Tuesday, November 10, 2015
Adam Worth: The Napoleon of Crime by Charles Kingston 1921
ADAM WORTH: The Napoleon of Crime by Charles Kingston
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WHEN the American Civil War was going none too well for the Northern States, President Lincoln, who was determined not to introduce conscription until he was absolutely compelled to, offered a special bounty of one thousand dollars (about £200) to every fit man who would volunteer to serve "for the duration of the war." We all know now that even the generous bounty failed to solve the recruiting problem, and that conscription had eventually to be resorted to, but for a time that thousand dollar offer elicited numerous responses, and amongst the men it brought into the army was a young clerk of the name of Adam Worth.
Worth was just under twenty, smooth-tongued, clever, self-willed, born to command, and, if physically small, his muscles were as strong as fine steel, while the dark, glittering eyes and the prominent nose were traces of his German-Jewish ancestry. He received his thousand dollars, donned the uniform of the Northern Army, and then deserted, to re-enlist later in another regiment and receive another bounty.
Such was the beginning of the greatest and most successful criminal career the world has ever known. In his school days Adam Worth had been cheated by another and a bigger boy offering him a new penny for two old ones. When the child was told of the loss he had sustained he resolved he would never be "done" again, and he certainly recovered those two pennies millions of times before he died.
Does crime pay? Those who really know are certain that it does not, but there are a few who doubt. Well, here is the story of a man who stole in all quite £500,000, and who must have averaged close on twenty thousand pounds a year during his active life. We shall see what happened to him.
Satisfied for a while with the second bounty, Adam Worth took part in several of the later battles of the great Civil War. There is no record that he distinguished himself, but, on the other hand, he performed his duties satisfactorily, and participated in the rejoicings which followed the triumph of the North. Along with thousands of others, he was discharged from the army when hostilities ceased, and as one of the men who had fought for his country was assured of remunerative employment. But Adam Worth's ideas of money were too big to be honest, and he quickly drifted into the society of thieves. He turned pickpocket, and achieved some very neat thefts. Then he took part in a robbery from a bank. He directed the operations, and their success confirmed what most of his associates were slowly realizing—that Adam Worth and success went hand in hand. Gradually they began to treat him with respect; afterwards they looked up to him as their leader. New methods were needed, and Worth supplied them.
"It's just as easy to steal a hundred thousand dollars as a tenth of that sum," he said to his criminal associates. "The risk is just as great. We'll, therefore, go out for big money always."
He introduced the system of utilizing the proceeds, or part of them, of one robbery to help to bring off the next. Hitherto the average thief was accustomed to spend his ill-gotten gains in dissipation, and then look about for a way of filling his empty pockets. Adam Worth changed all that. He realized that crime must be capitalized if it was to be successful and to pay large dividends. One robbery, for example, brought in about ten thousand dollars, and he distributed only half of this amongst his followers, the balance being held in reserve for another bank burglary, and the reserve was frequently added to.
Worth's foresight was justified immediately. He had despatched confederates all over the United States to seek out likely banks to rob; and, when one of them reported that the Boyston Bank, in Boston, was just the thing they were looking for, Worth journeyed from New York to inspect. He was delighted with what he saw, for it seemed to him the bank was built purposely for him. With proper care it would be the easiest job of his life, and he saw to it that every care was taken to ensure success.
Next door to the Boyston Bank was a barber's shop. It did a good business, and had Worth not possessed considerable monetary reserves he would never have been able to induce the proprietor to sell out. The crook, however, offered him a generous sum down "on the nail," explaining that he was the representative of a New York company which was going to introduce into Boston a patent bitters which would sweep all other patent bitters out of the market. The money and the explanation were accepted, and within a few days the necessary alterations had been made.
The shop window was packed with bottles—which prevented anyone seeing into the shop—and a wooden partition at the end of the shop effectively screened that part from observation should a stray "customer" appear. One of the gang, dressed as a shop assistant, was always on view during the day, but at night he assisted Adam Worth and two other men to dig a tunnel under the shop and into the bank next door. For a week they worked, taking particular care that no trace of their operations could be seen. The excavated earth was carefully piled up behind the wooden partition and watched as though it was gold. Thousands of Bostonians passed the window of the New Patent Bitters Co. unconscious of the fact that one of the most sensational bank robberies of the century was being carried out, for when the gang had finished their tunnel they entered the vaults of the bank, broke open three safes, and gathered a rich harvest of gold and silver and notes, worth in all close on one million dollars.
The four burglars at once fled to New York, and there they divided the spoils, later scattering when they heard that the Boston police were after them. One of the thieves went to Ireland, another to Canada, Worth and the fourth member of the gang, Bullard, sailed for England to open up a new and sensational chapter in the story of crime.
Of course, they could not go by their own names. Bullard called himself Charles Wells, and Adam Worth took the name of Harry Raymond. He made it notorious before he finished with it.
The two American crooks put up at one of the best hotels in Liverpool, intending to take things lazily for a few weeks, but Adam Worth's restless nature would not permit him to keep his hands off other people's property even when he was possessed of forty thousand pounds— his share, after expenses had been paid, of the raid on the bank at Boston. His confederate fell in love with a barmaid at the hotel, and spent most of his time in her company, leaving Worth to wander about the city, ever on the look out for a likely crib to crack.
It was typical of the man that he should regard Charles Bullard's love-making with contempt, because it caused him to neglect business. Bullard could see no reason why they should take any more risks until their money was gone, but Worth looked upon crime as a profession which must be pursued day after day, no matter how large the profits. Anyhow, he left Bullard to himself. Whenever possible Worth preferred to work on his own, for that meant more for him.
At last he found what he wanted. There was a pawnbroker's shop in one of the principal streets of the city which, judging by its window display, must be bulging with jewellery. Adam Worth decided to burgle it, and to secure a wax impression of the key of the front door he called three times within a fortnight to pawn certain articles. He was disguised, of course, for he had to engage the pawnbroker in conversation in order to get an opportunity to press the bit of wax concealed in his left palm against the key, which the pawnbroker sometimes left lying on his counter. On the occasion of his third visit Worth secured the right impression and it cost the unfortunate tradesman twenty-five thousand pounds, for that was the value of the goods missing when he arrived at his establishment one morning and found that it had been entered the previous night.
Worth now decided to visit London. Liverpool was not big enough for a man of his capacity, and, in addition, he was growing rather tired of Bullard, who had married the beautiful barmaid. He advised the newly-married pair to make Paris their headquarters, and they took his advice. Then Worth came to London and rented a costly flat in the centre of Piccadilly. He had now over sixty thousand pounds in hand, all of which he devoted to his profession.
His flat became a regular meeting-place for all the noted thieves of England and the Continent, as well as those select crooks who came from America to interview the greatest of them all. Worth had his own staff of well-trained servants, all of whom could be trusted, and with his large funds he was always in a position to finance any big job. Thieves came to him for advice and help. Was there a bank official to be bribed or a skeleton key to be made? Adam Worth solved both problems. Did a particular job require the services of an expert burglar or forger? Adam Worth had a large supply of either on hand. He knew where to find the right man for every job, and in return for his services he received a goodly percentage of the profits.
The London police were amazed at the long series of burglaries which began with Adam Worth's arrival in London. Each one of them was carried out so neatly that they were plainly the work of a master. But who was the master? Could it be possible that the American gentleman who lived such an open life in the very centre of fashionable London was actually the leader of a gang of burglars? If he was, surely one of his gang would betray him? The police could obtain no proof, and Adam Worth kept them so busy investigating his depredations that they had very little time to devote to his personality.
He planned the robbery of the French mail between Boulogne and Folkestone that resulted in a loss to the Post Office of thirty thousand pounds. Adam Worth provided keys to fit the vans and the boxes containing the registered parcels, and on another occasion actually sent a couple of expert train thieves down to Dover with an exact duplicate of the registered mail bag, everything being on a par with the original, even to the minute figures on the seal. That robbery brought in about twenty thousand pounds, and it was only one of many. Indeed, every case Adam Worth touched turned to gold. Everybody who knew him regarded him as their mascot, and his own personality did the rest.
He was generous to his followers in good and bad times. When any of them were down on their luck they came to Worth, and were helped with presents of money running into hundreds of pounds. In this way he bought them body and soul, keeping a register of their names and abilities, and calling them up for active service when he required them.
All this went on from that luxurious flat in Piccadilly. Now and then Adam Worth took a trip abroad, intending to rest, but he always came back to London with more money than he had gone away with. It was quite impossible for him to resist temptation.
Amongst Worth's most trusted followers was an American, Charles Becker, the very greatest forger who ever lived, not even excepting the famous "Jim the Penman." Worth retained Becker as his principal forger, and at his London headquarters the master criminal got Becker and three other men together, where a great campaign was planned. Coutts's Bank was selected as the principal victim, and Becker, with marvellous skill, forged a number of letters of credit purporting to be issued by the London bank.
Worth supplied the four men with plenty of money to begin their tour, advancing sufficient cash until they could pass their letters of credit, when they would return the money with interest. The gang got as far as Smyrna without mishap, and all seemed to be going well. But one evening when they were gambling at their hotel they were pounced upon by the local police and taken to prison. They had no chance at their trial, and they were sentenced to seven years' penal servitude, and lodged in a horrible prison at Constantinople to serve their time. But Charles Becker, not to mention the others, was too valuable to Adam Worth to be allowed to pass seven long years in a Turkish prison. Worth disappeared from Piccadilly for a time, turning up in Constantinople in the guise of an American millionaire making the grand tour. A few months passed, and Adam Worth's friends were still on the worse side of the prison walls, but the master-criminal was only taking his own time to achieve success. Had he hurried he might have bungled his plans. Turkish officials are easy to bribe, but the right ones must be selected, and everything must be done with dignified slowness.
Worth had thousands of pounds in his trunk, and these he distributed judiciously amongst the heads of the police and the principal official of the prison.
When his task was completed he departed from Constantinople, and the same evening three out of the four members of his gang escaped from prison. The fourth man happened to be weak and ill, and he could not get away in time. The three convicts endured many hardships following their escape. They had to go into Asia in order to reach Europe by a roundabout route, but while travelling through Asia Minor they had the misfortune to fall into the hands of bandits, who held them to ransom, although it was apparent that they were penniless convicts. The brigands, however, permitted one of them, Joe Elliott, to go to England and communicate with their friends, and a month was allowed for the payment of the ransoms. Of course, Elliott went straight to Adam Worth's flat in Piccadilly, and when he told his story Worth drew a cheque for a couple of thousand pounds, and sent Elliott with the cash to release his comrades. A few weeks later they were all back in London again to take a "breather" before resuming their attacks on the banks.
All this leads up to the theft of the famous Gainsborough picture, "The Duchess of Devonshire," for if Charles Becker had not escaped from the Turkish prison the circumstances would not have arisen which inspired Adam Worth to steal it. Becker, soon after his return to London, forged a series of cheques, the proceeds of which were taken to the Continent to be exchanged for French and German banknotes. But one of the men commissioned by Worth to act as his agent in the disposal of the notes was arrested and brought back to England to face the serious charge of forgery. This person, who passed under the name of Thompson, was an intimate friend of his chief's, and Worth swore that he would get him released on bail pending his trial. Of course, the American crook would then have decamped, and if necessary Adam Worth would have recompensed the man who went bail for the money he would forfeit.
But the English law requires a householder of good reputation to bail a prisoner, and Worth was not in a position to command the services of one. There was nothing to do but to see if he could not compel a wealthy and well-known Londoner to bail out Thompson.
He was racking his brains for a way out of the impasse when happening to be walking down Bond Street with an English thief, Jack Phillips, known to his intimates as "Junka" they were impeded by a crowd of fashionable folk who were entering an art gallery. The two thieves inquired what was the attraction which had filled Bond Street with carriages, and they were told that the famous Gainsborough was on view in Messrs. Agnew's art gallery, they having bought it a few days previously for the sum of ten thousand guineas.
"Why, that's the very thing, Junka," whispered Worth, with glittering eyes. "We'll steal the picture and offer to return it to Agnew's if they will stand bail for Thompson. They won't dare refuse, for they'll realize that we could easily destroy the picture if they did."
Phillips argued, for the plan struck him as preposterous, but Worth insisted, and he brought Joe Elliott, the man who had been captured with the other escaped convicts by the Turkish bandits, into the conspiracy.
Three nights later there was a fog, and Phillips, Elliott, and Worth went to Bond Street, where Phillips, who was very tall, stood under the window of the room where the picture was, and Adam Worth, who was small and wiry, climbed on to his shoulders, and in a few moments was in the gallery. It was the work of a couple of minutes to cut the picture from its frame, roll it up, and pass it down to Phillips, while Joe Elliott kept guard fifty yards away to notify the movements of the policeman on duty.
The programme was carried out without the slightest hitch, and the next morning London and the world was provided with one of its greatest sensations. That was May 26, 1876, and despite the efforts of the best brains of Scotland Yard, backed by a huge reward, Messrs. Agnew did not see their valuable picture again for twenty-six years. Then Adam Worth, a prematurely aged man, broken in health and penniless, returned the picture through the Pinkertons for part of the original reward. He wanted the money to provide his two children with a home and to ensure a little peace for himself before he died.
But a great deal happened between that May morning in 1876 and Adam Worth's sudden death in 1902. The theft of the picture proved useless, because Thompson, the prisoner, was released and allowed to leave the country owing to a flaw in the indictment. He had been extradited on the wrong charge and had, therefore, to be set at liberty. When he heard this Worth had the canvas concealed in the false bottom of a trunk and taken to America, and during the ensuing quarter of a century it rested in furniture depositories in Boston, New York and Brooklyn. There it remained whilst Adam Worth rose to the greatest heights a professional criminal has ever reached, and there it was when he fell into the depths.
Two years after the theft of the Gainsborough, Worth, with several trusted followers, robbed the express train between Calais and Paris of bonds worth thirty thousand pounds. The money was needed, as by now Worth had bought a beautiful steam yacht, which he called the Shamrock, and in addition to maintaining it and a crew of twenty men, he turned racehorse owner and took out a licence to race in England. He was at his zenith now, and hundreds of persons who met the welldressed, spruce little man with the engaging personality never suspected for a moment that they were in the presence of the King of Crooks.
Adam Worth adapted himself to any circumstances that arose, but behind the smooth face there was an evil soul, always planning attacks on society, always on the lookout to thieve and burgle and forge. And the stately yacht rode at anchor in the harbour at Cowes, and its owner raced his horses, gave dinnerparties, went to the opera, and lived the life of a man whose wealth frees him from many of the sordid cares of life.
The marvel of it is that it lasted as long as it did. Adam Worth was always taking risks. Frequently he would go for a pleasure trip in his yacht and every port he touched had reason to regret the visit, for it meant that some one lost thousands of pounds. Each visit was celebrated with a burglary or a successful raid on a local bank by means of a forged cheque.
His feats were many, and it is difficult to know which of them to select here, for volumes could be written about the master-criminal. On one occasion he was carrying twenty thousand pounds' worth of diamonds— stolen, of course—to America to sell, when a number of thefts were committed on board the ship. Worth was innocent, for he never stooped to robbing cabins, but he was afraid lest he should be searched and his stolen goods found upon him. He, therefore, left the ship at the earliest possible moment, and boarded a train for a distant part of America. But even then he left nothing to chance, and he concealed his booty in the carriage, deciding it was too dangerous to carry about.
Sure enough he was arrested and, when he had proved his innocence of complicity in the thefts aboard ship, was released. Then he set to work to track down the carriage in which he had hidden his diamonds, and after some trouble found it in a siding. Late that night he forced his way into the carriage, and recovered the valuables. It is safe to say that not another thief in the world would have carried out such a programme so successfully.
But it was in the diamond fields of South Africa that Adam Worth, alias, Harry Raymond, was at hia best. He was driven to visit Africa by the uncomfortable fact that the English police were watching him very closely; indeed, they had gone so far as to place a detective outside his house day and night to report every visitor. This was unbearable, and Worth, who required more money, sent for an old friend, Charles King, and together they travelled to Cape Town.
Worth was after a really big thing this time, and he told his companion that he was not going to be satisfied with anything under one hundred thousand pounds. His first plan was to take what he wanted by simply turning highwayman. He discovered that every week a consignment of diamonds was sent from the De Beer mines in a coach, which was driven by an armed Boer, assisted by a guard. Along with King and another man, Worth delivered the attack, but the old Boer driver was not to be cowed, and he drove them off with his rifle.
The failure of the plan sent King out of the country in a panic, and the other man decamped too. But Adam Worth was not dismayed. He knew that if he persevered he must win in the long run, and now, although he would have to act entirely on his own, he became convinced that there was another and a better way to rob the weekly parcel of valuable stones.
As has been described, the diamonds were brought from the mines to the Cape Town post office in a coach, but they were not kept in the post office longer than it took to make a note of the address, for every week the steamer was waiting in the harbour to convey the precious packet to England. It was, however, absolutely necessary to the success of Worth's plans for that parcel to remain at least one night in the post office in Cape Town. How could he manage that? It was a stiff problem to tackle.
He provided himself with the duplicates of the post office keys, particularly of the safes in which the registered letters were kept. This in itself was a great achievement, but it would take too long to tell the full story of how he ingratiated himself with the postmaster and secured the wax impressions. That was only half the work. It was more important that he should prevent the coach reaching Cape Town in time for the steamer. Worth went over the route taken by the coach, and he was delighted to find a spot where it had to cross a deep stream by means of a ferry. This was the crook's opportunity. He hid in the neighbourhood until it was dark, and then he cut the rope which held the ferry to the bank. When the coach arrived from the diamond fields the ferry had floated a long way down the stream, and when it was recovered and the stream crossed the driver must have known that only by a miracle could he catch the mail that week. The miracle did not happen, and the steamer had already sailed when the coach arrived.
The parcel of diamonds had to be left in the safe at the post office, to which Adam Worth had a perfect key, and when he had first opened the safe he had seen twenty thousands pounds' worth and more of valuables, and had refused to touch them. What was the use of twenty thousand pounds to a man who wanted five times that amount, and who could obtain it by waiting a few days?
The authorities did not regard the delay to the coach as serious, and no extra guard was placed upon the safe in which the parcel reposed, and at the proper time Worth had only to enter the building, open the safe, and take out a collection of diamonds worth a hundred and fifty thousand pounds. It was a theft which can be described as a masterpiece in its own line.
Once in possession of the diamonds Adam Worth was in no hurry to convert them into cash. He knew that everybody leaving the country would be under suspicion, and so he trekked inland, posing as a merchant in ostrich feathers. Before he left Cape Town he buried the diamonds, and it was many weeks ere he and a confederate—who came from America purposely to help to smuggle the diamonds out of the country—returned to recover them. When it was deemed safe Worth and his friend took them to Australia and eventually to England.
This "scoop" did not lessen Worth's appetite for plunder. Other burglaries were quickly organized, and Charles Becker was busily employed forging cheques on banks in England and France. One of these resulted in a friend of Worth's being arrested and convicted, and Worth himself avenged his confederate by robbing the banker who had given evidence of so much money as to bring about his ruin.
But the day came when Adam Worth was caught. He and another thief were robbing the registered mail in Belgium when Worth's comrade made a stupid mistake, and his chief was arrested. He received a sentence of seven years' penal servitude, and he served the time, although he was twice offered his freedom if he would reveal the whereabouts of the Gainsborough he had stolen several years previously. Worth, however, would not trust the word of those who made the offers, and it was not until he emerged from prison, wrecked in health and financially crippled, that he turned to the Pinkertons, the famous American detective agency, and consented on terms to surrender the famous painting.
He was then approaching the sixties, and there can be no doubt that he had lost his nerve. For nearly forty years he had warred against society with only one defeat, but that defeat finished him. With the money the Agnews paid for the return of the picture, "Little Adam"—as he was affectionately known to his friends— provided his family with a home.
All his life he had been devoted to his relatives, and he worshipped his wife and children. They never knew that he was a professional criminal, and even to-day they are unaware of the real character of the husband and parent beside whose grave they mourned nineteen years ago.
Adam Worth had his good points, for his motto was that thieves should be honest amongst themselves. He never resorted to violence, and he never betrayed a friend, and we know that he was good to his family according to his own lights. He was a danger to society, however, and all we can wonder at now is that he was permitted to plunder it with impunity for so many years. But genius will overcome any difficulty, and the genius of Adam Worth was something which raise his doings out of the commonplace.
Yet, when all is said and done, the King of Crooks realized before he died that crime does not pay.
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