Light Fingers and Visible Hands: Deploying Fidelity Guarantee Insurance to Curb Employee Theft

Beginning in the 1840s, British employers generally required that workers hold fidelity guarantee insurance against theft as a condition of employment. In order to accurately calculate premiums, insurance companies maintained comprehensive records detailing the circumstances of previous losses. Using these rich archival records, we can gauge the rate and severity of employee fraud as well as the risks of particular occupational groups. For last year’s BHC, we had planned to present our initial findings. Two related counterintuitive conclusions emerged on white-collar crime in the 19th century. First, that employees rarely stole the maximum amount to which they had access; most people stole what they needed rather than what employers feared they might steal. And, second, that bankers, unlike other occupations, stole less frequently but far more money. Since submitting our initial proposal, we have made an important (if disturbing) third discovery that links directly to a century-long debate within sociology. The insurers’ account books reveal that a disproportionate number of employees charged with theft died by suicide once their crimes had been exposed. Building on Emile Durkheim’s On Suicide (1897) – the foundational text in modern sociology – we argue that Durkheim was indeed correct that economic crises led to embezzlers’ social anomie which resulted in suicide rates more than fifty-times the norm. We look forward to presenting our unexpected findings at the 2021 BHC virtual conference this March.