There are various kinds of thieves, but only one meets the somewhat romantic image of the cat burglar. A thief is a person who steals anything; this can include pickpockets, purse-snatchers, and even some cyber criminals, as well as robbers and burglars. In common English usage and according to various legal definitions, a robber steals directly from a person or establishment, usually through force or the threat of violence. While a robber confronts his victims, a burglar tries to avoid them, preferring to take property when the owners are absent. Cat burglars take this to the extreme, using athletic prowess and advanced housebreaking skills to avoid detection.
The term cat burglar refers to how real cats, large and small, silently stalk their prey. Like much of the popular imagery surrounding cat burglars, the name has a dramatic and even romantic feel to it. In fact, cat burglars are far more widespread in popular media than they are in the real world. Cat burglars do exist, however. In the 19th century, British criminal Charles Peace gained fame as the king of the cat burglars.
Any burglar will break into a property and steal things, which are both crimes. What distinguishes cat burglars is method, and this is largely a popular distinction, not a legal one. While most burglars will seek the simplest, quickest way in and out, cat burglars will try to avoid detection by subterfuge. The classic cat burglar technique is to attempt entry above the ground level of a building, where windows and doors may not be secured. An alternative name for a burglar who practices this technique is second-story man.
To this end, cat burglars must be in prime physical shape, with climbing skills and possibly even gymnastics training. This type of thief must also have the typical burglar’s skill at breaking into locked buildings. The romantic image of the cat burglar is of a thief so adept at this trait that the means of entry cannot be detected even after the crime is committed. Like much of the mythology surrounding cat burglars, this is far more common in stories than it is in real life.
The cat burglar has been a staple of popular fiction for decades, sometimes as a villain but often as an anti-hero. Cary Grant’s character in the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock film To Catch a Thief is a classic example, a reformed thief framed for new crimes by another cat burglar. Other films featuring this kind of thief include 1963’s The Pink Panther and 1999’s Entrapment. A.J. Raffles, a thief created by British author E.W. Hornung, appeared in a popular series of stories and films in the early 20th century. Perhaps the most famous fictional cat burglar is the Catwoman, an adversary of comic book character Batman, who adopts a cat motif to go along with her crimes.