While waiting for my turn to read Macintyre’s latest book about spies and the D-Day landing in World War II, I picked up this older work by the author. Past reading experience suggested that any biography by Macintyre would be worth reading. This one did not disappoint.
Although not well known these days, in his heyday, Adam Worth was an international thief of extraordinary renown. Born in the 1840’s, Worth was of German-Polish descent. He lived with his parents until his early teens, but left for New York before he was 15. Never taller than about five feet, two inches, he was given the nickname “Little Adam” and soon learned the “craft” of picking pockets. When the Civil War started he joined a New York regiment and went to war. During the war, Worth became adept at deserting one regiment only to join a different one and get paid an enlistment bonus. While the con got him multiple payments, it didn’t keep him out of battle and he developed a lifelong dislike for violence. This was why Worth’s criminal career was highlighted by careful planning, expert execution and clean getaways.
At the height of his power, Worth planned forgery scams, bank robberies, art heists and jewel thefts. His exploits read like fiction, so it is not surprising that his life of crime has been the basis for several books and movies. In fact, the author and other scholars maintain that Worth was the model for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty.
Able to transform himself again and again, for years Worth lived in London using the name Henry Judson Raymond. Outward appearances would have neighbors believe he was a member of the gentry, wealthy, English and with no obvious source for his vast financial resources. He was known to be generous to all who asked and excessively loyal to his compatriots.
Macintyre admires Worth’s positive attributes and suggests, as criminal masterminds go, he was among the most benign. He robbed from the rich and gave to himself and his friends. He had a keen eye for fine art (among his most famous heists was stealing Thomas Gainsborough’s The Duchess of Devonshire, which he hid for 20 years), a healthy respect for competent lawmen (the Pinkertons in particular) and the lifelong belief that he was justified in his actions because he was not a bad person.
Macintyre makes a convincing case that Worth was nearly unique in the Victorian criminal world. Not only did his career span over three decades, he simultaneously lived the dual lives of English gentleman and unabashed thief. The author’s style is easy to read and digest. His research is extensive and impressive, although Macintyre is fortunate that toward the end of his life Worth bonded with William Pinkerton and the thief shared his life’s story with the private eye (who recorded it). If you enjoy nineteenth-century historical biography you should try The Napoleon of Crime. It offers a fascinating and interesting slice of the Victorian underworld rarely seen elsewhere.
Check the WRL catalog for The Napoleon of Crime