The Burglar’s Christmas • Response Post • Willa Cather Short Story Project

Did you have a chance to read “The Burglar’s Christmas” this month?

I’m not much for Christmas stories, so haven’t read very many of them. Not sure why that is. Maybe they feel like too much of a set-up? Something awful, then something heartwarming. Blah, blah, blah.

Don’t I sound scroogey.

“The Burglar’s Christmas” was published in The Home Monthly in December 1896. Cather was the editor of the magazine and wrote this story under the pseudonym Elizabeth L. Seymour.

A cold Christmas Eve in Chicago

It’s the story of William Crawford who is at the end of his rope. He’s only 24 and it’s a cold Christmas Eve in Chicago. He’s drifted around the country doing a variety of jobs, but always gets canned. He seems ready to drown himself in the lake and decides he might as well try to be a thief since he has nothing left to lose.

The story opens:

“Two very shabby looking young men stood at the corner of Prairie avenue and Eightieth street, looking despondently at the carriages that whirled by. It was Christmas Eve, and the streets were full of vehicles; florists’ wagons, grocers’ carts and car-riages. The streets were in that half-liquid, half-congealed condition peculiar to the streets of Chicago at that season of the year. The swift wheels that spun by sometimes threw the slush of mud and snow over the two young men who were talking on the corner.”

One of these men is Crawford and the other is a companion who is a bit older. They’re both down on their luck. Those familiar with Chicago history know that Prairie Avenue was where the millionaires built their mansions in the late 19th century.

Both men are hungry, but perhaps for different things. The older man decides to head to a saloon, Longtin’s where, he says, “I used to play the banjo in there with a couple of coons, and I’ll bone him for some of his free lunch stuff.” He can’t convince Crawford, who seems ready to commit suicide, to join him.

I was dismayed to read the racial slur. It does fit the time period and gives a sense of the speaker’s character. He also uses the coarse slang, “I’ll bone him,” which probably had a different meaning back then, but is nevertheless indicative of the character’s personality. I suppose it is a strong sentence for the work it does in the story.

“I’ll bone him”

From the context I imagine “to bone” someone was to wear them down, as in this definition from Merriam-Webster: “to rub (something, such as a boot or a baseball bat) with something hard (such as a piece of bone) in order to smooth the surface.” So, he’ll wear down the saloon proprietor for free food. Have you come across this slang before?

Back to the story. The other man leaves to finagle his free meal. Crawford reflects on his short life and sees nothing but failure. He decides to become a thief and imagines he’ll fail at that as well.

With this resolution in mind, his first act is to help a young girl who drops a package. After he slips into a mansion, Crawford instinctively takes off his muddy hat as he walks up the stairs: “It struck him as being a rather superfluous courtesy in a burglar, but he had done it before he had thought.”

Crawford’s behavior and attitude is in stark contrast to his older friend. At his core, Crawford is a good young man. You’ll have to read the rest of the story for yourself to see whether or not he succeeds on his mission as thief. It is revealed why he is the way he is but I won’t spoil this Christmas story, even if it is 125 years old.

What do you think?

What did you think of “The Burglar’s Christmas”? Share your thoughts about the story in the comments below. If you haven’t yet read the story, you can read it here on the Willa Cather Archive.

New to this blog? Learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project here. In a nutshell, we’re reading one Cather short story a month. Jump in anytime!


  1. I skimmed this – it was awfully sentimental. Probably giving the readers what they wanted in a magazine at the time. The term “bone him” was new to me too. I took it to mean something like “hit him up for some free food.”

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