December 23, 2010

"Theft from a specified place" - crime on the line

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey 1674-1913 make for fascinating reading, giving an insight into lifestyles, motivations and social mores of various eras.  The archive is a digitised, searchable record of court cases heard at the Old Bailey, giving full transcripts of proceedings.

Criminals active during the "Bloody Code" could expect a public hanging for shoplifting, or at best, transportation to a far-flung colony.  Some stories are heart breaking (children and widows stealing out of sheer necessity) and hilarious (a butcher out walking who had the clothes literally ripped off his back: the thieves liked his silver buttons and wanted to sell them for ready cash).  Clothing theft was a subject for my Master's thesis, hence the interest.  But I digress.

I was curious to see if phone calls or the telephone (as artefact) figured in any instances of crime.  The first case heard at the Old Bailey where the telephone is mentioned is in 1883 and involves someone trying to defraud a City stockbroker.  Clerks gave evidence, stating that they telephoned other firms for price information and such like.  City firms were among the first businesses to adopt the telephone: it gave them a time advantage over rival firms that had to rely on messenger boys.

Two resourceful thieves in 1885 used a piece of telephone wire to fish goods out of a shop window.

Following a police raid in 1894, forty seven (!) brand new telephone receivers are found in a suspect's house.  They had been stolen from the National Telephone Company's storehouse in Oxford Street.  I'm wondering how the thief thought he could dispose of them.  In those days, phones were leased to subscribers, rather than sold and it would be impossible to apply for a connection, saying you just wanted a wire strung up to your house but you wouldn't need a telephone.

In another case, a witness gives evidence that in 1898 he tried to phone Scotland Yard but no one answered the phone!

Public telephones were also available very early on.  These weren't kiosks or booths as we know them today, but telephones in shops or businesses (pharmacies, for example) available at a small cost to the public.  The shop owner provided this as a service for his customers (and perhaps to attract new customers?)  In a 1901 forgery case, the accused made a telephone call from an undertaker's office.  Perhaps unknown to him, all calls were recorded and documented by the undertaker.  It was this evidence that was used against him in court. 

This is just a small sample from London.  It is logical that many similar instances have been recorded throughout Britain.  The telephone makes an immediate, albeit small, appearance in criminal cases: in prevention; in the commissioning of crime; and as an object of desire.  This leads us to conclude that a 'telephone culture' is beginning to work its way into the social fabric.  When people start stealing phones, then you know you've arrived!

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.