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The Napoleon of Crime: Adam Worth

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

He was ambitious and brilliant, a master criminal who pulled off his misdeeds without leaving any evidence. While being an accomplished thief, he lived as a respected gentleman of society.

Adam Worth late in life.

Adam Worth late in life.

Adam Worth's Early Career of Larceny

He was born to a poor family in Germany in 1844 and came to America with his parents when he was five. He was only 10 (some accounts say 14) when he ran away from home for Boston and, later, New York.

At 17, he lied about his age and signed up with the Union Army in the Civil War. At the Second Battle of Bull Run he was wounded and, while in hospital, discovered the army had him listed as killed in action. He used his supposed death as a stepping stone to bounty jumping.

He would take the bounty offered for enlisting and then desert. Using false identities, he was able to pull off this scam more than once.

With Pinkerton detectives on his tail he disappeared into New York's underworld and started his criminal career as a pickpocket. Soon, he was running a network of pickpockets and moving on to bigger crimes.

August 29, 1862: The Second Battle of Bull Run that cut short Adam Worth's military career.

August 29, 1862: The Second Battle of Bull Run that cut short Adam Worth's military career.

Adam Worth—Bank Robber

By the late 1860s, crime had become one of New York City's major industries and much of it was under the control of Frederika “Marm” Mandelbaum. A German-Jewish immigrant, Marm bought and sold stolen goods so it was inevitable that Worth, also a German-Jewish immigrant, would cross paths with the famed fence.

With Marm's help and encouragement, Adam Worth took up the bank robbing trade. He needed a safecracker as a partner in his new venture and one of the best was Charley Bullard; inconveniently, he was doing time in the White Plains jail. So, Worth dug a tunnel into the prison and got Bullard out. Together, they used the tunnel technique to break into the Boylston National Bank in Boston and relieve it of one million dollars. That was in November 1869.

When the two robbers realized the Pinkertons were on their trail, they decided to leave America to try their luck in England.

Adam Worth Becomes a Fashionable Gentleman

With the proceeds of his American crimes, Worth was able to set himself up as a man of substance in London's more fashionable circles. He adopted the name Henry Judson Raymond that also happened to be the name of the founder of The New York Times.

According to The Smithsonian Magazine, Worth “transformed himself into an elegant English gentleman, with a flat on Piccadilly, a steam yacht, racehorses, and an international syndicate of robbers and forgers.” His team of crooks took their instructions through middle men and never knew the name of the organizing genius who employed them.

Worth expanded his criminal enterprise to Paris where he and some associates opened the American Bar that was a front for an illegal gambling joint upstairs. He even went farther afield and stole rough diamonds valued at half a million dollars in South Africa.

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Theft of a Gainsborough Painting

In the late 1780s, Thomas Gainsborough painted a portrait of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. The painting went to Chatsworth House, the country seat of the Dukes of Devonshire. Then, it vanished for 50 years before an art collector spotted it in the house of a retired schoolmistress named Mrs. Maginnis. The lady had cut off a portion of the portrait so that it would fit over her mantelpiece.

The collector, Wynne Ellis, recognized its importance and persuaded Mrs. Maginnis to part with it in exchange for £56. When Ellis died, the painting was sold at auction for more than £10,000, a previously unheard of price. The purchaser was art dealer William Agnew who sold it on for probably £15,000 to Junius Morgan who intended to give it to his son, Wall Street financier John Pierpont Morgan.

The painting was still on display in Agnew's gallery on May 27, 1876 when Adam Worth broke in, cut the painting out of its frame, and made good his escape.

However, now he faced a problem; how was he going to sell such a famous work of art? The answer was that he couldn't. He shipped the canvas to the United States in the false bottom of a trunk and the portrait of Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire disappeared for another 25 years.

In 1901, the Pinkerton people got involved in negotiations between Worth and Agnew's son. Money changed hands and the portrait returned to Agnew and then into the hands of J.P. Morgan.

In 1994, the Morgan family put it up for auction and it fetched $408,870. The buyer was the 11th Duke of Devonshire, so Georgina Cavendish has returned to her ancestral home.

Gainsborough's portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire.

Gainsborough's portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire.

The Downfall of Adam Worth

Worth's 30-year crime spree came to an end in 1892 when he got sloppy. He was in the Belgian city of Liège when he tried to rob a money delivery to a bank.

The heist wasn't well planned and Worth hired two untried associates to help him. Everything went wrong and Belgian police caught the would-be robber at the scene; his two hapless helpers got away.

Worth was handed a seven-year sentence, but he got out in five for good behaviour. Back in London in 1897, he stole $4,000 worth of diamonds because he had living expenses he needed to meet; as you do.

Then, it was back to the United States where, in 1901, he met with William Pinkerton of the famous detective agency. Amazingly, Worth confessed to all his crimes. Pinkerton wrote down the details and published them in book form—Adam Worth, Alias ‘Little Adam’.

Pinkerton noted that “The sober, cold, technical judgment passed upon Adam Worth by the greatest thief hunters of America and Great Britain is that he was the most remarkable, most successful, and most dangerous criminal known to modern times.”

Worth returned to London and, in January 1902, just months after his mea culpa, he died. He was penniless and was buried in a pauper's grave—still called Henry Raymond.

Adam Worth's headstone in London's Highgate Cemetery.

Adam Worth's headstone in London's Highgate Cemetery.

Bonus Factoids

  • Sometime in the 1880s, Worth married Louise Boljahn. The couple had two children; a daughter called Beatrice and a son, Henry, who, irony of ironies, became a Pinkerton detective.
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle borrowed Adam Worth's persona in creating arch villain Moriarty, who he called the “Napoleon of crime.” T.S. Eliot also used the nickname for Macavity a character in his Old Possom's Book of Practical Cats.
  • Georgina Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire was a great beauty and the talk of the town in her day. She was an ancestor of Diana Spencer who married Prince Charles of England to become Princess Diana and also a figure of vast public interest.

Sources

  • “Review of ‘The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief’. ” Richard Wolkomir. Smithsonian Magazine, October 1997.
  • “Adam Worth, the Dandy Who Stole Georgiana From J.P. Morgan.” New England Historical Society, 2019.
  • “Adam Worth, Alias ‘Little Adam’.” William A. Pickerton and Robert A. Pinkerton, 1903.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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