The police blotter headline caught by eye–Salem Police Nab Alleged Copper Thief on Flint Street–because, frankly, copper downspouts are far too vulnerable in Salem (and I have one right on the street!), but as I read the details, one particular phrase really captured my attention: At 10:18 a.m., police responded to a report of stolen copper down spouts on Flint Street. [The alleged thief] was arrested on charges of larceny over $250, malicious destruction of property valued above $250 and possessing burglarious tools. Burglarious!!! Is that really a word? Burglarious tools!!! I can only imagine. Is there a precise definition–lots of things could be considered “burglarious tools”, I should think. And is there really a law against possessing them apart from using them?
Well I went right to my legal history colleague who directed me to the statute to answer these questions. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts (along with several other states) does indeed have a statute regarding burglarious tools among its General Laws (Chapter 266, Section 49):
Whoever makes or mends, or begins to make or mend, or knowingly has in his possession, an engine, machine, tool or implement adapted and designed for cutting through, forcing or breaking open a building, room, vault, safe or other depository, in order to steal therefrom money or other property, or to commit any other crime, knowing the same to be adapted and designed for the purpose aforesaid, with intent to use or employ or allow the same to be used or employed for such purpose, or whoever knowingly has in his possession a master key designed to fit more than one motor vehicle, with intent to use or employ the same to steal a motor vehicle or other property therefrom, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than ten years or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars and imprisonment in jail for not more than two and one half years.
I’m no lawyer, but the key words here must be “knowing”, “knowingly” and “with intent”: you can’t just arrest someone for having a toolbox in their possession. I know that Massachusetts has long taken theft seriously (it was a capital crime from 1715 to 1839) but I presume that the “burglarious tool” law came later, maybe in the late nineteenth century, when there seems to have been a preoccupation with more deliberate, strategic, involved crimes, requiring some serious tools. I found an interesting article in the May 1874 issue of Manufacturer and Builder on “Burglar’s Tools” which seems to present their manufacture as the dark side of the industrial revolution, and there are several other contemporary publications which seem to be a less preoccupied with the perpetrators than their paraphernalia (and, as several commentators have pointed out, more prescriptive than preventative!)
Manufacturer and Builder, 1874; Aftermath of a Bank Robbery in Montreal, New York Graphic, January 9, 1875 (New York Public Library Digital Gallery);“Bank Burglars’ Outfit”, from George Washington Walling, Recollections of a New York Chief of Police. New York: Caxton Book Concern, 1887.