The daily life and travails of a Boston department store detective

Larry Sullivan

Jordan and Marsh began as a department store dealing with “high end” clients in the 1860s in Boston’s downtown shopping and financial district, not far from the Faneuil Marketplace of today. In 1923, Lawrence Schofield, store detective for the store, wrote in his daily diary that “Frances Wilson was in the store and was identified [as] the girl caught on the London account…” Shortly after that entry he wrote, “Got Wilson in coat room. Confessed.” This laconic entry is typical, and we can only wonder how long Frances Wilson took to confess her crime. But what crime exactly did she confess to?

Jordan and Marsh had implemented a credit system by the early 1920s and many of these diary entries were related to the fraudulent misuse of credit accounts. This type of fraud was apparently what Frances Wilson committed. In addition, since Jordan and Marsh marketed a growing number of beauty products, clothes, and other items aimed at women, we are not surprised that the shoplifters are in this demographic. A high number of “girls” were caught for shoplifting, not paying their accounts, or using somebody else’s account number. Latest published research, especially on the large department stores in New York and Chicago, also illustrates the rise in the number of middle-class women shoplifters and the department stores’ problems in dealing with detection of “inventory shrinkage” and the bad publicity of arresting “respectable” middle class women.

Without modern surveillance cameras and the like, store detectives during this period were critical for limiting shoplifting and the misuse of credit accounts. Mr. Schofield’s diary, photographed on the cover, gives a detailed listing of his daily activities, from his leaving for work to his store patrols. Sources for the detection of the growing increase in department store theft rarely include a store detective’s private diary. This important, unique item sheds light on private law enforcement techniques from the early twentieth century. We were very pleased that the Sealy Library acquired this manuscript diary over the summer. It is another example of the comprehensive collecting policy of criminal justice resources that keeps the Sealy Library the outstanding research library in our mission fields.

November 2017

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