On November 28, 1897, The Kansas City Journal reported on the public whipping of five men convicted of larceny. One was John Fisher, who received 20 lashes for copper theft. The paper described the scene:
"Perhaps 200 people saw the whippings at New Castle Jail the other day. They were devoid of interest, though the lashes were well laid on in most cases. Sheriff Flynn wielded the cat [cat-o-nine-tails], and the prisoners squirmed considerably. The number of prisoners whipped was five, all of them for larceny. The men who really suffered the most were the three who stood in the pillory for an hour each. The day was pleasant to those on the ground, but to the men on the pillory it was cool, and they shivered perceptibly."
The Labour Party's David Hanson, MP serving Delyn, recently sent MetalTheft.Net the party's four point plan to tackle metal theft. It is supported by British Transport Police, Association of Chief Police Officers, and Neighbourhood Watch.
1. Tougher police powers to close rogue traders down.
2. Anyone selling scrap to provide proof of identity, recorded at point of sale.
3. Licensing scrap metal dealers, rather than current registration with Local Authority.
4. Look into possibility and effectiveness of banning cash transactions, especially for large scale/high value scrap metal transactions.
These measures would allow legitimate trade to continue whilst making it harder and more expensive for organised crime and opportunistic thieves to profit from metal theft.
On this day in 1899, The Saint Paul Daily Globe reported recent the conviction of Minneapolis patrolman Cornelius Burke, sentenced to three years hard labor in Wisconsin for robbing the guests at the City hotel of Prairie du Chien, WI. Officer Burke’s first arrest occurred eight years earlier when detectives charged him with “stealing copper boxes from the cars on the Milwaukee road.” A search of his premises in North Minneapolis revealed several hundred pounds of stolen copper.
“He was placed under bonds, but the case was never tried. Burke had married an estimable young lady, and, through the influence of her friends, the complaint was withdrawn. On June 3, 1883, he was appointed a patrolman on the police force. For a while he carried himself straight, but his behavior was too good to last very long. He had rooms over a grocery store in the northern section of the city, and the proprietor commenced to miss articles of groceries and kitchen utensils. When his stock had been almost depleted he set a watch on his place, and Burke was caught in the act of robbing the store… For this crime he was arrested and placed under $300 bail for an examination. When the case was called, Burke had disappeared, and his bail was declared forfeited. Since then he was wandered about from place to place and been in trouble continually. It is probable he will be brought back to Minneapolis to answer the charge of burglary after he is released by the Wisconsin authorities.”
On November 18, 1903, The San Francisco Call used not one but two “wire” puns to report on the theft of copper wire by a U.S. soldier:
“One of Uncle Sam’s soldier boys deserted from Goat Island the other day, hired a tug and stole thirty miles of copper wire. The poor fellow evidently took too literally the current opinion of the advantages of wire-pulling in public and governmental affairs. He will probably find that he is tangled up in the wrong kind of wire.”
More than 100 years later, this journalistic tradition continues unabated. A small sampling of recent headlines include:
Please send us your favorite headline featuring a metal theft pun, and we'll post it.
- “Police hope law scraps metal thieves,” The Telegraph (2007)
- “Lawmakers scrap over metal theft: Meanwhile builders pay for heightened security to ward off brazen criminals,” The Business Press (2008)
- “EDITORIAL: 'You won't get me': copper: Area law officers show their mettle in cracking down on metal thefts,” Augusta Chronicle (2008)
- “City’s Metal Thieves are Meddling with Culture,” Indianapolis Star (2011)
Set in Chicago’s labyrinth of alleys, Scrappers, directed by Brian Ashby, Ben Kolak, and Courtney Prokopas, is a vérité portrait of Oscar and Otis, two metal scavengers who search for a living with brains, brawn and battered pickup trucks. Roger Ebert gave Scrappers 3-1/2 stars, writing, “[Ashby, Kolak, and Prokopas] put in the hours in the alleys and brought back a human document. It is necessary we have these films because our lives are so closed off we don’t understand the function these men perform. You want green, there ain’t nobody greener than Oscar and Otis.” The film was one of Roger Ebert's Best Documentaries of 2010.
Co-director Brian Ashby answered a few questions for MetalTheft.Net.
MTF: Congratulations on the success of your film. How did you come to make a movie about scrappers (and Oscar and Otis in particular)?
B.A.: The two other co-directors of the film (Ben Kolak and Courtney Prokopas) and I started the project right after finishing college, doing most of the research and pre-production (i.e. finding the characters) from late 2006 to early 2007. We saw two things at the time: one was thousands of scrappers prowling the alleys of Chicago by pickup truck, and the other was heavy media coverage (in local papers and TV news, as well as some broader national media) focused on metal theft. The two things didn't really reconcile. While the theft was certainly real, there had to be another side of the story of the booming metal prices in Chicago, as this class of informal truck-based laborers were generally allowed to operate day and night in a highly visible way. We thought their stories could shed some light on questions of the working poor, municipal waste collection vs. private recycling, and new kinds of work in deindustrializing cities. And our cinematic hope was to put the viewer inside the territory of this gray economy, where what is legal or illegal, or licit or illicit, is not very clear.
We were trying all manner of ways to meet scrappers, and connected with Oscar and Otis out in the streets in chance encounters. We also worked with two other scrappers, who weren't stealing, but whose lives were for various reasons falling apart. Those experiences taught us a lot about what struggles many people are dealing with (even before the financial crisis), and also taught us to appreciate what characters we had when we met Oscar and Otis. The two men both scrapped metal exhaustively to support their families, with a strong sense of dignity and utility about their work. Because they felt they had nothing to hide (even though Oscar is an undocumented immigrant), they gave us -- filmmakers of different socioeconomic class, age, and race -- remarkable access to their work and personal lives.
And in particular, they also represented two important poles of the scrapping labor market -- Otis was a neighborhood "junk man" for around 40 years on Chicago's far South side, enjoying cordial relationships with residents and law enforcement, and very little competition. Oscar is one of many thousands of recent Central American immigrants to Chicago, who have created their own insular networks of work and support in the construction and demolition trades, giving them access to voluminous sources of metal. Scrappers like Otis tend to resent scrappers like Oscar, for increasing competition and amateurism, and drawing new attention to them from police. Scrappers like Oscar tend to resent the resentment from scrappers like Otis, who have been known to chase them out of their neighborhoods in a territorial furor. So from this, we settled on using the idea of two characters for the film, who would patrol them same city over the same period of time, but never have any reason to meet one another.
MTF: Theft and legality are recurrent themes in the movie, though there is no specific focus on the subject. While making the movie, what sort of sense did you get of metal theft?
B.A.: It was always there in what we were doing -- in the tense atmosphere of scrutiny at the scrapyards, in the suspicious looks (and sometimes hurled invective) from people in neighborhoods as scrappers drove by, and visibly in the gutted houses all over Chicago. And like I said, it was all anybody ever talked about in the media.
All of those things are still true, of course, because theft isn't going anywhere. It's been interesting reading your blog, particularly the interest in the theft of items for the value of their elemental components as something new. In American Scrap, John Seabrook points out that metals have been recycled for as long as they've been pulled out of the ground, 5,000 years ago in the broze age or whenever. So it's as old as it gets, but new too. What I think was new, and from then became epidemic, was the broad spreading of that idea. As more and more opportunistic people in twenty-first century America catch wind of the somewhat beguiling idea -- either through the grapevine from the local scrapyard, or through the mass media -- that you can literally sell and melt down anything around you for profit, the problem takes on a more lasting life. Things that shouldn't be scrapped are scrapped, and thieves pay no attention to the business cycle.
But the people in our movie, who make an honest living, are profoundly affected by the business cycle -- like miners, their lives are attached to the commodity prices. So instead of making a film that would provide titillating entertainment from watching criminals, with clearly marked good and bad guys, we wanted to make a film about these people, and raise larger questions about what cities might do about this inundation of scrappers. In a place like Chicago -- unique for its alleyway grid, as well as for having an extant licensing system for junk peddlers (on the books, but not much in use) -- it might make the most sense to encourage them, not stop them. Especially because we purposefully don't make it obvious, we were happy when Roger Ebert instinctively grasped this in his review of the film, distinguishing between the characters and "desperate creatures of the night".
MTF: When the movie ends, metal prices are still at the bottom of the 08/09 dip. Prices shot up high afterward, though they have dropped recently. What are Oscar and Otis up to now?
B.A.: The prices went back up about 6 months after the period at the end of the movie, sometime in mid-2009 -- though not to anywhere approaching the highs in 2007. They have fluctuated since, and you would probably know more about the highs they have reached since then.
Even though the the film ends on a hopeful note, times were extremely tough for both families for a long time after the end of the filming, and our commitment to them was really put into action after our filmmaking job was done. We have shared the profits from the movie evenly with them, and it has helped.
After doing all kinds of odd jobs, both of them are scrapping again. They don't want to do anything else. Otis, never one to be held down, bought a brand-new cherry red Ford F-150. Seeing a 77-year-old man pilot it, full of junk, down a Chicago alley is quite a sight to be seen.
The latest installment of MetalTheft.Net's Interview Series is now available on the Interviews
page. Cultural Criminologist and author of Empire of Scrounge
, Jeff Ferrell shares his thoughts on scrounging, cultural criminology, liquid ethnography, and more. Click here for the full interview.
On November 7, 1890, Patrick Kelly, indicted for stealing copper wire from the Incandescent Light Company, pleaded guilty to petit larceny in Youngstown, OH. He then found out he would be sent to the workhouse for six months and asked if he could change his plea to grand larceny, because he preferred the penitentiary. His request was granted and he was sentenced to one year in prison. Kelly said he was “acquainted with the workhouse” and preferred the penitentiary.