Sorting by

Skip to main content

Living in a culture that praises consumption, it is difficult to recognize the pressure of materialism and the emptiness of spending.

In 1882, Ellen Sardy, a “well-dressed middled-aged woman of respectable appearance,” was caught shoplifting. While in the Sixth Avenue store of Simpson, Crawford, and Simpson, Ellen Sardy took three pairs of stockings and five pieces of silk, items of significant value in the 1880s. “Sardy was released when her lawyer admitted the larceny but ‘asked clemency on the grounds that the prisoner for some time past had been of weak mind and was not always responsible for her actions.’ The Sardy case was probably not the first such plea in New York City, but it seems to be the first time the court accepted the excuse and the definition of the middle-class shopper.”

According to historian Elaine S. Abelson, “kleptomania was a quasi-medical term that evoked the image of a women of some means and indeterminate years who regularly took merchandise from larger department stores without the formality of payment.” In other words, kleptomania was a term for middle class female shoplifters. Interestingly, working class women caught shoplifting were just classified as thieves. The 1887 July issue of the American Journal of Insanity published a paper about kleptomania. Dr. Orpheus Everts, superintendent of the Cincinnati Sanitarium, defined kleptomania as a “natural desire to accumulate exaggerated by disease.” Everts explained the case of a thirty-nine year old woman, who was a widow, and a mother of “good society,” admitted to the asylum as a hysteric with a history of kleptomania, and described as suffering from “womb disease mania,“ which Everts defined as “larceny and eroticism with hysteria.” The 1884 American edition of the textbook, Clinical Lectures on Mental Diseases cited “ovarian insanity” and kleptomania as larger issues associated with “disturbed menstruation” that was “constant danger to the mental stability of some women.”

1880s Doctors and lawyers defended Ellen Sardy as “a respectable, well-connected lady, but evidently a kleptomaniac.” Middle class white women often claimed they had no memory of taking the merchandise, and had no reason to do so, because they were able to pay for anything they wanted to purchase and therefore did not need to steal the merchandise.

Abelson interprets these nineteenth century diagnoses as reinforcing established notions about class and gender. Kleptomania defined women’s reproductive functions as inherently diseased, as these manias were traced to the womb and conflated with both sickness and behavioral irregularities. It also seemed to imply ideas about inherent female weakness. Additionally, medical expertise managed to “transform a criminal act into a physical symptom.” Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in a letter to the London Times, “if there is any doubt of moral responsibility…the benefit of the doubt should certainly be given to one whose sex and position…give her a double claim to our consideration. It is in the consulting room and not to the cell that she should be sent.” Apparently middle-class white women were assumed to be completely ruled by their biology and inherently fragile and unstable.

Perhaps the more interesting question is why the diagnoses of kleptomania found such acceptance, among the medical and legal experts of the day. After all, if shoplifting was considered a crime instead of an illness, what would explain why ‘respectable’ white, middle class women were becoming criminals in significant numbers? There is a lack of thoughtful consideration of the twin pressures of consumption and materialism, particularly for middle class white women, both in the 1880s and in the present. A diagnoses that works as both an explanation and excuse for bad behavior seems to hold a great deal of appeal, in the 1880s, and perhaps in the present.

Elaine S. Abelson, “The Invention of Kleptomania,” Signs, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Autumn, 1989), 123-143. See also, Elaine S. Abelson, When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1992).

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

One Comment

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Credit to you, Prof. Koerselman, for once again reporting something telling that the rest of us will have missed, or ignored. Apart from the issues you raise of gender and class identity, what is an American but a “consumer,” and how has our American relationship to the rest of the world and its resources not been national kleptomania?

Leave a Reply