Friday 7 April 2017

Adam Worth: the real-life “Napoleon of Crime”

“He’s a thief,” Topcliffe said. “A most accomplished and successful one. That’s why he’s useful to us.”
“But he seemed…”
“Exactly what he is. A clever, cultured, agreeable American gentleman, whose profession just happens to be larceny.”

Adam Worth in 1892
And this is how Adam Worth, alias Henry Judson Raymond, is described as he makes his appearance in Britannia’s Shark, in which he plays a key role. He is similarly prominent as a character in Britannia's Amazon.  Important though this involvement in the affairs of Empire proved to be however, it was only one episode – unknown to the general public until now – in the career of a real-life professional criminal who was to be described by a senior Scotland Yard official as “The Napoleon of the Criminal World.”  This historical figure was as remarkable for the global span of his activities as for the ease with which he found acceptance at the highest levels of British society, despite very humble beginnings.

Worth was born in Germany in 1844 and was taken by his parents to the United States when he was five years old. The family settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father worked as a tailor. Worth left home early and by 1860 was in New York City, employed there as a clerk in a  department store – what he apparently described later as “my first and only honest job".  This could have been the start of a life of respectable drudgery but for Worth – as for many others – the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 was to provide an opportunity if only he could survive it. 

Second Bull Run - where Worth died officially
Worth, now seventeen, enlisted, attracted probably as much by the generous bounty paid to volunteers as by the prospect of adventure.  Showing obvious leadership talents, he was quickly promoted to sergeant in the 34th New York Light Artillery Regiment. When serving at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862 – yet another in a long string of Union defeats – Worth was seriously wounded and shipped back to hospital in Washington D.C. On recovering he found that he had in error been listed as killed in action.

This was Worth’s big opportunity. Officially dead, he was now free to enlist once more and to claim another bounty. Like many others he got a taste for it, taking the money, deserting, re-enlisting again in another unit under another name. (It might be commented in passing that such “bounty- jumpers”, though reprehensible, were no worse than the rich young men who took advantage of their right to pay poor men to serve as substitutes on their behalf once the draft was introduced. The bounty-jumpers at least risked death by firing squad if apprehended. Those who typically paid $300 to a substitute included the banker J.P.Morgan, future president Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt's father, as well as many other wealthy people. There is much truth in the saying that this was "A Rich Man's War and a Poor Man's Fight").

Worth evaded retribution for his bounty-jumping and at the end of the Civil War saw opportunities in the New York criminal underworld, that merciless society so memorably depicted in the Martin Scorcese movie “Gangs of New York”. Working in his favour was the fact that he was abstemious by nature and that he had a marked talent for planning and financing criminal enterprises. His luck did however run out, landing him in Sing Sing prison. He escaped within weeks. 

Marm Maddelbaum
- not to be underestimated!
With his appearance now altered by magnificent mutton-chop whiskers, he established a profitable relationship with a fence and criminal financier called Frederika Mandelbaum, known to her friends as "Marm" - obviously a lady to be approached with caution. By 1869 Worth had masterminded a serious of big robberies and was sufficiently respected to be contracted to spring a robber called Charley Bullard from prison. This successful operation involved bribing of guards and digging of a tunnel. Worth and Bullard now formed a partnership – one of their most notable coups was robbery of a bank in Boston by the same method featured in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Red Headed League”. For this a shop was set up near the bank and from it a tunnel was excavated to gain entrance. Worth and Bullard were now so successful that the Pinkerton Detective Agency was set on their trail. Judging the United States to be too hot for them they set sail for Europe.

A typical dinner party hosted by “Marm” Mandelbaum (R) and her "inner circle".
 From "Recollections of a New York Chief of Police" (1887) by George W. Walling,

Paris in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Commune that followed in 1871 was the corrupt and hedonistic sink immortalised in the work of Zola, de Maupassant and Toulouse-Lautrec. Worth had now re-invented himself as “"Henry Judson Raymond", an American financier, and had acquired the grace and polish to carry it off. With Bullard he operated a major gambling operation in Paris as well as initiating a series of high-value robberies. In the mid-1870s they moved to Britain and here “Raymond” established himself as a popular member of smart society, an acquaintance of the Prince of Wales and a free spender. He bought a magnificent villa in the London suburb of Clapham and maintained in parallel an apartment in a fashionable area off Piccadilly. 

Worth's Clapham villa today
(with acknowledgements to Wikipedia)
Worth formed a criminal network and organised major robberies and burglaries through intermediaries such that his name was unknown to those who were involved directly.  The focus was on high-value proceeds and Worth established the principle that those working for him did not use violence. William Pinkerton, who was later to have direct dealings with him, wrote that:

In all his criminal career, and all the various crimes he committed, ... he was always proud of the fact that he never committed a robbery where the use of firearms had to be resorted to, nor had he ever escaped, or attempted to escape from custody by force or jeopardizing the life of an official, claiming that a man with brains had no right to carry firearms, that there was always a way, and a better way, by the quick exercise of the brain.

Gainsborough's Duchess of Devonshire
Scotland Yard was aware of Worth’s network but was unable to prove anything. From his London  base the Worth operation now functioned on an international scale, including an ambitious swindle involving forged letters of credit in Turkey and a theft of $500,000 worth (in 1870s money!) of uncut diamonds. To oversee the latter operation Worth travelled to South Africa. It was in this period also the Worth pulled off his most spectacular coup. The Thomas Ganisborough painting of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, had recently been rediscovered and was on display in 1876 at an art dealer’s gallery in London. Worth became fascinated by it – obsessed might be the better word. He organised its successful theft with two associates, thereby triggering an international hue-and-cry in the coming years about its whereabouts.  The expectation was that the unknown thieves would attempt to sell it or ransom it but it was in fact to remain in Worth/Raymond’s London apartment within a mile of the gallery. He appears to have immense pleasure in possessing it.

Worth’s criminal enterprises – and his double life – continued through the 1880s. By the early 1890s however he was losing his touch and was arrested in the course of a botched robbery of a money-transport in Belgium in 1892. Worth refused to talk but the net drew in on him when his photograph and details were circulated to Scotland Yard and the United States’ Pinkertons and NYPD. He was now betrayed by several of his associates and following trial was sentenced to seven years in a Belgian gaol. It appears to have broken him, possibly more for the fall from social respectability and prestige than from the physical conditions – he must have endured worse in the Civil War.

He was released early, for good behaviour, in 1897. He determined to return to the United States, where his two children were living (Worth’s affairs with women would need an article to themselves!) but to do so he needed funds. He got them by robbing £4000 (1897 money!) worth of diamonds from a London dealer.

Karl Marx - Worth's neighbour
in Highgate Cemetery
Worth was at risk of prosecution in the United States for his earlier offences there. He had one card still up his sleeve – the Duchess of Devonshire, whom he had managed to keep hidden for some twenty years. He approached the Pinkertons and agreed to return the painting to the dealers he has stolen it from in return for $25,000 and a guarantee of non-prosecution. The exchange of portrait and payment took place in Chicago.  In funds again, Worth returned to London – again as Henry Judson Raymond – with his children. His son appears at a later stage to have become a career Pinkerton detective. The Duchess of Devonshire’s ransom seems to have slipped as easily through Worth’s fingers as all the other money he had come by over four decades. He died in London in 1902 and was buried, under the name of Raymond, in a pauper’s grave in Highgate Cemetery, close to Karl Marx.

The appellation of “The Napoleon of the Criminal World” was awarded Worth by Sir Robert Anderson, Assistant Commissioner (Crime) of the London Metropolitan Police, from 1888 to 1901. The phrase seems to have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, with the idea of a criminal mastermind, Professor James Moriarity. Holmes described him as follows:

Moriarty - he looks
less fun than Worth!
'He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organised… the agent may be caught. In that case money is found for his bail or his defence. But the central power which uses the agent is never caught - never so much as suspected”

And Holmes summed him up as:

“…the Napoleon of crime. He is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city.  He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker.  He has a brain of the first order.'

Adam Worth would have been flattered!

Adam Worth's role in the Dawlish Chronicles...

1881: It is in Britannia's Shark that Nicholas Dawlish encounters Adam Worth, a.k.a. Henry Judson Raymond for the first time. To all appearances a rich and cultured Americn who had chosen to live in Britain and move in the highest levels of society, Raymond also has the contacts that Dawlish needs across the Atlantic if a threat to British naval supremacy is to be overcome. Urbane, ruthless and very, very effective, Raymond is an ally worth having...

Click here to read the opening chapters of Britannia's Shark

1882: In Britannia's Amazon, Florence Dawlish is facing months of separation when her husband Nicholas sails with his cruiser to the Far East ( as told in Britannia's Shark). Florence expects them to be quiet months which she plans to fill with welfare work for seamen's families in Portsmouth. But her witnessing of a brutal abduction on the street plunges her into a maelstrom of corruption, violence, blackmail and intrigue. The enemies she faces are merciless an vicious, their identities protected by guile, power and influence.  Henry Judson Raymond might jut be the person to assist her... but can she trust him?

Click here to read the opening chapters of Britannia's Amazon

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  1. Another superb article from Antoine's who's who of the Victorian world-wide community.

    1. Thanks Carl - it wold be hard to dream up a villain like this if he hadn't existed!

  2. Absolutely riveting reading! They always say truth is stranger than fiction! It was so much easier to 'get away' with stuff in the mid Victorian period, wasn't it ~ thanks to NO internet and only the telegraph office to alert people. By the way, that corner of Highgate cemetery also contains the grave of Herbert Spencer. This its nickname: Marx & Spencer

    1. Agree Carol - the use made of the telegraph is astounding. I seem to remember in one of the Trollope novels its being thrown in as something unremarkable that somebody guilty of something in Britain has been arrested in San Francisco on basis of information transmitted. As Trollope worked for the Post Office it's likely to have been somewhat realistic. Highgate Cemetery seems well worth a visit. I love the joke about Spenser (who, incidentally, always comes across to me as a most unpleasant individual with some very nasty ideas verging on Eugenics etc).

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