Redistributing Wealth


Brownsville Persistive Horse Company. List of Members. Doylestown, Pa.: Samuel Fretz, 1842.Where there are people there is theft. The colonies’ first courts tried people for stealing, and America’s first newspapers contained notices for stolen goods. So serious were property crimes that people were often sent to the gallows for stealing.

The opportunity for theft only increased over time. In the 19th century, people enjoyed increased mobility and often traveled with valuable possessions. With the growth of manufactures came more new goods, giving rise to flourishing secondary markets in which used goods and scrap metals circulated. Importantly, stolen goods often reached the legitimate commercial world once again, whether indirectly as scrap material funneled through a number of distributors, or directly in the case of disinterred corpses sold for dissection in anatomy classes.

Like other sectors of the shadow economy, trafficking stolen goods presented economic opportunities for those excluded from legitimate forms of business. The trade could be especially profitable for children, who moved easily throughout the streets, alone and in gangs, and were therefore often able to evade capture by the authorities.