The Napoleon of Crime
June 3, 2009 9:10 AM   Subscribe

Scotland Yard called him the the Napoleon of Crime. The Pinkertons called him the most remarkable criminal of them all. Adam Worth started as a pickpocket in New York and eventually became one of the greatest criminals of all time and the inspiration behind Sherlock Holmes' nemesis Professor Moriarty.

One of Worth's famous thefts is considered the first modern art theft. In 1876 Adam Worth stole Thomas Gainsborough's The Duchess of Devonshire after it was recently sold at auction for 10,000 guineas, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at the time. Worth kept the painting until 1901, when the Pinkertons helped him ransom the painting back to the Agnew & Sons gallery he stole it from (Agnew & Sons then sold the painting to JP Morgan, who's father had original intended to buy the painting from Agnew before the theft). Worth intended to use the ransom money to retire from his life of crime. He died one year later in 1902.
Listen to the story of the daring theft at The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art's (ARCA) first podcast.
posted by Arbac (9 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
So, is the meat of this post the podcast? The rest seems like fluff.

Adam Worth is fascinating, and I do recommend anyone interested pick up the book of the same name as this post—it goes into considerably more detail (well, duh, it's a book), and is a fairly riveting portrait. It's especially disappointing to see loose on facts that would have taken roughly the same amount of space to write but been more accurate and interesting (Max Shinburg was the real source of Worth's ultimate downfall).
posted by klangklangston at 9:31 AM on June 3, 2009

It's cooler to believe that he staged his death and is still out there doing master criminal stuff.

In fact, any time there is an unsolved but clever crime in the future, I'm going to nod knowingly and suggest that it was Worth.

If anyone points out that he'd be 165 years old, I'll just say "Yeah, he's very good..."
posted by quin at 9:43 AM on June 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

He's actually off floating somewhere in space, encased in ice...
posted by Artw at 9:49 AM on June 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

Seconding Klang's recommendation of The Napoleon of Crime, although Worth is never quite the Fu Manchu that the title suggests.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:12 AM on June 3, 2009

Thirding the McIntyre book recommendation. McIntyre is always great value.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:23 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Holy moly, Arbac, what a fantastic story! I'm a Holmes fan and yet had never heard of Worth. Now I'm off to get the book. The Wikipedia article has all sorts of interesting asides and connections, too; are there any good books about Fredericka Mandelbaum, for instance?
posted by Asparagirl at 10:32 AM on June 3, 2009

My magnificently bossy, elderly great-uncle (now pushing 100) was a career civil servant with the British Ministry of Defense, a loyal behind-the-scenes guy par excellence.

In his 70s, he finally completed typing his memoirs and, urged a relative to evaluate them - saying he believed that "might' deserve a wider audience.

They were not remotely a fun read (mainly acres and acres of committee decisions detailed in 100s of pages) and this relative timidly suggested my g-uncle might consider: "including that lovely story you used to tell us about your boss at the Ministry finally being unmasked as "London's own Napoleon of Crime"...".

It turned out his boss had a secret night life as a gentleman cat burglar - and used to raid diplomats' residences and fence the jewels. The chap was caught by Scotland Yard and was dubbed The London Napoleon of Crime at his trial in the late 1930s...

My great- uncle was appalled by the suggestion, and (this is now famous in our family lore) snapped at her: "What on earth makes you imagine anyone would be remotely interested in how he behaved outside the Ministry?"
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:32 AM on June 3, 2009 [13 favorites]

I'm a huge Sherlock Holmes fan & I'd never heard of Adam Worth either but this could've been a much better post. Three Wikipedia links is way too many.
posted by scalefree at 12:43 PM on June 3, 2009

Another Holmes fan, and another one who hadn't heard of this. And who only just realized that there's apparently a huge amount of nonfiction I haven't read about this part of history that I'm interested in. I buy more books because of MetaFilter...

I also loved this quote from the author of The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief in the Wikipedia discussion page:

"Many years ago, I wrote a book about a Victorian crook called Adam Worth, a subject so obscure that no one had ever written a book about him before, or since. When I found an entry for Worth on Wikipedia, I was at first astonished, then flattered to find the book cited in the references, and then slightly infuriated: whoever had written the entry had plainly read my book and summarised it, but added several small but irritating errors."

And I immediately put that book on my wish list.
posted by batgrlHG at 6:59 PM on June 3, 2009

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