In the arrest of nine residents of Sample alley during the last two days, and the recovery of about $10,000 worth of merchandise stolen from Pittsburgh stores, Commissioner of Police Peter P. Walsh of the North Side, believes that the greatest system of shoplifting ever conducted in this city has been exposed.
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), May 14, 1914
Although she was only 17 years old, Gertrude Busch doesn’t look too upset about being arrested as a member of the “biggest shoplifting gang” ever to hit the city of Pittsburgh. Gertrude had a pretty good poker face.
She was born in Germany and immigrated to America with her parents and eight siblings in 1909. The Busch family settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In May 1914 the owner of a Pittsburgh dry goods store, Maurice Kiwowitz, realized he was missing a large amount of his merchandise. Maurice figured about $100 worth of stuff ($2,500 in 2018 dollars) had gone rogue every week during the previous few months. He suspected a group of German women were responsible for the thefts when he noticed a pattern of things vanishing after their daily visits to his shop. He instructed one of his shop clerks to closely watch the women the next time they dropped by.
The clerk followed his instructions and caught one of the ladies in the act of secreting something in the “copious pockets of a specially designed skirt.” The clerk alerted Maurice, who promptly called the police.
The police arrested Gertrude, her mother, Annie Busch, and four of her sisters: Angeline, Theresa, Sophia and Margaret.
More arrests followed over the next two days, including Gertrude’s father, “Christ” (Christian), her brother, William, and three of her brothers-in-law. The final count of those in custody was eight members of the Busch family and three of their sons-in-law. Only three of Christ and Annie’s nine children weren’t implicated in the crime: Mary, age 33, Henry, age 21, and Annie, age 13.
The Busch gang’s modus operandi was for mama Annie to go into a store with several of her daughters. She’d strike up a conversation with the clerk while the daughters surreptitiously slipped items into the hidden pockets in their skirts. As soon as the ladies finished filling up, Mrs. Busch purchased an inexpensive item to keep the clerk from suspecting foul play and they made a rapid exit.
The police found over $10,000 worth of merchandise ($252,000 in 2018 dollars) stolen from shops around the city and packed into 18 trunks that were stored in the cellars of the family’s three homes. Most of it was inexpensive clothing and household goods. Many of the items had been soaked in water to make them look wrinkled, old and worn out in case someone questioned the item’s provenance.
Angeline, Theresa, Sophia and Margaret Busch all confessed to shoplifting and were charged with larceny. However Annie, Christ, Gertrude and William Busch and the three of brothers-in-law claimed they “knew nothing of any robberies and did not know that the stuff in their trunks was stolen.” Convinced they were lying, the police charged them with receiving stolen goods. In addition to the adults, eight children ranging in age from two weeks to 14 years were taken to jail with their parents because there was no one left to care for them.
The four confessing sisters told police that the family planned to ship the trunks back to Germany, where they would use the stolen loot to stock a dry goods store they planned to open. It sounds like a half-baked scheme but these weren’t the cleverest of crooks, given that they went back to the same store to shoplift day after day.
In June 1914 a grand jury brought back bills charging the entire family, including the brothers-in-law, with larceny and receiving stolen property. The following February they were all put on trial.
Newspapers were silent on the outcome of the trial, but given the evidence it’s hard to imagine they weren’t found guilty. However Gertrude was very young, her parents were elderly and the rest of the family members had small children, so it’s likely none of them got much, if any, prison time.
By 1919 the Busch family had moved from Sample Alley, in the heart of Pittsburgh, to other towns in Pennsylvania where they found honest, gainful employment. There’s no evidence any of them ever broke the law again, but the shopkeepers of Pittsburgh must have rejoiced to see them go.
Christ, age 61, died of pneumonia in North Braddock, Pennsylvania, in April 1919. His wife Annie died two days before Christmas in 1946 at the ripe old age of 89. And, while many of the couple’s children lived only to middle age, poker-faced Gertrude beat the odds and made it to 76.
Featured photo: mugshot of Gertrude Busch, taken May 12, 1914, by the Pittsburgh Police. Collection of the author.
Note: I purchased the nine mugshots shown here from an eBay seller. The mugshots of Margaret Busch and Sophia Busch’s husband, Melchior Gebhart, were not available from the seller.