The chance arrest of mild-mannered, partly deaf market gardener Louis Von Einem on Queen Street, Auckland, at 6.35am on Wednesday, June 16, 1920, came, it turned out, as much a cause of relief for Von Einem and it did for those New Zealanders whose typewriters had been disappearing at a rapid rate. The 45-year-old Von Einem was apparently well aware he was suffering from the impulse control disorder kleptomania, and had found himself unable to stop his “peregrinations and pinchings” of more than two years. He was also quickly running out of space to move about in his Vincent Street boarding house room – he had taken to hiding things in secret cupboards inside walls. Von Einem told police he wanted to “relieve himself of everything he had stolen”. Police found in his rooms more than 150 items, worth £NZ413, two shillings and five pence, that Von Einem had stolen in the previous 27 months. That’s about $NZ80,000 worth of booty in today’s money. Among the pilfered belongings was a range of typewriters and 85 fountain pens, some gold-mounted.
Von Einem began his crime spree while on a fortnight’s Easter holiday in Wellington in March 1918, stealing a typewriter. In 1920 he told police, “About two years ago something happened and I stole, and I didn’t seem to be able to stop stealing since.” He faced 71 separate charges, surely some sort of record. In the haul put on display in the Auckland Police Court on July 21-22 was an Underwood standard belonging to the Le Grove Typewriter Company of Wellington, a Corona portable belonging to the Dominion Radio-Telegraphy College Company and a Royal standard which was owned by the New Zealand Government Education Department. The Underwood was found with “a stylish toque [brimless cap] perched saucily” on top of it. Quite how the light-fingered Von Einem made off with 30lb machines without being caught is mind-boggling.
Von Einem had been nabbed by a Constable Holt, known in Auckland for his uncanny ability to “sniff” a burglar from a block away. Holt was footing it down the city’s main drag at that early hour when he saw Von Einem tampering with the lock on the case of a window island at Whitcombe and Tombs, 186 Queen Street. “Oi, oi,” said Holt, “what are you up to?” Von Einem, not yet ready to own up to his lifting mania, replied that he was employed by Whitcombe and Tombs as a cleaner and had been sent into work at dawn to tidy up the case. “Good morning,” he bade Holt. But Holt wasn’t buying it, and marched the market gardener to the nearest cop shop. Upon searching Von Einem, police found his latest plunder of pens. Von Einem was locked up and Holt went to have a look at his room. For an initial court hearing, Holt “found the finest selection of samples that could be got together,” New Zealand Truth reported.
It took Holt and Sergeant Dempsey a month to track down the owners of the items valued at £NZ413, but much more of Von Einem’s loot remained unclaimed. His swag showed a penchant for watches, tailor-made suits, hats, shoes and other clothing. It also included what Truth delicately described as “blouses, bloomers and other ‘undies’ … in short, just the kind of articles a ‘flapper’ would leave home for.” Another newspaper mentioned “intimate underwear fabrics that ladies affect”.
On August 14 Von Einem was sentenced in the Supreme Court to seven years “reformative treatment”. The court heard Von Einem had been “fascinated with the cleverness of getting these things”. Police reported he was “very religious, he studies, has reserved habits and writes poetry – a curious mixture”.
One newspaper remarked that Von Einem was the “author of a series of the most expert shop-lifting operations which have yet disturbed the peace, happiness and profits of shopkeepers and householders of Auckland”. Yet almost nothing is known about him. New Zealand Police Gazettes listed him as an Australian native, born in 1875, but newspapers said he was German. He first appeared on New Zealand electoral rolls in 1911 as a student. There is no data on his movements after he was released from jail.