1920s City Scene
Automobile Theft and the 1920s City Scene
By the 1920s, Automobile theft was most acute in Detroit and Los Angeles. “Naturally Detroit is peculiarly liable to this trouble because it has such a large floating population of men trained to mechanical expertise in the various factories.” It stood to reason that Ford’s workers stole Ford’s cars. Arthur Evans Wood reported that in 1928 in Detroit a total of 11,259 cars were stolen. Of those thefts less than 10 percent led to an eventual arrest, and only 50 percent of that group was ever prosecuted. In the end, only 25 percent of those persons arrested for auto theft in this particular group were ever convicted. Since at that time many thieves ended up paying off "coppers" to avoid apprehension, one might conclude that this crime actually did pay.
The same year in Los Angeles 10,813 automobiles were stolen. By the 1920s, Los Angeles had the most automobiles per resident in the United States. And this fact clearly was changing the face of crime in the City of Angels. Historian Scott Bottles has pointed out that “By 1925, every other Angelino owned an automobile as opposed to the rest of the country where there was only one car for every six people.” Angelinos had more opportunities to steal cars, and some took those opportunities. In 1916 some 1,300 cars were stolen and 85% were recovered; a decade later more than 10,000 were taken with an 89% recovery rate. Theft statistics remained in the range between 5,000 and 8,000 cars per year to the onset of World War II.
Baltimore, New York City, Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Omaha, St. Louis, and many other cities also experienced major problems related to automobile theft. In 1918, the year immediately before federal legislation was enacted to stem the auto theft tide, Chicago experienced more than 2,600 thefts; St. Louis 2,241; Kansas City 1,144; and Cleveland, 2,076.  However, in an article published in Country Life, Alexander Johnson revealed the problem was not just endemic to urban America: “We who live in the country are not quite as subject as our urban brethren to this abominable outrage, but automobile stealing is carried on even in the rural districts.” Although cars from the countryside certainly were stolen from time to time, auto theft remained largely an urban problem from the WWI era to this day. Joy riders could be found in every locale; gangs, rings, bootleggers, and drugs were very much a part of the city scene.
Of course, within each city there were some neighborhoods that were more secure than others. And there were "hot spots," some of which were connected with the race of the majority of their inhabitants. Such was the case of Chicago in the early 1930s, where in several red-lined districts insurance underwriters refused to issue policies "except under special arrangement." In these African-American neighborhoods "conditions are so deplorable …that resident motorists cannot obtain any insurance." To clarify its reasons for making such a decision, the insurance industry stated that "The reason that Negros cannot secure theft insurance is not one of discrimination, but more or less one of character. Color does not play any part."
 Johnson, “Stop Thief!,” 72.
 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.
 Scott Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of a Modern City (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1987), p. 92.
 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).
 US House of Representatives, 66th Congress, 1st session, Report 312: Theft of Automobiles. (Washington: G.P.O, 1919), p. 1.
 Johnson, “Stop Thief!” 72.
 "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.