One of my biggest pet peeves in the hobby is the ideas we have about stealing things. I often hear people stating that someone in the time period is likely to be stealing items. “Where are their clothes from?” “Oh they stole it.” With the myriad of options, why would the most likely option be theft?
Stealing clothing does occur, just like shoplifting occurs in modern times. In the 18th century you were not looking at a few hours of community service. Punishments were far harsher than they are now. I suspect they would give anyone pause before commiting a crime. When one chose to steal clothing, if they were caught they could be facing any number of punishments. On a first offense one could expect at least a whipping and imprisonment.
The military took theft very seriously, here is an example of an ad concerning one such case of theft.
“Head Quarters, Providence, October 19, 1778. THIS is to certify, That PATRICK CARNY, formerly one of Major General Sullivan Waggoners, at Hanover, in New Jersey, was whipped two hundred lashes for stealing five shirts , and dismissed the service some time in September 1777.
By the GeneralOrder, NICHOLAS V. CORTLANDT, A .D.C. I do promise, as a reward to any one that apprehends said PATRICK CARNY and brings him to me, or secures him in any gaol on the Continent, the sum of ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS, as he drove one of my teams when he committed the above crime. JOHNSTON SMITH.” ~
November 17, 1778. The Pennsylvania Packet
The Old Bailey is full of cases involving the stealing laundry, and civilian courts were not lenient at all. However I would not call it something that was commonplace. The following case is here to illustrate what generally happened to a thief.
William Birke was indicted for stealing a linen shirt, value 2 s. the property of John Keysell , October 11th .
ANN CATHERINE Sworn.
The 11th of this month I was looking out of a back window which looks into Bartholomew church-yard , where these things were hanging to dry. Mrs. Keysell is a laundress. There is an alley, and a high wall parts the alley from the church-yard. I saw the prisoner and another man in the alley; the other man lifted the prisoner up, and he drew a shirt off the line.
Did you know him before? – No, I saw him in the alley before he took the shirt. I was afraid he wanted to take some of the things, and watched him; when he had got the shirt they both went away towards Cloth-fair I went and informed Mrs. Keysell of of it and we went up Cloth-fair and met the prisoner there. I laid hold of him and asked him what he had taken out of the church-yard? He immediately pulled the shirt from under his jacket, and said he found it. I held him till a gentleman came and sent for a constable, and took him to Guildhall. I am sure the prisoner is the man I saw take the shirt.
ANN KEYSELL Sworn.
I take in washing. I hang my clothes in the burying ground of St. Bartholomew’s-church. On Wednesday week I had a good many shirts hanging there. Ann Catherine went out first and stopped the prisoner just by my door before I came out.
(The shirt was produced in court and deposed to by the prosecutrix.)
I found the shirt at the end of the court. I saw two men running into it; I called after them but they would not stop, so I put it under my jacket.
GUILTY of stealing the goods to the value of 10 d.
W(hipping) and Imp(risonment for) 6 months.
Tried by the London Jury before Mr. RECORDER.
Old Bailey Proceedings Online www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 24 January 2015, October 1780, trial of WILLIAM BIRKE. t17801018-22.