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

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

"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.

As for the duchess, she was sold to J. Pierpont Morgan for a price Macintyre reports as £30,000 in one place and $30,000 in another. In 1991 she went on the auction block at Sotheby's, to be knocked down for $265,500 to a proxy for the present duke of Devonshire. And now she hangs in the ducal seat of Chatsworth House.

It is comforting to know that real life can follow Hollywood movie plots to the letter. Crime may not pay, but it can provide a rattling good story.

Robert Wernick, who writes from Paris, is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

It is 1973: psychedelically painted VW vans pump out Jefferson Airplane tunes. Drivers flash peace signs. Beside the highway stands a Jesus look alike, thumb out.

Kenn Kaufman certainly had the au courant long hair and beard, and hobo couture. But he did have one peculiar appurtenance: around his neck hung high powered binoculars, painted shiny gold. His ornithology fixation had already set in by his 9th birthday, when Kaufman's family moved from South Bend, Indiana, to Wichita, Kansas. En route he discovered hitchhikers, whose future modus operandi he later adopted. "Was there something wild, something from outside my comfortable world, in those faces?" he wondered. But mostly the boy in the backseat scanned fences, wires, the tops of elms. He had "a mission, a passion: I was watching for birds."

Other boys idolized halfbacks or shortstops. Little Kenn's hero was Roger Tory Peterson, the bird book man. Kaufman was an honors student. But at age 16 he quit school to chase birds. Among the few rules his trusting parents imposed was "no hitchhiking." But birding via Greyhound palled. He soon joined the roadside thumbers.

On his birding peregrinations, Kaufman slept under bridges, ate cat food, picked apples for traveling money. He was jailed in California for underage unsupervised roving. He sold his blood. Then true ornithomania hit--he discovered "listing." Drivers who gave him rides and fellow birders merely flash through this book, flickering phantasmagorically, so concentrated was Kaufman's focus on birds. But not precisely on birds, either. He was addicted to tallying birds, to adding to his species I have seen list.

Kingbird Highway is about Kenn Kaufman's "Big Year." He aimed to show up at the right habitats at the right moments to bag birds he needed for a record one year tally. Ornithologists figured 650 species normally lived in the United States and Canada, plus visitors. Nobody, it was assumed, could possibly see them all in one lifetime. Roger Tory Peterson, in 1953, totaled 572 species. In 1956, a lister hit 598. But by 1973, publications detailed which birds hung out at virtually all key North American sites. And a birder grapevine allowed no rarity to show its tail feathers without bird addicts converging within hours, brandishing scopes and Leicas. When Kaufman began his Big Year, the record stood at 626. Can our contender beat that?

It will prove one doozy of a hitching bout. But Kaufman has barely started, seabird watching from a chartered boat off New England, when he meets a Michigan college teacher, also doing a Big Year. Sir Lancelot versus Sir Modred. Our man has more time, if you subtract how long it takes to hitch from Arizona to New Jersey in an effort to bag a spotted redshank. But his opponent has more money.

By late July an exhausted Kaufman beats the record, hitting 630 birds. But is Sir Modred ahead? He hitches on, "beginning to feel the mileage." He gives us hitching hints (fewer cars after midnight, but drivers may want a rider to help them keep awake). He gives us ornithological insights--"The uninitiated are surprised to learn that dumps are very birdy places." Mostly, he gives us a running tally. White collared seed eater. Boreal owl. Black capped gnatcatcher. Sky lark. Cave swallow. Rhinoceros auklet. His list passes 640.

Once, during his Big Year, he teams up with Texan aces for a Big Day. "Pulling up to the Texas City Dike," he says, "we leaped out of the car like gunslingers, binoculars blazing." Mostly he thumbs alone.

An epiphany: he meets a physician who studies each bird species in diagnostic depth. Finally, Kaufman realizes his own bird knowledge, focused on notching up his list, is shallow. He reaches 650 species, the theoretical maximum. By now he barely cares.

On Alaska's St. Lawrence Island, he looks across the Bering Sea to distant Siberian mountains. He finally truly sees the alcid family birds flying by "with tightly bunched flocks, long single files, disciplined chevrons, wavering streams, isolated pairs, the swift fliers passing the slow and being passed by the even swifter, weaving a dizzying web of patterns against the calm sea and the sky."

Kaufman does not even report who won the Big Year battle. Readers can find the ambiguous answer in the appendix. After hitching 69,000 miles, he has discovered his list really does not matter.

Awakening one dawn, frozen in a snow covered car, he realizes, "with chilling clarity, that birding is a ridiculous activity." But birding has led him down many roads. As an Oklahoma farmer tells him, "I guess your bird watching is better than smoking LSD, or whatever it is that the other hippies are doing."

Along the way, Kaufman had found his sustaining life's work: today, a distinguished ornithologist, he is recognized as the author of Lives of North American Birds.

Richard Wolkomir writes from his home in Vermont.

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