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Early American Crimes: Burglary, Part III

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Note: This post continues Early American Crimes: Burglary, Part II.

Outside of murder, burglary and robbery were considered the most egregious crimes in England and colonial America. Since burglars and robbers threaten the well-being and lives of victims while taking their property, they are generally regarded as worse than thieves, who try to steal without detection or intimidation. Burglary also conjures up feelings of discomfort, fear, and disgust at the thought of a stranger rifling through your possessions after entering your residence uninvited.

Burglars in general do not face the same time constraints as robbers, who have to grab the goods from their victims and escape immediately after the confrontation. If burglars can find an unoccupied house, go undetected, or intimidate the occupants into inaction, they can empty the contents of the dwelling at their leisure. Under these circumstances, burglary can end up costing the victim much more than robbery.

Burglar Backgrounds

Burglars from Philadelphia generally came from the poorer and transient classes, and probably came from immigrant, mariner, and servant groups. They most likely did not constitute a criminal class, i.e., a group of criminals who acted as full-time robbers, burglars, or thieves. They were probably opportunistic criminals, taking advantage of opportunities when they found themselves in desperate straits.

The urban setting of late eighteenth-century Philadelphia provided burglars and other criminals focused on property with more to steal than in rural areas. These opportunities, combined with greater deprivation among the poor, meant that property crime was higher in Philadelphia than in other parts of Pennsylvania.

Eighteenth-century Massachusetts, where there was more of a history of burglary, experienced a greater presence of chronic criminals who belonged to a quasi-criminal subculture than Pennsylvania did. The stories of their lives and of the many burglaries and robberies they committed regularly appeared in broadsides and pamphlets, which could often be purchased at their executions.

Burglars and other types of thieves tended to steal similar types of goods: money, food, fabrics, clothing and accessories, household goods, and silverware were all top targets. The burglary of shops or warehouses belonging to wealthy merchants could bring the biggest hauls, sometimes 20 to 200 pounds or more. Such operations often involved advanced planning and knowledge of the presence and location of the goods.


Burglars often acted with accomplices, in groups, or in gangs. Women usually did not commit burglaries or robberies, but when they did they were usually accompanied by males. Female burglars who were caught were often shown mercy by the courts during sentencing, since judges tended to believe that they were driven to the act by poverty.

African-American burglars also tended to act in groups, and they were often joined by whites, who usually took the lead in fencing the stolen items. Sixteen burglaries by African Americans were prosecuted in Pennsylvania between 1780 and 1800, and ten of them included white accomplices.

Because the criminal justice system in the colonies tended to be inefficient, burglars could commit numerous crimes over long periods of time before being caught. Professional burglars avoided detection by moving around and committing crimes in different places, where they would not be known and could more easily sneak off. If they were ever caught, they would sometimes try to strike deals with their victims to avoid bringing in the authorities and risk prosecution.

Burglary was considered a serious crime in early America, and it was dealt with harshly by the authorities. Over the coming weeks, Early American Crime is going to examine this crime more closely by profiling some of the burglars of colonial America and the early United States.

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  • Cohen, Daniel A. Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature And the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.
  • Marietta, Jack D. and G. S. Rowe. Troubled Experiment: Crime and Justice in Pennsylvania, 1682-1800. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
  • Read more about burglary in Early American Crime.

    One Comment

    1. Lauren wrote:

      It’s amazing that’s these thieves got away with these crimes for so long, although they didn’t have the technology we have now to profile and capture criminals. Great post once again.

      Friday, December 4, 2009 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

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