Stolen Clothing: The Bather’s Nightmare

Clothing left on a tree beside a river where someone may be skinny dipping.

Clothing left on a tree beside a river where someone may be skinny dipping. Photo by (c) Tim Large, Shutterstock, with permission.

Stolen clothing. Does the greatest fear of every skinny dipper ever haunt you? Is a bather’s stolen clothing is just a TV trope? Or do you worry about someone stealing your clothes when you take a dip in the pool or lake?

Maybe you should.

A German politician and his stolen clothing

Take Alexander Gauland for example. The far-right German politician popped into a lake outside Berlin on May 30, 2018 to take a swim.  Someone pilfered his clothing while he was in the water, forcing him to walk with the police to the police station in what Reuters reported to be his underwear. Witnesses saw the thief, who hasn’t yet been caught, and reported that he yelled out a political statement when he fleeced Gauland of his raiment.

Okay, this theft was politically motivated. But if you take a naked romp through history, you’ll find stolen clothing at public baths coming up again and again in the annals of true crime. The Romans even had a special name for clothing thieves at the watering hole: balnearii, or sometimes fures balnearii.

Stolen clothing and the law throughout the centuries

People bathing at a public bath.

Bathers (ca. 1889). Jean-Léon Gérôme [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The baleanarii of ancient Rome

That’s balnearius, singular, balnearii, plural. They even appear in Black’s Law Dictionary:

Balnearii: In the Roman law, those who stole the clothes of bathers in the public baths. 4 Bl. Comm. 239.

Apparently the Romans took a very dim view of being forced to walk down the street naked, because the pilfering clothing was a capital crime. That’s right. Balnearii received the death sentence if caught. If you were lucky, you just got condemned to the mines. Greece had balnearii too and also punished them with execution.

One scholar calls those responsible for the stolen clothing the “scourge” of the bathing establishments throughout the Roman Empire. [1] Apparently, it happened a lot.

The curse tablets of Bath

Roman curse tablet. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons.

Curse tablet. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons. The tablet curses a woman in the hope that her life, mind, memory, lungs, and liver will get all mixed up.

But of course the clothing thieves were hard to catch. How can you tell if someone else is wearing your toga when most of the togas looked alike? Romans who lost their clothing to thieves at the public baths resorted to defixiones, or curse tablets made of lead. In this Roman version of the voodoo doll, bathers cursed the thieves who swiped their garments. Archaeologists have discovered a number of curse tablets at the Aquae Sulis, the ancient public bath of Bath in southwest England. Because the curse writers mentioned their items of stolen clothing, we have an idea what the thieves walked off with. Two tablets detail the loss of a caracalla, or cape. Thieves also liked to take sandals, rings, and coins. The curse tablets were read out loud and displayed publically, so there was always some hope that the description of the stolen clothing would help someone recognize it and thus solve the crime.

The Sachsenspiegel to the rescue

Coins and rings were one thing, but a lot of those capes and sandals looked alike. Pity the poor person who accidently took the wrong item of clothing and then got caught! Stolen clothing wasn’t always intentional.

Germans accumulated enough experience with unintentional stolen clothing to make a special legal exception. When the Holy Roman Empire codified its customary law in the 13th century into a ground-breaking law book called the Sachsenspiegel, it addressed the unwitting appropriation of clothing at the public bath.

Stolen clothing in the Sachsenspiegel.

Stolen clothing in the Sachsenspiegel. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Heidelberger Sachsenspiegel, Cod. Pal. germ. 164, p. 29v. Creative Commons License.

This picture, from an illustrated version of the Sachsenspsiegel, shows a a man in green, on the right, leaving the public bath. The accompanying text clarifies the situation:

Whoever carries away another’s sword or clothing or basin or razor from the public bath, in the assumption that the items were his, … and doesn’t hide them, because he thinks they’re his, and takes an oath to that effect, the person [from whom the items were taken] may seize them or file a lawsuit for their return.

Apparently the cloak, sword, basin, and razor (yup, that item in his right hand is a Medieval shaving apparatus) in his possession don’t belong to the man in green. Which means that one of those guys with the leafy luffa sponges is going to have an embarrassing walk home. At least the unintentional thief doesn’t have to face the mines or the executioner!

What if you found the unintended thief out in the public wearing your clothes? The Sachsenspiegel doesn’t say whether you can seize them right away, in public, leaving the thief stipped and naked. The code probably invisioned a judicial seizure. But it sure would be tempting.

Enjoy your summer!

Pool, Pixabay.

Pool, Pixabay.

Summer isn’t over yet. Keep your clothing safe when you visit the beach or the public pool. But just in case your stuff gets stolen and you have to walk home naked, know that you’re not alone. Thousands of people before you walked this walk of shame; so many, in fact, that the crime of stolen clothing received special treatment in the law books. You will become part of history.

Have you ever had anything stolen from you at the pool or beach?

Literature on point:

[1] Blümner, H., Die römischen Privataltertümer, Handbuch der klassischen Altertums-Wissenschaft IV, 2, 2 (München, 1911), 433.

Maria Dobozy, The Saxon Mirror: The Sachsenspiegel of the Fourteenth Century (Philadelphia, Univ. of Penn. Press, 1999).

Heiner Lück, Der Sachsenspiegel (Darmstadt: WBG, 2017).

Bronwen Riley, Journey to Britannia: From the Heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall, AD 130 (London: Head of Zeus, Ltd, 2015).

Avi Selk & Rick Noack, “‘Not a swimming place for Nazis”: A far-right lawmaker had his clothes stolen at the lake.” Washington Post, June 6, 2018.

J.D.H. Tenne, Die Lehre vom Diebstahl (Berlin: Rücker & Püchler, 1840).

Wild, J. (1986). “Bath and the Identification of the Caracalla.” Britannia, 17, 352-353.

13 Comments

  1. Marilyn
    Aug 16, 2018

    Interesting. I wonder if someone will try it here in France?

    • Ann Marie
      Aug 16, 2018

      Oh, I’ll bet the French have a long history of that. Whether it might happen to a French politician, like it did here in Germany, I can’t say. Time will tell.

  2. Steven Stories
    Sep 12, 2018

    While at a public beach I took a shower in one of the men’s bathrooms. This was at Mission Beach in San Diego. The bathrooms nearest the beach were always full of people and me being shy would go to the furthest shower. It was across the street, through a park, about half a mile from the beach. Hardly anyone uses it so I usually wash off there in private. I walked to the bathroom and as I had sand all over my body, fully undressed and put my clothes down on the bench just outside the semi-open shower stall. There is no door or places to put clothes in the shower area nor are there any kind of lockers or other safe places to place your clothing. There was nobody in the bathroom and I didn’t see anyone walking toward the bathroom. There were some kids playing in the park, some families enjoying an afternoon lunch, joggers, dog walkers, people flying kites and doing various other park activities that day. I wasn’t in the shower for very long, as I wanted to get out and get dressed before anyone entered and possibly saw me. This was always an anxious activity for me, bringing back nightmares from grade schools. When I came out of the shower, much to my surprise, all of my clothes and belongings were gone. I had heard nothing at all. I quickly looked around, peeked in the trash cans, looked in all the stalls and then stood on the bench to peek over the wall to see if I could see the silent thief. I saw nobody and found no clothes nor did I find anything I could possibly cover up with. I should have let all the bathing suits I had seen on the roof of the bathroom throughout the years be a warning. The only people nearby were a group of young children sitting at a wooden bench and table. Should I ask them for help? Would that seem strange? I decided to yell out to them to ask if they had a phone. I thought maybe I could have them call the police for me. They claimed to not have any phones and began to wonder why I was asking them for a phone. Once they began laughing I realized that they most likely had figured out what had happened or perhaps they already knew…. I ducked back inside the bathroom and just stood there, wondering what I could possibly do. A couple of the boys from the group outside came peering inside the bathroom from the doorway as I quickly sat down on the bench to keep my privates private. They laughed as they quickly ran away. I got a bit of nerve and stood back up on the bench and loudly asked them as they went running by back to the bench if they know where my clothes are. They shook their heads “no” as they continued to run back to their group. I sat back down on the bench and pondered some more. I heard the children laughing out loud so hard that it must of got even more children’s attention as when I peeked back over the wall there were twice as many of them talking and laughing. One of them points me out to the others and says “There he is! The naked man!” and they all look and laugh loudly. I begin to worry that they will come in and take photos or even worse, videos of me, so I retreat to a stall and lock the door. I can hear them come into the bathroom a couple times, looking around and chuckling when they realize I’ve locked myself in a stall. I was trapped for what seemed like a very long time, although it was probably only 15 minutes or so. Then I heard a voice, an adult voice, ask out “Do you need some help?” Apparently, the parents of some of the kids got curious as to what was so funny and now they have found out. “Yes, please.” I replied. The man told me to wait and they would bring me a towel. I was in there for a bit a more, heard a little boy trying to conceal his laughter and hear a women telling the kids to “leave the man alone”. I did get a towel from the kind stranger, but that was all I had. My keys to my car, my wallet and thus my money… all gone. That was the beginning of a loooong day.. and night.. and day.. and me only clad in a towel, stuck in San Diego, hundreds of miles from home and knowing nobody who lives there. It was the beginning of a nightmare… the whole story is too long to tell here.

    • Ann Marie
      Sep 12, 2018

      Thanks, Steven, for sharing your story. You are a good writer. What an ordeal that was! I’m glad you came through it okay. The children’s behavior makes me wonder if they were behind it. Of course, you left me wondering what happened afterwards. Losing car keys and identification was one thing that the Romans, Britons, and Medieval Germans never needed to worry about.

  3. Jason A.
    Nov 14, 2018

    I’ve had it happen to me. Camping with friends during spring break by the beach me and a friend went down to go for a walk and I brought up how night swimming sounds like a good idea, she commented she didn’t have a bathing suit and I said I didn’t either but said let’s just go skinny dipping, I stripped down and ran in and she eventually followed well we were in the water and a while later we heard people call out and some of our friends had the same idea for the walk only they decided to grab our clothes and run back to the tents, needless to say me and my friend had to run back up the beach, the path to the campsite and past other campers.

    • Ann Marie
      Nov 15, 2018

      Yikes! Some friend! Glad to hear you survived the episode, but I have to admit, it would have made me pretty mad! Thanks for commenting, Jason.

    • Chris
      Mar 18, 2021

      I Did the same thing We are 2 guys We were drinking We decide take a walk on the beach I wanna Go for A dip in the ocean We looked around so nobodyIs gonna Catch us We were Taken all clothes off We Left all our clothes scattered Is pitch black on the beach I left Both are Belongings do the pathway This way you can find Or Belongings I was stupid My cellphone was there End his Phone to We Or totally naked and I said it’s walk back to are clothes No is This can’t happen I hear voices Teenagers They ran off my clothes I can’t believe this We’re both naked They Have my cell phone and his And My car keys we got the money in The glove box It’s pretty Embarrassing They saw Me my friend totally naked We ran after them But they said Hey suckers They Have Me big time Ran down the side street Said to my friend We have Nothing to wear Somebody Saw me My friend also nude The kids Say to Us Stop Or we will call the cops on you I was way to kill these kids I said to my friend get On the beach we are Totally naked We can go to jail for this Believe it or notThey left the clothes Scattered everywhere. I have a trash bag and my friend those to avoid dicks being seen I was in the street getting my stuff off the ground O try control my Manhood I hate to say this There is so Embarrassing I will never forget that night

  4. Susan Voth
    Dec 31, 2018

    This is a very interesting history of stolen clothing, etc while bathing! It’s something I never really thought about much because I’m much to shy to try skinny dipping. But people had to in the past, and still have to bathe publicly in many parts of the world probably. What I particularly liked was the curse tablets of Bath. People believed in those things back then and it would sure be a terrible curse to have my mind, liver, memory, and lungs all mixed up lol. It’s very well written as always!

    • Ann Marie
      Jan 3, 2019

      Stolen clothing isn’t probably such a problem today as it was back then. Clothing today is cheaper and even in places where public bathing is popular (e.g. swimming pools), you have a chance to lock your clothing up. What I love about the curse tablets is that they offer a window into the period clothing of the average person. So often history records only the lives of the elite, but in the case of the curse tablets, it’s of the average person.

  5. Steve
    Nov 14, 2019

    Whilst skinny-dipping with a friend we noticed someone go to our clothes on the beach.

    She didn’t care as the car key was attached to her wrist and there were no valuables with the clothes.

    Clothes are cheap, keep a spare key on you when skinny-dipping and relax 🙂

    • Ann Marie
      Nov 14, 2019

      Good tip, Steve. How do you attach a key to your wrist? I’m not sure I could relax, though, if someone stole my clothes. The idea of trying to get help while naked is not most people’s cup of tea.

      • Steve
        Nov 15, 2019

        Google wrist coil keychain for ideas.

        When we were young friends always hid your clothes but it was expected and part of the fun of skinny-dipping.

        Never had to get help from strangers when naked. Think it would be funny if part of a group, like the camping skinny-dippers but scary if alone.

      • Steve
        Nov 16, 2019

        It was called a wrist coil keychain. It was plastic spiral bracelet with a keyring threaded over it. They use them as giveaway novelty items at conferences but you can buy them for one to two dollars each.
        You can’t take modern keys with built in remotes swimming as they may get damaged.
        Get a spare key cut just for car access and hide the normal key in the car.

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