It has been a while since I wrote about some of history’s more disreputable characters, but I make up for it this week with one of the most notorious criminal masterminds – Adam Worth, the ‘Napoleon of Crime’ and the real-life Moriarty.
Worth was born in Germany around 1844, although no-one is sure exactly when. Nor whether Worth was his real name – it may have been Werth or Wirtz.
His father a tailor who took his Jewish family to America in 1949 and settled in Cambridge, north of Boston. Worth ran away from home at the age of fourteen, first to Boston and then to New York two years later.
There was little sign of the criminal that the young Worth was to become. He got a job in a department store and was making an honest living, but the start of the Civil War in 1861 was to change him. Lying about his age, he joined the Union Army and was promoted to corporal within a month despite being only seventeen years old.
In 1862 he was again promoted, this time to sergeant, and took part in the Second Battle of Bull Run where he was wounded and hospitalised in Georgetown. And that was where he died, at least according to the official records.
It was a mistake, of course, and it gave Worth a risk-free opportunity to desert which he did. Not that he had finished with the army. Prior to the draft laws of 1863, the Union forces paid a $1,000 joining bonus and so he took advantage of this to re-enlist, then desert and rejoin another regiment under a different name.
This lucrative deception ended with the introduction of the draft, but Worth continued to make a profitable living from the army. Someone who was drafted could pay another to take his place, known as bounty jumpers, which he did until 1864 by which time it had become an increasingly risky occupation.
He returned to New York and became a pickpocket and before long he had formed his own gang of petty thieves. Worth wasn’t yet the criminal mastermind and was caught stealing a cash box from an Adams Express stagecoach.
He was then sentenced to three years in the notorious Sing Sing prison, working ten-hour shifts in the marble quarry.
Worth was given the job of warming the nitroglycerin used for blasting and couldn’t understand why the guards left him to do the job alone. When other prisoners pointed out that it was because there was a good chance that he could be blown to bits he decided that prison life wasn’t for him and he escaped by stowing away on a tug boat.
Back in New York, Worth changed his appearance by growing the muttonchop whiskers that would become his trademark look and adopting the name Henry Judson Raymond, and passing himself off as a relative of Henry Jarvis Raymond, founder of the New York Times. He also returned to Cambridge and tricked the night watchman at an insurance company into allowing him into the office, then blew the safe to steal $30,000.
Worth also found a patron in Frederika Mandelbaum, the society hostess and criminal mastermind, and she gave him the job of breaking Charles Bullard out of jail. Bullard came from a well-to-do family but had blown his inheritance and taken to crime, having been imprisoned for stealing $100,000 dollars from the Hudson River Railroad Express. Worth bribed the guards to ignore the sounds of tunnelling and so released the man who was to become his closest friend.
The two set about planning to rob the Boylston Bank of America in Boston by the simple expedient of buying the barber’s shop next door and breaking through the adjoining wall. They got away with $450,000, but the Pinkertons were hot on their trail and so they set sail for England.
They arrived in Liverpool where they met and both fell madly in love with an Irish barmaid, Kitty Flynn. They soon formed a menage a trois, an arrangement that they continued even after she had married Bullard.
The three moved to Paris where they bought a building near the Opera House which they converted into The American Bar, a combined drinking and gambling den. This might have been the limit of their criminal activities (gambling was illegal at the time) but for an unfortunate coincidence. In 1873, one of the Pinkertons was in Paris and visited the bar where he recognised Worth. They quickly sold the bar and fled, although not before stealing a bag of diamonds from one of their customers.
Back in England, Worth set about creating a criminal network similar to the one run by Mandelbaum in New York. He planned and funded robberies by various gangs and individuals in exchange for a quarter of the proceeds. His one rule was that violence was to be avoided at all costs, partly for personal preference but mostly because it only ever attracted more attention from the authorities.
Nevertheless, the police began to suspect that a single mastermind was responsible for the spate of crimes being committed, but they were unsure who. It was this legend of a shadowy underworld figure that inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to create Moriarty, nemesis of Sherlock Holmes.
Worth still managed to carry out some crimes in person, including stealing half a million dollars of diamonds in Cape Town and famously the theft of the painting of Lady Georgina Cavendish by Thomas Gainsborough.
This was most valuable work of art at the time and why he stole it is a mystery as he didn’t fence it but kept it for himself. Perhaps it was simply because he liked it.
The Bullards separated with Kitty emigrating to New York while Charles, now an alcoholic, travelled the continent in pursuit of his criminal career. Worth married in England and had two children, but then in 1892 he heard that Bullard had been arrested in Belgium and was gravely ill. Worth went to see his friend, but he had died before he arrived.
What happened next is something of a mystery. At the age of 48, Worth had no need to commit further crimes in person but for some reason he teamed up with an American and a Dutchman to rob a money transport. He was arrested and recognised as the man responsible for the earlier crimes and was sentenced to seven years imprisonment.
By the time he was released in 1897, Worth’s criminal empire had collapsed, his wife had had a nervous breakdown and had been committed to an asylum, his children had gone to America with his brother and Kitty Bullard was dead. He travelled to America to see his children, but also to visit William Pinkerton and to play his last card. He negotiated the return of the Gainsborough painting reportedly in exchange for $25,000.
Worth returned to London with his children and died after a sudden illness in 1902. He was buried in Highgate Cemetery under his old alias of Henry Raymond, but in 1997 a new gravestone was installed which includes the title given him by Robert Anderson, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police – ‘The Napoleon of Crime’.
And in one of life’s ironies, his son Henry went on to work for the Pinkerton Agency.