To Catch a Thief in the Days before Detectives

In 1750, Philadelphia was plagued by a series of domestic robberies over several weeks. The items targeted were primarily the luxury goods that were becoming increasingly available to residents who had financial means: jewelry, fine cloth, good silver. Although the colony of Pennsylvania was still largely an agricultural economy, the City of Brotherly Love was becoming an important urban center. Industrial and mercantile growth brought new residents and new opportunities, but along with the growing population came new forms of social unrest. Philadelphians had certainly seen crime, but the level of organization behind the 1750 robberies was unusual.

At the time, most colonial cities didn’t have a police force as such. Most had a neighborhood watch and a night watch, largely staffed by volunteers; when the nightwatch sounded an alarm, any able-bodied citizen might be called upon to help catch a thief. Only a year before the burglary epidemic, in 1749, Philadelphia implemented a new system which paid the nightwatch out of city taxes and appointed a warden to oversee the watchmen. The role of detective didn’t exist; there were no handbooks or procedures, and the local wardens couldn’t seem to catch the robber or robbers in the act.

In the end, the very goods that attracted the thieves were the clues that gave them away. Suddenly Philadelphians of modest means were sporting good cloth and fine accessories; when questioned, they simply claimed to have gotten a good deal. The authorities traced the “good deal” to a shop owned by Francis and Mary McCoy; the low-priced luxury goods they found there were deemed sufficient evidence to arrest Francis McCoy, and as he removed his shoes to put on the leg irons, out fell a necklace that had recently been burgled. Interrogating the McCoys led to the discovery of an entire criminal ring: John Morrison, a flamboyant career criminal who sold limes door-to-door as a means to inspect houses as potential marks; Stinson, who owned a tavern where they all met; John Crow, a servant whose stolen goods gave the game away; the McCoys, who fenced the stolen goods; and Elizabeth “Betty” Robinson, who helped carry out the robberies and who was largely responsible for bringing the gang together. Morrison, Robinson, and Francis McCoy were sentenced to death. An account of their crimes and confessions was made available to the public shortly after.

An Account of the robberies committed by John Morrison and his accomplices in and near Philadelphia, 1750… Philadelphia, 1750-1. Collection of the Rosenbach, A 750a.

This must have been a titillating read for Philadelphians in the 1750s. Gang activity was fairly rare in early Philadelphia; the kind of criminal underclass novelized by Charles Dickens one hundred years later had not yet taken a foothold in the colonies’ new urban and industrial centers. Furthermore, at the center of the gang was a woman with a unique aptitude for crime. Betty Robinson, like John Morrison, was a career criminal: she first came to the colonies as a convict exile from England, and as she made her way from Maryland to Philadelphia, she befriended shady characters like Morrison and the McCoys. In his published confession, Morrison spoke highly of her, saying “she was as true-hearted a Woman as ever lived… and was better than any two Men for his Work, being able to go up and down a Chimney very dextrously.” Due to her undeniable involvement in the robberies, Betty was executed alongside Morrison and McCoy. Only three women in Philadelphia were hanged for property crime in the entirety of the eighteenth century; Betty was the second. (Mary McCoy was let off lightly; it was presumed her husband Francis coerced her involvement in the crimes.)

This remarkable story, memorialized in print and displayed in the Rosenbach’s Clever Criminals and Daring Detectives exhibition, foreshadows the public’s eventual interest in detective fiction and true crime. Not only were the confessions chock full of salacious detail—secret meetings, morally questionable relationships between men and women, catalog-like descriptions of the fine goods they stole—but in the end, the wardens got their man (and woman). This successfully solved crime showed the public that Philadelphia’s paid watchmen were a step in the right direction, and perhaps inspired other cities to continue developing municipal law enforcement.

An Account of the robberies committed by John Morrison and his accomplices in and near Philadelphia, 1750 [detail]. Philadelphia, 1750-1. Collection of the Rosenbach, A 750a.

  • Clever Criminals and Daring Detectives. The Rosenbach. 2008-2010 Delancey Place, Philadelphia, PA 19103.
  • Breen, T.H. The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. London: Oxford University Press; 2005.
  • Marietta, Jack D. and G. S. Rowe. Troubled Experiment: Crime and Justice in Pennsylvania, 1682-1800 . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.