Photo by Kate Woodman.

They scaled walls, climbed through lofty windows and preyed on the grandest mansions in the land. Sex, stolen goods and the ability to scale walls: these were the hallmarks of the cat burglar. Newspapers first coined the phrase ‘cat burglar’ in 1907 to describe someone with a particular “skill in climbing”. The term has become popular even further thanks to movies and TV shows. Because of that, people have come to see them as figures like Cat Woman from Batman. But, what is a cat burglar, really?

In order to define cat burglars, we need to examine their habits. Cat burglars are more threatening than a normal thief. They steal not only from houses, but also museums, boats, stores, cars, galleries, and anything else that may house expensive items. The main thing that defines a cat burglar is they come to steal expensive items. They’re not the kind of thief who stops to pickpocket or steals the TV off the stand, unless they’re bored of course. They focus on jewelry, gold, art and stashes of cash and carry a burglar’s pack in order to carry the stolen loot easily. They try to avoid confrontation and instead rely on their stealth and agility to make a quick entry and escape before they’re noticed. Sometimes they steal for fun, for a quick rush of adrenaline and almost never out of necessity or need. It is a game to them. They are harder to catch since they are experienced thieves.

“Cat burglar who holds women fascinated!” On 20 December 1934, this headline announced to readers of the Daily Mirror that one Robert Delaney had been sent to prison for burglary and a string of other crimes including swindling women out of their fortunes. For centuries, newspapers had filled their pages with tales of opportunistic thieves preying ruthlessly on unsuspecting victims. But Delaney was somehow different. Gone was the contempt with which reporters often treated the perpetrators. It was replaced by intrigue, even admiration. Delaney’s multiple escapades, clambering up the edifices of several wealthy Mayfair mansions to purloin jewelry from the bedrooms of the nobility, had earned him the moniker, the ‘king of cat burglars’. The News of the World positively swooned in its depiction of “an auburn-haired, debonair young fellow, who has given Scotland Yard more to think about than any dozen ordinary criminals”.

The key to the cat burglars’ fame was the fact that they practiced a more ‘daring’ form of burglary than had ever been undertaken before. No wall was too high, no rooftop too lofty to prevent them reaching their quarry, no target too out of reach. They vaulted fences, traversed chimneys and climbed through windows into bedrooms, sometimes the very beds – and onto the front pages. People were captivated by their exploits! It was like Arsène Lupin has come alive and was entertaining the masses with his cleverness and agility of both body and mind.  But beware! He or she may enter at any moment without you even noticing and relieve you of a few thousands or millions, depends on who you ask, dollars in a blink of an eye.

Story by Laurie Silvey.