January 27, 2015

"Easier to steal than the mustang used to be"

Think bike theft is a new problem? Or at least new-ish? Think again. Last week the combination of a Willamette Week blog post and a Reddit thread gave me some insight into the sitch at the turn of the century—and not the most recent one.

Here's what I take from the clipping at left (from the May 12, 1899 Oregonian):

-Bikes were called simply "wheels" back in the 19th century.

-There has long been a benefit of stealing a bicycle in one town—Portland, say—and selling it elsewhere. In 1899 it was unnamed "interior towns"; now it's Seattle.

-Bike theft has always been notable for the relative lightness of the penalties it entails. Steal a car and you're a felon; make off with a man's horse and you risk being lynched. Swipe a bike, though, and you more likely than not get off scott free.

Which is not to say that folks weren't peeved by the impunity with which the bicycle thief plied his vocation. The September 20, 1895 Hillsboro Independent indicates that somebody deemed bike theft punishable by death:

And, just like today, police were ever trying to advise bike owners to safeguard their rides more assiduously.

Chief of Police McLauchlan's advice at right (like the typo in the headline?) bears some resemblance to recommendations made today, though of course locks are pricier now. I'm puzzled by the proposed sprocket locking... Am I supposed to loop something through my chainring so the bike can't be ridden? Could work, I guess, as long as the thief doesn't just walk off with the thing—bikes were probably pretty heavy back then—or load it into a van (not possible in the late 1800s, obviously)...

At any rate, times have changed and you'll never hear Hal Ruzal advocating use of a "common padlock." The bicycle thief has upgraded his toolkit—and we wheelmen had best keep pace!

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