While traveling in eastern Pennsylvania in 1819, Englishman William Cobbett commented on the widespread American custom of taking apples from other people’s orchards without seeking permission. While many European travelers to the early American Republic wrote disapprovingly of the common practice of apple-pilfering, and saw it as a reflection of the American’s weak moral constitution, Cobbett concluded that the practice of taking apples from roadside orchards was so widespread that it would never be considered a crime in the United States. In an era when apples were abundant, the labor to pick and process them were in short supply, and primitive roads made getting perishables to distant markets a challenge, fruit frequently rotted on the orchard floor. William Cooper Howells recalled of his boyhood in eastern Ohio in the early 19th century that
there “were plenty of apples in the orchards . . . where they were always free to the passer-by.” Howells recalled that even a one mile trip to the flour mill could “spoil a day’s work” because along the path he would have to pass two orchards, a good fishing creek, and a good swimming hole. Howells was inclined to ask permission of the owner before taking fruit, which was always granted, but many other travelers, both children and adult, never bothered with such niceties. On his own family farm in 1820, “the peach crop was too great for us to manage, and much of it went to waste” despite the valiant efforts of the family to gather and dry as much of the crop as they could. As a result, Americans tended to see orchard fruit as a providential bounty free for the taking when God delivered it up.
To be sure, many saw taking fruit without asking to be a sin and bemoaned the prevailing attitude “that every body has a legal right to eat as much fruit as he wants, wherever he can find it.” Essays on the moral instruction of children often used the example of taking apples from orchards without permission as a kind of gateway sin that could lead little boys down the wrong path. Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book used variants of a fable about a boy who stole apples in many editions of the primer. But in most of the cautionary tales about the sin of stealing apples, when the boys learn to ask the owner they were granted permission to take “just as many as you want.” Even the moralists recognized that orchard fruit in season was in such great abundance that it would be stingy to deny anyone enough fruit to fill their pockets, so long as they asked.
As far as the law was concerned, taking apples from a roadside orchard was a trivial offense–at most an instance of trespass, for which the owner was only entitled to sue for the value of lost fruit, which in any given case would be so small as to not be worth the trouble. But as good roads and canals connected farmers to urban markets, and improvement-minded farmers invested more of their labor and resources into carefully cultivated, grafted fruit orchards with marketable winter apples, they began to perceive the passerby who pilfered a shirttail full of apples in the same light they did the pickpocket. Market-minded farmers grew increasingly frustrated that the law did not agree. As early as 1832, a court case in New York gave horticulturalists some hope that the legal system and the public might begin to take their grievance seriously. The case involved an apple-pilferer who took a farmer to court for assault. The pilferer had been caught in the act by the orchard owner who was holding a horsewhip when he demanded that the thief put down the fruit. When the brazen scoundrel refused, the
orchard owner took the whip to him. The plaintiff’s lawyer confessed to the jury that he himself had on many occasions taken fruit from other men’s orchards, that no doubt the majority of the jury members had done so as well, and therefore the assault with horsewhip was entirely unwarranted. The jury disagreed and found for the farmer defendant. The story circulated among editors of agricultural journals, who read into the jury’s decision “the pleasing hope that we were on the eve of a revolution in regard to the plundering of fruit, and that a great improvement in public sentiment is taking place on this subject.”
The revolution did not occur overnight, but as farmers began organizing state agricultural societies, they began to lobby state legislatures to pass laws that treated apple-pilfering as a crime beyond mere trespass and imposed penalties far beyond the value of the product stolen. Eastern states, where farmers were earlier connected to urban markets, led the way. But Midwestern state soon followed. Ohio, the state where John “Appleseed” Chapman planted most of his seedling stock, passed a law stiffening penalties on apple-pilferers just one week after his death. The movement to criminalize apple-pilfering was at base a movement to press Americans to begin to recognize fruit-raising as a legitimate industry and fruit as a valuable form of property, worthy of the same protections extended to livestock and manufactured goods. It was also an effort to exterminate the old self-provisioning culture that John Chapman’s seedling apple trees represented.