Investigating crimes of the (19th) century at the Library Company of Philadelphia

A collection of 150-year-old photos, etchings and books, the historical library’s exhibition “Capitalism by Gaslight: The Shadow Economies of 19th Century America” traces the economics of thievery.

The Library Company of Philadelphia is getting into crime. Old-time crime.

A collection of 150-year-old photos, etchings and books, the historical library’s exhibition “Capitalism by Gaslight: The Shadow Economies of 19th Century America” traces the economics of thievery.

“We typically celebrate Stephen Girard and Robert Morris, and captains of industry, for good reason,” said curator Wendy Woloson. “But this is the other side of capitalism. This was happening more frequently than people think.”

Consider Fredericka Mandelbaum, a Prussian-born immigrant to New York who became one of the most powerful women in that city. She fenced stolen goods.

“She oversaw a network of criminals who did their own crimes and then helped her with her enterprise,” said Woloson. “When they got arrested, she would help bail them out. She was good at engendering loyalty.”

The exhibition of printed materials looks at the ingenuity of pickpockets, prostitutes, swindlers and gamblers of 150 years ago. It includes a rare pamphlet called “The Guide for Strangers.” It described Philadelphia’s brothels by name and address; many were located just a few blocks from the Library Company’s location at 13th and Locust streets.

It even rated them, from low to high.

The creator of the guide is unknown, as is the printer. It was made to be thrown away, as a man would not want to have it on his person when he returned home.

Just how much criminal activity was happening is hard to know, because the mostly private police force at the time was often on the take, themselves. One statistic from the mid-19th century posits that as many as 2 percent of New York City’s female population got some income from sex trade.

The exhibition has a chart of tools used by safe crackers. It also explains that children were often employed as thieves because they could more easily evade pursuers in a crowded street than a full-grown criminal.

“What attracts me is the ingenuity to get by in extra-legal ways,” said Woloson. “It’s hard enough to make money by the books. It’s even more difficult to figure how to do that when faced with law enforcement.”

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