Thieves are a popular topic in fiction, although in real life they're mostly reviled. Mostly does a lot of work there, though – as discussed in the hierarchy of predators & parasites, as the scope of thievery increases, things get... complex. Heck, taxation as theft has its own Wikipedia entry. Still, when writing about thieves in fiction, I wanted to investigate some real-life examples.
- Thieves have always been literary characters, from Aladdin to Robin Hood. The first famous literary thief was Autolycus, the son of the god Hermes and Chione in Greek mythology. He possessed a magical helmet which made him invisible and was known for stealing stuff from the other gods.
- Arguably the most notorious female thief in history was Mary Frith, a.k.a. Moll Cutpurse. She was a famous pickpocket, thief and fence in London in the first half of the seventeenth century and even in her own lifetime was featured as a character on the London stage.
- Perhaps one of the most curious forms of modern theft is that of hair-theft. Wigs became big money from the sixteenth century onwards and many people suddenly found they could lose theirs without ever noticing while walking innocently down the street, a form of hair theft which reached a peak in the nineteenth century.
- Between 1995 and 2001 Stéphane Breitwieser stole 239 priceless artworks from museums all across Europe worth a combined total of one and half billion dollars. He didn’t sell them though. Apparently, he just liked the paintings and wanted them for his collection!
- In 2017, thieves in Germany stole a truck filled with 20 tons of Nutella chocolate spread and Kinder chocolate eggs worth approximately $80,000. German police warned people that if they were “offered large quantities [of chocolate] via unconventional channels” to report it to the police immediately.
Bulla Felix was sort of a Roman Robin Hood. In the first years of the third century CE, he operated a huge thief network throughout southern Italy and north as far as Rome itself. A supposed master of disguise, Felix is believed to have broken into jails and amphitheatres on several occasions to rescue his comrades. Like Hood, Felix is also believed to have stolen from the rich and redistributed their wealth to the poor.
Richard of Pudlicott
Richard of Pudlicott may have pulled off the most successful theft in human history. In 1303 he and several accomplices managed to steal most of the crown jewels and other valuable items from King Edward I’s wardrobe at Westminster Abbey in London while the king was away on military campaign. These are believed to have been worth over thirty billion dollars in today’s money. Unfortunately for Richard, when priceless items started showing up on the black market in London he was soon identified, arrested and executed.
Napoleon Bonaparte is more well-known for conquering much of Europe in the 1790s and 1800s, but he was also one of history’s most notorious thieves. After conquering much of Italy in the late 1790s he looted hundreds of pieces of ancient Greek and Roman and Renaissance artwork and had them taken back to Paris. Perhaps the grandest in size was Paolo Veronese’s colossal The Wedding Feast at Cana measuring seven by ten metres. Many of these works were repatriated to Italy after Napoleon’s final downfall in 1815, but scores of them, including Veronese’s masterpiece, make up a large chunk of the displays at the Louvre Museum in Paris to this day.
The Golden Age of the American Thief
The Golden Age of the American thief came in the late 1920s and early 1930s. This was the age of John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde and Baby Face Nelson. This was driven by the Great Depression creating enormous economic problems in America. Moreover, many people were willing to overlook the appalling violence committed and view them as Robin Hood-type figures as they were so disillusioned with the government owing to the financial crisis. It didn’t end well. Nearly every major thief involved was killed in the course of 1934.
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