Would the Real Napoleon of Crime Please Stand Up?

Article published on January 18, 2017.

Erin Britton on the original Moriarty.

“When Sherlock Holmes met his apparent death at the Reichenbach Falls, he did so with his hands around the throat of Professor James Moriarty, the greatest criminal strategist to ever stalk the streets of London. Due to the vast network of thieves, murderers and other ne’er-do-wells at Moriarty’s command, as well as his almost preternatural ability to plot villainous deeds, Holmes referred to his nemesis as “the Napoleon of Crime”. However, while Moriarty is today recognised as one of the greatest villains to ever grace the pages of a book, the man who inspired the dastardly professor is far less well known.

Adam Worth was born in Germany in 1848, although his family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he was five. He began his criminal career as a “bounty jumper”, joining up with various army regiments and then doing a runner/faking his own death after receiving the bounty for enlisting. After the end of the American Civil War, Worth moved to New York to continue his criminal career. He spent some time acting as the muscle for prominent fence Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum, before starting to plan and pull off his own heists. He went on to become the most successful safecracker, jewel thief and bank robber in New York, eschewing violence the entire time, which is saying a lot in a city that was the setting for 53,000 violent crimes in 1865 alone.

With the local notoriety came the attention of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and so Worth set sail for England in 1869. Adopting the identity of Henry J. Raymond, he settled in London and started to enjoy the champagne lifestyle of an English gentleman. That’s not to say he curtailed his criminal enterprises though, since Worth still found time to run his international network of robbers and forgers. Indeed, Worth was such a thorn in the side of law and order that Scotland Yard detective Robert Anderson (himself said to have inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes) dubbed him “the Napoleon of the criminal world”.

Worth issued all his orders through intermediaries so that very few of those involved in his schemes actually knew about him. The reason he was able to stay in “business” for so long was that his meticulous planning meant there was no evidence linking him to the crimes he masterminded. For instance, there was no evidence to link Worth to the theft of Gainsborough’s portrait of Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, which was stolen from a London art gallery in 1876. Worth kept the portrait with him for 25 years, hiding it in the false bottom of his suitcase or sleeping with it under his mattress, until he sold it back to the gallery for an undisclosed sum. Oddly enough, the deal was brokered by William Pinkerton, who had spent much of his detective career pursuing Worth around the world.

Although his downfall was not as spectacular as his literary counterpart’s, not even Adam Worth could outrun the law forever. In 1892, Worth was arrested in Belgium during a botched robbery. He refused to confess to the crime or even to identify himself, but Belgian police circulated his photograph and details to other forces, and he was soon identified by detectives in London and New York. Despite the fact that Worth was known to treat his subordinates fairly and not be averse to busting them out of jail when the need arose, several of his former associates also gave evidence against him, proving once again that there is no honour among thieves. Worth was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for the robbery.

While Worth never scaled the heights of criminal enterprise again, his jail time did not quite set him on the straight and narrow either. After being released early for good behaviour, he decided to return to the United States and reunite with his children – funding the trip by robbing a diamond exchange. The family then returned to London, where Worth lived out the remainder of his days in relative obscurity (or was that just a well-executed ruse?). Adam Worth died in 1902 and he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Highgate Cemetery.”

Erin Britton
Nov 2016

First published in the nb91 Winter issue of nb magazine, available from the nudge shop


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