Essays

Crime in Late 19th Century America


 The Late 19th Century was a time of great change in America. One aspect of American life that changed for the worst was the proliferation of criminal activity. It was during this period that America witnesses a massive surge in crime, both organized and otherwise.


Robert Macy is often credited as being the first man to create a modern department store in America. As such, he did everything possible to persuade urban middle-class women to leave the privacy of there homes and travel to his store to go shopping. Macy and other entrepreneurs created art galleries, musical entertainment, restaurants, and tearooms. Increasingly women constituted the workforce at Macy's and similar enterprises. By 1880, it has been estimated that over eighty percent of Macy’s workforce were women.



At the same time that there was an explosion in the number of women shoppers and women shop employees, there was also an explosion in the number of women shoplifters.
Of course, shoplifting was not a new problem since the word itself dates back to the 17th Century. As long as there have been stores, there have been shoppers who stole from them.



What was new was the proclivity of well-to-do, respectable women in this kind of criminal activity. This was a development that was especially puzzling to journalists, medical personnel, officers of the law and department store owners. This development came at a time when such women were held up as being moral exemplars for the rest of society to follow. 



The shoplifting problem became so bad that during the late 19th Century that the consensus among department store owners was that they were losing a considerable amount of revenue due to shoplifters. The May 11, 1880, Chicago Daily Tribune reported that one store owner said that, “You must know that shoplifters are generally among the best-dressed and most respectable-looking women that come into our store.” 



Department store owners had a problem on their hands. They were doing everything they could do to attract well to do prosperous women to their stores, yet some of these same women were engaged in actively stealing from the stores even though they had the money to pay for the items they stole. These items included such goods as fans, gloves, jewelry, and silk shawls the loss of which due to theft made a big difference to the bottom line. 



How big was a loss shoplifting to the bottom line? At the high point of the shopping season, Christmas, losses due to shoplifting were as much as 5% of total store revenue. However, if they tried to have the women arrested as Robert Macy did, then the store owners risked a public backlash and loss of sales.



Interestingly enough, when the female culprits were caught, they would often become indignant that they, of all people, would be treated like common criminals. Sometimes, though, they would become tearful and pretend that they had no idea why they did that and then ask that they are let go on the grounds that they would never, ever do it again. All too often, once they were let go, they would return to shoplifting. In other words, they were sorry that they were caught, not sorry that they did the deed. All too often, the families and friends of the female culprits took the side of the criminals and took the position that it was either al a misunderstanding or the work of evil clerks or department store detectives who hated women. Unfortunately, the judges and juries had a tendency to acquit the female miscreants, thinking that the store employees must have been mistaken. Medical professionals invented the term "kleptomania" to describe a mental disorder involving a compulsion to steal for emotional rather than economic reasons.



The idea came to be that shoplifting by rich females who could easily afford to buy the item in question was merely because of some medical problem while those who shoplifted because of poverty were evil became so widespread that the January 26, 1879, San Francisco Chronicle wrote that "Kleptomania is coming into fashion again, and rich shop-lifters will be let off and poor ones sent up.”
Similar thoughts were expressed in the following newspaper poem:


Kleptomania
“Long since all women of our day
The honest path forsook:
For gloves and shoes sometimes they’ll pay,
But buttons they will hook.”
––Chicago Daily Tribune October 12, 1879


While shoplifting was a notable aspect of late 19th Century crime, it was basically a crime committed by individuals acting on their own and not as any kind of groups or gangs. However, the late 19th Century was also significant for the rise of Los Costa Nostra aka the Mafia.


One little-known aspect of the rise of the Mafia in America was the role of yellow journalists. Basically, what happened was that the reputation of the Sicilian Mafia reached America long before any actual Italian gangsters ever did. What happened was that starting during the 1860's, the yellow press in America claimed that just about any crimes perpetrated in America by any immigrant with names that even sounded slightly Italian were all the work of the "Maffia." The hack journalists were so ignorant of who or what the Mafia was really like that they could not even spell the word Mafia right. What this led to was a situation where all too many people in American law enforcement came to discount the very idea of the Mafia ever coming to America so inured had they become to all the false alarms spread by the yellow press. So when the Mafia really did come to America starting in the late 1890's, law enforcement had become complacent to the threat due to both the yellow press and the fact that for the first two decades or so, the Mafia stuck to criminal activities against other Italian Americans.


When most Americans think of the late 19th Century, they generally think of positive things such as the victory in the Spanish-American War with Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, the growth of electronics with Thomas Edison as well as the birth of the automobile and other aspects of a growing prosperity. What they don't usually think of are the negative aspects such as the rise of both Jim Crow and crime whether it be by individuals, such as shoplifters, or by groups such as by the Mafia. 


One little-known aspect of the rise of the Mafia in America was the role of yellow journalists. Basically, what happened was that the reputation of the Sicilian Mafia reached America long before any actual Italian gangsters ever did. What happened was that starting during the 1860's, the yellow press in America claimed that just about any crimes perpetrated in America by any immigrant with names that even sounded slightly Italian were all the work of the "Maffia." The hack journalists were so ignorant of who or what the Mafia was really like that they could not even spell the word Mafia right. What this led to was a situation where all too many people in American law enforcement came to discount the very idea of the Mafia ever coming to America so inured had they become to all the false alarms spread by the yellow press. So when the Mafia really did come to America starting in the late 1890's, law enforcement had become complacent to the threat due to both the yellow press and the fact that for the first two decades or so, the Mafia stuck to criminal activities against other Italian Americans.


image64

Mara Leveritt's Great White Whale

In Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is depicted as a man who was obsessed with pursuing the great white whale to the point of bringing out the destruction of his ship, crew and ultimately himself.  Mara Leveritt is a journalist who has shown herself to be similarly obsessed with the story of the infamous drug smuggler Barry Seal.  However, there is a difference between the two.  Captain Ahab was honest and forthright about his obsession and the reasons behind it.  Mara Leveritt, on the other hand, has been dishonest in both her reporting on Barry Seal and her reasons why.  She has pursued the Barry Seal in both her 1999 book The Boys on the Tracks and in so-called "alternative media" consistently distorting the story of what really happened with Barry Seak along the way.  


On September 28, 2017, Leveritt published an article entitled "Who's Afraid of Barry Seal?" in the Arkansas Times, one of those free circulation "alternative newspapers" that often run spurious "investigative" articles to spike reader interest.   At first glance, this article was about the 2017 movie American Made starring Tom Cruise as Barry Seal even though Cruise did not even remotely resemble Seal.  Leveritt approvingly noted that the movie's producers were claiming that their movie was "based on a true lie."  As it happens, Cruise's movie was loaded with all sorts of factual errors that have been documented at the invaluable website History vs. Hollywood and does not need to be repeated here.  


Leveritt has long claimed that there has been a cover-up of the true facts of the Barry Seal case by law enforcement and others.  In this article, Leveritt added the Butler Center, which is a division of the Arkansas Studies Institute, to her list of conspirators.  In this article, she claimed  that she had a deal with the Butler Center that they would arrange for a book by her that would be entitled, "The Mena File:  Barry Seal's Ties to Drug Lords and U.S. Officials."  However, according to her, the Butler Center inexplicably dropped its plans to published the book without ever giving any good reasons as to just why they made this decision.  Leveritt did, however, hint darkly that unseen political forces were at work to prevent people from learning the truth about what really happened.  She also implied that this book project of hers was the last chance for a book about what really happened with Barry Seal to ever be published.


All this is interesting given Leveritt's conduct in reporting about Barry Seal.  Almost everything that she ever wrote about him was a severe distortion of the facts if not, in fact, an out and out invention.  For instance, in 1972, Seal and some accomplices were arrested by U.S. Customs agents for allegedly engaging in a scheme to smuggle plastic explosives for anti-Castro Cuban exiles to use against the Communist dictatorship.  According to Leveritt, "prosecutors abruptly dropped the case at the start of his trial."  The implication here is that there was a cover-up of Seal's crimes.


However, according to retired FBI agent Del Hahn, who devoted two years of his life investigating Barry Seal, that is not what happened.  According to Hahn, on "June 29, 1974, the fifth day of the trial," U.S. District Court Judge Herbert Christenberry declared a mistrial, throwing the case out of court, ending the prosecution of Barry Seal.  


This was not an aberration.  For decades Leveritt had been making this claim most notably in The Boys on the Tracks, and yet no reviewer ever called her out for it.  It was not as if it was impossible for the truth to be discovered.  One day in late 1999, following the release of The Boys on the Tracks, this writer spent an afternoon looking up many of the assertions that Leveritt made in that book and found that nearly all of them were at the very least serious distortions of the truth if not outright falsehoods.  However, when I wrote letters to the editor of such publications as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (which has the nickname of "the DOG" among Arkansas folks), the Arkansas Times and other publications that published glowing reviews of Leveritt's book and repeated many of her falsehoods as established fact, none of those letters were ever published.  


It was not until the 2016 publication of Del Hahn's book, Smuggler's End:  The Life and Death of Barry Seal that the true facts of the Barry Seal case were ever presented to the American people.  Prior to that, the likes of Mara Leveritt and others had been granted free reign to spread distortions and falsehoods about the case with nobody being able to call them out on it.


Following the release of The Boys on the Tracks, both my mother and I spent a few months researching Leveritt's tall tales in that book.  However, no editor showed any interest in our work or conclusions, insisting that Mara Leveritt was too good a journalist to simply make things up.  During our research, my mother and I encountered Mara Leveritt herself.  During our conversation, Leveritt freely admitted that her motivations for covering the Barry Seal case included "getting" the then President Bill Clinton who she considered as being no different than a Republican.  After my mother passed away in October 2000, and our notes were lost during my subsequent move to Illinois, any chance that this writer had to correct the record ended.  While it is true that Hahn's book did not address Leveritt's The Boys on the Tracks, he did, however, contradict what she and others had written about Barry Seal and did so with are greater detail than what this writer could ever have been capable of.  


This was, not only due to his time investigating Seal, but also his inside knowledge of the other agents involved in the case and the resources made available to them.  For instance, Hahn made it clear that there is no evidence that Barry Seal ever smuggled drugs outside of the states of Florida and Louisiana.  Seals's activities at the airport at Mena, Arkansas, were limited to taking advantage of the fact that Mena was home to a company called Rich Mountain Aviation that had an outstanding reputation as a company that kept airplanes in top working order and which made modifications to those airplanes that made them even better for drug smuggling.  Another reason was to distract attention by law enforcement from Seals' operations in Florida and Louisiana.  Seals' moving his base of operations to Mena probably worked far better than what he probably could ever have anticipated as shown by the fact that the way that the news media covered his case, you would hardly have guessed that Seal ever engaged in his criminal enterprises anywhere else outside of Mena.

image65