Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The History of Automobile Theft during the WWII and the late 1940s

Abandoned Stolen Car, 1942

Regardless of the era, any critical discussion related to the topic of auto theft defies simple explanations. For example, at the beginning of World War II, many social commentators spoke of a general outbreak of juvenile delinquency, as a sort of mass hysteria. One might expect that auto theft and joy riding increased after Pearl Harbor. Nothing was further from the truth, however. Juvenile auto theft decreased markedly during 1942, probably due to the actions of more careful owners who were mindfully aware that tires and gasoline were in short supply and insurance companies were refusing to replace either stolen tires or stolen cars. But 1942 only proved to be a lull in the incidence of auto theft, for in 1943 the trend reversed, perhaps due to wartime prosperity, as more teenagers owned hopped-up cars, and less care was given to either driving or parking. Sociologist David Bogen concluded from the experience of the wartime years that, “The tendency of delinquency to increase in times of prosperity and decrease in times of economic stress and unemployment is just the opposite of what most people believed.”2 Interestingly, Bogen’s wartime observations hit upon one of the most significant paradoxes related to auto theft during the post-war years; namely, that the privileged, white teenagers with money were more likely than their poorer contemporaries to steal cars, mostly for youthful adventure rather than necessity.
            The car theft problem intensified in the years immediately after World War II. In Milwaukee, where in 1946 car thefts were double of those from 1945, a group of community leaders that included the chief of police, a Catholic cleric, and Protestant clergyman formed the Milwaukee Metropolitan Crime Commission.3 This group was “particularly concerned with the prevention of crime among juveniles,” and to that end pursued a public education campaign that resulted in the publication of two brochures, “Here, Kid, Take My Car,” and “Keys of Another Kingdom.” Their message was a simple one: remove the ignition keys and much of the juvenile crime will disappear. Thus, the onus was placed on adult automobile owners, who were seen as being even more disrespectful of law and order than youth. In its brochures, the Commission firmly argued that “opportunity makes the thief,” that in certain locales up to 92 percent of cars stolen were the result of keys left in the car, and that: “No citizen . . . would leave a thousand dollar bill lying in the street and expect it to be there when he returned. And yet we have several hundred citizens who daily leave a valuable automobile on the streets . . . with plenty of gasoline in the tank and keys in the car.”
            The magnitude of the crime was reflected by the fact that in 1946 21.8 percent of all federal prisoners were auto thieves, representing the single largest group of criminals in federal custody. A decade later, the number of prisoners had doubled. Testifying before a Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency in 1955, Director of Federal Prisons James V. Bennett remarked, “It is around the automobile, by far and away, that the largest number of federal offenses revolve.”4


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