From the Archives

Burglary: Its Drain on the Public (January 1966)

A drawn representation of a suburban residence.


[Published in its original form]

Burglaries, which represented 1,100,000 of the more than 2,600,000 serious crimes committed in 1964, showed a 5 percent increase during the first 9 months of 1965.

If only from the sheer weight of numbers, burglaries constitute one of the major problems facing law enforcement today. A survey conducted by Utah prison officials in December 1964, for example, revealed that approximately one-fourth of the penitentiary population—the largest single criminal group—was serving time for some variation of the state burglary statues. Uniform Crime Reports releases show that over 1,100,000 of the more than 2,600,000 serious crimes committed in the United States during 1964 were burglaries. The first 9 months of 1965 showed a 5 percent rise over the same 1964 figures.

Selecting Victims

The different systems used by professional burglars in selecting prospective victims range from the simple, and often accidental, to the more complex and carefully planned schemes that sometimes verge on the fictional. One Ohio hoodlum explained that he got his start in this field after a chance remark overheard in a local bar. When a fellow drinker stated that he was preparing to leave town on his vacation, the interested listener casually followed him home, studied the area, and returned a week later to plunder the house at his leisure. Under somewhat similar circumstances, a midwestern veterinarian admitted having turned to burglary as a sideline when numerous wealthy citizens left their pets with him while taking extended trips, and he realized that their homes would be unguarded in their absence.

Other individuals have used either real or pretended employment as door-to-door salesmen, laundrymen, or photographers to further their housebreaking operations. Still others rely merely on chance observation, looking for residences with the shades drawn, newspapers scattered about the lawn, grass unmowed, an accumulation of mail jammed in the box, air-conditioning units turned off in hot weather, or milk bottles stacked up on the porch. As further corroboration the owner’s absence is generally verified by one or more telephone calls before actual entry is attempted.

In a midwestern state, a burglar who specialized in sex crimes claimed that he had selected his victims by looking for female names on the mailboxes in apartment houses. His advice to the investigating officers was that women should use their initials, rather than their first and middle names on such boxes. Similar caution with respect to listing in telephone directories is recommended.

Newspapers Studied

Research-minded burglars have been reported to: Study the local newspapers closely to determine which prominent citizens are taking trips, attending social functions, or otherwise leaving their homes unoccupied for any length of time; make a list of coin collectors, based upon articles and advertisements in various publications; cull background data relating to biographical material, town-and-country addresses, unlisted telephone numbers, and photographs of society figures from the publication known as the “Celebrity Register”; check out the owners of expensive cars seen driving around town; maintain a map of recent burglary locations based upon published accounts to determine which areas of town might be under intensive police scrutiny; and watch television to identify the winners of valuable prizes on contestant-type programs. British police suspect a gang of jewel thieves of using television and newspaper coverage of famous homes to plan future “scores.”

Wealthy Victimized


One culturally inclined burglar advised that he had selected his “marks” by attending the opera, concerts, plays, and other such events to spot women wearing expensive furs and jewelry. A west coast city hoodlum, on the other hand, secured employment with a leading restaurant through which he gained access to the records of persons making advance dinner reservations. When the hoodlum came across the name of someone he recognized to be wealthy or prominent, he alerted his accomplices and arranged to have them burglarize the diner’s residence while he stood watch over the unsuspecting victims. In London, England, police broke up a gang that had stolen more than $100,000 worth of property after using an expensive, chauffeur-driven limousine to case homes in exclusive neighborhoods without attracting attention.

A depiction of a wealthy couple at dinner.


Cases involving a number of burglars over the past 2 years indicate that—just as some specialize in victimizing apartment dwellers while others concentrate on single-family residences—the time element is purely a matter of personal preference. Hoodlums in some areas stated that they usually operated during the early evening hours when people are more preoccupied, less inclined to be suspicious, and often out to dinner. A burglar operating in the Southeast expanded the time element to include everything between 6 p.m. and midnight, whereas housebreakers in two cities 3,000 miles apart said they rarely started before 1 a.m. and tried to finish up between 5 a.m. and daybreak.

Vacation Signs

The more aggressive housebreakers, however, are rarely content to rely on chance observations or passive research in selecting potential victims. Criminals from one east coast area, for example, have reportedly stationed themselves near bridges, tunnels, and interstate expressways on weekends and holidays, looking for local automobiles carrying packed luggage racks or other signs of extensive travel. The license numbers then are traced to ascertain the addresses of the cars’ owners, and checks are made to determine the feasibility of burglarizing their homes during their absence.

Lately, however, there has been a noticeable trend toward what might be called “sunlighting.” While the Uniform Crime Reports figures for the first 9 months of 1965 show that all burglaries increased 5 percent over that period in 1964, daytime residential burglaries soared 12 percent. Part of this change was accounted for by a Puerto Rican burglar who explained that “at night, the life of a housebreaker is in danger, as the owner of the house may come after him with a revolver…. By day it is different because the housewife leaves the door open while she goes to talk and socialize with her neighbors.”

Gaining Entry

As a general rule, there are two main ways of gaining illegal entry—by force and by guile. Those who specialize in the latter method, according to at least one hoodlum, are known in the trade as “classical” thieves.

Of all the tools used by the “nonclassical” burglars, probably the simplest and most common is the shim. Generally made of some strong, but pliable, materials, such as light metal, plastic, or celluloid, it also is referred to by certain segments of the criminal element as a “cheater” or a “shove knife.” Table knives, pocket calendars, and pieces of venetian-blind stripping are a few of the easily transported and easily concealed items that may be used as shims. In a process sometimes referred to as “rabbit stripping,” the shim is inserted between the vertical strip molding and the door facing, thereby striking the beveled edge of the door bolt and forcing it open. A variation of this technique was attributed to a Canadian who committed a series of housebreakings by melting a nylon comb in the flame of a candle he carried with him, inserting the pliable mass into the door jamb where he thought the locking bolt was located, waiting several seconds for the nylon to harden, and then maneuvering the comb remains to release the bolt on the lock.

Depiction of two neighbors discussing home safety.

Tools Used

Other common tools include screwdrivers, glass cutters, lock pullers, vise-grip pliers for twisting door knobs and wrecking the interior mechanisms, lock picks, and fishhooks for use as lock picks. Equally effective—though less widely employed—have been such items as ski ropes, tar, rags, and a large wooden crate.

An Oregon thief, for example, used a braided, nylon ski rope to trip the latch of a door he wanted to open. Taking advantage of the fact that the rope was both flexible and easily flattened, the thief formed a knotted loop on one end, mashed it, and slid it under the door in question. He then worked the rope up the vertical crack between the door and the jamb until he was able to hook the loop around the latch inside and release the catch.

Police recently were called to investigate a case centering around some tar and an old shirt. According to the officers, the tar was applied to the glass panel of a door near the handle, the shirt pressed against the tar, and the panel rapped sharply through the shirt, which muffled the sound of the blow. The shirt then was pulled away, bringing the broken glass shards with it and enabling the burglar to reach in and open the door.


The growing tendency toward daytime operations, however, has produced an ever-increasing need for subterfuge in place of, or to accompany, some of the standard techniques set forth above. To begin with, it is necessary to conceal the burglary tools and subsequent loot in such items as salesmen’s sample kits, laundry bags, suitcases, and the like. At least two housebreakers were caught carrying their implements in shaving kits, and a third had constructed a minute lock-picking set from an inexpensive, three-bladed knife and a piece of ground-down Allen wrench.

Although one of the main advantages to the thief of plying his trade in the daytime is the fact that so many houses and apartments are left unlocked, a major drawback is the likelihood of being seen by an observant neighbor or passerby. In West Germany, two burglars covered their activities by depositing a large wooden crate containing an accomplice and a removable side panel next to the front door of the victim’s house. Screened from the street and neighboring houses by the crate, which was prominently marked “television console,” the concealed burglar removed the side panel, picked the door lock, crawled through the opening, gathered up his loot, and returned to the crate in time to be picked up by his partners and returned to the delivery truck in which he had arrived. Excessive foliage was employed as a cover by housebreakers in a Midwest city who parked a truck in front of the victim’s house, set up a sign reading “Men at Work in Trees,” and proceeded undisturbed with their operations.

Athletic Prowess

Physical build, appearance, and condition also have played an important part in enabling certain burglars to gain illegal entry. In one large city, an athletic teenager kept in shape for a string of at least 80 successful burglaries—before being caught—by using his school gymnasium to practice karate, body building, and rope climbing. In Detroit, a fast-moving thief would secrete himself in the corridor of an apartment house and then quickly plunder the victim’s rooms when the latter responded to a fake call to pick up a package on the ground floor. In another city, a slender jewel thief squeezed through a milk chute less than 16 inches square, and female impersonators allegedly hired out as maids to burglarize expensive homes.

According to several sources, cautious residents who make a point of not leaving their keys under the doormat or in the mailbox are being countered by burglars who use a pliable material to make key impressions from the locks or remove the cylinders from doors that seldom are used—such as those leading to apartment house laundry rooms or storerooms—take them to a locksmith, and have master keys made for the whole building.


In one east coast city, burglars who had cased the house of a wealthy individual were frustrated by an inability to get their prospective victim out of the house long enough to crack the safe in which his money was kept. Finally, learning that the man and his wife were avid connoisseurs of antique furniture, the burglars obtained an invitation to an antique furniture show and sent it through the mail. Not knowing the source of their invitation, the couple accepted, nevertheless, and were successfully burglarized during their absence.


Depiction of a thief incapacitating a sleeping homeowner.

Although modern law enforcement methods have shown the fallacy of the old saw that “it takes a thief to catch a thief,” much can still be learned by talking to an experienced hoodlum. In one such instance, a man suspected of 75 “cat burglaries” furnished police an eight-page summary of techniques and procedures that he had found to be generally effective over the years. With respect to security precautions he took in setting up his crimes, the suspect said that he had told no one of his activities, not even his wife; obeyed all traffic regulations; operated primarily during inclement weather—when he figured that police would be less alert; adopted a “hillbilly” accent to cover his New England twang; altered his normal walking gait; wore women’s high-heeled shoes inside larger men’s shoes, both to increase his apparent height and to mislead police into looking for someone with larger feet; trained himself not to panic when challenged by potentially vicious dogs; and carried such items as a weak flashlight to avoid waking sleepers or alerting neighbors, a small bottle of water to forestall possible coughing spells, and a pair of opera glasses to check his automobile and the surrounding terrain for a police surveillance after completion of an operation.

Diverse Acts

One burglary gang reportedly monitored the local police radio to determine the location of each car and, if any were in the vicinity of the site to be burglarized, acts of vandalism would be committed in another part of town or fake telephone calls would be made to divert the patrol units elsewhere. In Mexico City, numerous housebreakings have been committed by a gang that specializes in chloroforming its victims to prevent their offering any resistance. And, in both Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., there have been reported instances of burglars using water pistols loaded with ammonia to ward off watchdogs.

Use of Makeup

To render identification more difficult, some second-story men reportedly use makeup on their faces and adopt accents, while others burn their clothing and have their shoes resoled and reheeled after every job. Still others wear suits and ties or bogus uniforms and drop their loot out of a convenient window so that no one will suspect them of anything as they leave the building. An experienced burglar advised that he had avoided apprehension on several occasions by grabbing a sack out of a garbage can and boldly walking past searching policemen in the guise of a laborer on his way to work.

When Omaha police arrested a pair of hoodlums who confessed having committed approximately 110 housebreakings in less than a year, they found that the burglars had traveled to and from their crimes in an old automobile that had been purchased and registered under a false name. One forgetful burglar who wanted to make certain that he did not overlook any safety precautions or likely concealment places for loot was found to be carrying a checkoff list which he consulted as he went along.

The more aggressive burglars, however, have been taking increasingly positive steps to protect themselves of late. According to the Italian National Police, apartment house thieves use sand or salt crystals as a warning device when operating above ground level. Sprinkling the grains inside the main entrance to the building, they quickly enter an upper apartment and go about their plundering until a loud scraping noise warns them that someone has just opened the front door. They then gather up their loot and saunter downstairs as if they were fellow residents or legitimate visitors to the building.

An escape-minded burglar on the east coast always made a practice of securing the night chain on the front door to slow down the returning owner and propping open the back door to facilitate his own exit, although no thought was apparently given to the possibility that the owner might reverse the process some day. A teenage gang hid part of its loot about the victim’s house—in hopes of possibly discrediting his reliability as a potential witness—and another blocked the owner’s entrance to his apartment by inserting a BB into the lock. While the owner went to seek help in opening his door, the thieves departed by a rear exit.


In general a number of techniques and procedures have been found effective throughout the country in combating the rising menace of both daytime and nighttime burglaries. One that has been adopted by some of the larger police departments and which is patterned after the FBI’s “Top Ten” program consists of publicizing the most wanted burglars in a given area. Photographs, descriptions, and background data are furnished to all members of the department with a request that they be alert to watch for the listed criminals. Whereas some departments restrict their lists to the local Top Ten, others are considerably more inclusive. One east coast city sets forth nearly 50.


A second popular technique is the dissemination—through newspaper publicity, handbills, brochures, or letters—of advice to residents preparing to go on vacation. Included are reminders to have the milk and newspaper deliveries suspended, the lawn mowed, the mail picked up by a neighbor, all doors and windows securely locked, and the police notified of the length of absence, in an effort to thwart potential burglars driving around looking for a “score.”

Still other methods that have helped are the use of police reserves for house checks—thereby releasing regular officers for more pressing duties—and the publicized use of special post office boxes to which people may send anonymous information about crime and criminals. This plan has been credited by one major metropolitan police department with the solution of some 5,000 burglaries.


Specific answers to specific problems are often as imaginative as they are practical. In a California city, a “cat burglar” was finally trapped after 50 housebreakings by the judicious use of a piece of chalk. Since the burglar concentrated on a certain part of town during the early morning hours, a cruising patrolman started marking the tires of automobiles parked along his route and, when an unmarked car showed up shortly before dawn one morning, he quietly instituted a stakeout. Before long, the driver showed up wearing tennis shoes and, following a few preliminary questions by the persevering officer, admitted that he was the subject of the intensive investigation.

In San Diego, police took a page from the book of a thief who selected his victims by studying the society pages of the local newspapers. Realizing that the victims were being picked from articles about future parties and accompanying guests lists, investigating officers stationed themselves at the homes of the absent guests and successfully trapped the burglar when he appeared at one of the guarded houses.

And, in a Kansas community a series of housebreakings was solved by a combination of careless thieves, a careful police officer, and tiny slivers of glass. Reasoning that many burglaries involved the breaking of glass in either doors or windows, the officers instituted a procedure of checking the upholstery of all suspected automobiles for unexplained slivers. Since the glass had obviously come from the suspects’ clothing and could not be accounted for otherwise, a number of violations were cleared up by confessions on the part of the criminals.


As long as there are individuals in our society who have a disdain for hard work and who lazily seek a course to easy money, burglary will continue to be a menace to all law abiding citizens. Burglary may never be eliminated from our society, but it can be limited if all citizens are made aware of the circumstances that make this crime one of the most popular for those who want to live off the toil of others. The crime of burglary can be minimized if all citizens make a determined effort to take every precaution in safeguarding their homes and places of business. In this way the so-called easy “mark” will be removed, and the road to easy money will become a difficult journey for the burglar.

From the Archives is a new department that features articles previously published throughout the 80-year history of the Bulletin. Topics include crime problems, police strategies, community issues, and personnel, among others. A link to an electronic version of the full issue will appear at the end of each article.