Review of 'The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief'

Review of 'The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief'

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The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief
Ben Macintyre
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24

"Bad poets," said T. S. Eliot, "borrow. Good poets steal."

He himself borrowed or stole the epithet "Napoleon of crime"--familiar to all Broadway goers today as applied to that boss of Cats bosses, Macavity--from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes in 1893 had applied it to his perpetual antagonist, Professor Moriarty. Lurking behind these two literary figures, there was a real life supercriminal who could have given lessons to both Eliot and Doyle.

His name was Adam Worth; a dapper, cerebral and ambitious little man, he had come from nowhere--specifically, the mean backstreets of Cambridge, Massachusetts--to become the most successful safecracker and bank robber in the city of New York, which in 1865 boasted 53,000 crimes of violence. Dissatisfied with a mere local notoriety, and seeking to escape the notice of Pinkerton detectives, in 1869 he borrowed or stole the name of Henry J. Raymond, late founder editor of the New York Times, and sailed to England where he transformed himself into an elegant English gentleman, with a flat on Piccadilly, a steam yacht, racehorses and an international syndicate of robbers and forgers. For years he drove the world's police forces to distraction with well planned, bloodlessly executed crimes all the way to Port Elizabeth in South Africa, without ever leaving a bit of incriminating evidence.

There was no evidence to connect him to the theft of Gainsborough's portrait of Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire, from Agnew and Sons, a London gallery, on the night of May 25, 1876. It was a glorious portrait, by a painter at the height of his powers, of an alluring young duchess who occupied much the same position in London society and gossip in 1787 as her collateral descendant, Diana, Princess of Wales, held two centuries later, until her tragic death.

Previous to the theft, the portrait had disappeared for some 50 years, to turn up in the home of a Mrs. Maginnis, who had scissored off the legs so that the painting could fit over her mantelpiece. There it was discovered in 1841 by one John Bentley, London art dealer, who, after some earnest haggling, bought it for 56 pounds and subsequently sold it to a collector named Wynn Ellis. Upon Ellis' death, art dealer William Agnew bought it at auction for the extraordinary price of 10,000 guineas. Agnew then agreed to sell it to Junius Morgan, who wanted a "princely" present for his son J. Pierpont, for $50,000, the highest price any painting had yet fetched. But before Mr. Morgan could take possession, the painting had been cut from its frame by Adam Worth.

For the next 25 years Worth would hold on to the duchess, whether because he had fallen in love with her, as he had once fallen in love with Kitty Flynn, the Liverpool barmaid whom he had launched as a society lady, or because the duchess was too hot an item to put on the market. When he traveled, the rolled up portrait was in the false bottom of his trunk. In London he slept with the canvas stretched out flat between two boards beneath his mattress.

The tale of this classy scoundrel has been resurrected from old newspapers and the files of the Pinkerton Detective Agency by Ben Macintyre, Paris bureau chief for the Times of London, whose office windows look across the Place de L'Opéra into the building where Worth and Kitty Flynn once ran the American Bar, an illegal gambling den, that for years packed in tourists from the States and criminals from all over the world. It turns out to be a highly moral tale, with a happy ending to boot.

Worth was eventually done in--perhaps by an arrogance that led him to believe he could get away with anything, including a daylight robbery of currency from an express van in Liège. He was nabbed by police, deserted by his accomplices, betrayed by an old rival, and spent five miserable years in a Belgian jail. Adding insult to injury, one of his erstwhile accomplices took advantage of Worth's absence to seduce his wife and steal everything she owned in the way of jewels and racehorses.

It broke Worth's spirit and his health. In his last sad, alcoholic years he cemented his friendship with William Pinkerton, with whom he had played cat and mouse for almost half a century. In 1901 they worked out a somewhat questionable plan for the Agnew gallery to get back its portrait for an undisclosed sum, no questions asked. Worth tried to design a burglar proof safe, but nothing came of it, and he died broke, while Pinkerton left an estate valued at $15 million.


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