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August 1998

The Napoleon of Crime

The Napoleon of Crime, The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief: Ben Macintyre, Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1997, New York, ISBN 0-385-31993-2, paperback, 346pp + plates

Scams, Counterfeits, And Imposters

I am fond of reading accounts of the great rogues, counterfeiters, imposters, and financial scams. The Homestake Oil scam, the depredations of OPM, Robert Vesco’s looting of IFF, Gould’s corner on gold, Kreugar the Match King, Samuel Insull, Reis (The Man Who Stole Portugal) and many more – I dote on them. It is one of the great regrets of my life that I never stole millions of dollars in a fabulous financial fraud; it is a pity how I wasted my youth.

The great counterfeiters are among my favorites – Ninger who did impressionistic paintings of 100 dollar bills and passed them off, Operation Bernhard which created the counterfeit money the Nazis used for paying their spies and the chaps who created plates for counterfeit money in their prison cells. The nineteenth century was the heyday for counterfeiting. In those days any bank could issue bank notes. There were thousands of banks, many of them scams in their own right. It was a time when a good counterfeit on a sound bank was worth more than a legitmate note from an unsound bank.

A counterfeiter is a man who believes that the way to make money is to make money. In the great, gamy, glorious post-civil war days the king of the counterfeiters, the master maker of the queer, was Charles Becker. Becker was the best – a man who could create counterfeits so accurate that no one, not even Becker himself, could distinguish them from the real thing.

Naturally I knew who Becker was. In my readings about Becker and other scoundrels there was a name that kept recurring as Tolkien said of Sauron, “like a shadow on the borders of old stories”. That name was Adam Worth.

Master Minds Of Crime

The master mind of crim is a popular figure in fiction. He is mysterious, a “brain” who plans the crimes that lesser criminals execute. Reality has a way of not meeting the expectations of romance. Your average great criminal is a businessman. His business may be nominally legal, the managing of a mutual fund, reselling insurance, dealing in computer leases, managing a utilites empire, whatever. It may be nominally illegal, the vending of sexual favors, illicit substances, gambling, or “protection”. Organized crime, despite the trappings of force and fraud, is a prosaic business.

The fictional master mind of crime is a figure of romance, a bandit king. The crimes are “real” crimes, theft, burglary, confidence games and the like. We like our bandit kings. We celebrate them in poetry and song, in literature and the movies. Alas, the real world has a distinct shortage of bandit kings and master minds of crime. To be sure, there are criminal bands aplenty, little groups that rob banks and other repositories of wealth. There are communities in which crime is a cultural norm. But the true master mind of crime, the man who supervises brigandage on a grand scale, is not readily found.

Adam Worth was a master mind of crime.

One might even say that he was the mastermind of crime.

Adam Worth was a thief who graduated to being an arranger of thefts. His career spanned 30 years from the civil war to 1893 when he was finally caught and exposed. More than that, he was a gentleman who moved easily in the high society of Victorian England.

His career started modestly enough during the civil war as a bounty jumper. He would enlist in a company for the enlistment bounty, desert, and then enlist in another company, a profitable practice given the record keeping of the days. Let it not be said that he didn’t fight; he did – on both sides.

After the war he drifted to New York city. In those days New York was a compost heap of crime. The engines of industry were pouring out new wealth. The capabilities of the police were modest. Howe and Hummel, the criminal lawyers, published a book which purported to deplore crime but which was actually a detailed manual for committing burglary – and for retaining Howe and Hummel to get one off if perchance one got caught.

Worth started his career at the bottom as a pickpocket. In those days there was a strong social hierarchy among criminals; pickpockets were near the bottom and bank robbers were the creme de la creme. Worth had clever hands and a good mind but he was inexperienced. In 1864 he was knicked stealing a package and was sentenced to 3 years at Sing Sing. This was not just to his taste so he left after three weeks and returned to New York, back to picking pockets. He quickly rose in the ranks of the pickpockets, organizing and leading a gang, and added minor burglaries to his repertoire.

In 1866 he moved up to bank and jewelry store robberies. As a newly fledged member of the NY criminal elite he became friends with Charles Bullard. In 1869 Bullard pulled off a number of spectacular heists but unfortunately got caught. Worth busted him out of jail and the pair became partners. Late that year the pair robbed the “unrobbable” Boylston Bank in Boston, extracting large sums of money.

The money was good but the heat was on. Worth and Bullard decided that a trip to Europe was in order. In 1870 they arrived in Liverpool, flush with money, and put up at the Washington Hotel in style. They spent a few months in dalliance with Kitty Flynn (see The Irish Barmaid) whom Bullard married but whom, in best partnership style, he shared with Henry Raymond.

Henry Raymond? Raymond was an American notable, variously a Senator and Congressman. He was also dead, having recently deceased. Being dead he had no further use for his name so Worth appropriated it for his own.

The opportunities for their line of business was limited in Liverpool; the pair decided that Paris needed their talents. They made a slow trip to Paris, waiting out the unpleasantnesses of 1870 and 1871. In June 1871 they arrived and set up a palatial nightclub called the American Bar. The second floor was a club house for wealthy expatriate Americans. The upper floors were a tony (and illegal) gambling casino. It became famous with vistors from all over Europe. The customers were “businessmen, bankers, tourists, burglars, forgers, convicts, counts, con men, and counterfeiters” including officers of the Boylston Bank who were unaware that their institution had financed the club whose hospitality they enjoyed. The American Bar was the in place for criminals to meet. It was here that Worth gathered together the people who would staff his future criminal empire.

In 1874 the American Bar was successfully raided; Worth was not caught but Bullard was. Bullard quite intelligently skipped bail and not so cleverly returned to America where he was caught and jailed. Worth returned to England, bought a mansion, and settled down to creating and running a criminal empire. From 1875 to 1892 he planned and organized crimes, farming them out through trusted associates to the many members of his criminal syndicate. When people were caught, which wasn’t often, there was no evidence linking the crimes to him; however he took care of his troops.

From time to time he would pull a job himself. In 1876 he stole the Gainsborough painting of the Duchess of Devonshire (see The Slutty Duchess). In 1880 he made a trip to South Africa where he stole a large quantity of diamonds; he returned to England and set up one of his subordinates as a diamond merchant.

During his glory years he supported the character of a gentleman. He had a mansion in Clapham Common, complete with tennis courts and a shooting gallery. He owned a 110 foot yacht. He moved in the highest circles of society. He aimed to be and was a gentleman by the standards of Victorian society.

The Victorian standards for being a gentleman were eccentric. Macintyre quotes Ruskin: “Now that a man may make money, and rise in the world, and associate himself, unreproached, with people once far above him, it becomes a veritable shame to him to remain in the state hew was born in and everybody thinks it is his DUTY to try to be a gentleman. A historian is quoted as writing that a Victorian gentleman “was expected to be honest, dignified, courteous, considerate and socially at ease; to be disdainful of trade and … to uphold the tenets of noblesse oblige. A gentleman paid his gambling debts, did not cheat at cards and was honourable towards ladies.” Worth was all of these except for the minor item of honesty. He met the real requirements; he lived very high on the hog, he had the patina of culture, and he didn’t appear to work.

In 1892 the Napoleon of Crime met his Waterloo. For no good reason he participated in a train robbery in Belgium and got caught. Scotland Yard and Pinkerton’s Agency gleefully opened up their fat files on Worth to the Belgians. They didn’t have proof but they knew well enough what he had been up to. The Belgians put him away for five years. He was maltreated in prison. His organization melted away. His trusted friends looted his private wealth. He got out in 1897, a broken man. In 1899 he returned the painting of the Duchess of Devonshire for the reward money which he endowed on his children. He died in 1902.

The Irish Barmaid

Kitty Flynn was born in Dublin poverty. She left home at 15 to seek a better life – a much better life. At 17 she was a beautiful barmaid in the Washington Hotel in Liverpool. A better life showed up in the persons of Henry J. Raymond (nee Adam Worth) and Charles Wells (nee Charles Bullard). The two of them courted Kitty which was quite in accordance with her plans for the future. She married Charles but shared her favors equally with both of them. Unbeknownst to her Bullard already had a wife that he had forgotten to mention.

When the pair moved to Paris she became the hostess of the American Bar. Kitty always claimed that she never knew that Worth and Bullard were criminals. Macintyre is skeptical. She would have had to have been quite a slow top not to have known and Kitty was definitely keen of wit.

When Bullard went to America she followed him and was loyal to him while he was in jail – until she discovered that she was wife #2. She then set life in high style in America. Worth asked to come back to England with her children (who were probably his) and marry him. She declined. Much as she loved him (and apparently she did) she didn’t want to be a decoration in his gentlemanly life style.

Instead she married a millionaire, Juan Terry. Juan Terry was the son and heir of Thomas Terry, an Irishman who had made a fortune in shady land deals in Cuba. Juan Pedro Terry, his youngest son, came to New York with $900,000 as a paternal gift which he used as seed money for a successful career in stock market speculation.

She spent the rest of her life as a very wealthy woman, living in luxury, and moving in the highest circles of society. Such are the rewards of virtue.

Worth in the meantime had married a virtuous widow by whom he had two legitimate children. When he was imprisoned his friend who Worth had asked to take care of her addicted her to alcohol and opium. Once addicted, said friend stole everything Worth had. She died in an insane asylum. Such are the rewards of having faithful friends. The Slutty Duchess

In 1774 Georgiana Spencer, the eldest daughter of the first Earl of Spencer, married the Duke of Devonshire. It was a storybook wedding. He was one of the richest men in England; she was accounted as being the most beautiful and accomplished woman in the nation. (Diana was her great-great-great-grandniece.) She was a leader of society; poets wrote odes to her and the Prince Regent fawned over her. She wasn’t exactly a paragon of morality – she was noted for her hard drinking, her gambling, and her extensive and varied sex life.

Pindar memorialized the Duchess in a poem entitled “Petition to Time in Favour of the Duchess of Devonshire” – possibly not his best work. Macintyre quotes:

Hurt not the form that all admire –
Oh, never with white hairs her temple sprinkle
Oh, sacred be her cheek, her hip, her bloom,
And do not, in a lovely dimple’s room,
Place a hard mortifying wrinkle

Macintyre spares us the rest of this excessively edifying poem.

In 1787 Gainsborough did a portrait of Georgiana, one of his masterpieces. The Duke, irritated that Georgiana was pregnant by one of her lovers, refused to display the painting. It disappeared until it was rediscovered in 1876. (There are doubts about the authenticity of the rediscovered painting.) The painting was very popular; engravings were made and due course Georgiana was all about the town, decorating posters and the lids of cookie tins. In 1876 it was placed at auction and was acquired by the elder Morgan.

Acquired? Nay. Morgan had placed the winning bid; it was acquired, however, by Adam WOth while it was on display. Worth’s original motive was to use it as a bargaining chip to free his brother, a singularly incompetent thief who had bungled his way into jail. As it happened, his brother was freed on a legal technicality and the painting was no longer needed as a bargaining chip. Worth decided to keep it and did so for most of the rest of his life. In 1899 he negotiated its return through Pinkerton and used the ransom money to provide for his children.

The recovered painting was acquired for real by J.P. Morgan. It stayed in the Morgan family line until 1993 when it came up for auction again in an estate sale. It was acquired by the current Earl of Spencer. The lady had returned home.

The fate of the Duchess of Devonshire and Adam Worth’s attitude toward it is a major theme of the book. I do not know if Adam Worth was “in love with the Duchess” but I suspect that Macintyre was.


In 1893 the sensational revelations of Adam Worth’s dual career as a master mind of crime and as an English gentleman fascinated the English reading public. In December of 1893 Conan Doyle immortalized Worth by using him as the model for Professor Moriarity. Over the years there have been many more fictional master minds of crime. I opine that Moriarity was mold from which future villains were cast; Adam Worth is forgotten but his avatars still grace the Saturday morning cartoons.

Kitty, the Irish barmaid, was immortalized in a novel. Macintyre comments of it that “This novel is, arguably, one of the worst works of fiction ever written in any language….” The novel, however, was made into a classic movie, Kitty, starring Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland.

Kitty’s daughter Lucy, almost certainly sired by Adam Worth, was the mother of Juan Trippe, the founder of Pan American. Macintyre comments that “His business methods were not so far removed from those of his grandfather.”

Harry J. Raymond, Adam Worth’s legitimate son, became an employee of Pinkertons. I’m sure this proves something but I don’t know what.

This page was last updated August 8, 1998.
It was moved March 25, 2010

Richard Harter’s World
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August 1998