Curmudgeonalia
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May 21, 2008

The Napoleon of Crime

Ben Macintyre – ISBN – 9780374218994 (1997)

I have previously reviewed Macintyre’s most recent book: The Man Who Would be King (March, 2005). This fascinating book caused me to search for others he had written, and I discovered several which are no longer in print but well worth the trouble to purchase, used. I recommend both and will shortly review The Englishman’s Daughter.

As with “the man,” this book is extraordinarily well researched. It chronicles the life, times and activities of (probably) the most important, and clearly the cleverest thief of the late 19th century. This was an American who spent much of his time in Europe living “like a prince.” He orchestrated extraordinarily brilliant crimes from Turkey to London, and not occasionally in the U.S. Additionally it explores the ethics of the Victorian world, which is a subject worth revisiting.

I wholeheartedly agree with a reviewer quoted on the jacket: “I wish, from this day forward, that everything I learn about history could be channeled through Ben Macintyre’s brilliant sensibility and elegant voice. [His books are] a joy to read. Please, Mr. Macintyre, write more quickly.”

Adam Worth, master thief and the Napoleon of crime, was a gentleman of sorts--if a thief can be so considered; widely respected by law enforcement (including the Pinkertons and Scotland Yard) for his cunning and charity for his confederates and others. Mr. Pinkerton himself observed that “anybody with whom he had a speaking acquaintance could always come to him and receive assistance when he had the power to give it.”

He was almost never present at the scene, but planned robberies and employed diverse types of people for them. The yield over his life was multiple millions of dollars of “merchandise,” which he divided fairly, living profligately on his share.

He neither used, nor permitted to be used, weapons of any kind in the commission of the crimes he authored. The one which made him famous, and “most wanted,” was the theft of one of the more valuable paintings in the world: Gainsborough’s The Duchess of Devonshire; that from a heavily guarded gallery immediately prior to its pending sale to Pierpont Morgan. He kept the painting for decades, sequestered amongst his private things, furtively took it with him on occasion, and finally “surrendered it,” with the help of the Pinkertons, to the original buyer for a fee which was negotiated by them.

It is an engrossing story about the life and times of this man, the times in which he lived, the thrills and travails he experienced. Prophetically, he died penniless, but “what a ride” he had. That excursion is well and authentically told, and certainly worth the read for anyone interested.

Posted by respeto at May 21, 2008 1:05 PM