By Brad Dison
Since the earliest humans roamed the Earth, theft has been a problem. I imagine one caveman being envious of another caveman’s club and taking it when the opportunity presented itself. Over the millennia, humans developed rules which eventually became enforceable laws to stave off thievery. In some cases, the penalty for theft was excessive in comparison to the value of what was stolen. In 2019, a man convicted of theft in Iran had four of the fingers on his right hand cut off.
In early November 1906, a boy whose name has been lost to history spied some “penny toys” dangling from the doorway of a shop in Weinfelden, Switzerland. Without much thought of the possible consequences, the boy seized two of the penny toys and simply walked away. The boy made no attempt to hide the stolen toys, nor did he rush away from the scene of the crime. He calmly strode away from the shop.
The shop’s clerk contacted a policeman and reported the crime. The clerk pointed in the direction the boy had walked. With the help of the public who, like the clerk, pointed in the direction the boy had walked, the policeman quickly made his way to the boy’s home. The boy’s parents were unaware of the boy’s new toys until the policeman arrived. The policeman questioned the boy who laughingly admitted to taking the penny toys. With a solid confession, the policeman arrested the boy.
When the theft case came before the Weinfelden magistrate, the policeman held the boy up so the magistrate could take a good look at him and so the boy could see the official, as well. When the magistrate asked the boy if he had taken the penny toys, the boy laughingly admitted to the crime just as he had done with the policeman. The boy tried as well as he could to defend his actions. He tried to explain to the magistrate that he did not have any toys like the other boys in his neighborhood. The magistrate was unaffected by the boys attempt to explain away his crime, and as sternly as if he were facing the most cold-blooded of murderers loudly proclaimed “three and a half months’ imprisonment.”
The boy’s parents, shocked by the prison sentence for a couple of penny toys, fell on their knees and pleaded with the magistrate to reconsider. As the boy had openly confessed to thievery, the boy’s parents had just one argument, that the boy did not know the difference between right and wrong. With hardly a glance in their direction, the magistrate sternly told the policeman, “Remove the prisoner.” The policeman seemed almost as shocked as the parents, but he had to abide by the magistrate’s order. The policeman led the boy to an equally astonished warden to begin his sentence.
Whether the boy’s imprisonment deterred him from a life of crime is unknown. It is possible that the boy did not remember the incident. You see, the boy who was sentenced to three and a half months imprisonment for the theft of two penny toys, had recently had a birthday. He had just turned three years old.
- The Minneapolis Journal, November 18, 1906, p.1.
- “Iran cuts off man’s fingers for theft,” BBC News, October 25, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50179741.