Thursday, July 21, 2016
Adam Worth - Emperor of the Under World 1905
Adam Worth - Emperor of the Under World, article in The American Magazine 1905
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Perhaps no more convincing proof of the effectiveness of modern scientific detective methods—as brought to their perfection by the Pinkertons—could be furnished than by contrasting the miserable life of the fugitive, outcast “yegg” [burglar] of the present day with the spectacular career of such an old-time criminal as Adam Worth, the Emperor of the Under World, and by pointing out that under existing conditions such a career would be entirely impossible.
Adam Worth, known on four continents as “Little Adam,” was born in New York and grew up in that city as a clerk. When the rebellion broke out he enlisted. Shortly after he deserted and then took his place in the ranks again under an assumed name, this time accepting a bounty of one thousand dollars to act as a substitute. Starting with that bit of grafting dishonesty, Adam Worth never again breathed an honest breath during the remainder of his long life.
He was a little, active, dapper man, cultivated, well dressed and affable. Also his brain was quick and his wit keen. From the start and throughout his whole career he abhorred the idea of using force. He rarely if ever carried a weapon of any kind, even when taking active part in some desperate criminal enterprise. He matched his own shrewdness against the best efforts of the detectives of the world, and for years he was entirely successful.
Between him and the Pinkerton agency there ran for nearly fifty years a never-ending feud. Time and time again Pinkerton operatives succeeded in connecting him with the commission of some great crime, but always before it was possible to make the arrest, Adam Worth left the United States and took refuge in some country with which there existed no treaty of extradition. At the present time—and largely due to the efforts of Robert and William Pinkerton—such treaties lie between the United States and most of the inhabited world. A fleeing criminal can hardly find a spot of land on which to set his foot without putting it at the same time into one of the meshes of the far-flung net of the law. Pinkerton operatives have brought back fugitives from the remotest corners of Asia and Africa, and even the islands of the South Pacific have given up the wrong-doers who fled to them for refuge. But in the time of Adam Worth there were a score of sanctuaries within which a shrewd criminal could live at ease and laugh at the impotent bloodhounds of the law.
The first important crime in which he took part was the robbery of an insurance company in Cambridge, Mass., from which twenty thousand dollars was stolen. Other professional thieves were also involved in this crime, and some of them were arrested and convicted, but Worth escaped even arrest. At the same time he so manipulated matters that the lion’s share of the booty eventually fell into his hands. From 1866 until 1870, Worth was the brains of a gang of daring professionals which operated all over the United States, both east and west. In each of these jobs some of the minor conspirators were captured and punished, but “Little Adam” always managed to escape. Finally, with the idea, as he afterwards admitted, of making a big stake and settling down to spend the rest of his life in luxury, Worth planned and engineered the sensational robbery of the Boylston bank in Boston, Mass. In that robbery, one of the most noted in criminal annals, the robbers got clear away with cash and negotiable securities to the value of more than one million dollars.
At once the Pinkertons were called in, and every resource of the agency was devoted to the work of capturing the criminals. Worth had planned the whole operation, but he had covered his tracks so thoroughly, that, before his connection with it could be determined, he had got safely away to Europe, taking with him more than a third of the proceeds.
At this time it is said that Adam Worth had nearly a million dollars in his possession. There seemed to be no reason why he should not have carried out his plan of retiring from the criminal life, and spending the rest of his years as a country gentleman in some remote corner of the continent.
But success always spells failure to the criminal. There is that in the make-up of human nature which makes it impossible for a thief, wrapped in no matter how many protecting folds of plunder, to settle down as an honest man, and cut off all connection with his criminal associates. So it proved with Adam Worth.
Worth was thrifty and shrewd. He kept his stolen gains. It was otherwise with most of his professional associates. They spent the proceeds of their crimes in dissipation. Then they became desperate and hunted up Adam Worth, their old chief, in his hiding place. At first it was easy to satisfy them, with moderate sums of money from his savings. But these contributions were soon wasted, and the cry for more was continuous.
“Give, give,” cried his old pals in crime, “or we will expose you.”
So, presently, Adam Worth, in spite of himself, was forced to take again an active part in planning new and daring crimes. England, France and Germany became the field of his criminal operations. In these countries he was for a long time free from the espionage of the Pinkertons, which had driven him from his home in America.
Finally, after the robbery of a pawnbroker in Liverpool, which yielded nearly one hundred thousand dollars, Worth was forced to hide himself in the human jungles of London, where he lived the life of a hunted fugitive. His partner, in this later crime, was one Bullard, who had been one of Worth’s early associates in the United States, and who had been chiefly instrumental in forcing Worth to renew his criminal career. Out of the proceeds of the Liverpool robbery, Bullard compelled Worth to give him about seventy-five thousand dollars. With this money Bullard went to Paris, and in that city opened the notorious American Bar, on the decorations of when he spent nearly the entire sum in his possession. The American Bar in Paris was thereafter for some years a sort of international clearing house for criminals of all kinds. But one may be sure that during all this time the crafty Adam Worth, who had a passion for remaining in the background, never once visited the place of dazzling mirrors and marble statuary.
In the latter part of 1873, William A. Pinkerton, visiting England on business connected with the robbery of a bank in Baltimore, got on the track of Worth, and came near to catching him, but again the craft of “Little Adam” was triumphant. He succeeded in evading the detectives, and went on, as before, in his career of plundering the nations.
Worth had by this time given up all idea of retiring from a life of crime. He was now at the head of an organized band of exceedingly cunning and daring crooks and no bank or rich man in the world seemed to be safe from his operations. In rapid succession banks were swindled in various countries of Europe, occasional excursions being made, by way of variety, to the West Indies and even to the capitals of Asiatic nations.
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Several times the Pinkertons were called in and, although they succeeded in arresting and securing the conviction of some of the band, Worth always got away. Worth's plan of work was to spy out the land personally, posing as an English traveler of wealth and education. Having made detailed plans for the accomplishment of the “job" in hand, he would go on to his next stopping place, leaving the actual work to be done by his confederates. In this way it was almost always impossible to involve him in any crime, and, although during the course of years he was responsible for the theft of many millions of dollars, he was actually never arrested but once during all that time.
In 1875, several members of Worth's band were arrested at Smyrna, in Asia Minor, on a charge of uttering forged notes. Among the members thus captured were Joe Chapman, Charles Becker and Joe Elliot, all American thieves, who had followed the reluctant Worth into his exile. Always obsessed by the fear of a captured confederate turning State's evidence, Worth, as he never failed to do in similar cases, moved heaven and earth in his efforts to secure their release from the Turkish prison into which they had been cast. Finally, though it cost him almost the whole of his remaining fortune, Worth succeeded in bribing the jailer and the thieves escaped. They came back to join Worth in London, and there resumed their old business of forging bank paper. One of them was arrested in Paris on complaint of a swindled bank and was extradited to London, where it again became the first duty of Worth to get the man out of the clutches of the law. But English authorities are of quite a different type from those who rule the prisons of the sultan, and Worth knew the futility of attempting bribes. Moreover he had no money, even if bribery had been possible. It became necessary in some way to secure the release of his confederate under heavy bonds. Then he could cut and run, leaving the bondsman to pay the forfeit. But how should a professional criminal, without funds or friends, secure the signature of a man who would be willing to take the risk and whose responsibility would be accepted by the sharp-eyed English courts?
In his flush days, Adam Worth—then as always a lover of the fine arts and something of a connoisseur—had often visited the galleries of the Messrs. Agnew & Co., for many years one of the leading art dealers in London. He had seen hanging on the walls of their galleries a portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire, by Gainsborough, the famous English artist. He knew that the painting was a famous one and was valued by its owners at fifty thousand dollars.
To the cunning mind of Worth, evolving plan after plan for securing a bondsman for his trapped confederate, finally came the idea of stealing this noted canvas from its frame and using it as a lever for getting the necessary signature. His resources were exhausted, his confederates in hiding, his need was instant. He was, in fact, desperate, and he hailed the idea of stealing the masterpiece as an inspiration.
Contrary to his invariable rule, Worth decided to take an active part himself in the actual robbery. It may well have been that his boldest lieutenants were frightened by the sheer audacity of Worth's plan. At any rate, one dark and rainy night, when a fog fell down over the streets of London, Adam Worth and one confederate, a gigantic thief named Philipps, started out from
their lodgings to commit the theft. They crept down Bond Street in the dark, waited until the policeman on the beat had passed them by, then Philipps made a ladder of his broad back and the dapper little Worth climbed up until he was able to reach the stone coping which ran around the front of the gallery. From this, as a standing place, Worth was able to reach a second story window, the sash of which he pried up with a jimmy. Once inside it took him less than a minute to reach the Gainsborough picture, the location of which he had clearly in mind. Lighting a single match to make sure of his prize, he quickly ran a sharp knife through the canvas, close to the edge of the frame, and in an instant the treasured masterpiece was rolled in a tight cylinder, wrapped in a sheet of paper and hidden away under Worth’s coat.
Listening for a moment for a possible signal from Philipps on the outside, Worth quickly mounted to the window and jumped lightly from the coping to the ground.
The negotiations through which Worth hoped to obtain a bondsman for his captured confederate,—using the stolen picture as a lever, —came to nothing. Their only result was to make it fairly certain that the missing Gainsborough was in Worth's possession. He being an American thief, the Pinkertons were called in to secure, if possible, the return of the picture. They made immediate efforts towards that end, but it was not until twenty-six years later that William A. Pinkerton personally secured the precious bit of canvas in Chicago and turned it over to the representative of the Messrs. Agnew, who had crossed the ocean for the purpose of receiving it.
During the quarter of a century which elapsed between the theft of the picture and its return, it was always in the custody of Worth or hidden away where he alone knew its location. Many times Phillips, who assisted in robbing the Agnew gallery, forced Worth to pay him money under threats of exposure. Once, indeed, he actually told the people most interested, that Worth had stolen the picture, and still had it in his possession. But the crafty Worth had never revealed to anyone the hiding place of the masterpiece, and the employers of the Pinkertons were less anxious to punish the robber than to recover their lost and extremely valuable property. So for some years negotiations went on, Worth using his possession of the Gainsborough picture as a shield against punishment for other crimes.
Finally Pat Sheedy, of international notoriety as a gambler, who had known Worth for years, came to the Pinkertons endowed with all the powers of an ambassador to negotiate terms for the return of the painting. Such terms were finally arranged,— though never made public,-and, at a hotel in Chicago, before the wondering and delighted eyes of the Agnews representative, Sheedy finally produced a little metal cylinder, within which was enclosed the canvas, rolled up as it had been on the night of the theft, and none the worse for its long confinement in such narrow space.
Meanwhile, during these long, drawn-out negotiations, Worth continued his career of crime. He introduced the American railroad train “hold-up” into South Africa, and succeeded in stealing nearly a million dollars' worth of diamonds in this way. Then he purchased a steam yacht, and cruised for a time in the Mediterranean, hoping thus to evade the constant demands of his confederates, who hounded him continually with demands for “hush money.” But even a steam yacht did not prove a safe refuge for the King of Criminals. He was forced to sell his “floating palace," and to engage again in robbery and swindling operations. In Belgium, while attempting the robbery of a mail wagon, he was captured, and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment.
But one would be rash to conclude that Adam Worth, in spite of this apparent immunity, lived anything approaching a happy life. Never from the start did he have an easy moment. He was the constant prey of blackmailers and less successful thieves. He lived alone and miserable, suspecting everyone with whom he came in contact. He finally died in poverty in London, a helpless, hopeless, hunted old wretch, with the golden apple of his stolen prosperity crumbled to ashes in his hands.
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